Full disclosure: Sleigh Bells have been one of my pet bands since their searing debut EP leaked from the 2009 CMJ Festival, and this live review of their set at Mr.Small’s Wednesday evening will probably be wildly biased as a result. If an indie-rock laboratory existed in a parallel universe somewhere and an engineer was capable of constructing a band perfectly tailored to make me smile and head-bang for hours on end, that band would probably bear an uncanny resemblance to Sleigh Bells. It’s downright stupid to play one of their songs like “Crown on the Ground” at a volume any lower than 11, and the Brooklyn natives' sound is like a raging id managed by classic Brittney Spears: buzzsaw, stadium god guitars, chunky, shamelessly distorted synth and bass hits, and Alexis Krauss’s diamond sharp 90s pop vocals slicing the whole damn thing in half, song after song.
Since the release of the duo’s (Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller) two proper albums, 2010’s Treats and 2012’s awesomely named Reign of Terror, and the subsequent tours that supported them, there’s been a general consensus within the indie-rock world that few bands can match the sheer intensity of their live show. Their set at Mr. Small’s was the second time I’ve seen them live in Pittsburgh. The first instance was a 28-minute shotgun blast at CMU in 2010 which caused included multiple stage rushes, Miller karate kicking Krauss’s mic stand (almost taking out a music major running sound in the process) and plaster flakes vibrating off the music hall’s ceiling for the entire performance.
The group’s stage set-up this time around was a cartoonish array of oversized Marshall amps (which I believe were used only for aesthetic purposes), six stacks in all, adorned by a collection of strobe lights. Krauss and Miller strutted on stage, with the support of second touring guitarist Jason Boyd, and immediately launched into “Demons,” arguably the heaviest track in their catalog. From the first monstrous guitar riff, it was apparent the monitor levels were pushing the limits of Mr. Small’s soundsystem, and as an audience member, I constantly felt like the air in the room would ignite.
The three subsequent tracks, the aforementioned “Crown on The Ground”, “True Shred Guitar, and “Kids,” all maintained the pummeling atmosphere, and gave Krauss a chance to showcase her commanding stage presence. She head bangs, pines, whispers, screams, and fist pumps, while coaxing everyone in the crowd to do her bidding. (“I need more,” she said at one point, “I don’t see a sign in here that says no crowd surfing.”) There was also room for what could be considered their “mid-tempo” tracks like the gorgeous, shimmering “End of the Line” and vamping metal-pop of “Leader of the Pack.” Miller’s guitar work was augmented greatly by Boyd’s presence, and the solo in “Leader” really shredded like it did on record. The second half of the set leaned heavily on three of Treats' most obliterating tracks: the artillery assault of “Tell Em,” the death metal mess of “Treats,” and the fucked-up, hardcore high school taunt of “Infinity Guitars.”
The summer bliss of “Rill Rill” got the usual crowd support (probably SB’s most well-known song), but brought the set to a close on a more subdued note. When Miller, Krauss and Boyd left the stage, I really hoped the encore wouldn’t pull punches. Luckily, the double shot of the snotty “Riot Rhythm” and the lizard brain techno-rock hybrid “A/B Machines” (the only lyrics are “I’ve got my A machines on the table/I’ve got my B machines on the floor”) pushed the crowd over the edge, literally. Everyone was dancing, crowd surfing, repeatedly throwing glow sticks, and eventually, pouring on stage for the climax of “Machines” (which must have been hell for security). The song ended, but the guitars were still howling from feedback, and the audience, on and off the stage was a goddamn sweaty mess. Krauss lifted up her wrist, covered in leather and silver studs, and grabbed the mic from the mob that was dancing with her to give her sign-off.
“Pittsburgh...we love you!” she panted. “Now, get the fuck off the stage.”
720 Music, Clothing and Cafe has long been a resource for music heads in Pittsburgh, especially those into hip hop — and now it's fast becoming a notable venue in addition to being a record store. This Friday, former Slum Village MC Elzhi comes back to Pittsburgh to rock the mic at 720.
Below, you can watch the most recent video from the Detroit MC; tickets for the show are on sale now at 720 (or by calling 412-904-4592), but you can win a pair from us now: Leave a comment on this post naming your favorite Elzhi solo track. Tomorrow morning at 9, we'll pick a winner at random from all the commenters. Post using your real email address so that we can get in touch, please!
In a heavier installment of MP3 Monday, we present Sharon-and-Pittsburgh-based hardcore band Old Accusers. The band released its newest EP, All Is Shrouded But There Is A Voice Still Howling, this past May. Building on the previous EP's sound, Old Accusers has added a layer of ambiance to a mathy hardcore delivery. Check out "The Arrows" below.
