Wednesday night, a few bands with seemingly little in common rolled through Oakland’s Starline Social Club as part of Noise Pop’s 25th anniversary festival. I’m not sure how to describe this lineup except like when you walk into the kitchen super hungry at 1am (probably for the 3rd time) and all you can find is Ritz crackers, marshmallows, and a bottle of Sriracha. All good stuff, but who would be crazy enough to combine them? 1am you, in a moment of either starved desperation or unhinged creative liberty, that’s who. But somehow, it just… works. Sorta. Once you get used to the taste.
First, the Ritz crackers aka opening bands Blank Square (San Francisco) and Mall Walk (Oakland). Blank Square is a fun saxophone-led indie rock outfit. Despite having only 2 songs on Bandcamp, they were interesting and engaging enough for an opening act. You can stream those 2 songs here– but if you’d like to purchase, as of writing they’re available for the rock-bottom price of $1000 each! (update: Blank Square has since released a full album on Bandcamp titled “ANIMAL I” for $10)
Up next, Mall Walk was a pleasantly agreeable garage rock outfit who rocked like your parents left you home alone for the evening, and you just wanna turn it up a little without pissing off the neighbors. This band made intriguing faces during their performance, which made me wonder if they were still learning to play their instruments, or maybe they just really had to poop. Then the guitarist busted out a sick dad-rock solo, which answered my question. The best moment was their closing track “Sleeping in Shifts” and its emotionally detached refrain “It’s cool, I can fake it” which sounded like Local H in their prime… you know, that inescapable “copacetic” song from the 90’s. As an older millennial, I loved this. If you like Wavves and Preoccupations (fka Viet Cong) but you have a hangover and would prefer a little less attitude, this is your jam.
Mall Walk – “Sleeping in Shifts” Live @ KEXP
Next up, the marshmallows. Black Marble, aka Chris Stewart (with his friend Oliver on guitar for tours), is an ex-graphic designer from Brooklyn now living in LA. He plays a soft, cool brand of lo-fi dream pop soaking in colorful synths and simple bass lines, falling somewhere between the half-asleep fantasy pop of early Sun Airway and the muted minimalism of The xx’s first album, with a Cold Cave sheen over the whole thing. It’s Immaterial, released on the consistently excellent Ghostly International label, landed on a few Best of 2016 lists. On record, this is exceptionally and purposefully understated music. It’s unpretentious and not too technical, just kinda floating there like a delicate cloud of new wave keyboard presses and timeless nocturnal vocalizations a la a young Paul Banks. Live, it was the same thing, except with a sold-out room full of fans really, really eager to gently 2-step to it. And strangely, that was enough. It was just right. The catchy melodies and hushed authenticity felt like a breezy escape from the loudness, the harshness of the outside world. A communal relieving of anxieties. Bodies swaying gently in unison, smiles on everyone’s faces (except the one guy who yelled “TURN UP YOUR AMPS!!” during the second song, which the rest of us met with a collective side-eye, and the band shrugging as though he were speaking a different language). For such a gentle affair, the crowd was surprisingly enthusiastic at the beginning and end of each song, showering the band with applause and demanding an encore which never materialized…
Black Marble – “A Great Design” Live @ Starline Social Club by YouTuber maedmendoza (take your headphones out for a sec at 0:15)
…and that’s because we still had to pour Sriracha all over this concoction, which came in the form of an ultra noisy, hyper-abrasive electro-industrial thrash-metal assault by the name of Uniform. These are 2 dudes from NYC that with just a microphone, a guitar, and some punishingly harsh programmed electronics, absolutely tore the roof off the place. It’s clear the majority of the crowd was there for Black Marble, because by the time they hit the stage there was a LOT more room in the Starline, which was good for the fans that wanted to mimic the wild thrashing they were about to witness. From the moment the first “notes” burned through the PA, the maelstrom of paranoid screaming and chunky riff-driven industrial noise metal didn’t halt, except to make space for squealing feedback and the uneasy low humming of a live wire. Perhaps it’s because during the current state of affairs I’m incapable of viewing anything through an apolitical lens, but watching Uniform’s head-banging, floor-stomping show felt like a direct response to our current political climate. It was like watching a writhing, distressed being clawing at the collapsing walls for its right to survive. This was intensely frustrated performance art representing characters at the at the end of their proverbial rope, and felt more like a necessary exorcism than a show. I actually felt lighter walking back to BART, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, knowing the burden of the world doesn’t sit squarely on any one individual.
Uniform – “Tabloid”
I don’t know what the promoters were thinking booking these bands together, but in an age where tour lineups can often feel like the sonic equivalent of targeted Facebook ads, with every act curated to match your tastes and squeeze your wallet, Wednesday night was the most interesting opportunity for genuine unexpected discovery at a show I’ve seen in a while. Props to Noise Pop’s weirdest.
I’m gonna go brush my teeth now.
Check out Mall Walk’s music & tour info here.
And Black Marble.
And Uniform (loving that Bandcamp URL).