i saw the Boredoms at Philly's Starlight Ballroom last night. It was the most intense show I've been to all year
I actually went to the show with very little knowledge of the Boredoms. I knew they were Japanese. I knew they'd been around since at least the early 90s. I knew they made experimental music and that they were well-respected by many left-field musicians and indie music fans. I also knew they'd staged a huge event in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on July 7th last year (7/7/7) with a total of 77 drummers known as "Boa Drums."
But before last night I'd only heard a few minutes of their music.
A friend in Portland had played the Boredoms through his laptop speakers at a moderate volume while we were hanging out earlier this year. I remember it being spacey and droney. It was music you could probably fall inside, but music that could also serve as a background (as it was serving in that Oregon living room.) We were able to hold a conversation while it was going on. What I heard must have been their most recent record, "Seadrum/House of Sun" which mood-wise allmusic.com characterizes as "trippy, hypnotic...detached, spiritual, soothing, reflective, ethereal, circular, calm, [and] peaceful."
This was not the mood at the Starlight Ballroom last night.
One couldn't be bored in a traditional sense during Boredom's set. The music overwhelmed the senses to such an extent that the feeling of boredom wasn't possible. But a possible reaction to the music was analogous to being bored: standing in place, paralyzed, mouth half-open, jut at the edge of drooling.
The set last night was unrelenting. The band played for nearly an hour and a half with no break. I expected a set full of peaks and valleys, maybe one with percussive freak-outs but also one with a lot of lushy, pillowy buzzy drones. But what I got was far from this.
I don't know exactly where my expectation came from. Part of it was surely based on what I'd heard on tinny laptop speakers in Portland, part of it was probably based on my most recent live experience with ANOTHER experimental Japanese experimental band: Acid Mothers Temple, and part of my expectations were probably just based on what I wanted to hear.
On another night, in another state of mind the Boredoms' set might have sounded beautiful to me. Sometimes the right music comes to you at the right time. And sometimes it doesn't. I was (and at the time of writing, still am) feeling a bit down. Going to the show, my mind was full of thoughts of failure, social anxiety that comes from being in a space with hundreds of other people and my coexistent contradictory loneliness, sexual frustration, creative blockage,anxiety and frustration that my income tax paperwork still wasn't done with just over a week to go. I could go on. But that'll give you the flavor of what was looping in my head walking into the Starlight.
I really wanted narcotic music, something I could listen to lying on the floor tucked into a sleeping bag. Something that was weird for sure, but something dreamy. Perhaps Flying Saucer Attack's Further--- a weird, droney album with some darkness and mystery for sure, but one that gives me an overall soft and peaceful feeling.
If you're not familiar with the music on that album, I think the beautiful cover photo captures the music's essence.
I have that cover shot as one of my profile pictures on my page on a certain online social networking site. I captioned it "I want to live inside this picture." And I kind of wanted to live inside that night time drone/dream last night too. But I got a nightmare instead. And drums...lots of drums.
Given the 77 drummers/"Boa Drums" event from last summer, I shouldn't have been surprised by the 3 full drum kits being played together on stage last night, but it still caught me off guard and pummeled me to a ringing pulp.
The drums started before Boredoms even took the stage. The two openers (Soft Circles, and Black Pus) were solo acts centered around drum kits. Both acts came from the same spastically percussive parent duo, Lightning Bolt, and both Soft Circles and Black Pus did sets that experimented in the same beat-heavy vein.
I couldn't see exactly what equipment the openers used, since I stayed towards the back in a booth chair to the side of the floor, but both acts seemed to augment their live drumming with percussive and tonal loops and effects-laden vocals. The PA was up so loud that the music was a physical experience. The low tones and bass drum and tom hits vibrated my bones and the seat below me. I couldn't see the performers clearly but I could see lights near the front and above me that lit up in time with the music. I think they were a (new) permanent part of the venue. I think these lights were beat-activated, operating in the same way as those "dancing robotic flowers" did that were popular in the late 80s. I found the repetition of these lights hypnotic and soothing, taking a bit of the edge off the evening's harsh music.
At times the music of the openers created a physically uncomfortable atmosphere. The bass drum kicks felt like a gut punch. And the beats went from a "tribal" drum circle feel, to disco breaks and bad "4 on the floor" techno. I like a far amount of techno too, but I gravitate towards (and dance to) more minimal varieties. I like techno filled with spaces, peaks and valleys, tension and release. The occasional techno-flavored beats of Soft Circles and Black Pus had no spaces. There was just the unrelenting "uh-uh-uh-uh."
Starting with the openers and all night long, there was tension, and it was unrelenting. There was never any release. I went into the evening feeling tense, even before the music started. Ideally, I wanted that cathartic release that the best live music events can bring. I never got it.
The music made me wish I'd brought my earplugs. It also made me wish I could go outside for a moment for some fresh air and quiet. Then maybe after a moment away- like a side break on a tumultuous vinyl album - I could come back and better appreciate the music with fresh ears. But unlike ever other show I'd been to at the Starlight there was no re-entry at this one. I wondered if this new "no-reentry" policy was a result of the shootings that had taken place outside the Starlight late last year, at an event unrelated to the R5 promoted concerts I attended. The thought of the venue as a site for a violent crime made me uncomfortable. And I since couldn't go outside. I could only sit there and take in the discomforting music.
