There are some things that, no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t un-see. Images are burned into your brain for all of eternity, in many cases haunting you and giving you nightmares. It’s the sort of stuff where you want to look away, but for whatever reason are unable to do so. I had one of these such experiences at Lincoln Hall this past Wednesday night with a triple bill show of Oscillator Bug, The Stargazer Lilies and TOBACCO. Let me tell you the story of how it destroyed me mentally.
Opening the night were Chicago’s own Oscillator Bug, who have been on this tour for a little over a week but are just now getting around to playing a hometown show in celebration of their debut album Bursts of the Million. While they’re technically a quartet when performing live, pretty much all of their fractured songs and compositions are built by frontman Zaid Maxwell, who started the project because he had these sounds and melodies in his head that wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t fit with any other band or project he was working on. The results are something truly unique, though most people describe Oscillator Bug’s sound as synth psych-pop. You’ve got to find some way to sum it up concisely. To my ears though, it’s more like a sonic assault. Songs overflow with more noise than often feels sensible, yet there’s still a clear melody and strong beats propelling everything forward. While there’s a central groove to most of their songs, sound effects and synths buzz around your head at all angles to the point where sometimes it can feel like there’s a little ADHD going on with too much to try and pay attention to. Of course it’s things like that which make the record worth repeat listens, mostly so you can pick up on everything that’s going on. Meanwhile in a live setting the assault extends beyond the mere auditory and into the visual, as lights surround the band on all sides and are consistently changing in time with the music. They’re not tremendously bright though, as ample attention is also given to the projection screen behind them, which shows a variety of psychedelic imagery. The band is a highly functioning machine while performing, and Maxwell plays ringleader throughout. I’d best describe his demeanor on stage as “staccato,” which is really to say he’s moving at a mile a minute, whether that’s in his halting vocal delivery or switching back and forth between a guitars, synths, pedals and other sound manipulators. He’s a one-man wrecking ball, and his three bandmates are right there at the core because there’s so much to do. Overall, Oscillator Bug’s 25 minute set was extremely high energy, fun and just a bit nuts to experience. More than a few people standing near me commented about how impressed they were after the band wrapped up, and in no way do I disagree with that sentiment.
Things got a little different with The Stargazer Lilies’ performance, but not in a weird or uncomfortable way. It was simply a sonic shift from the technicolor psych of Oscillator Bug into a world shrouded in muted tones and drones. The New York-based trio powered through a 40 minute set that was heavy on ambient and shoegaze melodies. It was glorious and beautiful and loud, which is really just as it should be. One of the main things I came to realize over the course of their set was that they have the word “stargazer” in their name partly because their music intends to be more uplifting than downtrodden (naturally, it’s also a type of flower). You may be inclined to gaze at the ground out of pure genre habit, but pay close enough attention to the way their songs are structured and do what you can to discern some lyrics, and suddenly there’s this positive harmony that shines through the cacophony. That’s a somewhat rare quality for a band like this to have, which is probably why they’ve been steadily on the rise over the course of the last year or so. There are two small areas in which their live show could use some improvement, and those are with the presentation and vocals. I understand that with most ambient drone-style performances the crowd is supposed to let their minds drift and internalize just about everything, but those not fully entranced may find the band’s deep lighting and projected images to be a bit boring. They’re not hyperactive like Oscillator Bug, nor are they danceable and showing crazy videos like TOBACCO (more on that in a minute). Then again, if you’re the filling in that band sandwich, there’s very little you could do that wouldn’t be perceived as boring. Aside from that, Kim Field does great work on the bass, and is equally talented behind the microphone – when you can hear her, of course. Guitars overpower everything in this style of music, but the vocals are there to function as their own gorgeous instrument and if they’re not properly mixed they’ll be completely drowned out. Field’s voice was barely audible during the songs, and the couple of times she attempted to engage in stage banter it was nearly impossible to hear and make out what she was saying. Outside of those couple of things, it was a highly enchanting set.
The evening’s headliner was TOBACCO, but it might make more sense to call the guy “wacky tobacky” based on how much strange and offbeat humor played into his live set. Thoroughly aware that having a crowd watching a guy behind a table of buttons, knobs and laptops while lights flash can be pretty boring, one of the main elements in TOBACCO’s live show are videos projected on a screen behind him. He started his set by showing a clip of “The Jerry Springer Show,” which included a hilarious story that a guest told about finding his fiancee cheating with his best friend. From there, it was all about the weird, wild, perverse and strange, set to pounding beats and highly manipulated vocals. If you’ve heard of TOBACCO and maybe even heard his music, then that only tells one small part of this guy’s aesthetic. Music videos for songs like “Streaker” and “Super Gum” (both very NSFW) give you a much better idea of the visual and auditory madness that’s rules his set. I mean, that second video features re-edited video from an actual porno from the 80s wherein people have sex with a strange, female version of E.T.! Any newer videos that were shown during the performance, including “Streaker,” may have been shot within the last few years but had just the right tint and grain to make it look like a product of the 70s or 80s to keep with a running aesthetic and motif in the world of TOBACCO. So what you do during the set is watch the (mostly) psychologically damaging videos while dancing your ass off. Part of me wants to detail all of the figurative war crimes that my eyes bore witness to, but it’s probably better if you don’t know, just in case you want to discover and explore this box of horrors yourself. So is the TOBACCO live show worth your while? I’d liken the experience to a car crash – it may look nasty, and there’s certainly the possibility that people were hurt, but through whatever morbid Curiosity you can’t help but want to look. The man reaches into the dark recesses of your human inclination and plays around in the blood and pus. You’ll walk away feeling violated and maybe even a little offended, but some part of you also loved it and craves more. It’s incredible how close our sensations of pain and pleasure are to one another.