Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band: Cactus Club, 2/21

Mon Feb 24 2014

As popular as psych rock seems to be getting, it’s a little surprising how sparse the Friday-night crowd was for Chris Forsyth. Then again, this is a guy who doesn’t have his own Wikipedia page yet, but that’s not going to be the case for long I’ll wager. Even though I am notoriously terrible at such predictions, the notion of Forsyth remaining obscure forever is inconceivable. There’s no need to be a guitar-noise nerd to appreciate his songs, and this band that he’s assembled to play his Solar Motel material (and beyond) has gelled in record time into a stampede of rock and roll perfection. Sorry, Chris, but you don’t believe in silly things like jinxes, right?

After dropping by Circle-A to be sure I could pick up the new Scrimshaw CDs (and catching most of a highly entertaining, Mothersbaughian set by Ruined Costume), we hightailed it to Cactus Club because I foolishly thought the show was supposed to be an early-starter and I also-foolishly feared it might sell out. The point I'm trying to make is we probably should've stayed for at least some of Scrimshaw's set, but alas, maybe next time (so much for Circle-A's reputation for strict start times!). Still dodging polar vortices and already you can't go to a weekend show in this town without missing a different show you'd really like to see.

On first at Cactus was Wereworm, a band that has come a long way since its Mogwai-worshipping beginnings. That element remains, but the stylistic trajectory is less atmospheric, more mathy and more focused on chunky riffs. I get the sense that the band hasn't played some of this material out much, and drummer Tom Stack in particular seemed like he was still searching for a style within the more demanding rhythmic conventions, but the more ambitious songs turned heads in sharp blasts of intensity. Wereworm is yet another Milwaukee band that makes me think if only they didn't need day jobs and could spend all their time on music… This set was significantly tighter than the last one I'd seen (opening for Mission Of Burma at Shank Hall), but there's no use denying that precision is still lacking.

Next up was Chicago experimental drone artist Mind Over Mirrors, whose set basically opened up a portal in my head expanding what was possible in music. I won't pretend that I've never heard anything like this before because I honestly don't know; it's almost equally plausible that I've heard other artists just like this but this was the first time my brain had evolved enough to grok it. What makes the music that Jaime Fennelly played different from other things I can recall is more a question of degree than definition. You can get a similar effect with Mogwai, or in a Phish jam, or at a Death Blues show, but Mind Over Mirrors is about obliterating the lines between rhythm and melody and counterpoint and even notes to the point where the changes at first seem extremely miniscule because the intensity of the sound is so high, but as you lose yourself in it and it's very literally pulsing physically through your chest, even barely discernible changes become glacial shifts in the emotional state being expressed by the sound. As these massive waves crest there's no audible sense of a rhythm track; the beat exists solely in your bloodstream, and the sonic bliss sometimes lasts for minutes on end at a level you hadn't previously thought possible. As a listener, you have to be completely focused in order to take it in; fortunately, Fennelly made it impossible not to be. All this from a guy sitting alone on a stool in the middle of the floor armed with a pump organ and a few dozen buttons and knobs. The three-day old memory of this set feels more immediate and powerful than most shows I go to feel in the moment.

After this kind of experience I'd normally throw my hands up and go WELL, NO CHANCE THE HEADLINER CAN MATCH THAT, but I had no such urge Friday night. If you can listen to Solar Motel and think that might not translate into a fucking amazing live show then you and I clearly live on different planets. Of course it was way better than I even expected. The band played some new material that takes the epic soundscapes of Solar Motel and tightens them even tighter into punchy guitar epics without sacrificing any room to breathe, and Forsyth's playing is like if Pete Townshend had Jimmy Page's passion for lead guitar and then split the sonic difference between Neil Young and Tom Verlaine. There were moments when I distinctly thought this is what it would've felt like at a Zeppelin show in 1969. This is what I've been searching for. Now there's another band that gelled quickly, eh? You listen to enough Zeppelin bootlegs and you can feel the walls of the Fillmore and the Winterland creak and groan under the sheer force. Ticket sales notwithstanding, the energy output was too massive for theaters to contain, and Forsyth and his band exude that same visceral presence with a budding songwriting talent to match.

Believe me, I feel terrible ascribing such a parallel to The Solar Motel Band (and keep in mind, Forsyth's stuff is all instrumental), but Zeppelin too was just a great rock band with a ridiculously talented guitar player, essentially. For pure potency in a live setting they never got any better than they were in the beginning, but that initial onslaught lasted a few untouchable years. No, I don't see Forsyth selling out Madison Square Garden or wearing dragon pants or kidnapping 14-year-old girls. The world doesn't need another world-conquering rock band. I'm just saying I could still feel this music reverberating through my bones well into the next day, and having a few gazillion rock shows under my belt, this was incredibly fresh and powerful compared to just about any I've seen before.
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