The only drone and respite from the drums that I got during the evening was between the groups. Between acts, the PA played a most-vocal CD that sounded ceremonial and Indian or Far-Eastern in origin.
Boredoms took the stage around 10:30 and played continuously until midnight with only a few minutes break before the encore. The set started spaciously enough. The dreadlocked leader of the 5-piece ensemble kept knocking two wired glowing orbs together. They seemed to create some sort of a field akin to a theremin and when he banged them together, there was a violent electric sizzle that sounded like dueling light sabers making contact. I didn't quite know what sort of circuitry was really at work behind the showmanship so this was a suitably magical, other-worldly opening. It seemed like a invocation. In between sizzling contacts of these "electric orbs" the crowd cheered wildly. And this was really the last time one could clearly hear the cheering for the rest of the set. Soon enough, the three full drum kits on stage kicked in and let up very little over the next hour.
My senses got overwhelmed around this point. The VU meter in my head hit red at this point and stayed there. Behind the dreadlocked leader there was a "guitar sculpture"--- 7 electric guitars stuck together vertically. But they were never played like traditional guitars. This too was a percussion instrument. The strings were hit with drum sticks, making this "wall-of-guitars" an electrified version of chimes. There was one "non-percussion" member of the ensemble at the very back of the stage. In between retuning the strings of the 7 guitars, the guy in the back created tones on some sort of electronic set up. I couldn't see it at all. Occasionally there was a noticeable squelch or bassy growl, but the percussion up front was always in domination.
The Boredoms' drummers didn't create noise in the common sense of the word. There was little random clatter. The drummers played polyrhythmically, but certainly as a unit. They shifted, stopped, and started precisely together. There was obviously composition and practice involved. The drummers all wore headphones. I couldn't tell if they were substitutes for stage monitors or if they played a "click track" to keep the drummers together. Or maybe the headphones served both purposes. Their kits were set up in a semi-circular facing Dreadlocks.
The fact that no one in the band really faced or acknowledged the crowd during the performance added to the tense, discomforting, monolithic feeling. I felt distant from the band and pretty much everyone else in attendance, even though were all in relative close proximity. It was all drums, all night long without even a rhetorically "hey how ya doing out there?" to lighten the mood. The mood was somber and ceremonial. There was only a terse "thank you" before the encore.
And except for the brief respite between main set and encore, the band was so loud I couldn't think straight. I've been to loud, experimental performance many times before. But usually each performer's set will run less than a half hour. The sheer volume of the Boredoms' performance (both sound level and temporal quantity) made all the difference. I didn't feel particularly connected to the band and yet their pervasive drumming permeated my mind. All I could think about was "wow, the band is really loud!" And while not particularly pleasant, the hijacking of my mind through sound was an interesting event. It was remarkable enough to inspire this lengthy description of said hijacking that you've been reading. Many more pleasant shows have warranted very little or no written descriptions whatsoever from me (umm...tonight I saw Beach House at the Barbary Bar). The fact that I've gone on for over a thousand words about this ugly experience says something.
I could've left the show at any time (and not come back) but I stayed until moments before the end. There was something spell-like to the performance. I couldn't leave. The drums had me pinned inside the door. Also, I kept thinking "any moment now this has to resolve itself. There has to be a release after all the tension." But there never really was, except debatably during the encore when the drummers played a lighter disco-flavored beat. It was a little less dense than what had come previously and was more traditionally danceable. But even this "disco" beat was loud as all hell. And by the time of the encore, my ears hurt. The physical impact of the loud drums made me a bit nauseous. I already had my jacket on, ready to bolt. I hoped there wasn't going to be a second encore. I hovered by the exit and actually walked out with a couple minutes still to go in the final piece.
I also stayed until nearly the end because, perhaps masochistically, I wanted to get my $16 worth even it was apparently $16 worth of ringing ears. I'll often go to a show knowing it'll be a crap shoot whether I'll like it or not. And even if I don't like it, I still stay because I paid money. The ticket makes it seem like fate that I should stay. And also I often believe and hope that the unlikable music could shift at any point to something I might actually enjoy.
And often at these unenjoyable shows there are people dancing, singing along, shouting in jubilation. I start thinking something is wrong with me for not enjoying the music and I start thinking that maybe if I stay long enough I'll catch the fever of enthusiasm that people all around me are sweating through.
I'm not complaining about the Boredoms' performance. In hindsight, I'm glad I went. Even now, as the specifics of the music are evaporating from my mind, the memory of its intensity remains. I can still practically feel the performance. The feeling it gave me is something I've rarely (if ever) felt before. It put me in a unique state of mind. It was intense in a neutral sort of way. I'm glad I saw the performance in the same way I'm glad I saw Schindler's List and Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. Those movies aren't fun in any traditional sense. But they're both powerful and worth seeing in their own ways.
The Boredom's last night wasn't a great show. Great isn't the right word. It was a POWERFUL show. My reaction to this power was strong and yet neutral. The performance was neither good, nor bad. It was simply overwhelmingly intense.
Here's a clip from a 2006 live set that illustrates some of the elements of last night's performance. The drumming is a lot more palatable when played at the moderate and listener-controlled volume of computer or headphone speakers: