Tag Archives: Gabriel Matthews

LIVE: Helms Alee, East End, Portland, OR

By Gabriel Mathews

Dear minuscule readership,

I am no longer your Los Angeles correspondent, and while I’ll soon be your Seattle correspondent, I’m currently here in the weird limbo that most of you probably call home: Portland. Here’s to the Rose City, may it remain a have for the strange for decades to come.

Portland’s East End is a venue unlike any I’ve ever reported from in LA, in that it is actually pretty normal. A bar upstairs, a bar downstairs, a small stage in a small basement room. There are stage lights, but they are minimal. People drink reasonably­-priced beer. It’s pretty neat.

Portland punk institution Rabbits took the stage with grayer hair than I expected. I suppose I was aware that these guys had been around for a while (long enough for Sizzle Pie to have a salad named after them), but somehow that didn’t equate to their being old. But old they are. The music they churn out is some sort of low, basic growling punk sludge—I was surprised when I realized no one was playing a bass. Everyone involved was decent enough at what they do, but the whole picture somehow wasn’t all that compelling, and I mostly found myself wondering if these guys were married, and if so, what their wives thought of Rabbits.

Or husbands, as it may have been. Portland’s Gaytheist were another surprise, mainly for their frontman’s appearance. Jason Rivera is a portly, bespectacled man with gray in his beard, and for the show he was sporting a checkered button­up shirt with a newsboy cap to match, along with a pair of suspenders. He looked more like my rabbi on his day off than the frontman of a hot­shit, gay, atheist rock act. But that’s exactly what he is. Gaytheist seemed to actually be the primary draw that night, and their lightning­fast metal/punk songs with titles like “Wisdom of the Asshole” and “Elderly Assassin” (“This song is about an aging hitman who’s supposed to do one last hit, but then he falls in love with the guy he’s supposed to kill and takes him out for dinner.”) definitely earned the applause they received. Rivera was gregarious and sweet between songs, but furious and roaring while playing. Drummer Nick Parks never once stopped soloing, and was only the second most impressive drummer of the night. All in all, a great time.

Kowloon Walled City, up from San Francisco, were another story altogether. While their name and online aesthetic had me intrigued, as did a few seconds of a song or two, I pretty quickly lost interest with their incredibly slow, monotonous doom metal. There might have been some sort of melodic/harmonic interplay, but it was moving at such a snail’s pace that I had trouble noticing. Not only were all their songs slow, but they were all the same level of slow, and if any interesting meters were present, I couldn’t tell for the drummer’s caveman thudding. Since I’ve been judging all the bands this evening based on appearance, I have to also deduct points from KWC for having a bassist who looked like an overweight Joey Tribbiani in a too­small Murder City Devils t­shirt, and a drummer who wore an undersized duckbilled trucker cap backwards atop his big head. My CGC for the evening, who also happened to be my dad, and I spent a few minutes after their set debating whether this was intellectually-­motivated music, or if it was just incredibly dumb. CGC had a good point—if intellect isn’t the motivator for this kind of thing, what the fuck is?

Thank god, then, for Helms Alee, who are motivated not just by intellectual rigor, but by an inventive drive rarely seen in contemporary music. What they do could roughly be described as “experimental metal,” but it’s incorporation of boy/girl harmonies and relatively poppy song­ structures makes it accessible in a way I pretty much never find in metal. The Seattle band’s most recent album, Sleepwalking Sailors, is an early contender for my top five of the year.

Despite my enthusiasm for their music, I’ve never really done much research on Helms Alee. Somehow it seemed more interesting to imagine them as weirdo cave dwellers than people with day jobs and cats. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve always been most impressed by the drumming on Helms Alee’s records, even with frontman Ben Verellen’s unbelievable shredding for comparison. Imagine the thrill of seeing that this powerful, inventive drummer I’d been idolizing as some hulking Grecian god was in fact a totally badass 90­ pound woman named Hozoji Matheson-­Margullis, who not only destroys the skins for Helms, but also shreds like a madwoman fronting Lozen, and by day works as a commercial geoduck diver for the Puyallup tribe in Tacoma. Her approach to drumming is some strange combination of childlike ebullience and Zen­master precision. She spent half the set in a zoned out trance, the other half grinning maniacally. After one song the crowd especially loved, she said into her mic, “Thanks, motherfucks!”

Oh, yeah, she has a mic because while doing all this crazy drum shit, she’s also singing like a champ. Let’s not ignore that fact. So for all Verellen’s guitar heroics and general imposing size, and bassist Dana James’ gut­-busting fuzz, I couldn’t really ever take my eyes off Matheson-­Margullis. She’s this band’s absolutely­-not­-secret­-at-­all weapon, and she’s a powerhouse in the tradition of other great female Northwest drummers such as Sara Lund and Janet Weiss. (As a side note, I want to acknowledge that there shouldn’t really be a line drawn between great female drummers and great male drummers—a great musician is a great musician. That said, we have to acknowledge that rock, and especially rock drumming, has long been a boy’s club, and seeing a woman destroy so thoroughly is an exciting thing, whether it should be or not.)