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BlackMahal mixes traditional Punjab music with funk, soul and hip hop; the band's Vijay Chattha grew up in the Pittsburgh area. Tonight is the band's first Pittsburgh show, but it made a splash a couple years back with "Black, Gold and Silver," a Steelers anthem. Chattha answered a few of our questions — a shorter version of this Q&A ran in last week's paper.
Whereabouts in Pittsburgh are you from?
Born and raised in Weirton, West Virginia, and my parents still live there. I went to Sewickley Academy from junior high onwards - talk about a cross-cultural experience!
Did you play music here before you moved to California?
Oh yeah - my first band was called 12' Tribe with my childhood buddy Rob Alpert and Dave Khera, circa 1992. Stedeford's Records on the North Side was our frequent source of all things golden era hip-hop and beyond.
How did you end up in a group with Ustad Lal Singh Bhatti, who's so well-known in the genre?
I had the great pleasure of meeting him at my sister's wedding and he absolutely blew everyone away with his traditional call and response freestyle. I had never met someone with his stage presence and knew that if we combined his style with hip-hop sensibilities, we could create something fun.
Is it fair to say BlackMahal is the zaniest Punjabi-American music group?
BRAAAAHHHH!!! (Bhangra for 'No Daht')
Why mix traditional Punjabi music with American hip-hop and soul? Why not stick with one or the other?
Because a peanut butter and jelly sandwich tastes better than either 1) a peanut butter sandwich or 2) a jelly sandwich.
Presumably you were the group member behind the Steelers song?]
I lit the match but this was a total team effort from the recorded version to a totally rockin' live version we're debuting at the Thunderbird Cafe.
Did it take some convincing to get the group to go along with that idea?
I had to convince our drummer and co-producer Jon Cook, a Boston native who eventually agreed since he hopes we'll reprise the song for the Boston Bruins at some point. I dunno about that. The rest of the band is an amazing group of musicians that are generally up for anything funky and love creating new things together.
Where are you going to eat when you get into Pittsburgh?
Primanti Brothers. They could use a Punjabi funk-hop anthem too. Agree?
BlackMahal with Kinetic, DJ Pandemic Pete. 9 p.m. Fri., July 13. Thunderbird Cafe, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $8-10.
A couple weeks ago, I chatted on the phone with Alex Scally from Beach House. The band's show at Mr. Small's next week is sold out already, but I think the interview is worth checking out either way, I think, especially here in a version that's longer than what ran in the paper today.
Myth was put together largely on the road, touring after Teen Dream came out, right?
I wouldn't say "put together," but the genesis of a song, where the melody starts to come out, a lot of that did spring out during the sort of epic amount of touring we did after that record. You get frustrated on tour because you're playing the same stuff and you just want to make something new. This music is now old to you. A lot of energy springs from that frustration, I think.
Is it a challenge, as a writer, being out on the road, being homeless for a time?
I think if you were trying to put everything together it would be, it could be really challenging, but it's really natural — things are coming out of you because — I don't think anyone stops being creative on the road, they just don't have time. It's always bubbling up.
Listening to the new album, I feel like one thing that's surprising is that you've chosen to stay mainly with the same type of instrumentation as the past couple of albums —
It's strange, as a musician, I feel like I don't really understand half of what we've been told about this album. But there's a lot of stuff on this album that has never existed on our recordings before: Autoharp. Actual, live strings. A synthesizer: We've never used a synthesizer before! To the untrained ear, yeah, I think it's not new — but there's actually a ton of new stuff happening on this record. I don't know what to tell people; I think people are just hearing our songwriting. That's just who we are; we're never going to write songs differently than we write songs. It's who we are. So yes, in that respect, it's very much the same — but we're not a band that just goes after sounds. If we wanted to make an album that sounds like U2 songs, it'd be very easy to do. That's a certain thing that good musicians can do — I'm not saying "good musicians" like "we're good musicians," but we're trained musicians. I'm a trained musician; when I hear a guitar line by another artist, I can copy it. It takes like five minutes to learn what they did. Victoria is a classical pianist. We can play people's music. It takes five seconds. That's what they did in the VW commercial: They played our music. So it's — we're just playing who we are, and maybe someday we'll make an album, and people will say "Beach House made something that sounds different!" But we only do what we naturally do. We don't work from an intellectual way — we don't sit there and think what we're going to do next. We just do what we do. And we used so many instruments that we'd never used before, on this album, but I don't think that's what people hear.
I feel like, at least from my perspective, your albums tend to grow on people — I tend to like a Beach House album more with each listen. Do you think it’s because the complexity you’re referring to isn’t at the surface?
