Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Show review: Austra, Young Galaxy, Tasseomancy at Empty Bottle

By Reagan Healey

I’m going to get right to it. This show was packed –like, ridiculously packed. Seriously, Empty Bottle, how many fire codes did you break? It was Canadian invasion night on Western Avenue this Monday, with shortlisted 2011 Polaris Music Prize nominees Austra returning to Chicago and the Empty Bottle on the last leg of their US tour with opening acts Young Galaxy and live collaborators Tasseomancy. It was about as cramped as I’ve ever been at that venue, but I’d be lying if I said the capacity crowd wasn’t entirely merited. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to submit that the whole thing was pretty fucking awesome from beginning to end.

If I left it at that, though, I would be leaving a lot out.

I spent some time in my album review of Chicago three-piece Pillars and Tongues’ The Pass and Crossings discussing how acts that blend gothic mysticism and natural imagery with electronic instrumentation seem to have utterly taken the current music scene hostage. If that’s true, then this concert was undeniable evidence that the hostage situation is reaching a breaking point. Tasseomancy, fronted by twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman, take their name from the practice of divining the future by examining tea leaves and wine dregs. If you can think of a hipper, more mystical name, I’m all ears –I mean c’mon, tea leaves and wine dregs, just wow. Dressed like a Romanian gypsy and an androgynous matador, they kind of resembled the ghosts of Bat For Lashes both Present and Future (respectively).

I’m not saying it was corny. Joined on stage by Austra drummer Maya Postepski, they delivered a perfect juxtaposition of witchy harmony with a tasteful blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Of course, they also dedicated the show to a gay rooster named Henry. They elaborated more on that, but it was difficult to make out through their ghostly whispers –turns out speaking up is antithetical to being enigmatic. But why criticize the banter if the songs were solid, right? They certainly were, and Tasseomancy is also a lot of fun to watch, too. For some reason, being twins happens to go really well with acting supernatural, and they really acted the part. Romy was especially transfixing as she seemed to have perfected a dance gleaned in one part from a legitimate gypsy and in another from a strange old lady in church. When Tasseomancy joined Austra onstage later in the night as Katie Stelmanis’s backing singers, Romy threatened to upstage even Stelmanis herself.

Oh, did I mention where Austra got their name? Well, first of all, it’s Katie Stelmanis’s middle name. Also, it’s the name of a goddess from Latvian mythology. Turns out there are things more mystical than telling the future with tea leaves. First of all –and I bet Stelmanis gets this a lot, if both she and Zola Jesus were standing on a stage in front of me, I’m not entirely certain I could tell them apart. Second of all, Stelmanis is clearly the better songwriter. Feel it Break is an unbelievably catchy album, seeming at times to be crafted with each song in mind as a potential single. Add the vocal and visual impact of Tasseomancy to that along with Stelmanis’s own masterful vocal range, and the result is an experience that is at times honest-to-God transcendent. “Darken her Horse,” a powerful song in its own right, becomes flattening when performed live with a three-part harmony.

“Flattening” is a very good word for the whole experience. Austra live is loud, and I mean loud. The only louder band I’ve heard in a long while was Austra’s opening act, Young Galaxy. In fact, for “Beat and the Pulse,” Young Galaxy drummer Andrea Silver joined the rest of the band for a two-part drum arrangement in addition to a beat machine. You read me right. At this point, I would like to formally request that every band in the world from now on use two drummers and a beat machine for every song. I’m a fan of the genre, so I was expecting a lot from the Austra concert, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be mind-meltingly brutal. I thought it was a sign of patent amateurism when they began obvious fan-favorite “Lose It” only two songs into their set, but it turns out the Austra touring band is capable of elevating their entire catalogue into the stuff of anthemic dance-pop opera. They even did an encore. How badass is that?

Young Galaxy
 –almost as badass as Austra’s opening act, Young Galaxy, as it turns out. Now, call me ignorant, but before this show, I’d heard of Young Galaxy, but I’d never bothered to learn more about them aside from the fact that they classify themselves as dream pop. And dream pop has a tendency to put me to sleep. Boy, do I have a lot of crow to eat after their set. I should have known I wasn’t in for the standard, politely ethereal indie rock show when I noticed that the band had decided to mic their bass drum. Not only that, but the bassist was using a full-sized Ampeg stack (ridiculous for such a small venue) which –get this, was also mic’ed! I’m pretty sure Young Galaxy mics their mics. It took a full 20 minutes after their set just to remove all the damn speakers. My ears are still ringing.

Young Galaxy’s M.O. was pretty simple: step one, begin with an oeuvre of catchy, appropriately danceable glimmering pop songs. Step two, set up your equipment as if you’re a hardcore punk band. Step three, perform as if you’re a hardcore punk band. It worked well. Really well. If there’s one thing I love, it’s watching an opening act completely blow the headliner out of the water. There’s only a few things more metal than that which don’t involve actual explosives. And while Young Galaxy didn’t exactly do that (only because it turns out Austra is also ridiculous live), I was convinced for most of their set that they were going to. The rapport between bassist Stephen Kamp and drummer Andrea Silver alone was enough to make them worthy of headlining their own show. Also, every single member of the band sings. If you enjoy three-part harmonies, Young Galaxy has more than a few four-parters for you. Clad in matching white outfits, Young Galaxy may not have completely upstaged Austra, but they proved that when the electronic goth bubble inevitably bursts, people looking for a good show will still have somewhere to go.


Check out more show reviews:
Prince Rama, Indian Jewelry at Subterranean
Shonen Knife at the Empty Bottle
Mister Heavenly at Subterranean
Supreme Cuts, Memoryhouse, Balam Acab at the Empty Bottle
tUnE-yArDs at Lincoln Hall

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