Stoic rage reigned supreme last night. Two separate bands, both wearing black clothes and blank stares, played loud, abrasive, nauseating music, angrily ripping the air to shreds with little discretion. It was loud, jarring, incomprehensible, and before we knew it, it was all over. Dirty Beaches and Iceage played for a combined 50 minutes, packing a punch twice the size of the show’s space and time. Like a flash nightmare, the two bands carried their wrath onto the Cat’s small backstage, dropped it all out onto the floor, then kicked at it until it was a bloody mess.
Dirty Beaches, the solo project of Taiwanese-born Canadian-raised lo-fi songwriter Alex Zhang Hungtai, was the first set I caught (the bill was actually four acts, but for a Tuesday night I had to get real). With a wide net that varies from abrasive sound-frequency experimentalism to gauzy swing-pop, it was hard to know what to expect with Dirty Beaches live. Hungtai’s proper debut under the DB pseudonym, Badlands, was a mishmash of goth-spewing lo-fi instrumentals, hazy Phil Spector doo-wop murder ballads, and Lynchian takes on Elvis rock n’ roll. Therefore live, it could either be danceable-but-difficult, or just straight-up impenetrable. Hungtai went full-tilt with the latter.
I thought I’d have the pleasure of hearing songs like “Lord Knows Best” or “True Blue” at the very least. Nope. Instead, neither of those fairly accessible songs were played, Hungtai opting for drone-y explorations into insanity. In some ways, it was more performance art than anything else; a noise rock show as told through deliberately conjured mania from the erratic songsmith–onstage insanity for insanity’s sake, with the added element of loud, screeching noises. Echoed barks dissolving into crassness.
Hungtai began the set sitting down in front of a Korg modulator synthesizer and a few effects pedals, producing curling, mind-piercing drones with the help from a noise-guitarist who didn’t flinch as he scraped his strings feverishly. Soon enough, seemingly in a fit of unprompted frustration, Hungtai kicked the chair out from under him, flinging it backwards, directly into a few crowd members, and nailing an unflinching witness in the chest to little reaction from anybody. Like, none.
Aside from inexplicable rage of the performance, Dirty Beaches’ set drew from goth, Scott Walker baroque-psych, Roy Orbison if filtered through a garbage disposal, and straight up hardcore lo-fi. Hungtai’s incomprehensible rockabilly croon turned volatile wail met with mechanized hallway drum samples, grinding bass tones, and scathing guitar thrashing, all which proved for a wholly frightening set of songs, completely unpredictable, and vaguely unsettling.
Then it was time for the four young Danes collectively known as Iceage to hit the stage. And that they did. Saying nearly nothing, and playing one of the shortest, most brutal sets of music I’ve probably ever seen, Iceage’s angry, visceral, hedonistic punk was like a stab to the gut (the band’s merch included Iceage pocket knives, FYI). As the crowd erupted into an all consuming mosh, I was able to take a step onto a convenient ledge to the side of the stage. From there I felt like I was watching a cock-fight from the sidelines, through the lens of my camera, able to see it all without suffering the physical trauma of being a part of it.
I didn’t recognize a single song, though I’m quite fond of New Brigade, so there’s that. Either the songs were played with such crass energy that they lost all their landmarks, or it was just too loud to make anything out. For a band who’s spent much of its ongoing childhood deliberately shrouded in mystique, it makes a great deal of sense that this group wouldn’t try to please anybody in particular. Instead I watched a band of four Scandinavian teenagers show us just how angry music can still be, just how much passion can come from four seemingly apathetic players.
Frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt looks like a freshman in high school, but wails like he’s Henry Rollins. He cried out with rage while wrapping his microphone cord around himself, and even roping in a few brave souls up front, gasping with emphatic distress. The kind of give-no-fuck swagger that Rønnenfelt exudes cannot be faked. After 20 minutes of rapidfire drum fills, almost black metal blast beats, quickfire chords, and visceral yelps of unchecked rage, in the blink of an eye, almost before his last song was even over, Rønnenfelt stepped out into the crowd and vanished. I guess the set was over. Without displaying any signs of life, the band began wrapping up their equipment, and they, too, were gone. The crowd dispersed just as quickly, but I’m sure their bruises will linger longer.