Chewbacca Would Approve 

At Bottom of the Hill, spacey music for people who don't take drugs to not take drugs by.

Instrumental, spacey post-rock -- you know, Mogwai, Tortoise, and other bands named after creek animals and/or famous cinematic creatures (Llama? Chewbacca?) -- is essentially dub reggae for white people: deep, hypnotic, mesmerizing, repetitive, and druggy in mind-expanding theory if not in actual bong-loading practice. Whereas most pop songs slap you upside the head with Feelings and Messages and Big Ideas, yer average Mogwai tune is an empty vessel of wide-eyed, wide-open yawning space, a fifteen-minute spiral through a 2001-caliber expanse of arty emptiness.

The rules are simple: First you get really soft, and then you GET REALLY LOUD. It's music as mashed potatoes, designed to be molded however you see fit. Instead of singing along, you close your eyes, nod your head approvingly, and think about world hunger/the lamentable A's bullpen/doing your taxes/doing your ex-girlfriend.

It's music for people who don't take drugs to not take drugs by.

And fortunately, several Bay Area peeps are astoundingly good at it. Which brings us to SF's Bottom of the Hill on a hazy, nondescript Wednesday night. As we approach the door, an amazingly loud, raucous, atonal din bursts forth -- the stereotypical "what a crappy rock band sounds like when you're standing outside the club" uproar. But inside, the Rum Diary is neither atonal nor raucous nor, let it be known, crappy.

Within five minutes, the Cotati dudes launch into "Killed by the Cowboy President." I'm going to keep writing about "Killed by the Cowboy President" until its genius and beauty are fully unearthed -- this series will likely last longer than "Grape," the Chronicle's endless series about wine.

Bass players who can whip up simple, catchy melodies without sounding like wanky Jaco Pastorius jerkoffs are like left-handed starting pitchers or cheese-filled bratwursts: They are rare, they are delightful, and they should be encased in glass and guarded with your life. The Rum Diary has two (bass players, not bratwursts), and "Killed by the Cowboy President" pits them both for and against each other, a complicated tango of transcendence that's as good as this type of music gets.

Bucking the faceless, formless Mogwai trend, the Diary attempts actual songs, albeit languid and long-winded. Vocals, too -- usually a terrible idea, but perfectly palatable here. And while, the really soft REALLY LOUD paradigm rules the roost, the quartet retains its elegance and melody even at maximum amp-destroying velocity.

Geeky buncha dudes, though. "Is everyone having a good night?" is acceptable stage banter on no planet I'm familiar with, requesting water from the stage is liable to get you shot anywhere south of San Jose, and the film projector backdrop -- flashing long newsreels of military aircraft, cloudbursting skylines, hurricanes attacking suburbs, and trippy, space-age underwater panoramas (Finding Nimoy) -- is all just a clever way of saying, Please don't look at us, we're shy.

Continental, batting second, was just as shy but nearly as compelling. First, a little advice. In a (now-back-to-mostly) instrumental setup, there's one immutable fact: The more bored the bass player, the better the band. Unless you have Rum Diary-style greatness, it's best for the low end to find something to lean on and bleat out the same note/chord/four-note melody for ten minutes, allowing the guitar players to chime or ring or duel or whatever chump critic word is popular nowadays. Somebody's gotta play the straight man, after all.

Wisely, these guys held fast to this concept, fashioning a mesmerizing little groove that at times actually resembled dub reggae. Thus, the dueling guitarists carried the day; Continental even threw in a bonus straight man, the organ player, who appeared to spend the entire set leaning way over, his body parallel to his keyboard, bobbing his head as if shaking his brain like a pair of dice. If he'd suffered an aneurysm and actually died onstage, his left hand in a death grip on an F-major chord for the entire forty-minute set, no one would've noticed until the next band tried to take the stage.

Even then, it might've slipped everyone's mind, because From Monument to Masses is awesome. Anyone who can pull off the ol' guitar finger-tapping trick without inviting a punch in the face deserves a gold medal and a Frappuccino. Given FMTM's strong political/social action inclinations, Matt Solberg will probably turn down the latter, but we'll offer it anyway -- he's a guitar hero in an age that no longer tolerates guitar heroes, flashy but not gaudy, busy but not cluttered, intense without getting all emo on us. Compared to its Wednesday stagemates, the Oakland trio is far more convoluted and prog-rock-oriented, but Solberg's histrionics and army-of-one guitar loops and effects turn the show into a soothing séance rather than a mere wankfest.

The band is well known for its politically charged cadre of vocal samples -- preachers, rabble-rousers, politicians -- but that's a tough tightrope to walk: Too many JFK clips and you're Living Colour; too many guitar acrobatics on top of that and you're Rage Against the Machine. But FMTM avoids the old we-use-vocal-samples-because-none-of-us-can-sing ghetto, latching onto a protest speech and mirroring its cadences and crescendos exactly, basically soundtracking a sermon the way Ennio Morricone soundtracked movies.

This brand of kinda-prog-kinda-metal gumbo is abruptly in fashion these days -- Coheed and Cambria for the kids, the Mars Volta for their cool older brothers. From Monument to Masses adds poly-sci sentiment and guitar god firepower, with songs that unfold like symphonies -- Amadeus meets Apocalypse Now. Those Feelings and Messages and Big Ideas creep back in without your even noticing. Thank goodness these guys didn't name themselves Chewbacca, but they could've -- they stand just as tall and roar twice as loud.


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