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A Hero’s Return
By Ann Morrow

The Clay People, Acumen Nation, F-Timmi
Valentine’s, June 26

On what felt like the hot test day of the decade, a crowd of fans who were largely too young to be in clubs at the time responded with heat-stroke-inducing enthusiasm to a batch of songs representing the angst-ridden best of the industrialized-dance movement of the 1990s. In order, those songs were “Gun Lover” by Acumen Nation, “Mechanized Mind,” by the Clay People, and “Violent Mood Swings” by Stabbing Westward. Stabbing Westward weren’t on the bill last Thursday, but Walter Flakus, the band’s keyboardist and songwriter, was: Flakus is the new addition to the recently regrouped Clay People. Making the pounding triple bill at Valentine’s even better was the opening set by F-Timmi, whose high-energy power-chord crunch provided a satisfyingly straightforward prelude to the moodier compositions of the Nation and the People.

Chilled down to (reportedly) 45 degrees, the club’s mercury had risen to 80 by the time F-Timmi wrung themselves off the stage. An hour later, it was easily over 100 stagefront. That the accumulated body heat of a packed house barely slowed anyone, onstage or off, can perhaps be attributed to the power of catchily heavy songwriting, a trait all three bands share. “It’s delirium,” crowed Acumen’s lead alchemist, Jason Novak. He was referring to the heat, but he might as well have been describing the band’s whirlwind set, which morphed from aggro-industrial to techno-metal to drum’n’bass, often within a single song. Making up for an October appearance at Northern Lights that was derailed by sound problems, the Chicago quartet proved beyond a doubt that they can reproduce their studio-intensive menace live, re-creating the ballistic “Just a Bastard,” the hypnotic gnashing of “Rally and Sustain,” and the bizarrely lyrical “Knowing This . . .” with an emphasis on the sledgehammering rhythm section to differentiate them from the versions on last year’s incendiary The Fifth Column.

Programmer and vocalist Novak, whose high-pitched cynicism is surprisingly versatile live (from curdling falsetto to rapid-fire yowl), also writes mordant sociopersonal lyrics that—unlike almost every techno band in existence—actually match the ferocity of the instrumentals. And because the band consider Albany their second home, and will be back in a couple of months with a new release, I’ll add that they deserve more recognition than they get—they know they do, and they don’t care, and therein lies true alternative greatness.

Opening with “Secret,” a stunningly tribal new song, the Clay People made a triumphant return from their breakup 18 months ago. Flakus, who moved to Albany following the dissolution of Stabbing Westward around the same time, was recruited at a Queens of the Stone Age show two months ago. Replacing original guitarist Brian McGarvey, Flakus alternated between keyboards and rhythm guitar, adding spooky textures to the band’s bag of faves, including “Awake,” “My X-Ploding Head” and “Broken Kisses.” Sans McGarvey’s strafing leads, the band’s sonic axis has shifted to guitarist Mike Guizzardi and drummer Dan Dinsmore, two monster players who have only gotten more precise since their stint in Black Inc. Dinsmore, especially, impressed within the spaces opened up by the sinister undercurrent of the keys. Meanwhile, vocalist Dan Neet’s occultist roar was in fine form, and his psychic alienation returned in full potency for two other new songs, “Screamer” and “No Surrender,” both of which promised much for the future of the new lineup. The band finished with a defiant interpretation of Westward’s jackhammering classic, “Violent Mood Swings,” inciting a totally sweat-drenched audience to one last dampened mosh—and without a single fainting all evening.

Scoring the ’20s

The Alloy Orchestra performing the score of Speedy
MASS MoCA, June 29

As a clear, beautiful evening darkened into balmy night, the black-and-white face of Harold Lloyd filled the screen as the three-man Alloy Orchestra, arrayed below, kicked into musical madness. Speedy, released in 1928, was Lloyd’s final silent film (and he made very few talkies before retiring as very rich man), itself a tribute to times of old with a paper-thin plot centered around the last horse-drawn trolley in Manhattan.

Lloyd had a company of excellent gag writers who could make the comic most of any situation. He visited an amusement park in the 1920 short Number, Please? and expanded the idea into a hilarious Coney Island sequence for Speedy, no doubt the result of the extended New York stay he and his crew gave themselves. And it hardly matters that the sequence advances the plot not a bit—the gags are what matter and the gags are terrific.

A fight scene pitting a gaggle of graybeards against a gang of young toughs is as funny as a fight can be, each new twist in the action topping the last. Most modern comedies lack this kind of inventiveness, which still seems fresh 75 years later.

But there’s an added attraction to a presentation like this. The Alloy Orchestra know this or they wouldn’t have been accompanying silent films (most notably at the Telluride Festival) for 12 years. Silent movies speak, as it were, to a different part of our understanding than do the talkies. I don’t have scientific studies to back this up. I know it only from the personal experience of seeing those films with live accompaniment. The best of the silents used title cards rarely. Speech was unimportant. The added music, however, is powerful. Chosen and performed with that power in mind, it can summon unexpected emotions.

If Prokofiev had written for the old Max Fleischer cartoons, he might have approximated the musical style of the Alloy Orchestra. At times it sounds like Danny Elfman’s more antic scores.

Even a knockabout film like Speedy (the title salutes Lloyd’s own nickname) requires music of depth and complexity, and it was astonishing to hear what a couple of keyboards, an accordion, a saxophone and a junkyard of found percussion devices can do. The film’s gags spring from our eternal conflict with our environment; the music, especially with all those drums and cymbals, springs from our wish to order and subdue that environment.

Movies, especially of that era, look for orderly outcomes, triumphs of love. You know he’s going to win the race and get the girl, and there’s quiet reassurance in that as we share in the buffets of rough-and-tumble pursuits. I’ll even dare to say that it was as transformative an experience for last Saturday’s audience as it was for an audience in 1928. We’re farther away than ever from those old trolleys (and soda fountains, and, I’m sorry to note, Coney Island’s Luna Park), but this combination of music and movie is ageless.

—B.A. Nilsson


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