Saturday, October 12, 2013

review: crystal stilts, zachary cale at the empty bottle 10.10.13

I haven’t ventured out of the house to catch much live music lately—in fact, the last show I saw was Sharon van Etten and Speck Mountain in Millenium Park in June. It’s been even longer since I’ve been back to the Empty Bottle, which is my favourite local venue of its size. Crystal Stilts’ stop at the Bottle was something I heard about before hearing anything about the release of their new album ‘Nature Noir.’ I saw them twice there following the release of 2011’s excellent and energetic ‘In Love With Oblivion’ and found them to be more impressive live than I was expecting. They remain rare amongst their Brooklyn-based peers in that they seemed more concerned with songwriting and atmosphere than much of anything else—they haven’t cultivated much of an image to speak of and their music has always retained a quiet integrity and sense of purpose.

I have to admit that one of the reasons I opted to go in the first place was because it was on a weeknight and neither of the band’s previous two stops had reached sold out status. If I can’t go to a seated show with a considerate audience, a weeknight with a near-capacity crowd is the next best thing. There’s something alluring about catching a great band live in a room that isn’t packed to the rafters—it usually means that everyone who’s there really wants to be there. It was a bit of a shame to see the Stilts play a set that was plagued with sound problems and microphonic feedback to a half-empty room. I couldn’t figure out why this was the entire night and have concluded that it’s because of the more restrained and atmospheric arc of ‘Nature Noir.’ Where ‘In Love With Oblivion’ took their sound and shot it through with some urgency and speed the new album is more like a mix between the more fully orchestrated tracks on the ‘Radiant Door’ EP and the band’s debut self-titled EP. It probably didn’t help that Pitchfork wrote a really lackluster review of it, either. The energy of their set reflected this as well. They seemed to fall victim to the feeling this entire week has had of everything being in retrograde.

They started with a handful of ‘In Love With Oblivion’ tracks—‘Sycamore Tree,’ ‘Silver Sun’—before diving into the new album for the bulk of their set. They were able to recreate the textural richness of the new songs beautifully and effortlessly live, the juxtaposition of the two albums’ sound made for a nice contrast. ‘Star Crawl’ sounded particularly great—one of the areas where the band succeeds the most is what a compact and formidable whole they are able to make with their individual elements. It’s usually easy to see who’s doing the heavy lifting on stage and who’s just there to fill in the cracks here and there, but the five members of Crystal Stilts are a fully locked-in unit. Their restraint and sense of control are where they draw a lot of their live energy from. When they let loose they are extremely powerful—the main set ending one-two punch of the bluesy jitteriness of ‘Electrons Rising’ straight into the pounding velocity of ‘Prometheus at Large’ was strong enough that an onstage power outage that ground it to a halt just as the band was getting to a drawn-out sense of focus wasn’t able to dull the sense of excitement and urgency.

The band never dipped into any of the older material or anything from ‘Radiant Door.’ They did play both tracks from the ‘Love is a Wave’ single. The set seemed brief—possibly due to the disappointing turn out and the persistent sound issues. Of course, since the band’s output favors brief song lengths to stretched-out ones such a move could’ve been intentional. The small crowd was able to convince them to do a few more songs at the end of the night. There was also a weird, vaguely apathetic energy in the room the entire night—the crowd talked very loudly through much of Zachary Cale’s acoustic-based set. It was a struggle to hear much of what was going on throughout his set. There was a small halo of people gathered at the front of the stage to hear his open-tuned and blues-based songs. There was also a tall photographer snapping pictures and getting absorbed in the glow of his smartphone. Cale soldiered on as best he could—it is amazing how loud people who are gathered in the back by the bar can get. It was an impenetrable din. He played a decent Robert Johnson cover and almost skipped his last and best song due to the roar of talkers (his bandmates convinced him to play this last song). Cale joined Crystal Stilts onstage to make the interwoven guitar lines of ‘Nature Noir’ a beautiful reality towards the end of their main set. He managed to match JB Townsend’s tone nicely and it made for some really nice interplay during the spindly lines of 'Worlds Gone Weird.' It also made the closing set of songs benefit from a bigger sound. When a unit that tight is augmented by even one person it can make a huge difference. Hopefully Cale will be able to play a more appropriate setting during his next stop in town—while I love seeing shows at the Bottle, acoustic-based acts tend to rarely get a fair shot when they play there. The little that I could hear of his set sounded promising.

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