When I heard that J. Mascis -- the lead guitarist of much admired, and recently resurrected rockers Dinosaur, Jr. -- was the drummer for new band Witch and not the singer, songwriter or guitarist, I disappointedly thought that meant he wasn't the band's front man. Watching Witch set up and play last night at the Bowery Ballroom, though, I realized my mistake. In fact, all the bands on display that night proved the defining element of music categorized as metal or acid rock is not anarchic yelling or noodling metal guitar, but the rhythms pounded out by the drums at their center. If there is a front man to a metal band, it's the thick, heavy rhythms at work on the bass drum. In that sense, Mascis remains ever the front man, this time literally front and center, with drum kit in tow.
The first opening band, with the unfortunate name Child Abuse, was a textbook example of the metal song architecture I speak of. Each song the band played was built primarily on the repetitive and huge booming rhythms of the drum, with the bassist and keyboardist providing ornamental touches to ride off the beat. Indeed, the bassist and keyboardist's job was to stay in synchronicity with the main thrust of the song which, in contrast to being the vocal melody in most rock or pop songs, in this case was the driving beat of the bass drum. While Child Abuse would do well to rid itself of its off-putting name (I guess that's the point), and the screaming, somewhat infantile vocals that accompanied their occasional songs, the drummer was impressive and versatile in banging out energetic thumps, serving as the veritable conductor of the troupe. The challenge with such music, however, is it very repetitiveness, which after a while, loses its allure no matter how energetic the thumping, especially if melody, not beats, is your heart's true content.
Witch was up next, and it was clear from the murmurings in the audience and the type of audience itself -- rockers mixed in with the heavy metal-esque/hippy crowd -- that many were there to see what J. Mascis's new band was all about. What can be said, at least of this preliminary showing of the band's work, is that Witch is nothing like Dinosaur, Jr., nor aims to win such a comparison. No indie-rock aesthetic here, but an entirely different one -- thick, effects laden rhythm guitar, a metal hook noodling guitar and prog rock bass that created the acid rock/metal sound on the bill that night. Indeed, when speaking with J. after the show, one of the self-evident reference points he mentioned for the Witch was Black Sabbath, cementing the impression that Witch is not trying to be an analog to Dinosaur, Jr. but rather a totally different project with different musical reference points. And it showed.
Watching the drum kit set up for Witch was instructive in and of itself, further setting the contrast for this reviewer between bands gravitating toward the metal end of the rock spectrum and rock bands period -- how drums are used. In Witch's case, it was a pink and orange translucent, plastic kit, that looked illuminated from the inside, with a ogly eyed creature painted on the big drum, whose eyes turned up toward letters spelling the band's name. It was arranged in the center of stage, in all of its operating parts, with four people tending to the appropriate mic-ing of the kit before the band went on. I later learned from J. that though the process of drum set up appeared elaborate, (and a process that headliner Dead Meadow also went through), it was a matter of mic-ing the bass drum, which for both bands, was absent of a built-in mic. Still, all the careful attention hammered the point home (no pun intended) that drums are elemental to what people tend to call metal bands. Even the screams and theatrics and metal guitar hooks are side-shows, important, but nonetheless corollary components, to the rhythm propelling instrument that defines the genre's heavy, thick sound.
Regarding Witch's set, it's hard what to make of the band itself. J. hammered out traditional metal sounding drum beats, big, large, expansive, cymbals and high hatting, bass drumming and tapping all over the drum kit. Witch lead singer and guitarist Kyle Thomas sang melodies that tended to get lost underneath the rhythms of the rhythm guitarist and bassist, and seemed squeezed to fit around the rhythmic elements of the song. To be honest, I didn't think the band terribly interesting to listen to overall. Not enough melody and words, though the rest of the squarely packed crowd didn't seem to mind. And there didn't seem to a clear idea for the band -- something faintly wicca perhaps, naturalistic or even hippy-esque, with long hair and beards swaying on stage -- but I wasn't sure what the songs were really about. It was a mix of hippy jam band meets metal rock band all played with instrumental competence, but with a direction I couldn't place. Because of that, my interest waned as the set progressed. While what made Dinosaur, Jr. so compelling was its emotionally charged story-telling, among other reasons, this band seemed to specialize in coasting on a generalized feeling, some rumination on youth or nature, which aesthetically I can understand but not really enjoy listening to. To the band's credit, the instrumentals were all expertly played, and ambitious in trying to achieve something more ornate than straight out metal, but in the end, I have to confess, I thought it too much metal-stoner rock for my personal liking.
As a result, headliners Dead Meadow had to start off at a deficit with this reviewer, as my patience for metal-esque jams was dwindling at that point, and the band's decision to delay their starting time by letting psychedelic lights that they had brought on stage float about on the walls, played like a self-indulgent ploy rather than some mood-enhancing move. Thankfully, that move was only one of two parts of this Dead Meadow's set I didn't like. In fact, once the band started playing, I could only register interested surprise.
Having just returned from a European tour, Dead Meadow seemed perfectly comfortable on stage finding a comfortable medium between metal-esque reference points -- thumping beats and effects-dripping guitars -- and rock professionalism, proffering guitar-centered melodies that interlocked well with the drums, which rather than overpowering the band's songs, found ways to introduce heavy beats that could anchor the oftentimes floaty, wall of sound guitar bits. Bassist Steve Kille's involved bass lines played off both the guitars and drums in expert fashion, doing well in to maintain the songs' melodic, rhythmic groove. Furthermore, and this was important, there were vocals that were well-placed--actual singing that once again struck a medium along the rock-metal continuum, melodic but at a higher, more metal-esque pitch, and whose lyrical content seemed more personal in nature than generalized concepts about nature and life, indeed one of Witch's pitfalls. The only point at which I began to feel the band stretch uncomfortably was in its long jam at the end of the set, which, while impressively played, at 10 minutes tried the patience. Overall, the Dead Meadow was fun to watch -- their movements in time to the thick rhythms and sticky melodies, and fun to hear -- their grooves had people tapping their toes and nodding their heads in appreciation, including my own. It was an altogether pleasing end to an evening of drummer front men, nods to Black Sabbath, and a renewed interest in '70's acid-rock/metal that I think we're sure to see more of -- bands trying their hand at the rock-metal middle ground, high-pitched vocals or not.