It's an average night in Trees. The bar is dark, the lights are half-assed, the drinks are flowing and there's a reasonable crowd. Rock is playing over the PA, and there's a low chatter. The only clue that something weirder than the usual fare served up at Trees is going on is that I followed a guy with a Mars Volta bumper sticker into the parking lot. We've got a two band bill, and no one really knows what to expect. Zorch, hailing from just down I-35, are an Austin duo revealed by the slowly retreating red curtains of Trees to a pretty small audience crowded around the stage just after nine. A pulverizingly loud monotone synth fills the venue along with a kind of humming noise. It's an auspicious start. I'm not sure if I'm ready for sub-Kid A electro the day after a long holiday weekend.
See also: -The Mars Volta at Palladium Ballroom (2008 Review) -Alice in Chains Was the Highlight of Rocklahoma 2013
Zorch then proceed to totally tear that shit up. Screw electro, the duo carry on to produce some sort of bizarre alien rock music that has no time for human conceits like time signatures or steady rhythmic devices. The drummer and vocalist, a man called "Shmu" apparently, seems to have the drumkit as an extension of his body, because there's no way someone can play at that pace and be that consistently amazing while singing over the top of it. There's not so much in the way of lyrics, rather another layer to the synth which by now is a multi-textured beast pounding an audience bemused by a backdrop of psychedelic shapes and retro video-game imagery (I saw Doom and Mortal Kombat, a sure way to win this reviewer over). If Shmu actually memorizes these drumbeats, which are insanely complex, and plays them the same way every night, he is probably more useful to the United States in the field of cryptography. They are triumphantly excellent, the sort of support band you're delighted you turned out early to catch.
After a short break, it's time for the latest Omar Rodriguez-Lopez project. I confess, I was expecting something totally different from what we got. Teri Gender Bender, from Guadalajara punk band Le Bucherettes, is not someone who I was acquainted with. She timidly walks on to the stage clad head to toe in what I can only describe as a dress like the ones the Amish might wear, a pale blue number burying her under many layers of material. She's only a tiny thing, and she spends the first minute or so grinning demonically and bowing in appreciation to the audience. Omar's on the left, trademark guitar in hand, with former Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks in the middle on a set-up I've never seen, a keyboard over a bass drum where the rack toms would usually sit. He proceeded to play the keyboard one-handed and the snare and hi-hat with the other hand. Nicci Kasper, a songwriter partner of Parks', had a stack of keyboards on the right providing the bass.
I am totally unsure how to describe what came next. It's best to tackle the actions of the two leading forces in the band, Gender Bender and Rodriguez-Lopez, and bear in mind that the music itself is something like eighties synth pop meets Siouxsie and the Banshees, only much better than that sounds. Gender Bender is a wild, unbridled force of nature, a whirling dervish of a lead singer who is at turns timid and shy and at other turns on the verge of some sort of mental breakdown, a mess of limbs and hair. At one point she did a full-on chicken dance when there was no music happening.
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She has a voice that beguiles, with a range that's everything from a bewitching tone that has endless depth to just a full-on scream, which is often her method of ending songs, sometimes after the music actually stopped and she's just a woman in a massive dress screaming. Her dancing style is like a five-year old who saw someone do the robot once, and whose favorite song just came on the stereo. It's all jerks and movements which bear no resemblance to the rhythm. Her major interaction with the audience, apart from thanking us in Spanish, is to tell us that the war on terror will be over soon, and we need to begin the war against "THEM!" She points at the ceiling and gazes in fear. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she grimaces, sometimes she just falls on the floor, full-on, with no bracing herself for impact. She is utterly fucking insane and a totally magnetic front woman, one of the most arresting I've ever seen. You can't not look at her. She's an enigma wrapped in an Amish dress wrapped in a beautiful set of pipes.
Omar, behind her and not reacting to the insanity unfolding center stage, is totally into this. He bucks and thrashes, just like the old days when he was deeply into what the Mars Volta were putting out. His guitar playing is utterly restrained compared to those days, but he clearly believes completely in what he's doing. While Parks and Kasper are the ones driving the rhythm (which, it should be noted, is one that is toe-tapping when not being sweepingly majestic), Omar plays the complex melodic counterpoint to the synths, a series of guitar acrobatics that instead of being the central concern of a project form a more coherent whole this time, a voice in the choir rather than a solo in the darkness. He even provides the backing vocals for a couple of the more memorable numbers, presumably off the forthcoming debut album.
The band as a whole are never anything less than fantastic, a collection of world-class musicians playing music they believe in. Sometimes it channels a dreamy Mercury Rev, sometimes you can feel the punk, now and again there's electronica. Everything is short, focused, tightly wound and without doubt on point. There's no genre this band can't conquer. The whole gig, lasting about an hour with no encore, is short but utterly enthralling. I urge you to see this band if they come near us again. Those not at Trees last night missed out on a one-of-a-kind experience from a band you're going to hear much, much more about when this record hits next month. If, of course, they can translate the wonder of this live show to record. That's a big if, but if it's anything like the hour in their company in a dark room in Deep Ellum, it'll be one you want to listen to again and again.