Let’s not ignore Verellen, though. This guy, who is probably 6’6”, 225 lbs, (220 when he cuts his hair) has the convenient day job of building incredibly loud tube amps, and all the amplifiers on stage were branded with his last name. His guitar work is impressive, but I find myself even more fascinated by his singing, which flips between a high, clean tenor and a scream unlike any I’ve ever heard, a scream that sounds not like it’s coming from his throat, but rather from his lower intestine. And there is no middle ground—Verellen is either a reformed choirboy or a herniated giant, the contrast adding a fascinating element of tension to songs like “Pleasure Center” and “Pinniped”. Another standout was instrumental “Left Handy Man Handle,” which features a roiling bass line and a non-­stop, full-­kit roll from Matheson­-Margullis. General point being, if ever given the chance, check these guys out live, it’s a very fulfilling experience.

A concluding question for my limited readership— Do people at Portland punk shows mosh? I was startled to find that no one was really moving much at all, even for the frenetic Gaytheist set. This is something y’all should work on. Really.

[Editor’s note: you’re goddamn right Portland moshes.]

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LIVE: Titus Andronicus, CFA Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, CA

By Gabriel Mathews

TITUS ANDRONICUS w/Lemuria and Lost Boy at Center For the Arts, Eagle Rock, 9/12/13

Last night, I saw Titus Andronicus play at the Center For the Arts, Eagle Rock, with Lemuria and Lost Boy opening. Before I go any further, I think a prefatory statement about my relationship with Titus is in order:

I am fucking obsessed with Titus Andronicus. While I didn’t initially enjoy their debut, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, after their Civil-War-as-Doomed-Relationship magnum opus The Monitor came out in 2010, I fell in love, reevaluated the first album, and went and saw the band at The Bootleg for what was one of the best, most narratively epic nights of my life. I proceeded to catch them at FYF Fest the following summer, and then opening for Okkervil River at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland a year later. In the fall of my junior year of college, I took a class on the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, for which I wrote a 30-page term paper on the Nietzschean themes of The Monitor. (In a beautiful twist, it was initially Nietzsche that seemed Andronicusian to me, rather than the other way around.) Yes, I sent the paper to Mr. Andronicus himself, Patrick Stickles. Yes, he read it and responded enthusiastically at 3 AM (Apparently I was the first person ever to realize the album’s narrative started at track three? C’mon, people!). And yes, I giggled like a little girl and probably pissed myself a little. I definitely pissed myself when he proceeded to tweet about how my email was perhaps the best he’d ever received and that he suddenly understood new things about the relationship that sparked The Monitor. (If anyone here has not yet checked out Stickles’ twitter, do so immediately.) A year later, I was station manager at KOXY, Occidental College’s radio station (former post of YACHT’s Claire L. Evans and Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzales, thank you very much), and I used my clout and the college’s money to bring Titus to campus shortly after they released their excellent third record Local Business. The show was plagued with electrical difficulties, and many songs were cut in half by power outages (I still curse that faulty power strip to this day), but the band rolled with the punches like the pros/good guys they are, everyone had a blast, and it was one of the most glorious nights of my life.

tl;dr: I am fucking obsessed with Titus Andronicus.

So seeing them last night at CFAER was something I’d been looking forward to with immense excitement to for months. When I saw that Lemuria, who I recently discovered accidentally at FYF (which, by the way, I hope to cover in some depth here in the near future) while waiting for Waxahatchee to go on, was added to the bill, I was even more stoked. The night finally came, and here’s how it went down.

Lost Boy were pretty fucking boring, lazy rock in the vein of Mac DeMarco and all those other boring people. Please pass over them so they can disappear quietly. Buffalo, NY power trio Lemuria did a great job just doing their thing. Drummer/primary songwriter Alex Kerns is a national gem, and the band sounded simultaneously on point and rough-edged. (Note: These guys make good albums, but it’s live where they shine with a toughness not evident on the recordings. Catch them if you have the chance.)

Then Titus. By this point, the excitement in the room was palpable. This is unsurprising: the best thing about any Titus show is not the band’s energy, nor the setlist, nor the between song banter, nor anything the band even do themselves. It’s the sense of community that comes from moshing like crazy and shouting along with lines like “YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A LOSER!” and “YOUR LIFE IS OVER!” with 50-100 other 100% fully stoked people. Patrick Stickles has a way of speaking directly to the souls of many, while maintaining a very personal, very confessional lyrical style that you wouldn’t expect to light a fire in all these the hearts. His words impress on several levels—narrative ability, verbosity, abundant references literary and geographical, and especially in their emotional resonance and ensuing uplift. That said, Stickles is something of a grouch (He’s bipolar and has a rare eating disorder that allows him to consume about five different foods, so it’s no surprise), and you don’t go to a Titus show expecting the guy to be all buddy-buddy with you and your friends or to grin ecstatically while watching the crowd shout along with every word.

Even so, I was actually surprised when the band took the stage and Patrick had himself set up so he faced stage right, where bear-like guitarist Adam Reich was sporting a Brooklyn Dodgers 59Fifty and soloing his meanest solos ever. Stickles occasionally turned to face the audience, but spent most of the set staring intently at Adam, with his back to bassist Julian Veronesi, who seemed to just be kickin’ it in his own little world.

