Tonight, I was once again surprised in ways I didn’t think possible. That stunning, dancing, ceaseless grip of what small-venue Airwaves can be came back to visit us tonight, and we welcomed it like the return of a lover from war. I also learned that leaving your notebook on the table when you go out to have a cigarette is an invitation for others to write and draw on it (photographic evidence of that below.)
Starting us off tonight was Gang Related, a band that dared use this name without a single NWA cover. Instead, we were treated to some clangy, straight-up emo. And by that I don’t mean Linkin Park, but something closer to Mission of Burma. There were nods to the late ’60s as well, which the singer Albert confirmed to be the case, delivered with some bratty, nasal vocals that worked well with the sound. Their Icelandic songs were delivered with considerably more confidence than their English ones, which used some fairly trite lyrics at times, but when they kept the energy up and the lyrics in the mother tongue, they definitely delivered.
Following up was Sindri Eldon. Sindri’s compositions echo some of the best that ’90s alternative rock had to offer. All the songs tonight were about girls, it seemed, and his lyrics speak plainly and sympathetically to us whether he’s singing from giddy expectation or the boredom of heartbreak. His songs use a musical economy that is honest, unpretentious and sincere, and he casually throws out hooks that you know you’ll be whistling to yourself without realising it days later. Not a single sound is wasted. This same economy was in some ways a detriment, though; much like a sharp and detailed sketch done on a white background, these songs could have done with greater underlying support – in the form of a rhythm guitarist, for example. But these are definitely songs that revolve around the Almighty Hook, and their orbit is solid.
This brings us to the Dandelion Seeds. Let me just preface what I’d like to say about them by emphasising that I appreciate late ’60s psychedelica. One of my first favourite albums was Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Pink’s Floyd’s first LP; the one that pretty much defined what psychedelic rock is supposed to be. But what made that band so phenomenal at the time was their ability to deftly play with composition in a manner that seemed like chaos, but on closer inspection, tried to evoke the sunshine of our childhoods. Dandelion Seeds attempted a psychedelia of sorts, sounding like the Byrds with less disciplined harmonies, but fell flat. The line between “trance-like” and “droning” isn’t as fine as you might think, and this band slogged through a series of dreary hypno-rock numbers with all the psychedelic impact of a factory-made tie-dye shirt bought from the mall.
Now, what attracts me to the smaller venues at Airwaves is the gamble. I get the same rush walking through the doors of a tiny corner club like Amsterdam, stepping into a line-up comprised in part by bands I’ve never heard of, that a dice junkie feels walking up to a high-stakes craps table with a pocket full of chips. I know with each turn, there’s a chance I’m going to hit that winning number and walk away on a cloud. I began to feel that way when Berlin’s Ter Haar hit the stage. This amazing trio, whose two frontmen were equally comfortable with bass and guitar, employed simple guitar loops to back mostly instrumental string pieces that played with different time signatures effortlessly, bringing us some solid, soulful, driving rock. They knew exactly when to shift gears as they took us through the mountains in the night, and the crowd kept cheering for them to step on the gas.
Hellvar followed up, fronted by the incomparable Heiða, a singer/guitarist whose infectious energy informs her band’s punkish, unpolished rock that was both emotive and abrupt. The ghost of what Eve Libertine used to be was apparent when she harmonised with her other singer/guitarist – a brave intensity that makes you smile as she breaks your heart.
Unfortunately, the crowd after these two acts were then subjected to Germany’s Touchy Mob. His music – a solo performance of vocals, guitar, and pre-recorded loops – sounded like a robot explaining what human emotions are. The compositions were a bit too cerebral; sterile, clinical, as if the music was composed solely by what patterns the notes created when typed up on a composition program. At times, this meant extended song codas that went well past their sell date. When he decided to bring up the wall of sound and smack us over the head with a concrete assault of rhythm, it worked quite well, but when he veered towards sparseness, it sounded like the cold, lonely death of an obsolete computer.
Having seen both the heroic and the mediocre, I didn’t know what to expect of Zebra And Snake, a Finnish trio I knew nothing about before tonight. This is a turn at the dice table that gave us nothing but sevens. Comprised solely of a singer/keyboardist, a bassist and a drummer, any stereotypes about those taciturn Finns were evaporated in an icy blast of expansive, powerful banks of pure sound, striking the listener in the heart like an assassin’s bullet from deep in the Arctic pines. If we one day are able to listen to radio transmissions of national anthems from distant planets, we will hear something much like this. The singer had a magnetic charisma in his focused gaze and unabashed dancing that drove the crowd into a bouncing frenzy. Their songs ranged from exhilarating to breath-taking in their power, at once passionate and alien, and it seemed everyone in the place was convinced they were witnessing something like the birth of a new species arising gloriously from a glowing white pod fallen from the sky.
The night really should have ended at this point, because it was simply impossible to improve upon this without somehow involving George Clooney riding a motorcycle through hoops of fire with a Siberian tiger on his shoulders juggling exploding fireworks. But Just Another Snake Cult followed up, leaving the audience to endure a 10-minute sound check that even left the band visibly irritated. Even after these preparations, they never managed to get anyone to hear the violin player of this ensemble, but it’s hard to imagine what a violin would have done for this honest-to-goodness pub rock. The keyboard and guitar drove the North English sound along, with the saxophone laying down some fine grooves. Quite fitting music for a small venue like Amsterdam, and the crowd was more than happy to stomp along to it.
Our headliners this evening, Caterpillarmen, is what you hear in your head when you read the words “math rock”. Lots of odd time signatures that switch up without warning, it’s a bit like listening to a quadratic equation. That’s not to say the music was devoid of soul – when they wanted to throw down and groove, they did so grippingly and effectively. And no one could fault their performance, which was, frankly, pitch-perfect. But like a lot of math rock, there was a tendency for the band to get lost in their own giddiness over their own cleverness, like hearing an inside joke for the second or third time. This self-absorption probably lent to the overly-long breakdowns. They were most effective when they laid off of the demonstrative time signature posing and strove to just bang it out and let the rock speak for itself.
Walking out of the venue, I’d have to say that Zebra And Snake took this night, for being everything that small-venue Airwaves is supposed to make you feel: awed, catching your breath, grateful and hungry for more.
And now, here’s what people will do in your notebook if you leave it on a table in a pub during Airwaves: