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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dear Instrumental Bands: Your Visual Accompaniment Isn’t Necessary

posted by on October 16 at 16:21 PM

Question: Do you think watching an instrumental band play live is just as exciting as watching a band with a lead singer?

Here’s why I ask, since instrumental bands don’t have a singer, it could appear as though their live show would lack that instant connection that comes with having a charismatic frontman.

But does it?


Russian Circles by Owen Richards

I saw Russian Circles at the Crocodile many months ago. The instrumental trio was opening for Appleseed Cast. I had never heard them until that night, and their set was fantastic—they’re an unfuckwitable wall of technically proficient sound, blending the fluidity of melodic rock with the finger-tapping characteristics of math. Their drummer was intense and infallible, and the bassist and guitarist felt every note of the music, thrashing their long hair around during the climactic parts, zoning out over the pedal boards during the waves of drones. They clearly didn’t give a shit that they didn’t have a dude with a mic standing at the front of the stage—they knew their performance was just as worthy as any band with a singer.

But then I see an instrumental act that opts to “enhance” their performance with some kind of visual aide—flashy stage props, the projection of films on a screen behind them—and I’m always confused by this choice.


Joy Wants Eternity

Two local acts, Bronze Fawn and Joy Wants Eternity, write great instrumental songs. Joy Wants Eternity is moody and dark, summoning a My Blood Valentine vibe, while Bronze Fawn is more dynamic and playful. For both acts, their music is strong enough to do all the talking for them, yet every time I see either band, they’ve got some strange distraction on stage. JWE has this winged mannequin with a TV screen for a face, and I’ve seen the same clip of a chicken farm and a kid with a gun at a number of Bronze Fawn shows.

These visual accompaniments don’t do a thing for me. If anything, I get distracted from the music while trying to make sense of what I’m looking at and how it pertains to what I’m hearing. I can never find a connection, I just end up confused. And since there’s no purpose in my mind, it just appears as though the band is timid about the fact that they are without a singer—without an immediate connection for the audience. But why? I have no problem watching someone play guitar. I like it, it’s connection enough for me.


Bronze Fawn by Aurelia Rivage

What do you think? Do you like it when the band, especially an instrumental outfit, has something else going on during their set that they personally aren’t engaged in (that means the Flaming Lips are excluded from this discussion)? Or would you prefer they ditch the eyesore shenanigans and just exist as the organic noise that they are?

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I don't see this as something that only instrumental bands do, consider the Addicts who project images from A Clockwork Orange behind them as they play.

Posted by Little Red Ryan Hood | October 16, 2007 4:39 PM

I think it's more acknowledging the bands' shoegazey tendencies, and lack of interesting, rocktastic stage antics, and I think some folks appreciate that. Projections sometimes work for me, but it has to feel intentional, rather than random.

Sleepy Eyes of Death has a fifth member who just works the lights and fog machine, and it's very much an essential part of their performance (despite the fact that the fog set off the smoke detectors at the Vera on Saturday and they had to stop the show and clear the venue while the fire department checked everything out . . .).

Oh, and Mogwai's live show was greatly improved by the synced lights and such, which worked really well with their music. They just don't do anything on stage, you know?

Posted by Levislade | October 16, 2007 4:43 PM

Anyone who doesn't get instrumental live music hasn't seen neither Swarming Hordes nor Girth.

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | October 16, 2007 4:59 PM

I'll add Sean to that list.

(As in Sean, the band.)

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | October 16, 2007 5:00 PM

Were you looking when dude kicked the garbage can over?? That's hot shit!

Posted by jeepers | October 16, 2007 5:23 PM

@3 Girth... my sentiments exactly! Their live instrumental sets are great.

Posted by audio audience | October 16, 2007 5:32 PM

For bigger venues I find the fog + synced lights/lasers essential but smaller venues can just make due with house lights and maybe a fog machine if the music calls for it.

Having a crowd that's really into the music makes for a better show than any stage prop.

Posted by andrv | October 16, 2007 5:37 PM

Ratatat does a good visual show, as does The Album Leaf, Fugiya & Muyagi did last time, not last week tho.

And multi- media is almost "standard fare" at techno shows, like at most of the decible shows.

I think it was Andy Warhol who projected films onto The Velvet Underground (before they actually had that name) for a hour plus long performance of sound, in 1966.

Posted by robert | October 16, 2007 6:45 PM

"And since thereís no purpose in my mind, it just appears as though the band is timid about the fact that they are without a singerówithout an immediate connection for the audience."

really? when we're on stage, it feels more like it appears as though the audience is timid about the fact that they are without a singer - without that immedidate connection to the band. There's not someone standing there telling them (singing) what the song is about.

so is your gripe really the visuals, or the fact there's not some singer there telling you how to feel?

Posted by jwe | October 17, 2007 12:06 PM

It comes across as if there is a division between the music and the performance in your mind. To me there is no difference. Art just is.

Posted by jer | October 17, 2007 2:31 PM

@9 - I don't miss having a singer "telling me how to feel." All three bands I mentioned (including later mentioned Sleepy Eyes of Death and Mogwai) are bands that I really enjoy both live and on record.

I like watching people play music, with or without words. I don't need vocals, but I don't need added visuals either.

Some people are cool with with the films and props, though. That's why I put it out there to discuss. I just think it's interesting that instrumental bands incorporate another element more often than bands with singers, as though something's missing. If you ask me, nothing's missing.

Posted by Megan Seling | October 17, 2007 2:43 PM

We don't think there's anything missing either. We just like to mess with the people who feel that there is. We can't tell you how many times we've heard the question "so why don't you have a singer" or "if you're ever looking for a singer..." after one of our sets.


some people will never get instrumental music

we're glad that you do.

Posted by jwe | October 17, 2007 3:29 PM

I think those said instrumental bands are much more concerned with designing those different elements of the show into one composition, one dynamic performance. It's provoking all of your senses, as an audience, to feel an experience. If you can't quite lift your consciousness, you can always go to their merch booth and buy their recording then head home early.

Posted by sliverpoise. | October 18, 2007 11:09 PM

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