Guardian Alien | Starring | Kisser | Zagk Gibbons The Firebird August 16, 2012
The line between improvising and jamming is quite thin. None of the bands at The Firebird last evening were the archetypal Dead-head or Phish-phreak groups. Guardian Alien (subject of this week's RFT Music feature story) is a cross-cultural improv troupe from Brooklyn. Fellow New York group Starring is an absurdist psychedelic rock collective. Kisser is a mathy trio from St. Charles and Zagk Gibbons is a local solo performing loop maestro. But all of the bands' sets stepped way beyond the realm of improvisation; roughly 70 percent of the music performed qualified as jamming.
Zagk Gibbons set the evening's tone with an impressive showcase of multi-tasking - triggering drum machines, dogpiling guitar melodies onto his looping pedal, sporadically manning an electric bass, and hopping on a drum kit while his patterns played back on autopilot. Reference points include Minus The Bear, Ratatat and Holy Fuck. After a handful of songs that pushed the boundary of attention, Gibbons announced "This will be my last song. It's really long." He was right. Gibbons' set was promising, and with some self-editing he could be capable of greatness.
Kisser followed with jagged, mostly instrumental indie rock that put the group in line with local weirdo legends like the Conformists and Dazzling Killmen. The band's structured portions were meaty, the free-form sections meandering. At more than one point, the band sounded confused and at the edge of abandoning the song and apologizing into the microphone. Luckily, the group pulled through. Feel free to read the last sentence of the previous paragraph and replace "Gibbons" with "Kisser."
Starring was billed as the evening headliner, but played second to last. The band was the evening's biggest draw, and a few nerdy hippies filed in during the group's line check. Imagine a They Might Be Giants fan having a life-altering bad acid trip and you'll have a decent idea of this band's demographic. Starring's set was the most successful (spoiler alert!) and the group whose jamming was most deliberate. The tightly knit outfit reminded me of a weirder Black Mountain or, more specifically, a rocking-er version of Kansas City oddball Ad Astra Per Aspera.
Starring's singer Clara Hunter is a commanding performer, her raccoon eyes and yoga-like movements lending a dramatic element to the group's songs. The band's instrumentation is slightly unconventional - drums, bass, organ, and violin with Hunter swapping between guitar and flute. With the aid of distortion, the organ's low register chords were Sabbath heavy. The wah-pedal enhanced violin was reminiscent of Hendrix. Somehow, the guitar was the least guitar-y of the non-drum instruments.
As a whole, Guardian Alien's set was confusing. It was difficult to tell when the soundcheck ended and the set began - until drummer Greg Fox banged a miniature gong, the official instrument of "get it on." Once the band was in motion, vocalist Alex Drewchin, Jr. seemed confused, guitarist Bernard Gann looked bored, and bassist Eli Winograd appeared to be obliviously rocking out.