Low with Pedro the Lion
Wednesday · Southgate House
When people fire up the new Low album, The Great Destroyer, they might look at their speakers with some consternation. To be sure, Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Zak Sally have previously flirted with volume and shades of The Big Rock, but never quite to the degree of the tribal tub-thumping of "Monkey," the infectious Pop synergy of "California" and the squalling Crazy Horse distortion of "Everybody's Song" and "On the Edge Of." Sparhawk admits Low has dabbled with this more visceral approach but never completely embraced the concept until now. "We've approached each record with the idea of how far out of the norm we can step," says Sparhawk. "We always do that a little bit, but this time, once we let ourselves follow the songs, it took us to a new language."
Low's new language had its beginnings in The Great Destroyer's initial formation. "It was a weird process of writing songs and feeling like someone else had written them," says Sparhawk. "The first couple of songs into it, I knew this was starting to sound like a very different record. At that point, you either adjust back onto the path that you think is comfortable or you just let it ride and see where the songs take you. This time, we did that."
Sonically, The Great Destroyer's immediacy could trace its lineage to Low's opening gig with Radiohead in 2003, during which Sparhawk confesses to a minor revelation. "Doing shows with them made us realize the potential," he says. "They were, to me, a testament that you can be passionate and subtle and loud and in the moment — and in front of 25,000 people — all at the same time."
Some have pointed to the album's title as a hint to the sonic upheaval contained within, others have ascribed it with a political, second-Bush-term agenda subtext. Sparhawk neither confirms nor refutes either allegation. "Some people are interpreting it politically, but I think in the end it comes back to, 'How do you feel about it?' " says Sparhawk. "This record is about the moment when it hits and sometimes you don't have all the information or the solutions, but it's a valid moment nonetheless." (Brian Baker)
VHS or Beta with manda & the marbles and the cathedrals
Saturday · alchemize
How many Noise Rock bands do you suppose find their way to Dance Pop? Of those, how many detoured through Instrumental Disco? Louisville's VHS or Beta (VOB) has taken a twisted path to this point, and each step has been built on the skills gained from their previous journey. How else could their Astralwerks release, Night on Fire, inspire comparisons to both Duran Duran and Daft Punk? It's this pairing of songwriting depth and glossy veneer that makes their music irresistible. Just like their dark, teased hair, it's clear that they have gone to great lengths to style their kitschy persona. From Craig Pfunder's Brit accent to the '80s vintage fashion, the whole VOB package comes off as convincing yet surreal. But when it comes to music, there's no question it's 100 percent genuine. Whether it's Mark Guidry's throbbing downbeats, Mark Palgy's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" bass runs or Pfunder and Zeke Buck's distorted guitar squeals, the band oozes creativity and confidence. These same elements went into Le Funk, their previous release, putting them on the Jam/Groove map alongside Disco Biscuits. But the band has clearly set more lofty goals with Night on Fire. In addition to the inclusion of vocals, they also show a much sharper Pop sensibility, certainly more than would be expected from a band with roots in Louisville's storied Indie/Post Rock scene. Like contemporaries Hot Hot Heat and Ima Robot (and forefathers XTC), VOB uses this uncompromising mix of catchy and arty to hook passive listeners as well as audiophiles. Despite all of the far-flung musical genealogy, VOB are still what they have always been, a tight Rock band. Because of their geographical proximity to Cincinnati, there has always been a vague connection to the local music scene (some might remember Pfunder playing with the avant-garde group Maya many years ago; others might have seen him and Guidry DJing the Interpol after-party at alchemize recently). All the more reason to swing by and wish them success on their March tour, which includes a South By Southwest stop at Stubb's. (Ezra Waller)
Helmet with Chevelle, Crossfade, Future Leaders of the World and Strata
Tuesday · Bogart's
When Rock's most influential movers and shakers are ultimately identified and catalogued, one of its most unlikely candidates might well be Helmet's Page Hamilton. Relocating from his native Oregon to New York City in the late '80s to pursue his master's degree in Jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music, Hamilton was sufficiently energized and inspired by the inventive Post Punk direction of Sonic Youth and Killing Joke to assemble Helmet. Seen as the East Coast's response to Grunge (in spite of Hamilton's Northwest heritage), Helmet created an immediate stir with their indie EP, Strap It On, in 1990, leading to the band's Interscope signing the following year. Their major label debut, 1992's Meantime, was a phenomenal success; MTV had their three videos in hot rotation and Helmet became a much-demanded touring unit. After original guitarist Peter Mengede exited, Hamilton filled the vacancy with Rob Echeverria and conceived Helmet's experimental and incredibly diverse Betty in 1994. Drawing on Hamilton's Jazz education, Helmet infused Betty with an amazing tension between its subtlety and unrelenting heaviness. Critics hailed its invention and hardcore fans embraced its scope and courage, but the masses misunderstood Helmet's reach and the album failed commercially. In 1995, Echeverria bailed to hook up with Biohazard and Hamilton put together Born Annoying, a compilation of B-sides and rarities, to keep the band's profile raised while working on new material. 1997's Aftertaste was aptly named; it was poorly received and Hamilton finally disbanded Helmet in 1999. Hamilton's innovative use of dropped-D tuning resonates throughout the Metal community to this day and Hamilton's broad range of collaborations with everyone from Irish Rap group House of Pain to Limp Bizkit show his versatility. He returned in the new millennium with a new band called Ghandi, but four years after Helmet's demise, Hamilton resurrected the band with a whole new line-up. Last fall's career retrospective, Unsung: The Very Best of Helmet (1991-1997), was quickly followed by an album of brand-new material, Size Matters, once again dividing fans who split between cool acceptance and wild enthusiasm. Regardless of the band's studio travails, Helmet has always shone in the live arena and Hamilton's newest incarnation of the band is no exception. (BB)