Words by: Jonathan Zwickel | Images by: Dave Vann
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.18.10-02.19.10 :: Crystal Ballroom :: Portland, OR
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.20.10-02.21.10 :: Showbox :: Seattle, WA
There's a bigger picture to STS9 than a song-by-song concert review allows. It's an idea I've articulated elsewhere: STS9 is a barometer for the health of electronic dance music. When electronic dance music is vital and populist, STS9 swells with creativity. When electronic dance music chases its own tail into esotericism, STS9 strays, too.
|STS9 :: 02.13 :: Oakland, CA|
Judging by STS9's recent activity, everyone's feeling fine.
Ad Explorata, the new album from the 13-year-old Santa Cruz quintet, is their best in years. Unsurprising, because it takes as sonic touchstone the cosmic beat orchestrations of Flying Lotus (an L.A.-based producer and former STS9 opening act with a new record, Cosmogramma, coming on Warp Records in April), Hudson Mohawke (a 24-year-old Scottish wunderkind who released his brilliant post-hip hop debut, Butter on Warp late last year), and Mike Slott (an Irish electro-futurist whose debut micro-album Lucky19 came out this spring on Scottish indie Lucky Me). FlyLo, HudMo, and Slott are the most exciting thing happening in music right now, live or otherwise, true auteurs crafting bass-heavy, deeply psychedelic, frequently beautiful songs from samplers and sequencers. They're at the apogee of 15 or so years of evolution, from drum 'n' bass to trip-hop to glitch to dubstep to now and their still-unnamed music incorporating it all.
STS9 is on tour right now, doing just that: incorporating it all. The band has always tried new ideas and directions, sometimes to its detriment; over the last few years, longtime fans dropped out as STS9 bored deeply into cold, meticulous laptopism or low-key acid-jazz grooves. Now it seems they're no longer trying new ideas - they're no longer trying anything; they're simply doing it, revisiting and refracting and refining trails they previously blazed. It's a very good fit.
A week after a reportedly disappointing concert in Oakland, CA, they played two shows at Portland's Crystal Ballroom, and two more Saturday at the Showbox in Seattle (Friday's Crystal and Saturday's Showbox shows were sold out). All four performances saw the band involved and sparring and juggling, the crowd responsive and willing and dancing. Short version review: They ripped. Long version...
|Hunter Brown - STS9 :: 02.13 :: Oakland, CA|
Maybe it's the band's veteran status, maybe it's my own longstanding relationship with the music (my first-ever published article was an STS9 album review for JamBase back in 2000) but there was a welcome, middle-aged comfortableness in these shows, in the band's relaxed onstage demeanor, in its accessibility via pre-show charity meet-n-greets. No thousand-dollar rare, crystal shrines onstage, no fire dancers or flower arrangers - yes, longstanding ally/performance painting innovator J Garcia onstage; yes, dynamic two-hour shows; yes, a band warm, professional and ready to rock.
Of course, comfortableness and professionalism can be a problem, signs of a band settling - into old age, into a job, into predictability. But for a group usually predictable in its unpredictability, it might be a good thing. And judging by the makeup of the crowds - tweens, teens and college-aged fans jammed the all-ages section of the Crystal - STS9 appeals to eager rave-revival kids 20 years their junior as much as pleasure seekers their own age.
Over these four nights, STS9 sounded like a band again, tightly interwoven as usual but daring to foray into solos via guitarist Hunter Brown and keyboardist David Phipps. Old songs were played with fresh tempos and strange changes. New elements have surfaced - Neu!-inflected motorik grooves via drummer Zach Velmer and bassist Dave Murphy; guitar-heavy "post-rock dance band" vibes, as STS9 themselves have put it; wonky, propulsive, post-dubsteppish low-end via their new material. Not that these elements weren't there before but they were brought into sharper relief.
