(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Concert review - El Ten Eleven, with Races and Wire Faces

2 February 2012 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

The crowd at Hodi's can get thin on a Thursday night, especially when it's a night of heavy snow coming down. That snow would become relevant for the drive home, but all three bands enjoyed a decent turnout of people unconcerned about the weather.

Each band offered a completely different approach to music, but they all connected to a similar focus and joy. It was a great night of impressive bands.

Wire Faces
This local trio held their own with the touring acts. I'm surprised I haven't come across Wire Faces before, especially after I learned they came out of Ft. Collins' favorites, the Jimi Austin. As Wire Faces took the stage, they seemed fairly straightforward: a standard power trio lineup of guitar, bass, and drums. But they quickly turned aside my assumptions. Usually a power trio emphasizes the guitar, but this was clearly the drummer's band.

Shane Zweygardt had his drum kit stage center as lead singer for the band. It's hard for a drummer to front a band from behind the kit, but Zweygardt had no problem holding the spotlight. He played with big expressive movements with a kind of Will Ferrell vibe that fit with his slightly quirky vocals.

Zweygardt was a kick to watch, but his drum technique was impressive. His left and right sides were more independent than most drummers, which helped him set up some off beat syncopation. In particular, his right hand tom work was impressive. Most drummers would catch the speedy fills with both hands, but he covered them with his right hand while his left handled a separate part.

Bass player Menyus Borocz added backing vocals, but stayed more inwardly focused. His melodic playing largely drove the harmonic progression of the songs, which let Ian Haygood's guitar stay near the edges, adding texture and some nice repetitive riffs. Haygood adapted his guitar sound to each song. He might use a chiming keyboard-like tone on one jam and then move to wilder sound full of echo and squeal for the next. Every now and then, he and Borocz might slip into a more standard guitar and bass arrangement, but that was rarer.

Wire Faces' songs had a mix of retro new wave and experimentalism. Their sound evoked bands like Wire, XTC, and early Talking Heads. Throughout the set, they channeled punk energy into their songs, but their playing stayed tighter in the new wave groove.

I expect to see Wire Faces again. They have an EP out that I'll need to check out as well.

Races' set dropped the tempo compared with Wire Faces, but they maintained a strong stage energy. Their sound swirled indie rock and dream pop influences. A song might have a drifting, dreamy vibe, but the guitar would push against the drag beat with an insistent drive. Another might toss tribal beat intensity against sweet, floating harmonies.

The mix of elements made for a trippy vibe but, in keeping with their bipolar nature, Races was a very tight band. Having a half dozen members meant that they could forge a big, complex sound. Jangled guitar echo dashed against looping bass lines in a thick sound. The arrangements often dropped parts out to allow for some powerful dynamics. Races was never afraid to shoot for understated moments; these just emphasized their confidence in the flow of their music.

Wade Ryff and Devon Lee provided the fronting personality of the band. Ryff sang most of the lead vocals. His stage persona was a bit shoegazy, but he could still sell some intensity. He left plenty of room for Lee's more exuberant presence. Whether she was pounding a floor tom or adding her ethereal harmonies with keyboardist Breanna Wood, Lee stayed deeply engaged. She danced with abandon and visually channeled Races' musical intensity.

Maybe it's better to describe Races as balanced than bipolar. Their music comes from an inner voice that seems dreamily optimistic. Waves of catharsis might sweep through, but the band rides it all out.

Over the last week or so, I've been listening to their new EP, Big Broom. It's great, but I'm looking forward to their full album release next month of Year of the Witch. Drop by Races' Bandcamp page to hear a couple of cuts from the album.

El Ten Eleven

Who are your bucket list bands? The must-see bands? Bands worth taking a road trip to see? Flaming Lips? Muse? Maybe Wilco or My Morning Jacket? If El Ten Eleven isn't on your list, write them down now in permanent marker.

Their set at Hodi's was transcendent. Guitar and bassist Kristian Dunn was perhaps the most amazing looper I've ever seen. He had a full arsenal of techniques and toys: playing bass and guitar at the same time on his Carvin double neck, extreme frequency shifting, loop mixing, E-Bowed tonal washes. Someone like Charlie Hunter, whose 7 string playing incorporates bass and guitar line, might compare. But rather than Hunter's jazz focus, Dunn played a mix of post rock and synth poppy experimentalism.

Dunn left me slack jawed as he built up complex, sectional progressive grooves. As he tweaked his loops or layered in yet another complicated puzzle piece of melody, the songs developed organically. It would have been impressive enough if he had merely juggled his musical parts and the myriad of ways he radically processed his sound. But he capped this off by having an incredibly dynamic stage presence. Whirling and lunging, he used big theatrical movements to express all of what he was playing. Where most loopers turn inwards as they fiddle with their tech toys, Dunn made it all part of his dance.

If looping let Dunn fill in most of the roles for the rest of a full band sound, drummer Tim Fogarty added a vital component. Like any good drummer, he had a tight sense of rhythm and handled odd time signatures with grace. But he also had to lock in with the loop timings and imperceptibly signaled section changes. At one point, it wasn't clear whether Dunn's loop accidentally had an extra half beat or if it was planned. Either way, Fogarty smoothly followed odd beat rhythm, throwing in a brief little fill every time the half beat came by.

Despite all the pre-show planning that goes into a performance like this, as well as the complexity of the parts, El Ten Eleven's instrumental set was hardly intellectually dry. Their songs were moving as they developed from thoughtful ambiance to soaring power. While the prog flavor occasionally reminded me of Porcupine Tree, they were just as likely to evoke U2, Big Country, or Supertramp.

All the movement and great music would have been enough of a show. But El Ten Eleven took it all to another level. Whether it was Dunn cross cutting his loops like a DJ or simultaneously layering in hammered guitar harmonics at the same time as an intricate bass line, El Ten Eleven kept finding ways to astound me.

I'm already looking forward to the next time I see the band live. If you're waiting too, grab a taste from YouTube to tide you over.

More photos on my Flickr.

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