Outsound New Music Summit: Vacuum Tree Head, avantNoir and Cabbages, Captain and King

While the first night of the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit was billed as “Quiet Noise”, the second night was something altogether different. The concert features three exuberant but very different bands spanning a wide variety of musical techniques and styles.

First up was Cabbages, Captain and King, a trio featuring Eli Wallace on piano, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Jon Arkin on drums.

Cabbages, Captain and King
[Cabbages, Captain and King. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

I have become quite a fan of Eli Wallace’s piano playing, which is virtuosic and energetic. Combined with Evangelista’s intense and varied guitar performance and Arkin’s drums, the trio packed quite a punch. The speed and energy rarely let up throughout the 45-minute set. The music had an unsettled quality, always moving forward and never quite reaching a groove or tonal center. There were occasional quiet moments when the overall intensity of the performance let up, and the final notes with prepared piano were a nice touch.

Eli Wallace
[Eli Wallace. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Next up was Liza Mezzacapa’s Bait & Switch performing her project avantNoir. The pieces in this project were all inspired by noir fiction. The first half was based on “hard-boiled” stories by Dashiell Hammett set in 1920s San Francisco – with many familiar places and streets references – and the second half was based on “soft boiled” stories by Paul Auster set in 1980s New York (also a familiar setting).

Lisa Mezzacapa's avantNOIR with Bait&Switch
[Lisa Mezzacappa’s avantNOIR with Bait & Switch. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The music fit into the punctuated jazz style I have heard many times from Mezzacapa and her bands. But there was a distinctly 1970s crime show vibe to many of the pieces that contrasted with the times and places of the original stories’ settings. The interplay of bass, guitar with wah wah and drums, along with some of the electronic sounds from guest performer Tim Perkis led to this 1970s feel. The project itself suggests film scores for the stories, and I liked the idea of changing listeners’ expectations, especially if they have seen Hollywood versions of these stories. In addition to Mezzacapa and Perkis, the set featured Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, Jordon Glenn on drums, John Finkbeiner on guitar and special guest William Winant on vibraphone and sound-effects percussion. I found Winant’s seltzer bottle and tiny door particularly amusing.

Aaron Bennet and William Winant
[Aaron Bennett and William Winant. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Then it was time for Vacuum Tree Head to take the stage.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Vacuum Tree Head. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Led by Jason Berry who was conducting this evening, led us through fast-paced set of short pieces that ranged from classic jazz to deep funk to something approaching metal rock. Above the fray were vocals by Amy X Neuburg, who brought her theatrical and operatic voicings to the rather challenging music along with her very distinctive performance personality.

Amy X Neuburg, Vacuum Tree Head

Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amy X Neuburg and Jason Berry. Photos: peterbkaars.com.]

Many of the pieces, which were composed primarily by Berry and Michael de La Cuesta who together formed the band in 1989(!), were premiers. The band made the most of the variety of music, with an extended fusion keyboard solo by Amanda Chaudhary in DL DS, deep funk from the whole band behind Rich Corney’s guitar in EMS, a blindingly short jazz tune inspired by the Akhnaton dynasty of ancient Egypt, and a loud metal tune that may have been a first for an Outsound New Music Summit.

Amanda Chaudhary et al, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amanda Chaudhary et al. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Rich Lesnick (also a band-mate of mine in Reconnaissance Fly) brought solid saxophone and bass clarinet, including an extended moody bass-clarinet solo in Cushion Fortress; and Michael de la Cuesta featured in many songs on analog synthesizer, guitar and glockenspiel. Justin Markovits held things together with his drumming, assisted in the rhythm section by Tom Ferguson on bass. There was even a bit of abstract electronics from Amy X Neuburg on Blippo Box and Amanda Chaudhary on modular synth.

Michael de la Cuesta, Vacuum Tree Head Justin Markovits, Vacuum Tree Head
[Michael de la Cuesta and Justin Markovits. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The set was very well received by audience, some of whom were longtime fans of the band and some hearing us for the first time. And personally, it was quite a privilege to be part of the band for this event.

Overall, it was a strong evening for the summit, one that stood out as quite contrasting among the sets as well as with the other concerts.

Reconnaissance Fly and Vegan Butcher, Berkeley Arts Festival

Last month, the five members of Reconnaissance Fly took a break from the recording studio to bring their “charmingly incoherent art pop” to the Berkeley Arts Festival in a concert that also featured the band Vegan Butcher.

The evening began with the debut performance the Vegan Butcher, with John Shiurba on guitar, Wil Hendricks on bass, Suki O’Kane on drums, and Val Esway on “occasional voice.” The band played several compositions by John Shiurba, all of which were written in January and exclusively used the “nine-note January scale.” The pieces all had inventive titles like “These Ones Are All Stretched Out And Bifurcated”; and Shiurba stated that he wrote the lyrics before we was completely awake.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The first song started out with a soft repeating pattern with quiet drums and a gentle guitar motive. Just when one thought this might continue indefinitely, loud drum and guitar hits announced the arrival of full-on rock mode. There was guitar with distortion and minor harmonies over a slow driving rhythm, overlaid with oddly modal melodies. The overall effect was reminiscent of psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s – indeed, I thought I heard a bit of Nico / Velvet Underground in Val Esway’s vocals. You can hear the band for yourself in the following video:

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly to take the stage. From the start, our energy and vibe was quite different from Vegan Butcher’s dreamy and otherworldly sounds. Our current set based on spoetry (spam poetry) jumps around from style to style quickly, and has an overall humorous character. We opened as we usually do with “Small Chinese Gong”, which set the tone. You can hear a brief excerpt in this video:

All the recent studio work has paid off for live performances. We were much tighter on the challenging medley “Electric Rock Like A Cat / sanse is crede nza” than in previous performances, including those tough unisons. “As Neat As Wax” always stands out in live performances, too. This was also first time in a while that we included “The Animal Trade in Canada” in our live set, with a much stronger interpretation than in the past.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Reconnaissance Fly features Chris Broderick on woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone), Amar Chaudhary on keyboards and electronics, Polly Moller and voice and flute, Larry the O on drums, and Tim Walters on bass and electronics.

