Report: Rangda Live in Easthampton, Mass.

 

Sun City Girls’
Richard Bishop and Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny lock together
September 2 at Easthampton’s
Flywheel venue. Also performing: Major Stars and Sunburned Hand of the Man.

 

Text and Photos by Jennifer Kelly

 

We had all the guitars Thursday night.

 

Or at least that was how it seemed on a hot night in Easthampton. It was like
all the guitars, all the pedals, all the guitar players had stepped onto a
tilted board and slid helplessly towards the Flywheel. There were two of them
in Sunburned Hand of the Man, three in Major Stars, two in Rangda (and at least
one pretty famous one in the audience), and when they got going, in Sunburned’s
endlessly morphing drones, in Major Stars’ psychedelic 1960s mayhem, or in
Rangda’s closing waterfall cascades of guitar notes, Sun City Girls’ Richard
Bishop and Six Organs Of Admittance’s Ben Chasny locked together in the
beautiful downward scales of “Plain of Jars,” it could sound like an army. If
you were looking for a guitar last Thursday and you were anywhere else, good
freaking luck. You should have been at the Flywheel.

 

The night was supposed to open with a band called Muzzled
Ox, essentially Sunburned Hand of the Man plus free-jazz saxophonist Paul
Flaherty. But Flaherty never showed – at the close of the set, Sunburned’s
drummer said he’d been involved in some sort of accident – so it was really
Sunburned Hand of the Man.
An expanded version of Sunburned Hand of the Man. There were 11 musicians set up in a
semicircle, a drumset and a big brass lamp.

 

 

A visiting poet set up a music stand for the first bit,
reading a piece called (I think) “Paradise Pond”, as grey-haired gentleman
keened through one reverb-addled mic and Matt Krefting in a Spiderman mask blew
and moaned into another. At one point, the poem turns to describing a
conversation between a man and a woman, in which the woman utters the fighting
words, “You have a woman’s hips.”  The
man answers, “You have a monkey’s pelvis. You have a crow’s beady eyes.”  But the piece really takes off when the poem
ends, a smouldering drone erupting into crescendo, the vocalist convulsing and
howling into the mic, bending nearly double from the waist and collapsing
around a utility pole in the middle of the room.

 

 

All this would be too much chaos without a very strong
rhythmic anchor, and the main drummer, set up with kit in the center, does a
Herculean job keeping the piece moving again. Between him and the bass player,
there’s actually kind of a groove going, a heavy, sinuous forward motion that
brings about a 100 different sounds together and allows them to make sense. It’s
hard to tell, even so, if Sunburned Hand of the Man plays one long piece or
several, whether they’re making the music up on the spot or following
pre-established ideas, or even what a couple of the musicians are actually
doing. (One holds a small electronic instrument in two hands and works with his
thumbs. It looks exactly like he’s texting, except for the wire that leads to
the amps.)  But okay, it sounds pretty
good most of the time and occasionally really good, so who’s counting?

 

 

The Major Stars are next, moving the action off the floor
and onto a small raised stage. Or at least most of the action, since the giant
riff has hardly crested when Kate Biggars jumps down onto the floor with her
guitar, hair flying, to corner a young woman in front and hold her guitar over
her until the feedback howls. Hayley Thompson King, the singer, also makes good use
of the mic cord, roaming the floor at the front of the stage in a white slip
dress, banging heads with the boys in front as she moans out the bluesy verses.
(“It’s like a big sweaty playpen,” she observes at the break.)  Wayne Rogers and third guitarist Tom Leonard
stay up on the stage, but Rogers,
at least, is in constant motion, one rock star gesture melting into another, as
he leads a frantic mesh of 1960s hard rock, trippy wah’d psychedelia and
chugging metal vamps.

 

 

The Major Stars aren’t afraid to work the clichés of
old-style guitar rock. Every power chord is an occasion for an outsized
gesture, and most riffs end with Rogers leaning
back in a lunge, his pick hand curved over his head like Jimi at Monterrey. In one of my
favorite moments, he and Biggars lock into a thundering riff, both pulling
their guitar necks up when they hit the final high note. They do it once or
twice in perfect synchrony, then crack up over it. It’s a goof, but not really
irony. And anyway, it wouldn’t come across at all if they weren’t such good
players. Rogers
gets a chance to show off mid-set in an extended, high and rapid solo that
reminds me of Eddie Van Halen.  

 

 

All this is fine, but I’ve really come to see Rangda, which
is quite possibly the world’s obscurest super-group, comprised of Sun City Girl
Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance and free-jazz drummer
Chris Corsano (a frequent collaborator with the missing Paul Flaherty, among
others). Their album False Flag, out since the spring on Drag City, is a really
amazing blend of noise and lyricism, friction, fury and flat-out gorgeousness
in equal measure…and a shoo-in for my top ten this year, probably top five. It’s
kind of a miracle, given how busy all three of them are, that they had time to
record the album, let alone tour it, let alone play small towns like
Easthampton, so when they show up to play, it’s a special occasion.

 

 

They start with the lyrical “Sarcophagi,” Richard Bishop
taking the high lovely lead, Chasny filling in below with rounder, fuller tones.
Corsano is all over the cymbals, some on the drum set, some hung on a bar
behind him, in a quiet frenzy. The piece builds in a slow, stately way, Corsano
moving from cymbals to sudden bursts of rapid sticks on toms, a pair of mallets
held between his teeth as he goes.

 

The whole Rangda set is drawn from False Flag, a
record that was, itself, an attempt to recapture a one-off improvised show in Seattle last year. There
is massive, dissonant “Fist Family,” with its siren-like guitar wails, and
ponderous “Bull Lore” full of firestorm-like drum rolls and obliterating
crescendos. And last of all, best of all, there is “Plain of Jars,” the long,
meditative album (and show) closer, this time with Chasny playing the melodic
lead, way high up on the bridge of the guitar, and Bishop supporting. And then,
as the piece gains strength, they are both playing the same riff, that liquid
cascade of guitar notes that sounds clear and pure and a bit like Television. Their
fretting hands move in tandem up the neck of the guitar, and it’s just as
beautiful as the record, maybe more so.

 

And with that the preponderance of guitars that has,
somehow, descended on Easthampton
dissipates, and we all walk out into a night that is still humid, but cooler. As
I leave, I hear someone behind me humming the closing riff from “Plain of
Jars,” trying, I suppose, to keep a beautiful moment present, at least in
memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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