I couldn’t have made this up if I’d tried: Fridge, Explosions In The Sky, and Cerberus Shoal in, of all places, Grinnell, Iowa. It’s something that makes you scratch your head, because it just doesn’t make sense. A critically-acclaimed (yet fairly unknown) band comes all the way from England, plays only a handful of shows, and one of them is at a small, liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa. That’s almost as weird as a good band coming to Lincoln.
As soon as my friends and I heard about the show, there really was no question. There wasn’t even any debate. It was pretty much a certainty that we’d be making the 4 1/2 hour trek to Grinnell College. If you’ve read any of my Cornerstone journals, than you already know my impressions of driving across Iowa. Just cut them in half, and you’ve got our Grinnell jaunt, so I’ll spare you any interstate impressions of the countryside. After finally finding the venue, I made a quick survey for any other Nebraska kids. I knew there’d be some in attendance, which I thought was pretty cool (and also a pointed statement about the sorry state of Lincoln’s music scene that we’re willing to drive hours just to see a promising show).
Shortly after a couple of my roadmates hit Grinnell in search of alcoholic refreshment, Cerberus Shoal took to the stage. I’d only heard one song of theirs, which really wasn’t enough to have an impression. And as the group began weaving their sound, I’m certain any preconceived notions would’ve been completely wrong anyway. Delving into the same pan-global melting pot that Busker Kibbutznick and Psalters help themselves to so liberally, Cerberus Shoal crafted a very intriguing sound. Middle-eastern drones, eerie chanting, circus processional rhythms, free-jazz guitar textures, and spoken word were just a handful of the sounds that emanated from the sixpiece.
At times, the sound got a little comical, even pretentious, especially during the spoken word passages. But much of the show alternated between being downright lovely and outright creepy. At one point, the band’s rhythm swayed like a drunken trapeze artist, recalling the swagger of The Denver Gentlemen. Sometimes it approached a dark, old-time revival as the band members swooned and chanted wordless phrases (or disturbing nursery rhymes about puppies and such). Still other parts were gorgeous as the vocals were looped and treated to achieve a sublime, gossamer-like effect. The band’s set concluded with a deafening noise, as instruments shrieked and vocals cackled, leaving us to wonder if we had stumbled into some odd religious ceremony gone horribly awry.
Now, while most were probably there to see Fridge, I was really there to see Explosions In The Sky. Some music rags have accused them of being (bad) Mogwai wannabes; though I can see their point, I’ve always felt that these Texas boys can stand on their own merits. I made sure to get up front to see if the band’s show was as intense and emotional as I’d read. And for my money (or not, since the show was free), they definitely delivered, though I was left with the nagging feeling that there could’ve been more. Perhaps it was the venue, or the sound system. Things just didn’t seem properly miked, especially the drums, which felt underwhelming the entire show.
Still, I found myself closing my eyes and just getting into the noise more often than not. Opening up with “Greet Death” from Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever, they never uttered a word during their set, instead focusing on their various pedals and methods of extracting sound from their guitars. Explosions In The Sky proved to be quite adept at crafting huge, feedback-strewn barrages of noise, as well as more delicate passages that felt almost fragile in comparison, just like their album.
I know some people who are fond of pointing out that they could do whatever it is that Explosions In The Sky do, and that’s probably the case. But you know, some people love 3‑chord punk, regardless of how simplistic it may be musically. It’s the emotions underneath that give it value and depth. And that’s how I feel about Explosions In The Sky. True, their sound treads an awful lot of familiar ground, but I’ve always been a sucker for those huge walls of sound that can only be achieved through copious amounts of guitar effects and apocalyptic metaphor.
Now, I’m going to be honest here. I’ve never really understood the Fridge phenomena. I’ve bought their CDs based upon the high praises of others, and they certainly have their lovely moments. But there’s also quite a bit of filler, a feeling their performance did nothing to dispel.
What I’ve always found most intriguing about Fridge is their delicate mix of fragile, fluttering, cut-up electronics within a traditional “guitar/bass/drums” framework. Unfortunately, that type of material occupied only a fraction of Fridge’s live set. Now I understand that a good deal of those electronic sounds were probably the result of a painstaking studio process. As a result, they may never exist outside of the band’s laptops.
Perhaps that’s why Fridge felt compelled to stretch out their songs as long as possible, often to the point of being grating. Maybe they were simply trying to compensate for those elements they couldn’t reproduce live. Whatever it was, too much of the set consisted of lovely guitar progressions, fluid basslines, and off-kilter drumming played slowly, painfully past the point of monotony.
It all culminated in the band’s final song, where a single chord was riffed on for nearly 20 minutes (or so it seemed). Occasionally, the volume varied, or the drumming got a little more insistent, but the chord never changed. Every time it seemed like the song would take an interesting turn, the band was intent on plowing ahead. When the distortion finally kicked in to signal the song’s “big finish,” it felt about 10 minutes too late, having run out of steam before it even started.
The whole time I was reminded of The Velvet Underground and Nico, in which Andy Warhol shoots the Velvets noisily jamming for over an hour with nary a song in sight. After awhile, the viewer begins to notice everything but the music; the people walking around the band, Sterling Morrison’s haircut, Lou Reed’s glasses, Warhol’s irritating camerawork. By the time Fridge finally reached their final leg, all I could think about was my uncomfortable chair, the room’s temperature, how drunk my friends were, and that I didn’t want to drive another 4 1/2 hours that night.