[ Free Salamander Exhibit (sort of previously known as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) recently toured California. My correspondent to the south, Mike Stone, wrote this review of the show and provided an audio recording. ]
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Free Salamander Exhibit, Casbah, San Diego, March 3rd, 2014
Review and Recording by Mike Stone
Photos by Cari Veach // burntflower.net
Every so often I encounter a band that gets my full attention immediately, whose songs get instantly stuck on repeat in my mind’s ear, and in heavy rotation on the car stereo. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum was one such band, bludgeoning my senses with “Sleep is Wrong” from their 2001 debut, “Grand Opening and Closing!” They instantly became an all-time favorite with their artfully progressive and challenging music, full of hooks and emotion. Over the next few years, I saw them live every chance I got. Each show was more intense than the last, and their songwriting and production got more focused despite a vast scope. When they announced that they would be “closing the museum,” I was saddened. I sincerely hoped that the hole left by the disbanding would get filled, somehow. We’ve all seen it happen: our favorite acts lose a one or two key members and try to continue on without, often ending up watered-down or just simply lacking the chemistry that won our hearts.
Free Salamander Exhibit, comprised of former Sleepytime members, Nils Frykdahl, Michael Mellender, Dan Rathbun, and David Shamrock are joined by Drew Wheeler, have managed to pick up where the Museum left off.
Opening the show with “The Gift,” the band welcomed their fans with a refreshing familiarity: ethereal and improvised atmospherics jumping headfirst into a heavy and angular onslaught. Immediately noticeable here, was the healthy inclusion of metal. With David Shamrock on drums, double bass blazing, and the triple guitar melee with Rathbun’s underlying and powerful bass, this was a grooving and difficult piece, around twelve minutes in length. It was the only song that I had any familiarity with, having been posted on YouTube from a few sources, but the poor sound quality of the average YouTube clip couldn’t prepare anyone for the dynamic and exploratory sound of this band.
These are seasoned musicians, and the core of the band has worked together in many incarnations, and with a very necessary level of educated prowess, the chemistry I loved so much with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is still very much here. Donning masks made of large wicker baskets and clothes made from strips of burlap, among other things, the band appeared as though from a dystopian and pagan time as their basket-heads rocked back and forth in cartoonish fashion with the music. It was a few songs into the set before they were to remove the baskets, revealing crudely applied but effectively dramatic makeup. They certainly haven’t lost the somewhat burlesque tone of the Sleepytime era. Transitions from song to song are segued through the characters that Frykdahl puts forth, sometimes a little crazy but always interesting and even funny.
Rathbun is easily one of the best bassists I’ve ever seen, not in any “flashy” way, but in his amazing ability to execute such twisty, angular parts with ever changing counts (as far as I can figure out). The bass tones were delightful: full and sonically gigantic without being overbearing. He also played an instrument that I believe to be the “Sledgehammer Dulcimer,” a log-length stringed instrument that is played with sticks and/or plucked, and with carpenter’s clamps used as capo’s to prepare for different tunings. The instrument is rich and full-bodied with a distinctive growl, a great merge of bass and percussion.
Next in the set was “Unreliable Narrator.” This was the only song that I could say hinted to any other bands, though only in glancing similarities to King Crimson and Meshuggah. This is heavy and grooving, and I could not help to nod along with the pulse, despite so many changes in the upbeat/downbeat continuum. The guitar work here was exceptional. Often when a band employs more than one guitar, we hear the guitarists simply mimicking each other or layering the same parts, but Frykdahl, Mellender and Wheeler kept an outstanding interplay, creating a richness of auditory vines, flowering here and there. It was difficult to decide whom to watch at any given moment. It’s really quite impressive to see this level of interplay displayed in the live format, and I can’t wait to hear these songs represented from the studio.
“Atheist’s Potluck” began with happy bells falling into a bouncing and carefree groove with lovely guitars intertwining through several progressions, eventually landing in a driving straight shuffle with crunchy guitar. It really does seem like there’s more metal influence with this incarnation. Devoid of lyrics, the song still told a story with clear paragraphs and an ultimately satisfying resolve.
