Amebix, Severed Head of State, Deskonocidos and Mammoth Grinder
January 24, 2009
Emo’s, Austin, TX
Musical movements can only exist for so long. They birth themselves, flower, and then having said what they needed to, imitate themselves until so self-parodic they bore, they vanish into assimilation by other genres. Amebix remain one of the few punk or hardcore-related bands to preserve the germinal force that made the genre such a powerful cleaver of dead iconography, and they arrived in Austin for the beginning of their world tour.
As cities go, Austin seems a good choice for the godfathers of crust punk, a type of punk hardcore typified by howling vocals, melodic playing, and a tendency to live in squats and not bathe. Back in 1983, this seemed revolutionary; in 2009, it’s either necessity or an artifice, like wealthy tourists buying authentic peasant clothing to store in their overflowing cabinets at home. Two decades of crust punk bands have brought us greater diversity of music but fewer standout acts, although the population of “crusties” who live the crustcore lifestyle has burgeoned in Austin since about 1997.
At Emo’s, whose open-air second stage is the designated ground zero, crusties fill the courtyard wearing tshirts from punk and metal bands, spikes, leather, and boots. The name of the game is to become a self-aware iconoclast and to combine different influences in some ironic or unique way, and this audience tries hard. Someone with hair spiked by cold scalp grease and not hair care products passed; another appears to have literally defecated in his pants and even at a grungy show, keeps a wide circle of stench guaranteeing him personal space.
We arrived after Mammoth Grinder, who left no impression on those in the audience not acquainted with them personally. In overflowing scenes, the name of the game is keeping a circle of friends who will support you, because only then can you distinguish yourself from similar acts. No one knew what we were talking about when we asked about Mammoth Grinder. After that, Deskonocidos took the stage and pumped forth the prototypical punk hybrid: oi choruses, pop-punk hooks, d-beat drums, classic The Exploited-style riffs and lots of yeahyeahyeahs. People seemed to enjoy it but when it ended blank expressions returned.
Severed Head of State
Severed Head of State came well-spoken of, at least among the people present. When they took the stage, a clamor followed as people pushed into the covered area to hear them. To this reviewer’s ear, they sounded afraid: afraid to leave any dynamic spaces of silence in their songs, afraid to break pace, afraid to not use dogmatically punkish riffs. The constant wall of sound hybridized the last thirty years of hardcore into something insistent, loud, invariant and quite frankly, boring.
Luckily the crowd seemed content with a beat and the hurling shout of the sweaty, shaven-headed vocalist whose eyes betrayed a nervousness his elbow gestures attempted to erase. It reminded this reviewer of all of the angry, disturbed music made by Nazi lunatics and religious fanatics, a burst of explosiveness and discordance whose goal is not to use those extreme states as a contrast by which a point can be made, but to make them the norm so the shocking is the mundane. It depleted energy, not transferred it.
At this point, it was past midnight. Someone had chalked “Crush the System” on the brick wall, near grafiti for blow jobs and the ubiquitous Austin rockabilly bands. The pizza stand just inside the gate of the club was doing a brisk business selling the pizza that arrived in battered cardboard boxes and was then heated to apocalyptic temperatures and sold for five bucks a slice. A crowd of crusties stood outside the entrance, talking loudly about how they needed to borrow money — “anything you got, I’ve got five, I need fifteen to get in” — and then, when the crowd surge left them alone, extracting iPhones to call friends, dealers, cabs.
Amebix did not seize the stage. They did not announce themselves. Their presence and aura did not alter the chemistry of the room or the weather. Instead, they walked out. Set up some instruments. Tuned up, did a soundcheck. Then let the feedback melt into the night until enough people got curious, and then crashed into their set. Unlike the previous bands, they did not watch the audience.
A threepiece — the Baron on bass/vocals, Stig on guitar, and a gent whose name no one caught on drums — the Amebix distinguished themselves by absence. There was no self-importance or manipulation of others with pandering. There was no recognition of event, or the people buzzing around including at least two people filming what are going to be the world’s shakiest concert videos, or even of their own status. With a grim set to the jaw, and a playful but professional mien, they played their songs with focus on details but little neurosis. The crowd could have evaporated in fire and the band would have continued amongst the ashes because their mission was both an end and the means to that end in itself.
