Saturday, December 14, 2013

ruminations: grouper, benoit pioulard, christopher bissonette and justin walter at constellation 12.13.13

‘This room is filled with the type of people who go to parties and sit in the corner all night not talking to anyone,’ observed a woman sitting on the floor behind me following Justin Walter’s excellent set at Constellation. This is the second of four shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kranky Records—I skipped seeing Disappears and Implodes at the Bottle last night and I’m not going to the show tomorrow night since my band is playing on the radio that afternoon (and it sold out due to the growing popularity of Tim Hecker’s newest record), but I will be attending Stars of the Lid’s one of only two live shows this year at Lincoln Hall on Sunday night.

Few musical discoveries have been as rewarding for me this year as immersing myself in the Grouper back catalog. When these shows were first announced I had my fingers crossed that Grouper would be on the bill of one of the shows since I missed Liz Harris’ set at the Empty Bottle in April this year. I’ve always been curious about Benoit Pioulard and Justin Walter as well—who’ve both turned in notable albums on the Chicago label.

I have no superstitions about Friday the 13th—in fact, most of the times I’ve gone to shows or played shows on that ominous date they often end up being the most memorable (for a perfect example check out my review of Disappears and Implodes at Lincoln Hall last year) and this was no exception. I’ve only been to Constellation once and that was when it was still the Viaduct Theater. Not much has changed—it looks like it’s been polished and well-maintained since the transition, but the layout hasn’t changed at all. When I arrived there was standing room only and I found that everyone was sitting cross-legged on the floor who hadn’t gotten there early enough to get a chair in the seated sections that line the walls. Justin Walter stepped out from behind a giant projector screen and started playing right after I found a corner to sit down in. His set was heavily ambient and spacey but also had hints of spare, driving rhythms and he brought along a drummer who filled out the sound nicely. He mostly uses an Electronic Valve Instrument, which is a wind controlled analog synthesizer that he had hooked up to a series of samplers and effects and the tones he was able to get out of it were incredibly diverse. There were some loud, rumbling bass frequencies as well some sparkling bright overtones throughout his brief set.

Next up was Christopher Bissonnette, who played a decent set from behind two laptops. The giant projector screen was for visuals to complement his very slowly-evolving electronic ambient music. It was built slowly from some textural field recordings around arrhythmic and bent tones—some of them menacing and others very bright and beautiful. After that the projector screen was moved to reveal the stage where Thomas Meluch’s (aka Benoit Pioulard) and Liz Harris’ equipment was set up. At this point people stood up and crowded closely around the stage like at a rock show. Meluch came out and played a set entirely made up of guitar and voice—some of the songs were built on live looped guitar sounds that he created using a drumstick and a bow. For the most part, though, his songs were just shimmering electric guitar chords and vocals. Someone near the front had a seizure right at the beginning of his set and had to be carried out. I enjoyed the Benoit Pioulard set immensely—Meluch’s songs are beautiful and emotionally resonant and his last song was particularly stirring.

The main event was definitely Grouper, though. I’ve never seen a room full of people be so unbelievably silent for so long—it was amazing. Liz Harris sang quieter than I’ve ever heard anyone sing in a live setting as well. She played a keyboard-based set and the first two songs were new, the other two were ‘Come Softly’ and ‘Alien Observer’ from the second ‘A I A’ album. The first song she played had a clear and beautiful melody that wouldn’t have been out of place on ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ or this year’s ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat.’ The second was mistier like something off of ‘Dream Loss,’ the first ‘A I A’ album. ‘Alien Observer’ saw her begin to push her voice creating that impenetrable cloud of reverb effect that she’s always getting on her records. It sounded really beautiful, dark, mysterious and hypnotic and she stretched the song out into a 20-minute drone. A lot of people started leaving the longer it went on, but it was fascinating to watch her manipulate the sounds onstage—she’s so uninhibited and not at all self conscious. She certainly didn’t rush anything and I felt like my patience was rewarded for listening to the whole thing. It was like being at a classical music performance—there was no clapping until the set was over and Harris had left the stage.

As the lights came up (well, sort of, it was really dimly lit in there) I headed outside and when I opened the front door I was nearly blinded by the streetlights and the falling snow. It was one of those occasions where I catch a bus almost immediately when it’s running only once every 20 minutes and then transfer to a train within a few minutes as well. All told I was home in 30 minutes. It was a quintessentially Kranky evening and one that exemplified what I love about the type of music that they’ve been releasing for so long. Friday the 13th—eh, whatever.

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