That’s another thing — I can tell a lot of people who are talking to us haven’t done that with the album. And I think that’s largely how we write. We have a little idea, and it’s a really exciting, cool thing. And then we kind of cover it up with another thing we find really exciting. Every song is meant to have multiple dimensions — here’s the surface, here’s the second layer, here’s the third layer. We, as we write it and as we play it, move through the layers. It’s very visual. So, you don’t expect everybody to get that. I think, more than Teen Dream, which, for us looking back it looks more like a dumbed-down record — I think we were just really excited to write some pop songs or something — this is much more like our earlier material in some ways. It takes longer for you to get there. But it’s all there. I honestly didn’t expect there to be as much positivity about this record as there is. I expected people to say, this record is — Where are the hits? Which people have said. But we never expected people to get what we’re doing. But we’re really happy when people say, "It’s the fifth time I listened to it when I got it." That’s our favorite kind of music where you go further and further and further with each listen. And that’s the experience; it’s not just a one-and-done Katy Perry song where you hear it once and you’re never going to get anything more out of it.
Does it worry you that the music press is on a short-term news cycle and perhaps people don’t get to put as much time as you’d like into listening before turning out copy?
I feel terrible for music reviewers! I can’t imagine how hard that job is. You have to listen to something — I mean, how much time do you really have? You have to review ten things a week, or five things a week? Even that is really difficult. It takes me weeks to really appreciate an album. And I feel bad just for music today, because I honestly feel like we might be in one of the best times for music ever, in terms of the amount of people making really interesting music, but we don’t have the capacity to experience it all. So much music is forgotten just because as a society, as a human, how much music can you listen to? In your iTunes, there’s five days of music or something. Everyone has that much music now, in their computer. And we don’t have the time or energy to properly consume it.
This album is marked, in the song titles and the aesthetic, the stuff surrounding the music, by a minimalism.
Yeah — I just think that that’s how we’re feeling. We don’t want to try to sell anything. Our whole feeling with this record is, can we just not try to sell it? Can we just try to have it exist? We want these songs to just exist and for people to experience them and not be overwhelmed by our personal image, by the artwork, — we’re trying to design it kind of like an exhibit in a museum where you go in and it’s a space where you can just exist with the work, and take it in properly, and not be bombarded by gimmicks. I don’t know if we did that properly, but that was our hope.
Is there an ideal way of listening to the album?
I think that’s different for everybody, but sonically, the record, the vinyl — not the colored or anything, because that actually takes the quality down a bit, but just the plain, black vinyl sounds insane. Because we recorded it all on tape, and everything is open and expansive when you listen to it on a nice record player and a nice stereo. I don’t want to be all audiophile-y, but that’s — sonically — the way it’s deepest. Not on headphones; listening to it out into a room, on vinyl. Sounds insane. It sounds about a million times better than an MP3 earbud. But in terms of locations, I mean — I haven’t listened to the record since before it came out, but when we were figuring out the mixes and everything, anything moving seems so perfect for it. When you’re in a car, a train. Anytime you can see movement.
Sebastian Ahrenberg, better known as Seba, has been around the drum and bass block quite a few times. His first release, Sonic Winds, came out in 1995 when most of you were probably wearing JNCO Jeans and frosting the tips of your spiked hair. Having been released on the LTJ Bukem’s storied label, Good Looking Records, Seba was cemented into a culture of what now might be considered classic.
His sound has vacillated between the atmospheric yet robust realm of drum and bass and a more straightforward 4-to-the-floor house beat which came from his work with Swedish house outfit Svek. The contrast might strike a knowledgeable dance music aficionado as odd. But his speedy drum and bass stuff often edges into a building atmospheric sound that makes the characteristically hard 180 bpm percussion patters of the genre actually something quite pretty.
Adam Ratana, a resident FUZZ! DJ and accomplished producer in his own right attributes much of his musical inspiration to the sounds of Seba.
“It wasn't dark, enigmatic, twisted, etc. like the stuff I was buying and playing, but it was something else, more abstract, more musical, though just as mysterious and otherworldly,” says Ratana via email.
“Seba is one of those producers who never really compromised his sound, and continued to evolve in his own way, on his own terms. He's an outlier compared to today's popular sound, though he weaves in and out of it, with releases on Hospital [UK based drum and bass imprint], etc, which to me is why he's still relevant and interesting,” Ratana continues.
Seba will be headlining FUZZ! tonight at the BBT accompanied by one of our favorite local FUZZ! residents, Keeb$. Cover for the show is $10 at the door. Be sure to get there early enough as the BBT is tiny and could fill to capacity with a worldly producer like Seba.
10:00p.m., Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Bloomfield, 412-682-8611 or Facebook event page.
You know what that means!
The Cheats are releasing their latest full-length this week, and they play this Friday at Altar Bar with Michale Graves (the onetime Misfits frontman). Right now, get an advance taste of the record: stream or download "Better than the Rest," below!
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