April 2008

Christopher Willits & Stars of The Lid
April 28, 2008 The Music Gallery Toronto
Drilling A Concoction Of Drones
Report and photos
by Tom Sekowski
Though the featured act was Stars of the Lid that night, I won’t be stretching the truth when I say my main motivation in being at the show was Christopher Willits. I was curious to see how this guitar manipulator’s recorded output would translate live. Would it suffer from the lack of post-production or would it benefit from a live setting? His recorded projects with Taylor Deupree (Listening Garden and Live in Japan 2004) as well as his new duo project with Ryuichi Sakamoto Ocean Fire left me bewildered, stunned and wanting more. Having a live setting proved to be a viable opportunity to allow this to happen.

Dressed in a simple sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, very unassuming and almost shy, Willits stepped on the stage with a certain amount of trepidation. He said his hellos, “it’s great to be in Toronto, never played here” bit. Then, he plugged in his guitar, turned on his Mac and off he went. The riffs he produced were much harsher than what I had imagined. Playing with great amounts of processing, constantly hitting the pedals, he came up with waves of electrifying sound. Add to this the custom-created software he had plugged into his Mac that ran much of the show and we got music that was really off the wall. Pensive beats that then turned inward on themselves were accompanied with waves of crackly noise that resembled pure fuzz-feedback. Don’t get me wrong; melodies were still to be had. In fact, every piece he played was thick in core melody that was then disassembled, put together again and broken to little bits. The Max/MSP patches he was feeding through his Mac did their job.

The final piece of the night was a ten-minute symphony of louder-than-thou fizzle. Stupid me for sitting so close to the speaker, as I was forced to cover my right ear to prevent the constant ringing from driving me insane. Willits kept the textures pumping, the atmosphere full of thick and juicy surprises and best of all, showed he could simply rock out. The only parallel I could come up with to his work is the style once used by Michael Brook whom I saw on a few occasions during the early 90s, performing a similar (though slightly more bare) set of cacophonous and highly melodic guitar arrangements. If Willits likes to experiment in a studio setting (and in his installation work), he did his best to be his simple, most unassuming self. Rarely has the guitar sounded this alien, yet so ear-friendly. Working off the dichotomy of marrying an experimental facet of his instrument with a more traditional, harsh application, Willits was able to come up with an interesting result. This was an instrumental rock show of sorts for the hipsters amongst the audience, which served as the perfect foreshadowing of what was to come after the brief intermission.
Christopher Willits
I’ve not before seen St. George the Martyr Church as full as it was on this night. It was literally bursting at the seams as members of the audience were forced to sit on the floor directly in front of the stage. The two front men of Stars of the Lid — Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie — walked to their respective places at either side of the stage after the string section had already settled down smack in the centre. The all female string centerpiece was made up of two violinists and one cellist. This set-up was interesting, as placing the string section smack down in the middle meant the band wanted to emphasize an orchestral aspect in their work. That was one of the key aspects that came across the loudest during their performance.

The cello was briskly modified and began to resemble a rumbling bass drone while violins became twitching wave oscillations. Both McBride and Wiltzie played heavily modified guitars (ton of pedals were positioned on the floor) along with their keyboards. In tweaking a few keys, they changed the tone of the drone that was prevalent in each of the four long pieces they performed. McBride further used his guitar to embellish a feedback drone, which he closely monitored, so it wouldn’t slip out of his control. This heavy machination of string instruments along with effects and keyboards produced a heavy, oily mass of sound. Heavy repetition and a lush environment don’t automatically mean this could be labeled under the emblem of ambient music. If anything, Stars of the Lid play something that could be akin to semi-orchestral-effect-drone sound. In places, their music became overtly loud and fuzzy, but even then, it didn’t slip out of anyone’s control.

In careful orchestration, the duo of McBride and Wiltzie was able to hone in on the ever-present drone that soothed, yet electrified this alert audience. The most reflective moment came when McBride sat at the piano and played a ten-minute piece, which the rest of the band embellished in a hushed drone-inducing mass.

The backdrop for their performance was made up of 16 mm films put together by the band’s long time collaborator Luke Savisky. Amassed in bright colours and ever changing scenery, the band’s music was most akin to molasses. At a turtle’s pace, it tricked the mind into thinking that we were all basking in this primal mass of sound for hours, when in fact, only an hour had passed. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another six long years to see this ensemble return to Toronto.
Stars of the Lid
We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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