The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Music

Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus And Other Sonic Infections

MECHA Sonic. Photo: Ashley Sheperd.

Sixty Sixth Congress, Ama Holdings Inc & Downtown Music Gallery
March 13 – March 15, 2020
New York

Friday the 13th, four days before the complete NYC lockdown. Close to the water in Greenpoint, a den of no wave acolytes are attending one of the city’s few remaining gigs, clenched under leather for a dagger-pocked return to rock’s most violent days, as singer/orator and daughter of Rochester Lydia Lunch leads her Retrovirus, a band dedicated to a classic songbook that includes works by 8 Eyed Spy and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, just a part of her four-decades-old legacy.

Sixty Sixth Congress is a fairly obscure bar on Greenpoint Avenue, and the gig happens in its rear room. Lunch held court just as much as performed, her lines as much poetry readings as rock’n’roll verses, her lolling demon tongue repeatedly sent out to taste the bad-droplet atmosphere. She was relaxed as she smoldered, spitting and mocking, drawling and growling. Much of the actual outward Retrovirus power arrived through the glam jackboot splits and punk bottleneck abstraction of guitarist Weasel Walter, shaking out ever more angular solos, brandished aloft, or axe-neck thrust deep towards the amplifier. He completely inhabited the deranged punk persona of angular riffage nervousness, followed by its repeated release, unconcerned about supply, as there’ll always be fresh power on tap for the next abstract break. This is not to say that bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Bob Bert weren’t impressive, but they were more dedicated to the incessant stoking of general dynamism. Bert was the original Sonic Youth sticks-man, and a member of Pussy Galore—amongst many more subsequent drumming roles.

Despite the robust nature of the Lunch oeuvre, one of the set’s extended highlights arrived with the climactic inclusion of Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution,” which seemed entirely appropriate on this weekend. Such tense dance music produced a range of nervy twitchiness around the crowd, which wasn’t as abundant as would normally be the case, now distilled into the fixated true believers in this punk funk nihilism ritual exorcism.

MECHA Sonic was booked for the next day, but suddenly converted from public gig to underground Saturday night function. Taking place in the AMA Holdings Inc metal workshop, just under the Smith-9th Street subway station, a collective of musicians and instrument makers had prepared a multi-form spectacle. Co-producer Dan Glass and trombonist Chris Cortier had built a set of modified instruments, with internal tubings designed to propel flames around their interior, and eventually out into the open, each player equipped with a gas bottle hanging from their hips. Members of Gato Loco and The Gotham Easy made this a walking brass outfit, with twinned percussion and electronic tweakings. Baritone saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk was the other half of the production team. The fireball eruptions became a perfectly timed element of the music, as the entire six-piece spread triggered licks, bursts and blooms of flaming destruction. A particularly moving stretch arrived when they piped up with the self-titled Black Sabbath number, a doom-tolling selection of the Birmingham rockers’ songbook not often chosen for open coverage. The evening climaxed, again, with a performance, or demonstration, of a massive Tesla coil, which had the workshop humming and crackling with its immense, barely-contained power. Fortunately, we were guided by experts.

The Downtown Music Gallery presents weekly free admission gigs in its Chinatown basement, but this Sunday double-header was to be its last for quite some time. A trio called Toned opened up, featuring Tom Weeks (alto saxophone), Nathan Corder (electronics), and Leo Suarez (drums). John Zorn scrabble and glottal ducking were paramount, with tightly coordinated gong-switching on the skins, surface noise crumbles on the tabletop, a hard oscillation coupled with a hum multitude. With all three members full pelt for the initial confrontation, a quieter section eventually grew, with rush-sticks, imaginatively varied leg-muting from Weeks, alto down-flutters, and a big bass drum boom, sliding sticks, light-metal bowl scrapes and strikes, with occasional cowbell. Despite some well-worn vocabularies being employed, the threesome still packed vital personality, loaded with consistent invention and lightning thought/action. Weeks tried to resuscitate his alto bell, while Corder created artificial cicadas, then graduated to full-blown Harley-Davidson throttling, to climax Toned’s 30 minutes or so of condensed intensity.

The Uni duo now had a difficult act to follow. Kenji Herbert (guitar) and Vinicius Cajado (upright bass) operated on a much subtler, minimalist level, and perhaps should have played first. Herbert coaxed out a faint buzz, which upped to a drone-hum, as he attached small clips to his strings, at first playing in the lap steel manner, then hoisting the guitar into conventional position. A frothy distortion ensued, using a rambling, easy-going motion, Cajado bowing bass strings, the pair introducing a Keith Fullerton Whitman aura, meandering and entering the dusk spume exotica zone, the results being strangely restful. It looked like DMG’s likely under-10 attendance and obscure location might have allowed a continuance of Sunday performances inside the lockdown, but a lot can happen in a week, and by time of the next booked session, the calendar was empty.

Contributor

Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for the Guardian, Jazzwise, and Songlines.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues