Live: Mastodon and Against Me, the Underground Rock Tour of the Year
Mastodon + Against Me + Cursive
May 17, 2007
A while ago, I promised myself that I wouldn't go to Roseland again. Roseland is my least favorite venue in New York: the sound is terrible, there's nowhere on the floor where I can stand without blocking somebody's view, and the security guys always make some dumbshit joke about how tall I am. They also fuck up with the guest-lists more often than not, and it just never seemed worth the effort of talking my way into such a shitbox. I had to break that promise last night, though, since Roseland managed to book a show that I wouldn't forgive myself for missing. The three bands who played last night all share the same doggedly persistent touring work-ethics, and they all boast higher-than-average numbers of beards and tattoos, but they still made for as musically diverse a triple-bill as can fit into the limited parameters of underground rock. And so this made for an exciting prospect: three bands who'd spent years working the dingy underground-club circuit, all of whom are just now graduating to bigger things. Both Mastodon and Against Me have signed major-label contracts, and Cursive could probably have one if they wanted one. (The pretty great Chicago gothcore upstarts These Arms Are Snakes were supposed to open the show, but their van broke down, so they had to cancel.) All three bands come from different scenes, but all of those scenes have at least a few embryonic roots in the 80s basement-hardcore revolution. And so there's something organically defiant about these different sounds (Mastodon's epically elemental tech-metal, Against Me's bruisingly beery protest-punk, Cursive's depressive midwestern post-hardcore) moving out of the margins at the same time and sharing a big tent together. The big question was how well all these bands, all of whom are at or near the top of their respective scenes, would do in a venue as large and hostile as Roseland.
First off, Mastodon: I'm not sure I've ever seen a more egregious example of a venue totally torpedoing what would've otherwise been a great set. Roseland is a huge hangarlike concrete space, and as big as Mastodon's sound is, it's not really built for a room like that. The band buries laser-precise dynamic math-rock shifts under seething heaps of sludge, and a good part of the songs' violent, otherworldly drama comes from those sudden and abrupt technical switchups. Last night, though, only the bleary roar came through; the sharp precision stayed hidden. For one thing, the sound in the room was nowhere near loud enough, absolutely criminal for a band so dependent on menace. For another, the echoey room flattened out all the finer details; I could clearly see the band members' hands doing some crazy shit onstage, but I often couldn't hear any of it. Sometimes it was hard to even tell what song they were playing. They certainly looked at home on a stage that size, glaring through green smoke like extinct swamp-monsters, and the creepy horror-movie dialog-samples between songs was a nice touch. Once I got used to the shitty sound, things got better right away. Mastodon's riffs are things of beauty, ragged and serpentine and battering-ram direct all at once. And even in the worst situations, their fiery churn is something I can get lost in. Still, the crowd had noticeably thinned by the time they got done. It wasn't hard to tell why the Warped Tour kids who'd come to see Against Me headed for the exits after a song or two; this show was probably their introduction to Mastodon, and Roseland made good and sure that they wouldn't get a chance to hear this amazing band working at full strength.
Just like Mastodon, Against Me plays songs so fast that their minute details got lost in Roseland's pit. But Against Me fared better than Mastodon, partly because their hooks are big and dumb and simple enough to make it through the murk and partly because they've got a fanbase that would go apeshit for them even if they were playing at the bottom of a cave. Against Me are folky in the same way that Bad Religion or Avail or Propagandhi were; they play with crashing, muscular force, and Tom Gabel's scraggly yowl has the kind of lift that make even his non-rhyming syllable-spray lyrics feel anthemic. Gabel knows the biggest unwritten rule of protest-punk: for anger to resonate, it has to be giddy and euphoric, something to revel in. On record, the band sometimes plays around with disco-punk counter-rhythms or jug-band neotraditionalism, but onstage, all the songs sound pretty much alike, gloriously so. Every track was a massive singalong, and massive singalongs have a way of sounding good even in unbelievably shitty rooms.
Of the three bands, only Cursive has actually done anything to enlarge their sound, adding a couple of multi-instrumentalist sidemen since the last time I saw them. Of course, those two sidemen spent most of their time honking and squealing away at a trumpet and a saxophone; everything is relative. Where both Mastodon and Against Me are fundamentally extroverted bands, Cursive's sound is comparatively surly and self-involved. Tim Kasher's voice is a lopsided blurt, and the band's arrangements are cluttered and claustrophobic. Onstage last night, all the members of the band wore wrinkled suits, which gave them a louche, rumpled Afghan Whigs sort of air but which only added to the surliness. At the start of their set, they sounded like absolute ass, atonally lurching toward nothing. Things picked up steam as the songs became more spirited and the sound started to cohere into something recognizably tuneful, eventually getting to the point where scattered fists in the crowd went up to punch the air at the big moments. On one song, Kasher sounded like he was yelling "Ciara!" over and over, which was pretty funny, even though I'm pretty sure that's not what he was actually saying.
Voice review: Sarah Wilson on Cursive at the Bowery Ballroom