There's a scene in Lars von Trier's film Antichrist where a mangled, anthropomorphic fox looks at William Defoe and states, in muted excitement, "Chaos reigns." Although Antichrist isn't so much a movie as a grisly experiment in graphic violence and gratuitous nudity, the movie remains notable for its ability to continually spring the unknown upon the viewer while continually descending down levels of horror. Similarly, this unique combination of surprise, nudity, horror and madness again emerged in the Minibosses/Gnarboots Northern California "Get in the Mini-Van tour." But, while Antichrist did little more than leave the viewer with a sickly stomach, the "Get in the Mini-Van tour" exhibited the ability of bands to completely reverse the audience-band dynamic, all while leaving the viewers with sickly stomachs.
Oct. 20's show at the X-Bar in Cupertino opened normally enough with The Blast!. Featuring former members of Tsunami Bomb and Love Equals Death, the band rooted their sound in Naked Raygun with clean sounding, energetic punk. Since it was their first show, the band was a little raw, still figuring out how their own dynamic worked. The songs themselves rocked along with good energy, but a little tightening of the sound and some more distinct characteristics will make the band really interesting.
Then, Gnarboots took the stage. At this point, I've seen Gnarboots eight times, so I feel as though I can fairly gauge what will happen in their set despite that they thrive on the unexpected. I was wrong.
Usually a Gnarboots show will open with the band as a three-piece power trio and eventually morph into their iPod-based, electro/hip hop formation. However, subverting expectations as usual, and even expectations that one will have his expectations shattered, the band opened with radio static booming across the PA which revealed itself to be a radio dial rapidly changing channels until a pre-recorded caller requested Gnarboots. The band then snapped into "Brother," the first song of their debut release A.L.B.U.M..
A.L.B.U.M. was an interesting release for the band because while it didn't feature the weirdest, most experimental choices of the band, it was an impressive piece of punk assemblage that would drift into the bizarre, forecasting, but not outright describing the strange absurdity that is Gnarboots. But, live, the band stuck to their three piece band formation and exhibited just how well crafted their songs actually are.
Bassist Bob Vielma took vocals on "Brother" and as the band slammed through a revved up rendition of the tune, Vielma howled in his unique, raspy squeak as guitarist Adam Davis and drummer Aaron Carnes snapped forward taking the song from a melodic punk tune to an almost hardcore area. It was surprising how much passion and raw honesty Vielma was able to squeeze into Gnarboot's stranger lyrics, perhaps suggesting that the quietest Gnarboot might be the strangest of them all.
The band then proceeded to play the entirety of A.L.B.U.M. with no breaks or stoppages between tunes. As the band played the extreme portions of their music, the craft of the songs was multiplied. "Tinnitus," which is a minute blast of thrash-punk, was louder, fiercer and faster. "Indian Summer" began as an almost beard punk reflection tune only to warp into a death metal smash with a prolonged outro that slowly faded away as Davis wailed into the microphone, "There's time to sleep in the grave." For the first time all night, the audience was completely silent as the song drifted away.
But, just as it seemed the band would subvert expectations by just playing their release in full, after the last song concluded, they dropped their instruments and jumped into the crowd while a German voice and techno beet blasted across the speaker "Dance. Party. Dance. Party." The band then convinced the entire audience to raise the roof while the band members found themselves elevated by the audience and carried across the room. It was a fitting and surprising eruption to the show's end.
Next the Minibosses took the stage. Although I had been unaware of them previously, Minibosses quickly made their goal clear: In lieu of playing originals, the band plays almost exclusively math-rock and power metal versions of songs from Nintendo 8-bit games.
You could argue that such a hook is cheesy, but frankly, the band interpreted the songs much in the way that classical music can be melded and created creations that were impressive in how they were able to reference the original while being something entirely unique. It should also be noted that while Nintendo music probably isn't that complicated, the band had refined their skills and takes on the tunes to the point where even a group like Dillinger Escape Plan would be a given a run for their money, execution wise.
