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I spent much of the last two years writing movie reviews, and I had just one ethical guideline for my morning press screenings: Don’t take the food. So how should I have reacted when Tobacco, the frontman the costumed, dancing hype man of the acid-caked post-rockers Black Moth Super Rainbow shoved a stick of warm string cheese into my hand last night at the Rock & Roll Hotel?
It turns out the Pittsburgh quintet—more performance art than post-rock, really—thrives on blowing up expectations. The venue (quite full for a Sunday) seemed primed for something more studied—understandable, given that on record Black Moth Super Rainbow’s verve and heavy use of Vocoder can suggest something out of the Battles playbook, with all the attendant influences. Live, though, the group was dancier, pithier, and freakier, as much flower-child bliss-out as art-school iconoclasm. Not just once was I compelled to abdicate my journalistic distance.
That abandon went for the audience, too, whose members quickly went from nodding their heads to shaking their tails. Decked out in a frayed gorilla costume and what looked like a bearded Bob Dylan mask, Tobacco the dancing furry emerged early from behind the projection screen blocking the rest of the band, and bolted into the crowd. There he largely stayed, hugging, grinding, and gifting with chocolate whomever crossed his path. Once or twice, he grabbed audience members and motioned for them to make out; other times, he whipped the peppiest attendees into a mosh pit. Like an art-damaged Jesus, Tobacco Gorilla Dylan sometimes fell onto the ground crucifixlike. And during the encore, he pulled a large chunk of the crowd on stage (good memories abounded). In other words: This did not look like your daddy’s post-rock.
It didn’t sound like it, either. In a watery and robotic voice, frontman Tobacco sang about heavenly bodies and forests and love while the rest of the group pumped out funky, heaving rhythms and blissful analog synthscapes. Black Moth Super Rainbow has opened for The Flaming Lips, and recently recorded with its producer Dave Fridmann; it was probably no accident that in pulsing songs like “Zodiac Girls” and “Sun Lips,” the group seemed to share the Lips’ crunchy aural texture and winking experimentalism.
The video projections were something far more homespun, but their presence said much about Black Moth Super Rainbow’s performance-first-band-second M.O. Full of frolicking goths, oozing bodily fluids, and Sesame Street puppets from other countries, the videos looked like faux snuff films with a smile, cracked Appropriation art from the YouTube backwaters. Between the acid test on the screen and Tobacco Gorilla Dylan rocketing across the floor, the effect was sheer sensory overload.
And yet, all the visual stimuli meant that the sounds coming from the stage sometimes felt incidental. Or at least that’s what I concluded afterward; during the show, my ecstatic brain barely produced a thought.
Good thing, then, that a short opening set by Dan Friel, who also sings and plays guitar in Parts & Labor, was a slightly more academic affair. Fiddling around a case of cables, pedals, Christmas lights, a drum machine, and a Hammond keyboard, Friel seemed to exhume infectious, high-register melodies from the ghost of Metal Machine Music, like Brian Eno mischieviously soundtracking home videos of his kids. Noisy and layered, Friel’s music had the effect of an orchestra of broken computers and midis.
Strangely, both acts make music that sound hard to get on paper but fans find easy to love, a paradox not lost on Black Moth Super Rainbow. Before its set, the group screened a short film featuring clowns with knives in the first act and Brian Posehn (seriously) in the third. But the second part sent my pen flying fastest: a fake YouTube rant in which a self-appointed commentator laid out a list of his five least favorite bands. Topping the countdown, of course, was Black Moth Super Rainbow. “It just sounds like they’re making music for printers,” he moaned. “You must be a complete douchebag to listen to this music.”
Photo by Benjamin R. Freed