Hard to name single-song highlights (always is with STS9) but Portland's second night "Circus" was the gorgeous, glorious pinnacle. Seattle's first night was the most relentlessly hard-rocking; Seattle's second night-closing "Heavy" the best moment brought up from the new album. Setlists spanned very old and very new material. Each night the crowd was in full-blown dance party mode, even Sunday in Seattle, which was sparsely attended.
|STS9 :: 02.13 :: Oakland, CA|
The new lighting situation reflects the creative middle ground the band occupies. Over the years, from video projections on a white bed sheet to seizure-inducing swirling strobes to elaborate narrative storyboards, STS9's lighting design has burned through as many formats as light bulbs. Last year they took a new direction by letting go of longtime lighting tech Saxton and switching to a modular LCD backdrop, customizable to the size of the venue. It's a far subtler experience - more passive, abstract animation, less in-your-face spots – plus a couple Pink Floyd-worthy lasers (!), at least at the second Portland show. Like the plain black t-shirts the band members wore each night, it's a more subdued, conventional approach that focuses audience attention on the music (though not without occasional retina-searing surprises).
The gripes about STS9 - too glitchy or too smooth - applied during a few moments throughout the run. At times the transitions between songs were utterly smooth to the point of lulling (during the first night encore in Portland, for instance - never lull during an encore!). STS9 operated by their own mathematics, a build-up-to-payoff ratio of their own devising. As with all good electronic dance music, patience is essential. What sounded like a malfunctioning laptop was the lead-in to a glorious crescendo; what began as low-key interplay ended up as impossibly locked-in group improv. By design, there were no rough edges to the music. It was streamlined, almost unconscious, until it reached a point of ecstatic release, over and over but via a different route each time. This is the way of good electronic dance music.
(Case in point, Four Tet, aka British producer/auteur Kieran Hebden, who slayed a packed Chop Suey in Seattle two days after STS9 was here. Check out "Love Cry," a nine-minute electro-Afro-jazz masterpiece of slowly shifting repetition from his recent album There Is Love in You, another smooth-edged gem. This is another electronic producer dude I've written about in the Seattle Times who shares an aesthetic sensibility with STS9.)
Again, STS9 has always been a band on a mission of evolution. They showed a renewed sense of purpose last weekend, though perhaps not as lofty as past ambitions - "healing through music" and all that. Now they're trying to entertain while fostering community and growth. They're older, more practical, more understanding of their powers. This is not to say that those powers have diminished but that their relationship to them has changed. Many of us have changed along with them. Just as many have just now joined the ride.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.18.10 :: Crystal Ballroom :: Portland, OR
Set I: One a Day, Hubble, 118, The Rabble, Crystal Instrument, Music, Us, Metameme, Circus
Set II: Really Wut, Beyond Right Now, Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist, Move My Peeps, Aimlessly
E: 4 Year Puma, Peoples
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.19.10 :: Crystal Ballroom :: Portland, OR
Set I: Arigato, Kamuy, Satori, New New 4 U U, Empires, The New Soma, Ramone and Emiglio, EHM
Set II: Peaceblaster, F Word, We'll Meet in Our Dreams, Be Nice, Atlas
E: And Some Are Angels, Monkey
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.20.10 :: Showbox :: Seattle, WA
Set I: Shock Doctrine, Glogli, Tap-in, Hi-Key, Untitled New Acoustic, Tooth,
Evasive Maneuvers, Moonsocket
Set II: Lion, Tokyo, Wika Chikana, Rent, The Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature
E: Lo Swaga, Inspire Strikes Back
Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) :: 02.21.10 :: Showbox :: Seattle, WA
Set I: Somesing, Hidden Hand Hidden Fist, Metameme, Mobsters, Surreality,
EB, Oh Little Brain, Grow, Abcees, Beyond Right Now
Set II: Once Told, Crystal Instrument, Instantly, One A Day, Heavy
E: re:stereo, EHM
Check out our exclusive feature/interview about the new album Ad Explorata and the band's recent evolution here.
Continue reading for more of Dave Vann's pics of STS9 at The Fox in Oakland...
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