Gangcharger – Free Exhaust
There aren’t too many bands that can withstand an entire personnel change and keep going. There are even less that come back stronger for it – but Gangcharger is one that has. Ethan Ward’s love child – with huge emphasis on the love – has not only rebounded after being abandoned by virtually every member of the band over the course of late 2009, he’s driven the rebuilt band beyond anyone’s expectations, maybe beyond his own – and definitely miles beyond the previous lineup’s promise – with their latest release, “Free Exhaust.”
In the past, Gangcharger has been labeled “a poor man’s Sonic Youth,” mostly in relation to Ethan’s noisy, borderline atonal and effects-laden guitar work – and in the past that description hasn’t been entirely wrong. But with the band’s new album “Free Exhaust,” that pigeon-holing has proven far too limiting. Ethan still tends to walk the same musical and noise paths as Lee Ranaldo with his guitar – and even sounds a lot like Ranaldo when he takes over vocals for half the record, but these songs contain a rough brightness not readily apparent in Sonic Youth’s work. Much of this record does sound like a departure from the “Death Valley ’69” era, but it maintains a consistency – and a distinct simplicity – that was soon lost in the Youth repertoire. Add the vocals, and static from her “noise blaster,” that Paige Peterson brings to the mix, and Gangcharger’s sound then takes a completely different interstate out of that valley.
Rounding out the lineup, Adam Rojo (also guitarist for Denver’s post-punk heroes Ideal Fathers) and Dan Barnett form an often swooping, often driving – but always essential – rhythm section, where Barnett’s drumming approaches a pipeline-surfing intensity. But the addition of Rojo’s considerable – and heavily guitar-imprinted – talent on the bass adds a slight but significant melodic quotient to the mix. That melody mirrors Ethan’s feral and calculated sound, and brings it to a depth that Gangcharger’s earlier lineup was never quite able to reach.
From the opening stick cracks of “All My Shirts Are Black,” this record takes you on a journey through alternately frantic and foggy landscapes, sometimes slipping through high speed, pitch black, steep chases (“Vapor,” “Secret Destroyer,” “The New Split”), sometimes swirling in smoke-filled bars amidst scantily and loosely dressed lounge lizards (“Filters,” “Soaking Quiet,” “Narrower”). On the latter tunes, Peterson’s lead vocals – sultry and strong, panting and forceful – bring a minuscule tint of Portishead to the band, while the guitar wails and dirges scrape out a huge cavern to house their noise. Her “noise blaster” (basically a collection of musical pre-school toys run through some damaged sound pedals) adds the perfect amount of frantic static to keep a mosquito-at-night type of buzz prevalent. It’s just right to draw you in and keep you just frustrated enough to maintain the songs’ eros.
“Free Exhaust” is a great listen, and a triumphant evolutionary step in Ward’s music – and it’s great to see Gangcharger back alive after losing everyone. Both Ethan and Denver deserve this type of reward.
Catch Gangcharger at the Gathering of the Clouds event as they headline the opening night at the Overcasters’ Weather Center – 1401 Zuni – on Thursday, October 21. The locally-focused festival will feature ten Denver bands between Thursday and Saturday, and focuses on CD releases from both Gangcharger and Overcasters.
Smoothbore – Red Lines
Denver’s got plenty of experimental bands, and plenty that are great and getting better, as they feel their way through new musical terrain and depend on the curiosity of the more intrepid and deeper-digging listener for their survival. With Smoothbore, they – and we – have found a band that more than pays for the dedication with an austere, minimal – yet bulldozing, completely destructive – hard rock sound.
And all that without a single six-string guitar (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of all the hair metal guitar hero gods).
Smoothbore is a three piece that carries some hipster weight, and promises to use that presence to add momentum to an already growing post rock/post post punk scene. Drummer Scott Lewis – formerly of the hilarious and fantastic Black Smiths (a tribute band that focused on a mixture of Black Sabbath and The Smiths tunes) – lays the groundwork from behind his massive-sounding trap set for the trio, upon which dueling bassists Sonja Decman (formerly from The Symptoms) and Matt Flanagan (of Boss 302) lay a thick weave of bass and vocals that’s unmet by any other Denver band of the moment – maybe just about anywhere.
It’s the distinct lack of guitar that starts to draw in the listener – even before putting the needle into the first groove – maybe from a place of disbelief. But soon after the first song, “I See You” begins, that guitar is not only far from missed, it turns out to be a relief. The music becomes uncluttered, and less demanding, without the (what you soon realize has become) the constant, pre-adolescent whining for attention that most guitarists seem to be crowing in virtually all other rock. Instead of feeling sold short – or even confused – by the omission of what has become such a bedrock staple of Rock, I felt clear. While Decman’s bass tends to focus on some slightly more traditional bass constructions (but only slightly), Flanagan’s bass takes on something approaching a lead guitar, but stops masterfully short, leaving the difference to speak even more ridiculously loud about the often overbearing guitar – and it’s uselessness.
Lewis’ drumming is always spot on, and even more evident without the guitar hero distraction. Playing rhythm section with dueling basses seems to suit him well, and gives Smoothbore’s sound a simultaneously stripped down and layered feel. Kind of reminiscent of secret shows played in abandoned warehouses and on closed factory or meat-packing floors – spacious, but still crowded with lack of use, feeling both old and scary, new and treacherous. Their overall sound recalls a feeling of late ’80s New York City No Wave – without the anti-structure ideal. It brings to mind Live Skull, or some of Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard’s work from back then.
The one possible drawback to the bass-only constructions may be a tendency to follow a quiet-loud-quiet-loud pattern, but it feels more like a stage in the band’s growth. Melody and lead from Flanagan, along with Decman’s caustic vocals and lower end bass hold promise for some exciting and vital material.