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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Ho-Ag

eclectic reviews and opinions

Ho-Ag (with Hallelujah the Hills, Cinemechanica, Shore Leave)

25 Mar 2006

Bill's Bar (Boston, Massachusetts)

A quartet of math-rock bands playing on Landsdowne Street? It was so incongruous, I couldn't resist.

I made my way through the throng to Bill's Bar just in time to miss Shore Leave completely. I was disappointed. I like their self-titled album from last year. It mixes indie pop-rock that resembles Versus with harsher/more aggressive fare. I'm still curious how they'll balance the band's different aspects live.

"Math rock" generally means weird time signatures and extreme loud/soft dynamics, but before I learned that, I thought math-rock musicians actually plotted mathematical formulas and somehow mapped them to guitar fretboards. (I was a weird kid.) Cinemechanica's twin guitars remind me of that mental image. Most of their songs feature single-note lines from each guitarist that repeatedly merge with and diverge from each other, with occasional pauses for power chord barrages and hoarse shouted vocals. Other tunes have overtly pretty melodies on top, with weird counter-melodies underneath. They're like visitors from a planet where the only music was King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" and the first Q and Not U record. It's dense, demanding, heady stuff, and although their new album The Martial Arts is on my year's best shortlist, I can't imagine wanting to get drunk to it -- some of their atonal bends are a bit like the aural equivalent of the dreaded "spins." They were just sloppy enough on the opening number that I could tell they were actual human beings, but they quickly reached a peak of jaw-dropping precision. But not everyone was as impressed as I was. The band hardly engaged the crowd, the music wasn't exactly welcoming to the uninitiated, and I saw a lot of hipsters standing impassively with their arms crossed. Their loss.

Hallelujah the Hills was the ringer in the bill. The band, fronted by Ryan Walsh (late of the much-ballyhooed Stairs) is about as much math rock as it is alt-country and only slightly more than it's hardcore -- or, I dunno, space jazz. I have rarely seen an act as willfully eclectic as Hallelujah the Hills. I wasn't crazy about Walsh's voice -- he sange with a lot of passion, but some of his melodies seemed to beg for a more mellifluous delivery. But I quickly found myself straining to make out his lyrics, which were full of surreal, quirky, and compelling phrases like "a stillborn Chinese baby talking backwards." And I was knocked out by many of the songs, which seemed to belong together no matter what genre they adopted. Hallelujah the Hills also displayed a well-honed sense of theater. They spiced up their set with actions that would have been gimmicky if they hadn't integrated so well with the performance. On their fastest tune, someone rapid-fire flipped pieces of posterboard with lyrics printed on them in time to the music. For the rest of the night people waved them like banners, with "Make it BITTER" a particular favorite.

Hallelujah the Hills share drummer Eric Meyer with Ho-Ag, which facilitated an impressive set transition: the remaining members of Ho-Ag joined Hallelujah the Hills to perform a handful of each other's songs in a 10-piece big band context, along with a blistering rendition of The Talking Heads' classic "Electric Guitar." The bands' enthusiasm was contagious, and the sound technician kept everything from sliding into sonic mud.

Ho-Ag are a Boston-based act, but my steeped-in-DC-punk brain persists in hearing them as a sort of distillation of the past decade's worth of post-hardcore/indie rock from the nation's capital (with a dash of Richmond Virginia punk for good measure). They encompassed the abrupt starts and stops and extreme dynamics that characterize the Dischord stable, the math/prog explorations of Faraquat and The Medications, The Make*Up and latter day Q and Not U's nods to funk, the herky-jerky retro newwave of Measles Mumps Rubella, the screamo/melodic singing collision of 1905, and some of the tribal intensity of Black Eyes and Pg. 99. Both of Ho-Ag's vocalists were compelling and charismatic. Meyer would have earned my admiration by simply enduring through the marathon set, but he and bassist Nicholas Ward were a ferocious rhythm team, managing to inject a touch of groove into some unlikely meters.

This review originally appeared at Avoid Peril.

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