The Baron maintains a low profile for a vocalist, with his microphone extended above his head and pointing downward in homage to Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmeister, an Explorer-body bass with what looks like either a German war cross or an outlined plus sign on it under a strap with a single red star and white cross on it. Like the rest of the band, he wears a button-down black shirt and black slacks. His face, slightly lined, looks weatherbeaten like that of a coastal fisherman, but his hair is thick and shaggy and his muscles rangy and accustomed to use. Stig looks more like he stepped out of Saint Vitus, with the lidded eyes of a stoner and longer hair and beard, but diligently played his guitar while periodically flickering eyes over the Baron to make sure they were in time. The Baron on the other hand appeared to check up on no one.
True to form for a punk and/or Amebix show, chaos reigned. Several members of the crowd got thrown out for doing something so stupid security laughed nervously as the new outsiders sprawled on the pavement, the guitar sound kept fragmenting in staccato fuzz, and the CD player which served as a keyboard/samples track plikking and gleeping on a sure path to failure.
The band repeatedly apologized for these glitches but among those paying attention, they passed quickly and without consequence. What was admirable about the handling of these “the show must go on” errors is that the band would quit the song, restart and apply it again so the audience got the full effect. We are deliberate, their actions seemed to say, and we will not just settle like drifting modern people picking DVD players or girlfriends.
After a seven-song set, the Amebix departed; two tracks were an encore of sorts, but then with a quick thank you to the crowd, they were gone back into that space between legendhood and alienation where they have been dwelling these past two decades. The crowd, most of whom paid secondary attention to the band and primary attention to being noticed by others, making endless calls on their cell phones, shuttling between pizza and beer and the leaking groaning porta-potties set up near the far fence, provided a monotone contrast. Unlike the band, they had nothing to call their direction in life, other than spending trust funds or working in video stores.
Unlike the band, they adorned themselves externally to be different but when seen together, appeared to be a crowd of generic indeliberate actions. Unlike the band, they showed no attention span and during a historic event acted as if it were about them, personally, and had no relation to these musicians who traveled over sea and land to be here. It was all about them, and this tendency made them fade into the background when in the presence of not just grizzled veterans but people who lived deliberate, purposeful, fulfilling lives that do not admit a need for external affirmation, although they are geared toward external manifestation.
It was embarrassing to see that the best Austin could offer were adult children who dedicated their lives to distraction. The intentional freakishness got shallower as the show went on and finally the word “pathetic” rose in the mind as these people did everything to bring attention to themselves but what would matter: serving some function in reality that made them live up to the contrived and dramatic self-promoting speech they made so abundant. The callowness of crowds at metal shows does not even approach the level of base disconnection, and almost outright scorn for the band, exhibited by this group of crusties.
Even the teenage scrawl of “Crush the System” rang hollow, since it was clear no one was here to crush the system because no one here wanted to even analyze or change their own behavior, only to justify an ethic of convenience with broad dogma boxing them into a position of no hope, from which their careless lifestyles then seemed apt. A skinhead openly walked around with suspenders and white laces, wondering if anyone would notice and stop him. They noticed, but turned their heads. Conversation was afoot, and an ethic of convenience does not permit confrontation. Oddly, that created a more tolerant atmosphere where anarchist crusty and fascist skinhead could rub shoulders in harmony.
On the other hand, Amebix exhibited a subtlety born of having escaped this theatrical cycle. They did not blow away their opening bands, but quietly put on a show that fit their material and personalities; it was just of another level. Their actions did not draw attention to themselves but put the attention on the material stretched between band and audience, even though fewer than one in ten had a chance of understanding it. Their energy was not demonstrated, like in gestures designed to be seen through a movie camera, but emanated from thousands of factors at once, harmonized across the frigid air as a vision coalesced. As much as ugly music can be beautiful, it was, and sustaining in that it affirmed the power of will in a world of the willless, which like an afterimage haunted both those with souls and those who lived without purpose as they escaped into the night.