The Appleseed Cast: Mad Planet, Milwaukee, 1-24-07

Mon Jan 29 2007

The Appleseed Cast is a group dodging labels; the omnipresent emo tag has been velcroed to the band for years, and ever since the droning experimentalism of 2001’s Low Level Owl volumes, its been lumped in with the post-rock pack. Both of these designations fall under the big indie umbrella, which covers all the Cast’s musical whims as well as its label affiliation, but these days the mainstream is littered with indie-sounding acts wearing arena-rock life jackets. How can one avoid being typecast? In the dingy confines of Riverwest’s Mad Planet, Applessed Cast would now attempt to stand outside its pigeonholes and just be a great live band.

Opening act white, wrench, conservatory got the low-fi ball rolling with the somewhat under-rehearsed yet passionate stylings of a young band that really cares, and the Milwaukee trio clearly had support from the crowd. Then came Asobi Seksu, who insisted on red stage lights only, and stormed through a powerhouse set of double-time shoegazer guitar hopped up on amphetamines; while the sheer energy was undeniable, the vocals were gimmicky and the whole act began to sound repetitive by the end of the set, although it ended with a clever nod to any wall of sound references by covering “And Then He Kissed Me.” Asobi Seksu served mainly to up the intensity ante for Appleseed; too much of the group’s ambient forays might fall short of recapturing the audiences interest. The Cast stormed out of the gates, though, with “The Clock and the Storm” from last years Peregrine, which came off as a muscular Mogwai churn with the poppier side of Sunny Day Real Estate threatening to break through at times. It set the tone for what would be a set permeated with guitar-driven instrumental exploration, varying in energy and focus but ignited by the precision and passion that set this group above most of its peers.

The audience was treated to a preview of a forthcoming EP early on in the set, indicative that the band might be scampering further out from under the shadow of emo and intensifying the atmospheric layering it began in the early part of the decade. The band relied heavily on newer material for the set (over a backdrop of Edward R. Murrow sound bites, among others), amping up the energy on “Song Three” and “Here We Are;” guitarist Andy Pillar carving wave after wave of intricate melody and sonic wash, the album versions serving as framework for a much more adrenalized rush. Some of the rhythmic changes proved a bit awkward momentarily, but the payoffs were richly rewarding, and the crowd’s enthusiasm palpably spiked the performers.’

About halfway through the set, the Cast delved into its back catalog, pulling out “Innocent Vigilant Ordinary,” a slab of moody punk reminiscent of late-90’s Samiam, also sounding much more fierce in the live setting and receiving the pure heart-wrench treatment from singer Christopher Crisci, who sounded spot-on and freshly wounded all night. The crowd went nuts for “Secret,” a gem from Mare Vitalis and one of the earliest indications that the band was capable of creating music that was different from that of its weepy emo contemporaries. Then came Peregrine’s “February,” transformed into an eerie dance punk dirge with its clanging guitars and throbbing beat. New drummer Aaron Coker had big shoes to fill, and while his style is more pulsing and less intricate than what fans had been used to, he brings more power to the dynamic builds that the band is perfecting while still maintaining a level of technicality that is essential, especially for the older material.

The set closed with some truly Kevin Shields-inspired instrumental intensity, the Cast bathing in its mastery of post-rock momentum—slowly increase the throttle, put on the breaks, but only coast through the stop sign; never let the drag take hold. The song (another new one) electrified the room and energized the Wednesday night crowd to clamor for an encore, which it got, in the form of Low Level Owl, Vol. 1’s centerpiece, “Steps And Numbers,” which is the perfect embodiment of the two dominant forces in Appleseed Cast’s music: it begins as a classic indie pop song, morose yet still somehow hopeful; it’s broken by a jarring minor chord that tolls like a dark church bell in the middle of the song, heralding a cyclic, slow-burning jam that built tonight into a deafening crescendo, all stops pulled, amps to the breaking point. It seemed very self-aware, as if the stylistic shift made by the band at the turn of the century was still playing out; if so, the forthcoming EP may shed all vestiges of emo and send The Appleseed Cast, like so many other bands from all over the spectrum, head-on into the post-rock cauldron. But if the Cast was ever truly emo, it was the kind of emo that gutter punks in the late 90’s were scoffing at because they were afraid it would ruin the scene, never dreaming it could be co-opted by the mainstream and taken out of their spiked hair forever. The truth is, there’s no reason this group, with its populist lyrics and often-hooky guitar and vocal melodies, couldn’t ride the trend that it helped develop into stardom, but there’s really very little whining for the isolated, angst-ridden hordes to latch onto—too much hope for the typical emo kid. Maybe nowadays, too much distortion and repetition. But how long will it be before the catchier post-rock acts get sucked onto the airwaves? There may be no final refuge for the straight-edged indie ethos, but bands like The Appleseed Cast can remain committed to making powerful, honest music, and their integrity will never be in question.

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