Overall it was a great show for both bands. For those of you who didn’t have a chance to hear it live, we will be playing together again on August 24 at the Starry Plough (also in Berkeley), along with Jack O’ The Clock.

APAture Festival: Music Night

The APAture Festival (Asian Pacific American artists) is currently underway here in San Francisco. It began last Thursday (September 18) and continues until next Saturday (September 26). The APAture festival showcases the work of Asian American artists and is produced by the Kearny Street Workshop, who also co-produced the Present Tense Biennial exhibit.

We actually begin with the second night of the festival: “Music Night” at the Poleng Lounge. The music was relatively mainstream, focusing on hip hop and rock artists who all happened to be of Asian or South Asian heritage.

Nomadik Messengers opened the evening with Bay Area hip-hop by way of the Philippines. Hip hop is generally about the words, but I find myself focusing on the beats, samples and instrumental sounds in the background, and I liked their use of classic funk and R&B from the 1970s (for which I have a soft spot). In his set, Mandeep Sethi (originally from the Los Angeles hip-hop scene but now residing in San Francisco) did call out the mighty MPC 2500 while creating words about social consciousness and cultural issues. Compared to the other hip-hop artists, Hopie $spitshard’s sounds were less old school and more infused with electronics, sirens, and synth noises reminiscent of contemporary dance clubs. Her words and stage presents was also fun, including her line “I’m glad you guys are here because it makes it more funner…and less creepy.” Her high energy vocals seemed to melt from one line into the next, and were full of electronic effects.

Lumaya’s music was a stark contrast to the hip-hop sets, and quite reminiscent of 1990s indie rock from my college years. As one would expect from an indie-rock power trio, it was loud and hard, with both blues and chromatic elements. Lead singer Olga Salamanca’s vocals and presence were the central element and her ethereal but forceful voice seemed to blend musically into the rock vibe, but it was somewhat hard to hear what she was saying due to sound issues in the room.

Johnny Hi-Fi’s style of pop rock seemed to be from a different era than Lumaya, either a decade earlier (1980s) or later (2000s). I think this as much due to lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Eric Hsu’s visual style as well as the style of the music. The keyboards gave the group more of a singer-songwriter sensibility as well. Sometimes it seemed a little over-emoted, at other times a bit light, like a small-club rock show where people dance and hop around. I did like the last songs, including their soundtrack to a documentary on domestic violence (a topic in sharp contrast to the otherwise light and fun nature of their music); and especially the encore song which was sung in Hsu in Chinese. I thought this was a fitting way to conclude the event.

Wordless Wednesday: Tank Hill

New Podcast: br'er: Rory Snake Handler


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We're trying to open up and grow the CatSynth Channel, with releases on Tuesdays and Thursdays in addition to the Sunday release. Especially after going silent for two weeks, it seems like a good time to launch the expanded series.

Our first weekday podcast is a selection from Of Shemales and Kissaboos, the new album from br'er that was reviewed here at CatSynth in September. This release features “Rory snake handler”, which was discussed in the review and also featured on br'er's myspace.

We are happy to feature music from friends and reviewed groups here at CatSynth, and welcome submissions and requests. You can use our handy submission form, or contact us to get your music featured on the CatSynth Channel.

To subscribe, click the “Subscribe” button, or visit the CatSynth Channel page. As always, enjoy.

CD Review: br'er Of Shemales and Kissaboos

Readers might remember the band br'er and lead Benjamin Schurr from the infamous CatSynth Tatoo. Well, br'er is out with their first album, Of Shemales and Kissaboos.

br'er not surprisingly includes a lot of synthesizer work, combined with songwriting, “art rock”, and an interesting collection of instruments. Schurr and Christian Mirande together provide an assortment of synthesizers, noise sources, toy instruments, and such on top of a more traditional “band” of voice, guitar, keyboard, bass and drums.

The music ranges from very soft ballads to something akin to techno-industrial. Perhaps most iconic for me is the track “I'm sorry mom”, which I believe used to be featured on br'er's myspace. It opens with simple 3/4 strumming and voice, and quickly grows to include dissonant piano strings and more. A lot of pieces follow a similar idea, moving between art-rock song and experimental electronic work. The next track “Rory snake handler” also features a lot of splicing between disparate elements (e.g., song and dissonant piano), I'm guessing it is not indended to be played live. Most of the tracks, however, do sound quite doable live, which should make for some interesting shows as they tour.

The tracks following “I'm sorry mom”, continue to build up more and more electronic and noise elements, while returning for stretches to the “song” format. Ultimately, it is a collection of real songs, as sung by Schurr. But I find myself focusing on the piano and the electronics most. There is a lot of what I would consider “traditional avant-guard piano”, as well as sound-synthesis exploration, of the sorts I might use in my own performances or recordings. This is especially true in the later tracks from “Lapin” onward. It almost feels like they arranged in increasing order of electronic noise and beat/pattern content, which is as good an organizing principle as any. But to their credit, they provide a more chaotic or absurdist, and somewhat quiet, turn at the end.

Of Shemales And Kissaboos is available now from Beat is Murder Records. You can hear audio samples from from the album at Beat Is Murder's myspace as well as br'er.

Discuss on the CatSynth music forum.