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Father Knows Best
By David Greenberger

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players on Ice
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., Dec. 13

The Sun Ra Arkestra played a night at the Bottom Line sometime in the ’80s, billing their performance as “A Tribute to Billie Holiday.” Hearing nothing in their repertoire that was ever recorded by Lady Day, a friend who was in attendance asked a band member about this at the close of the night. He was told, “We dedicated the set to her.” When you’re an artist on the fringes, understanding the power of promotional angles is essential. The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players came to the Berkshire Museum last weekend, billing their show as “on ice.” No ice is involved, nor was any of the content directed to the titular suggestion, the only exception being a prerecorded theme that opened and closed the set, its lyrics being the name of the show in full, repeated over and over with the glee and insistence of a drunken chorus.

The Trachtenburgs have been the toast of the NYC downtown hipster scene for the past couple of years. The setup is Jason Trachtenburg playing keyboards and singing songs he’s composed to accompany slide presentations, all of which were acquired from flea markets, estate sales and such—castoff family trips from decades ago, as well as corporate presentations. His wife Tina runs the slide projector and designs the Liberace-on-acid stage clothes, while 10-year-old daughter Rachel pays drums and adds some delightful backup vocals.

Their four-word band name includes the word family, a word that can suggest dynamics beyond the legal and genetic connections. While they all have roles within the trio, it is fully controlled by Dad. He writes and sings the songs and, in his endless stage chatter, would seem to be the mastermind of it all. More accurately, they could be billed as Jason Trachtenburg and His Two Female Assistants. Rachel’s exuberant drumming adds a visceral element to the show; her presence mixes the innocence of a child with a certain inscrutability. From her facial expressions and demeanor it’s not possible to tell if she’s excited or cares about what she’s doing; perhaps she’s caught up in the required focus and concentration. It should be noted that on their debut album, the drumming was done by a studio pro instead of Rachel.

The surprisingly low-tech show has its charms, but is dependent on how entertaining you find Jason’s proto- surrealist witticisms, which took up a surprising amount of the show. Two of the pieces demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the acre of land they’ve staked a claim to and begun farming. “Opnad Contribution Study Committee Report” ties Jason’s friendly way with a ditty to an annual presentation. However, it’s totally dependent on this ironic elevation, with the lyrics all drawn from the company’s text. Lacking any further substance, it’s as dispensable as an advertisement, though it would have made Jason a mover and shaker in the world of corporate musicals back in the day.

On the other hand, “Look At Me” was built around a lifetime of slides from two women named Pat and Cappy. With its cavalcade of juxtaposed images, this piece was rich with fun, surprise and a strangely alluring melancholy that comes from seeing someone else’s life flash before your eyes. The longer-term success of the Trachtenburgs depends on creating more songs built on similarly emotionally complex foundations.

Dark Clouds, Duly Summoned

Dimmu Borgir, Nevermore
Saratoga Winners, Dec. 14

And they arrived as on a storm of wrath and fury. . . . The weather was appropriately accursed for the appearance of Norwegian black-metal conquerors Dimmu Borgir, whose highly anticipated stateside tour wound down at Saratoga Winners on Sunday. After a day of unrelenting snow followed by a treacherous sheeting of sleet, the band made their local debut to a measly couple of hundred fans—and did so with a full measure of the savage creativity that has a earned them a rabid following in their native Northern climes. Materializing onstage through ghostly fog and witching lighting, the five (or six?) self-proclaimed satanists were greeted with a roaring cheer and upraised devil horns. And then the brutal musical mysticism began: Dimmu take symphonic metal to its grisliest extremes, twisting goth-industrial, thrash, and classical into bizarre accelerations and flourishes. Their often-shockingly melodic compositions have to be heard to be believed—and the crowd, though undersized, believed with a fervor.

Lead vocalist and songwriter Shagrath immediately admitted to being hungover as hell (apparently, the band celebrated the end of the tour a day early), and it did take a few songs for the quintet to mesh their wildly inventive gears. Mostly, they had difficulty aligning former Cradle of Filth drummer Nick Barker’s warp-speed blastbeats and an overamped bass rumble with the astounding orchestral riffage of keyboardist Mustis (which filled in for the symphonies the band employed on their last two discs). Mustis’ increasing domination of the songwriting resulted in the recent critical and commercial European smash, Death Cult Armageddon, which formed the core of the evening’s sulfurous set. By the time they unleashed that disc’s epic hit, “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse,” the quintet had snapped all of their theatrically catchy elements into place, including their galloping tempo changes.

Fearsomely handsome enough to stand in for the Prince of Darkness, Shagrath made for a compelling frontman, even though he spoke little (“Here’s one to bang-a your heads to” was the only full sentence), and growled and croaked mostly in Norwegian. Which is probably a good thing, since Satan is a notoriously mediocre muse. But as far as anyone could tell, the songs were not overtly satanic (one discernible lyric went something like “They drink the shadows of their gods”). And bassist Vortex worships another deity all together: that god of Scandinavian metal, Yes’ Jon Anderson. Vortex’s powerfully mellifluous singing and acoustic-style plucking created entrancing eddies among the typhoon-size hooks. A strawberry-blond Viking as styled by Rob Zombie, Vortex also made a striking visual counterpart to Shagrath, while the guitarist between them can best be described as a buff Uncle Fester. And if the band’s full-length arm tattoos and waxy makeup now have a whiff of old hat to them, the dramatic stage lighting made up for it.

Toward the end of the set, the band pushed their compositional intensity into glorious overdrive, with a trio of songs that thrillingly invoked both the Phantom of the Opera and Norse barbarity. By the end, it was easy to assume that the fell weather had indeed been summoned by Dimmu’s unholy zeal.

Nevermore’s preceding set was an energetic mess. Usually one of the most versatile and entertaining heavy-metal acts going, the Seattle band obviously were under the weather—both constitutionally and meteorologically—while their sound mix suffered from an aural strain of the Fujian flu. Ignoring their more melodic and doomy songs for an all-thrash rip through material past and present, the band closed out with a disintegrating attempt at their walloping new single, “Enemies of Reality.”

—Ann Morrow

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