As could be discerned by their Nintendo controller tattoos, Super Mario T-shirts and yes, even Gameboy necklaces made from actual Gameboys, the crowd was mainly there for Minibosses. The audience was about as receptive as audiences get, shouting for a cover of "Ducktails" to which the band obliged. Three times. In three completely different arrangements.
Then, just as the band's theme was established, creating the "world" in which the concert was to exist, the entire performance was flipped upside down. All three members of Gnarboots took the stage and both bands merged into the massive Gnarbosses.
Without introduction, the eight-member band snapped into an explosive rendition of Black Flag's "Rise Above." Although the call to arms is usually the domain of nasty hardcore bands, the combined weirdo/nerdo band blasted out a version that was as raw, fierce and nasty as any live rendition I've ever heard. The volatility of the song was only multiplied by the combined FIVE vocalists who generously handed the mic to the eight of us who were at least semi-punk. Meanwhile, the 60 or so nerdcore people backed away confused as to why these eight guys suddenly became so enraged and were fighting for the four microphones for the unknown tune.
In that single act, the band/audience dynamic had collapsed and there was merely a room full of a band composed of about 70 people, with about 10 vocalists, six instrumentalists and about 50 or so members that were stunned and confused. It was amazing.
Then, just as it seemed that chaos had established itself, wedged firmly between the "punks" (or kinda-punks) and "nerds" it shifted again as the Gnarbosses band launched into a cover of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" which in addition to having serious punk cred (go look it up, son) has widespread acknowledgement which pulled the nerdier fans back into the circle of chaos and thus created a band of 70 or so active participants through the ubiquitous booming crowd chant "I get knocked down / But I get up again! / Nothing's ever gonna keep me down." Just as the NES is obsolete, perhaps, just perhaps, so is the band/audience construct.
The show then closed with San Jose's Hard Girls. With a new album out on Really Records/Quote Unquote, the band played a set spanning their career from their oldest songs to some brand new ones. As the band has progressed, its sound has become more explosive and more aggressive, though not necessarily nastier.
Hard Girls base their sound in late '80s/early '90s college rock, but as the new album and new performances suggest, while the songs are introspective and literate, they're anything but wimpy. Both vocalists Morgan Herrell and Mike Huguenor howl and scream in an anger that isn't vengeful, but..well…existential? Drummer Max Fleshbach has began to take a more primal beat to his trade. Where it seems he used to be more technical in his thwomping, it seems that his drums have become more primal and harder, which creates a most unique contrast to his bandmates more metaphysical musings.
So rarely has explosive, visceral music been combined with expression that is as primal as it is thoughtful. One could reference the aesthetic of Dinosaur Jr. if so pressed. Although Hard Girls have been maturing their sound for some time, they're now completely fully formed and creating songs that are unique as they are referential. If they keep evolving, who knows what's to come?
The next day, both Gnarboots and Minibosses played 924 Gilman in Berkeley. But, while one would expect Gnarboots to recreate their successful set from the previous night, again, they embraced that which the Ancient Egyptians referred to as "Seth."
Instead of beginning with the first song off A.L.B.U.M. all three members lined up in front of the stage in grotesque masks that vaguely seem to be based off Mr. T, though the expression of the gruesome visages was lost somewhere in translation. After standing silent for some time in front of a crowd of no more than eight people, the band opened with their obscure rarity "Cats in Pajamas" via the iPod docked to the sound system. "Cats in Pajamas" is probably the creepiest thing ever recorded.
While children's voices, meows, and a music box drifted across the speaker, the band, remaining completely silent, did creepy dances out into the audience which suggested, via their liquid movement, that all three were under the influence of something. As they danced like doped-up geishas, they began to pull cat masks from their pockets and force them on people's faces.
