I drove up to the wonderful Ottobar in Baltimore to catch a noise-rock double-bill so too-good-to-be-true that it was as if the lords of aggression themselves had forged it. I imagine these mighty creatures in their red-glowing cave, dipping their battle-scarred fists into molten iron, before plunging them into icy mountain rapids to cool and harden. The first fist of fury they named Keelhaul. The second they fastened to the end of a tree-trunk to fashion a warhammer; this they called Unsane. For decades these two mystic weapons of pummel made their way through the mortal world wrecking havoc on any and all who encountered them. Separated for many years by the fog of war, on Saturday night these two legendary forces reunited in a furious concert that stirred the blood and let slip the dogs of war.
Noise-rock is mostly about the musical expression of one thing: aggression. It isn’t pretty music, it isn’t nice. Noise-rock doesn’t ask politely and noise-rock never ever says “I’m sorry”. Noise-rock karate-chops you in the throat and knees you in the groin. Noise-rock throws you to the ground by your shirt-collar and pummels you with telephone books. It’s angry man music and it has been too damn long since this area’s tapped into the real old-school source of the stuff. The other night Boris and Russian Circles put on an amazing display of thinking man’s metal; at Saturday night’s Keelhaul/Unsane show you were too busy dodging blunt sonic jabs and throwing fists of your own to do much thinking. While you experience a post-metal show; with a good noise-rock show you are lucky to survive. Saturday night’s concert was so damn good I barely made it out alive.
In 2009, I saw Keelhaul perform live at the Velvet Lounge. That set was so good that it took the 5-spot on my Top 5 Shows In and Around DC of 2009 list.* Somehow, incredibly, I can’t believe I am typing this, Keelhaul’s Saturday night set at Ottobar was even better!
Keelhaul brought a maniac energy to their performance on Saturday night that ratcheted up everything that made their 2009 show so great. They mentioned how glad they were to be touring with their old friends Unsane again and I think that reunion served as an unneeded but awesome adrenalin shot to the band. Keelhaul were on fire on Saturday night. Burning through tracks that span their four albums, their set was a relentless, dizzying bombardment of complex metal and noise-rock. There was also a real sense of bad-ass showmanship to their set that wasn’t there at the Velvet Lounge last year. While that show was for a small crowd and felt like a jam hang-out, the Ottobar set was scorching hot and blistering fast. Switching up between songs that were spent in under 2-minutes to 9-minute endurance rides without notice, Keelhaul maintained their unconventional reputation. My favorite moments were when the whole band would close their eyes while playing and just exterminate the crowd with mind-melting sonic brutality. It was like they were guitar-playing Daleks or something. One key difference between Keelhaul and Daleks though, Daleks don’t repeatedly spit huge loogies at the ceiling mid-bass guitar freak-out.
There are two reasons Unsane are touring right now. The first is that it is the 15th anniversary of the release of their best album, “Scattered, Smothered & Covered“.** The second reason is that it is the 25th anniversary of Amphetamine Reptile Records (Am Rep). At the end of August this dormant, old-school, noise-rock label is holding an anniversary festival in its hometown of Minneapolis. Am Rep was an underground label and was without a doubt the undisputed king of the noise-rock genre. They have all sorts of special treats in store for their specialized fan-base; including some one-off reunions and Unsane performing “Scattered…” in its entirety. To that end, Unsane are playing a series of warm-up shows to shake the rust off their old classic. Baltimore was one of the cities lucky enough to get a warm-up date.
Not that Unsane needed any warming-up. It was like they went out to the barn, pulled the slip-cover off their old Camaro, got in, turned the keys, and the engine rumbled to life like it had just come off the production line. Taking the stage to a canned Travis Bickle monologue, the band took their time getting set to play. There wasn’t much fanfare as Travis faded into Bernard Hermann’s great score for a bit. After a few saxophone squeals though, it was time for Unsane to come roaring out of the gate. I have been to a lot of ‘full album’ shows, as they have become quite popular to do lately, but I have never been to one done with such a casual attitude. I didn’t hear anyone in the crowd geeking out over hearing “Scattered…” and the band barely acknowledged what they were doing; it was a little odd.
Maybe it didn’t matter. The band came across as a group of serious, hard-core, ass-kickers there to do a job. A very angst-filled, noisy job which they did like pros. Vinny Signorelli, the drummer, is one of the best noise-rock drummers around. Right up there with John Stanier on Helmet’s “Meantime”, on “Scattered…” Signorelli delivered one of noise-rock’s finest drum performances. Seeing him lay down those thuggish beats live was a rare treat, especially with his the tattoo on top of his head showing through his shaved-down hair and his demonic destroyer facial expressions. Dave Curran seemed to be the nice guy of the group, cracking jokes and smiling as his bass lines chugged along like the sound of Huey chopper blades mixed with M-60 door-guns. Chris Spencer delivers distorted shouting vocals that have by now become a staple noise-rock ingredient. What some of the kids in the crowd may not have recognized is that Spencer is one of the guys who set that standard. His singing was unsettling and intense, and put everyone in the crowd on edge. Spencer’s guitar playing was awesome to watch too. He came across as a very subdued guitar player, even though he was unleashing a cool range of sound trickery. One particularly cool move was when he would ride a strong strum out by sort of turning his torso around his vertically-held guitar.
As Unsane tore through “Scattered” the psychic energy in the room seemed to get thicker and thicker with aggression. After finishing their album, Curran told us “So that was Scattered. Here’s other songs”, and then the band unleashed a series of their hardest hitting singles. Everyone was rocking out in their own head-space the whole time, but where earlier that elbow-brush might have been ignored, now it solicited a swat and a quick apology. Teeth were bared, serious faces were set in stone, fists were clenched and sometimes thrown. Unsane are pure noise-rock, the real Am Rep sound, and on Saturday night they tapped into the inner Taxi Driver in all of us.
* It should be a testament to how great 2010 has been for live music that even though Keelhaul’s set this time was better than last year’s, they may not place on my year-end list due to the steep competition.
** If you are thinking – “Hey, don’t Hootie and the Blowfish have an album called that?” – please direct yourself outside and slam your head in a car door.