Show Review: Fuck Buttons with Growing and Chen Santa Maria at Bottom Of The Hill, 11/13/09

by Jonathan Pirro on November 14, 2009

fuck_buttons

... and the horse they rode in on.

A noise-rock show is a different sort of animal than most musical performances that one usually attends: it’s mostly improvisational, there usually isn’t a wild light show, the performers hardly ever (if ever) look at the audience, and it’s about ten times louder than the last Muse concert you went to, even when you stood next to the P.A. and forgot your earplugs. It’s also likely that you will not be able to predict the level of fanaticism that will be inspired by even the slightest change in the steamroller of sound that is the band’s performance; the crowd could just as easily metamorphose into a frenzied circle pit as it could remain stock-still in silent contemplation of the wall of noise barreling through them. For Fuck Buttons, it ran the full gamut: loud, soft, crazed and quiet, and it was beautiful and destructive chaos all at once.

Apropos of my own triskaidekaphobia (this is the last Friday The 13th of the year, and it chose this month to backfire on me), I forgot my own earplugs for this show; I am extremely grateful to the staff of Bottom Of The Hill for being able to provide me some, as this was easily the loudest show I went to all year. Oakland duo Chen Santa Maria were the first to provide my expectation of this fact, opening the show with a momentous, thundering bass drone that immediately caused the entire crowd to stuff their own ears with foam, lest their brains be rattled right out of their skulls. In addition to the drawling, rumbling low end, the musicians added distorted loops to the mix from distorted and clean electric guitar scratching; the former became somewhat of a foundation for percussion, while the latter provided some semblance of melody to the blistering wall of noise. The band played one continuous piece for a span of about 30 minutes, before finally turning down the thunderous hum and bringing their loops to tame silence.

My first experience of the second band, the Olympia-based experimentalists Growing, was four years ago at the Great American Music Hall, opening for Japanese noise mastermind Merzbow. At the time, they consisted of a duo playing guitar and bass loops, similar to those of Chen Santa Maria (but using a bass guitar instead of a synth drone); I was rather surprised when they were joined by a third musician, a woman who brought an entire table of pedals onstage, which were connected to a microphone and sampler and provided the main foreground elements of the band’s sound. The performance was also drastically different: guitarist Kevin Doria and bassist Joe Denardo traded back and forth a set of intricate, upbeat melodies, their instruments taking on a synth-like sound as Joe and samplist Sadie Laska added a pulsing bass beat behind each song, which undulated back and forth between slow and fast over the course of their set. Like the opening band, the performance seemed to exist as one improvisational piece, although there were some noticeable “breaks” between sections in the set.

The duo of Fuck Buttons finally arrived onstage just before the stroke of midnight, giving life to their performance with a set of tinkling, warm melodies played on a bizarre set of electronic instruments. Their equipment table, aside from a few mixing boards and a sampler that provided tumultuous, pounding backbeats, was littered with miniature keyboards and toy microphones; these were used with great effect to provide their beautiful, snarling sound. Traditional noise pieces are usually devoid of rhythm or melody — if they possess either, the harsh volume or sandpaper distortion on said rhythm or melody overshadows any sense of peaceful harmony within the piece. Fuck Buttons, by contrast, continues to play soft, beautiful notes within their tangled web of dissonance; tinkling bells, gentle harps and glowing synths could be heard underneath the buzzsaw harmonics and muffled, but definitely howling, vocals.

Throughout their performance, the two members of Fuck Buttons never once ceased to move, and DID occasionally glance out at the crowd, as if somehow wishing to see approval over the intricate layers of sound they were adding to their compositions. For a few sections of their set — which had many distinguishable breaks, although the volume did not drop and the sound did not stop, until the end — main vocalist Benjamin Power snatched up a pair of drumsticks and began pummeling a silver tom perched on the corner of the stage, the danceable beat barely discernible against the catastrophic bass blasts and the wailing power electronics. Andrew Hung, who provided most of the rhythm of the pieces, did not once stop gesticulating wildly around his side of the instrument-covered table, his fevered antics only adding to the crowd’s excitement as the sonic mayhem continued.

It was nearing the hour of 1:00am when, in the middle of a truly epic-sounding performance piece — having built up several layers of sound, the band sounding for all the world like the bastard stepchild of Sigur Rós and Ministry — both band members suddenly stopped moving, and without warning, the entire sonic assault came to a screeching halt, ending as abruptly as if a breaker had burst and killed power to the entire building. There was one moment of breathing room before the duo killed power to their instruments and waved at the crowd, which realized that the show had ended and exploded into joyous cheering. There were a few half-hearted attempts at trying to applaud the band back onstage, before the house stereo system woke up again with a new surge of music, indicating that the show had come to a close, and no encore was coming.

Despite the lateness of the show, and the overwhelming level of volume experienced within the club’s walls, I found it to be a rather remarkable performance. It still amazes me to this day that a group of musicians such as these three bands, who can create such chaotic, violent, and blindsidingly-loud sound, will still have a group of focused, devoted, and peaceful fans attending their shows. The tranquility of the observers coupled very nicely with the warm melodies of Fuck Buttons’ performance, while the layers of dissonance provided sharp contrast to those multicolored notes. Next time that I see them, I hope to have my earplugs in my possession; there is no doubt that I missed some of the finer, more intricate elements of the performance, and I look forward to their next time through the Bay Area.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joby November 19, 2009 at 5:14 pm

This caption is awesome.

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Gordon Elgart November 19, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Thanks! I think it’s some of my best work, so I’m glad you approve.

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