Ghostland Observatory's disco-punk taps a deep soul groove, striking a balance between a club rave and a hippie bonfire. The songs writhe with heavy dance-floor rhythms, bob to perky new-wave synth melodies, then brush up against jagged guitar strut. Singer and guitarist Aaron Behrens' vocals slither and squirm, reminiscent of Freddy Mercury and Electric Six's Dick Valentine.
Behrens first met future Ghostland Observatory member Thomas Turner while recruiting a keyboardist for his earlier trio, Waking Helix. It wasn't long before Turner and Behrens spun off into an odd electro-rock fusion they've puckishly described as "Radiohead meets Gary Glitter."
One of the biggest reasons for their success -- particularly in the competitive Austin, Texas, scene -- is their legendary live show. Before pursuing music, Turner used to throw dance parties, an experience he reprises with Ghostland's laser- and mirror-laden shows. The current tour -- stopping at Mr. Smalls for two shows this weekend -- uses at least 16 laser projectors.
For his part, Behrens has always been partial to showmen -- such as James Brown and Freddie Mercury -- and strives for similar magnetism. His rhythmic movements sometimes appear as though he's being pulled by strings, though that might also be an after-effect of learning to dance to MC Hammer. His fluidity also extends to stage barriers, past which Behrens wanders free to personally address the fans and stoke the party's flames.
Ghostland Observatory's profile has grown dramatically in just six years, fueled mostly through word-of-mouth from exhausted witnesses. But its recorded work is on the upswing as well. The fourth album, Codename: Rondo, explores a raw, stripped-down sound, the basement quake only lightly frosted with whirs of electro-funk keyboards and brief spasmodic riffage. The band changes gears frequently throughout the album, getting all Aphex Twin'd on the title track and slathering druggy industrial-glam throb all over one of Behren's big inspirations on "Glitter."
"It's like a shaman putting on a mask walking in the fricking tent where the rest of the tribe is," Behrans once said of the pair's performances. "I'm here for you to focus on for a second to get your mind out of there and lose yourself. 'Cause who cares?"
Ghostland Observatory with Mux Mool, Cutups & Keeb$. 9 p.m. Fri., Dec. 10. Also 9 p.m. Sat., Dec. 11 with Expensive Shit, Keeb$ and DJ Ra. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $25. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com