“Who Will Speak For Me?” began with Mellender on another instrument I recognized from the Museum, also an apparent hybrid of dulcimer, guitar and percussion, but much smaller than the Sledgehammer Dulcimer. Performing a quick loop sequence, he then picked up a horn to accompany Wheeler on glockenspiel over lonely bass and guitar. This was the most lyrically engaging song for myself. Frykdal’s lyrics can often be so fast and rhythmically challenging that it can be difficult to keep up without repeated listens, but this was of a deliberately clear cadence. It began: “First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.” Sleepytime’s music was always lyrically rich and highly interpretive, it was part of what made the whole experience a much deeper affair than your typical “rock show.” Similarly, these songs will beckon many listens and feed much speculation about the intent of the authors.
Mellender furiously switched from instrument to instrument in the course of many songs, Frykdahl, passionate in his executions of guitar, flute and the lion’s share of lead vocal duties writhed in reaction to the very music he was producing as though he was along for the ride as much as the audience.
Shamrock’s drumming was well thought out and smartly delivered, congruent with his previous Sleepytime tenure. His playing wove into the rest of the instrumentation so well that the clever nature of his rhythmic placement often was easy to overlook. Wheeler is an excellent addition to the group; also a multi instrumentalist, I am curious to learn more about where he comes from. The diminutive stage was such that he was a little bit hidden behind Frykdahl and Mellender. I look forward to seeing them on a larger stage as the interplay between these five performers is really something. A friend I had coaxed into attendance repeatedly called the performance a “breath of fresh air.” It is no small accomplishment to remember so many parts on so many instruments and play them all with passion as they do.
Next in the set, “The Keep” was cleverly aggressive: “Flute Metal,” if you will. The many tricky and polyrhythmic passages were delivered like punches. It was very heavy, yet still with a definitive pulse that was easy to clue in to.
“Undestroyed” was a sweeping and melodic offering. Written about Leonard Peltier, it was highly dynamic and dare I say, epic? The word is so overused in this generation, but how else could I describe a song with such strong emotional content and dynamic range? This is music for the challenging listener. Building and building to a raucous crescendo, it dropped back down into a breakdown reminiscent of wind-up toys running out of tension. This song was a ride with as much care put into the ending as beginning.
Frykdahl’s banter almost seemed like channeling. Channeling the next song? How much of this stuff does he come up with on the fly? This time, he channeled two people, dressed as Porters from the San Diego Porters Union, up to the stage, each with their own piece of old luggage, which they clumsily fumbled with as the “Porter’s Jig” was performed by the band. The second instrumental of the night, it was a non sequitur that brought another dimension to the night. Because, why not? This lead into the much more thought-out whimsy of the next song: “Time Master.” Full of juxtaposed parts and somewhat cartoonish vocals, it told some sort of science fiction story, but again, absorbing this cacophony for the first time, I am forced to learn about the story later. No complaints, though.
“Anxiety of Influence” was full of dark angst and more of the signature rhythmic interplay. With long phrasings and cleverly dissonant harmonies with a decisive conclusion, this was no vaguely presented faire.
More banter from Frykdahl lead to old-southern style a capella improvisations, dropped in on by Mellender on the baritone horn, as if announcing the races. This was to be the final song of the performance, and it started huge, heavy, dark and dissonant. Once again with a swinging, sweeping rhythms and angular punctuations, this reaffirmed that these musicians have continued forward from where Sleepytime left off. Again, I cannot wait to hear studio versions of these songs. The renewed fervor and heady injection of metal to the equation shows that there is much to look forward to from this quintet.
Opening the show were California Bleeding, a drum and guitar duo that liberally explored noise and doom in ways reminiscent of the Melvins crossbred with Hella. They were sonically thick with exploratory interludes and a healthy respect for space between heavy-handed flurries of sludge. I would definitely see them again.
Ana was an unorthodox trio with guitar, keys and an interesting setup for drums, including a 28” marching bass drum and a fire bell. It is refreshing to see that there are local acts that are still trying to do something really different. Their songs were measured and moody with great choices in tones. Very dark and dissonant. Overall, a great lineup to help open the new Exhbit.
[ Mike Stone is a musician who exists in Southern California, and has a red telephone on his desk that connects him directly to Demise O. He is working with the very first entirely online and international faction of the Immersion a Composition Society, the Interroclef Lodge (Interroclef.bandcamp.com) ]