Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rock to fill the big white spaces

If you're in the Twin Cities (David Schwartz! Tom Kaczynski! Haddayr Copley-Woods!) and looking for a good excuse to bang the head of your Halloween costume, then you need to go check out Friday night's performance at the Turf Club in St. Paul by Zebulon Pike, Minneapolis' finest practitioners of post-metal.

Midwestern art rock!

In the pantheon of well-regarded American regional genres, you don't hear much about things Midwestern. You have your surf music, Southern writers, Tex-Mex, L.A. hardcore, Kansas City Jazz, New Orleans Dixieland, and so on. What about Omaha? As a native of the region, I have always felt this is an oversight. Critical analysis generally misses the things inherently Midwestern about the artistic expressions of those who live there, no doubt because Midwesterners are so good at avoiding drawing attention to themselves, which can be a handicap for rock stars and would-be bestsellers.

Midwesterners, I postulate, are the primary progenitors of the finest vintages of wry sarcasm infecting the American narrative (think David Letterman and his kin). They do irony with feeling — masters of being smart-ass funny and quiet cry poignant at the same time. The kind of people who could articulate a fresh take on the raw emotion of a teenager wistfully listening to an old Neil Young song while simultaneously ridiculing the treacly sentiment with all the biting edge that Germano-Scandinavian farm people reserve for the secret hazing rituals practiced on adolescents when the wind chill is just right.

When wielded by deft hands, the Midwestern emotional instrument is the sharpest scalpel available for flaying the layers of sensibility of contemporary American life. When The Bad Plus take a worn-out AM radio staple like Vangelis' (Theme From) Chariots of Fire, dig deep into its hollow center with the bare tools of a jazz piano trio, apply equal measures of deconstruction and earnestness, and see what happens, they manage to explode the piece from the inside into something insane and new and now, while at the same time rediscovering the emotional potency of the original that had otherwise been diluted with years of crass commercialization and degeneration into cliche.

What The Bad Plus does for pop, Zebulon Pike does for hard rock. Doing honor to their namesake, the early 19th century military explorer who mapped huge quantities of the upper Midwest when it was mostly white space on a map, Zebulon Pike plays big music, post-metal with a clandestine jazz sentimentality, deep shit with a wink, the sound of a mid-continental thunderstorm pounding away at the barren plain, the sound of the town of Albert Lea being leveled by a 1970s cinematic natural disaster, the sound of ice cracking under your snowmobile hauling ass at freeway speeds over the fathoms of a dark lake. Bartok meets Judas Priest in the northbound lane of I-35.

(Unsurprising when you learn that one of Zebulon Pike's frontmen is Erik Fratzke of the punk jazz geniuses Happy Apple (along with drummer Dave King of The Bad Plus and reedman Michael Lewis.)

Check it out, and learn what it feels like when the you can see the horizon across twenty flat miles of denuded farmland washed over in forty shades of dishwater beige, the weather is below zero, the clouds are really scary, and a song comes on the radio that simultaneously captures the awe you are too embarassed to express out loud and makes you smile like turning the channel to a mind-blowing rerun of Land of the Lost.

(Welk-punk? When Lemmy from Motorhead finally gets his chance to fill in for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion, this will be the musical portion of the program.)

See also, Chicago's Pelican.

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