Thursday, September 25, 2014

Merchandise / Lower / Institute - Live 2014.09.23

When I first saw Merchandise almost a year ago, I was blown away. I'd never heard of them before, but they were the best band I saw on that day at Fun Fun Fun Fest (except for maybe Television, naturally). I forgot about them for several months afterwards until I re-read the review and saw the imperative I'd left for myself to buy one of their albums. I immediately bought their second album, Children of Desire (2012), and it didn't take me long to get Totale Nite (2013). I purchased the "Begging for Your Life / In the City Lights" single as soon as it was released a few months ago and picked up After the End when it came out a few weeks ago. I can't get enough of them. When I heard they were coming to Austin, I immediately bought a ticket.

Artist: Merchandise
Venue: Red 7
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 23 September 2014
Opening Acts: Institute, Lower

Setlist:
01. Corridor →
02. Enemy
03. In the City Light
04. Green Lady
05. In Nightmare Room
06. True Monument
07. Telephone
08. Little Killer
09. After the End
10. Anxiety's Door →
11. Totale Nite

Review:
Like many of the smaller venues around Red River and 6th Street, exactly what bands play on any given night, and what time they will hit the stage, is often left unknown or unannounced until the doors open. At a place like Red 7, where the doors usually don't open until 9pm, and bands get added the bill with no apparent notice, this can mean a headliner doesn't hit the stage until midnight. For those that have things to do in the morning, this can be quite frustrating. Nonetheless, for a band that I really like, I'll still do it on occasion, especially when tickets are just $12. (However, there have been times when I've had to say no, even after already buying a ticket.)

So on this occasion I found myself at the venue a few minutes after 9pm, unaware of the set times until I walked in the door. Seeing it would be an hour until the first of two opening acts I'd never heard of, I settled into a corner with my book. Bauhaus and Joy Division came through the PA, presaging the music to come.

First up was Institute, an Austin punk/post-punk band. They played a noisy, aggressive 20-minute set with just enough nuance and musicality to keep me from retreating to the corner. The singer clearly wanted to be a punk; his band perhaps preferred something marginally more sophisticated. The band held it together fine, except for the bassist's amp going out on the last song, unrepaired until the singer stormed off stage at the end of the song. The singer was on some sort of weird trip; he had some kind of unsettling substance smeared across his face, he could only sing while sneering over his right shoulder, his twitching and jerking about landed him off the stage twice, his singing was mostly garbled yelling and atonal grunts, and he did it all while wearing a Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols t-shirt. How punk. At their best, they might hope to be considered a Fall knock-off. At their worst, they're a mess of punk clichés that could gladly be left back in 1977.

Second in line was Lower, a Copenhagen band that seems to reside somewhere in the realm of post-punk. I couldn't figure them out, although if I had known at the time that they were Danish, maybe I wouldn't have thought so hard about their appearance. The lead singer could have been a frat boy in America but instead was a harmless crooner. A couple songs got into a good groove with the bass and drums locked together under some appealingly angular guitarwork, but most of the songs just dragged.

Merchandise eased into their set with the opening duo from their new album, After the End. Carson Cox started into "Corridor" with wide, vast acoustic guitar sweeps, while Chris Horn played a synth part and Elsner Niño offered a sparse percussion arrangement. This led seamlessly into "Enemy", which already provided a taste of the big sound that the band is aiming for. Cox's strumming sped up, Niño laid down a bouncy beat, David Vassalotti offered a catchy lead guitar hook, and Patrick Brady's bass kept it all moving. In the bridge, the guitarists went wild and the whole thing sounded like a rave-up.

This is a band that hardly makes sense. Emerging from a punk scene, they initially gravitated to noise and industrial music. In the midst of a constant stream of output, they suddenly signed onto 4AD and released something of a pop album. It sounds huge, it has melodic guitar hooks all over the place, the lyrics are actually printed on the insert, and somehow it actually sounds like a natural step forward.

It must be some kind of miracle that when I heard the cheesy electronic tom-tom roll that introduces "Green Lady", it immediately felt like the best moments of their industrial-jam back-catalog, I eagerly anticipated the big guitar hook that was about to start, and the combination thereof made me want to dance in a way that rock music almost never does. Why I do I love that retro drum sound? It should be incongruous, but instead it just makes them seem even bigger.

The best words I have to describe this bands are simple like that: big, vast, wide, expansive. Their earlier records partially obtained that result through extended song lengths, often in the area of ten minutes, but ever since Children of Desire their production has been aimed at opening up into a wider space than any average punk or noise band would care to consider. They now excel at the art so well that they have been able to hone their songs into more traditional pop-song length and arrangement without losing their sense of vision and scope.

Played live back to back, "In Nightmare Room" (from Desire) and "True Monument" (from After the End), both highlights of their respective albums, sound like they belong together. You wouldn't guess that from their recorded studio versions, in which the former is dark, shadowy, uptempo, and driven by a drum machine, and the former is bright, melodic, moderately paced, and adorned with vocal harmonies. On stage, their differences merge and they seem cut from a similar cloth. "In Nightmare Room" brightened up with a live drummer, and "True Monument" picked up an extra edge.

If there's a misstep on the new album, it's "Telephone", which sticks out awkwardly in the middle of the album. The poppy beat is garishly over the top, the titular sound effects are crassly cheesy (and they already successfully used a telephone sound at the end of "Satellite"!), and the lyrics are awful and clichéd. Just like on the album, it stuck out during the show and brought it down a notch. The song fared better live, where it shed the telephone ringing and gained more energetic guitar work, but it was still the low point of the set.

The other problem that also translated directly from studio to stage was the inescapable feeling that the audience is being had. How could a band like this make something so akin to pop? It isn't a complaint in itself, but it is hard to feel like there isn't some joke or ironic gesture. Something feels just a little forced. It's so hard not to like the catchiness of the new songs, but I wonder if I'm supposed to reject it. Is it some kind of statement to prove that audiences are foolish enough to accept anything with the right mix of pop magic? Or is it a statement that punks, hardcore types, and anyone too obsessed with "authenticity" are ridiculous to think that a band like Merchandise could "sell out" by presumably aiming for mass appeal?

The only other distracting issue was the mix. Horn's keyboard parts were almost indiscernible, and Cox's vocals were also a little low. The drums and guitars sounded great, but the upper registers felt underrepresented. (Also, where was Horn's sax?) This is one case where seeing them on a big stage at something like Fun Fun Fun Fest was clearly preferable. With their sound as big as it is, a smaller venue like Red 7 makes the music almost claustrophobic. At the festival, they sounded huge. The massiveness of their sound made an instant impression on me. At Red 7, they sounded restricted and restrained. I think they would have torn the walls down if they could.

Scores:
Institute: D-
Lower: B-
Merchandise: B+

Bonus scores:
Children of Desire: A
Totale Nite: B+
"Begging for Your Life / In the City Light": A-
After the End: B

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