Last Thursday at Empyrean, for example, four bands, connected most obviously by the fact that none of them had a singer, assailed us with bits of the familiar and the utterly foreign.
19 Points of Nowhere, ever refining their pop-prog and clarinet, played first, to a half-full house. Second, Empyrean's excuse for a house band, Natural Jazzaster, offered up shabby, compelling free jazz sketches from behind a battered Rhodes piano, a battered upright bass and a battered green fedora. Last was Hallelujah Soul Explosion, an audiovisual noise trip that began with walls of sound and stabs of melody playing over and ended with a monotonal drone and video of what might have been a cornea transplant. It was harrowing, exhilarating stuff. I sat through 50 minutes of it, until the pulse of sound and the prodding of the eyeball made me think I might throw up.
Headlining, but playing third, was Balloon Hands. Written for two guitars, drum and Rhodes, it was less a band than an avant noise composition by Blair Steckler, a student at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Envisioned as a two-movement, 21-minute avant noise caterwaul, Steckler had written the latter half of the piece in Boston last spring and performed with a bunch of jazz musicians who, he says, didn't really get the idea.
In Spokane for the summer, Steckler began work on what would become the piece's first half. Upon meeting guitarist Zac Fairbanks -- no stranger to noise -- and drummer Will Haworth, Steckler started kicking around the idea of fusing the two halves and putting on a one-time performance.
The result, 21 minutes of densely packed textures of throbbing, thrumming sound punctuated with blurts or rhythm, was well attended. Most seats were occupied, with a dozen or so listeners camped out on the carpets in front of the stage, sitting cross-legged and low between the two speakers.
Around minute 18, after a crisp, invigorating druge through the wall of noise reached a pulsing crescendo and Steckler's composition began actively moving the audience -- the band put out enough low-end power to rustle people's hair, blouses and shirts.
Over the phone the next day I ask Steckler if that kind of audience interaction is written into the piece. He laughs, "I always forget that you have a ton of speakers and you blow a signal through them," he says, shrugging it off. "If it's super loud, then it's like you're living in it. If it's in your face you kinda have to listen because you can't hear anything else." Good point.
Though difficult to lift out of the din, Steckler swears there are elements of rock buried inside Balloon Hands (he cites New York avant rockers The Walkmen specifically as major influences on the piece). He hopes, though, with further training at the fringes of composition, to be able to create something that approaches the patternless ambience of the natural world. "Eventually I'd like to get to the point where I can write something that's a complete cacophony," he says, "but I'm not there yet."
Natural Jazzaster plays Empyrean every Tuesday evening. Hallelujah Soul Explosion has a gig on Sept. 21 at Empyrean coming up soon. Nineteen Points of Nowhere has no upcoming gigs at the moment, but stay tuned to Sound Advice. You might be able to catch Steckler again if he comes back to Spokane for the holidays.