A word on the lineup: in the five Titus shows I’ve been to I’ve seen three different bands. The only constant aside from Stickles is drummer Eric Harm, who I’m guessing has immense reserves of patience simply untenable by others. If I had to pick a favorite, this four-piece would definitely not be it (I’d probably go with the first version I ever saw, which featured stalwart bassist Ian Graetzer and the perpetually excited Amy Klein on guitar and electric violin, as well third guitarist/keyboardist Dave Robbins.), but they definitely play real tight together, even after the recent loss of third guitarist Liam Betson to Canada/engagement. Anyway, moving on.

The setlist was a bit of a surprise—light on The Monitor, wildly heavy on Grievances. They played five of that album’s nine songs, including quasi-throwaways like “Joset Of Nazareth’s Blues” and “My Time Outside The Womb” and not including either part one or two of the amazing “No Future” suite. They also hit on a few new songs, which are slated to appear on the band’s recently announced fourth record, a 30+ song rock opera about a young man with bipolar disorder trying to find love in this rough-and-tumble modern world. The first and most fun of these was the thirty-second hardcore blast of “Look Alive,” which Stickles introduced with a description of the album’s first act: “We find our hero in that classic struggle of trying to first get out of bed and then leave the house. Spoiler alert: . . . it doesn’t happen.” The set sagged a bit in the middle, even as Patrick removed his shirt in the boiling heat of the venue, with a few middling new tracks, what seemed like a cover that I didn’t recognize at all, and an impossibly slow rendition of devastating Monitor ballad “To Old Friends And New.” (This one featured the best, and maybe only, bit of real audience interaction, when Stickles halted mid-verse to stare fireily into the eyes of a guy sitting on his friend’s shoulders. After a few seconds he pointed straight at the dude and said “This is what you want, isn’t it? Alright, everyone’s eyes back on me.” Then he picked up where he left off.) Despite this sag, we still got hit parades at start and finish: Local Business trio “In A Big City,” “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus” and “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter” opened the set, while “Four Score And Seven,” “No Future Part Three” and “Titus Andronicus” closed it out. Lord knows why they went with “(I Am The) Electric Man” over, say, “My Eating Disorder,” or “Richard II,” but, hey, can’t complain too much. (I was really, really sad, though, that they didn’t do “The Battle Of Hampton Roads,” which has closed out at least three of the other TA sets I’ve seen. But I give them a free pass because that one probably requires three guitars, and maybe even a some bagpipes.)

The crowd, an incredibly important factor at any Titus show, receives a B+. It would have been perfect were there not the two or three incredibly belligerent assholes who decided to bull-charge everyone whenever possible, but those guys always bring a show down a bit. I’ve always found the pit at Titus shows to be amazingly friendly, and to find such cretins here was quite a comedown. Where’s the fun in behaving this way? Save the violence for Mayhem concerts. Also, a quick shoutout to the CFAER, which has provided me, as a Northeast LA resident, with countless awesome opportunities and events and a lot of very very cheap beer, though not very much cool air.

When my friends and I left the Center, though, utterly drenched through with sweat both ours and not, a couple of strange reactions bubbled to the surface. My friend Landon, who perhaps idolizes Patrick Stickles even more than I do, was somewhat infuriated by a variety of factors: the dickheads in the crowd, the weird setlist that seemed to him like a “fuck you”, and Stickles’ general refusal to seem like he was having a good time. Landon makes a solid point that touring the fuck out of songs which are designed as intense personal revelations can lead them to lose a lot of their heft and meaning, but I can’t say I blame Stickles & co. for not being able to maintain their emotional wallop at all times. My girlfriend had an entirely different response. She’d never been to a Titus show before, and had only really heard their music when I played her The Monitor earlier in the day as preparation. She found that, perplexingly, she couldn’t even tap her foot to this “pop punk,” (Ah, metalheads…) and was utterly baffled by the insane adulation pouring out of myself and everyone else in the pit. This led me to think about what makes Titus Titus, and I have to come back to the lyrics—Titus Andronicus would be just another rock band, albeit a skilled one, were it not for Stickles incredible soul-bearing verses. His words tie grand Nietzschean philosophy and small-scale, day-to-day challenges like getting out of bed into one giant mess that it’s damn hard not to relate to. And for this, I love them.

So was I, like my companions, disappointed by the show? No, though I guess I’d say it scores fourth out of the five Titus shows I’ve seen. I see Landon’s points, and it really is important to ask whether a song resonates less with each repetition. But I have to think about the perils of being a touring band, about the authenticity that is almost impossible to maintain, and about the undeniable fact that bands morph and change and you either have to roll with it or find yourself saddened. I also have to go take a shower, I still have those asshats’ sweat on me.

(PS: In case you were wondering, yes, I talked to Patrick before the show, and yes, he still thinks my paper is the best piece of criticism his work has ever received. He also promises that it will take a much longer paper to work through album number four, but he says he’ll write it this time. I can’t wait.)

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