Carnes' was so jelly like that he melted over to a fellow who seemed to be trying to hide himself behind his two friends. Carnes, still silent, reached out his hands to grasp the man who began to back around. Carnes, in a dreamy, sluggish cadence, followed after the man, with hands outstretched, as the man continued to back away for three whole rotations around his group of friends. The young man was obviously terrified. In fact, he was so terrified that in lieu of breaking and running, he could do naught but keep his arms glued to his hide, his face stricken with terror, and move backwards at a pace just quick enough to keep out of Carnes' reach.
Suddenly, as the chase grew more intense, though no more rapid, the iPod began the song "I Ain't Gonna Pee Pee My Bed Tonight." The band halted their assault and all three, still sans instruments, called out the songs refrain. Then, just as it seemed the type of chaos of the evening had been set, the iPod died.
Davis, surprised, exclaimed "the iPod died!" and demanded a charger from the audience. When no charger was forthcoming, Davis began to bemoan the fact that when the band had played at 924 Gilman previously, their iPod had been stolen.
It seemed that the meticulous planning of the previous evening had withered and the band was now without its main instrument for the Gilman show. Had the show spun out of the hands of the group of weirdos?
After a few minutes of lamentation, Davis began to beatbox while Vielma began an impressive freestyle about the Minibosses and how the iPod had previously been stolen. After the 10-minute session waned, and no charger had been located, Davis looked over at the iPod dock and discovered that it had gone missing AGAIN! It would seem that for all the flirtation the band does with the uncontrollable, the non-partisan hands of fate hand finally smashed them in their own domain.
Angered that their iPod had twice been stolen at 924 Gilman, Davis, Vielma and Carnes began to berate the audience and demanded that their iPod be returned. The audience was confused and somewhat worried as it was obvious that whomever the culprit was, it was not one of the eight. Still, no explanation seemed to sedate the group who grew angrier at the the thought of the missing gadget.
Suddenly, promotor Eric Fanali showed up with the missing iPod, having charged it in his car. Not only had the band seemed to be folly to their own lashing, but they had been admonishing the innocent!
After the band plugged the re-charged iPod back in, a new, pre-recorded vocal track, created by the band earlier, played across the PA, which lashed out at Fanali for stealing the band's iPod. My mind was blown. The entire set up and berating of the audience had been a ruse! The entire time the band had planned for their iPod to disappear and reappear, as evidenced by the pre-recorded segment segueing into the real time activities, for the sole purpose of causing hysteria among the terrified audience!
Again, Gnarboots had shattered the audience/band dynamic. Whereas the Cupertino show erased the boundary through the commonality of love of music, at the sparsely attended 924 Gilman show, the envelope was breached through fear alone, forcing the audience to stutter and deny the band's direct accusations, all of which had been planned far in advance. Oh. My. Word.
The cycle almost circled back around later on when Minibosses played another well received set, which had a larger attendance. Although the audience seemed less knowledgeable in Nintendo-core, the mountainous riffs taken from 8-bit bleeps did impress the audience as did the two "Ducktails" covers.
Yet, when the combined Gnarbosses launched into the "Rise above/Tubthumping" cover, the audience had been so shaken by the earlier accusations and breach of the crowd/band contract that even in the country's most punk rock club, participants seemed fearful to chant the refrain to possibly the most famous hardcore anthem of all time, leaving the duties to a precious few of us.
Only Gnarboots aided by the Minibosses have the expertise and skill to take "Rise Above," a song so familiar to punk audiences that it is as comforting as a blankie and make it a tool of complete and utter shock, horror and disbelief. Instead of a rallying cry of unity, it was a hammer that smashed whatever reassurances the audience had prior to entering the club. Chaos reigns.
-I've hinted at it before and now I am straight up saying it: Gnarboots is the most punk rock band in music today
-I think a 10" of the Gnarbosses megaband playing the encore medley is necessary.
-For really real, for me personally, these shows combined were up there in the realm of legendary punk shows. Ian Curis might have seen the Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall, but I saw Gnarboots make hardcore dangerous again at 924 Gilman.
-Damn, yo. DAMN. Damn.