“Downtown ‘81” at Chazen Museum of Art, Tubal Cain at Art In’s final show, and more events of note in Madison this week. | by Ian Adcock, Scott Gordon, John McCracken, Grant Phipps, and Henry Solo
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 28
100 Gecs is an electronic music duo created by DJs and producers Dylan Brady and Laura Les. Besides that, nothing about 100 Gecs makes any sense. Drawing influences from trap, EDM, ska, death metal, and all corners of the musical universe, the project’s sound is massive and all-encompassing, like trying to fit all music on the internet into your pocket. Their 2019 full length, 1000 Gecs, is a whirlwind of catchy hooks spliced with screeching samples and lyrics about your cell phone. 100 Gecs’ musical language is a product of being chronically online, but rather than making a profound statement about the internet, they simply make fun music. In this day and age, it’s hard not to let the device in your pocket seep its way into your creative process and consumption, and Brady and Les excel at blending, remixing, chopping, and warping sounds into novel configurations.
Fans, or general observers, of 100 Gecs will probably remember where they were when they first heard the gec. I admittedly was late to the craze, but Twitter had been screaming “gec gec gec” at me and I decided to plug into their reality with their music video for “Money Machine.” It features the duo going absolutely wild, amid a barrage of video effects that can be found on Windows Movie Maker and dance moves fit for cringe-posting message boards.
100 Gecs have a knack for taking everything you’re supposed to understand about music and the infrastructure of the music industry and turning it on its head. Through their bizarre online behavior and liberal sharing of their song stems for free, they’ve worked to feed the instant access and iterative mayhem that nurtured them. The duo are in the midst of compiling a remix album for 1000 Gecs, which I’m guessing will sound 100(gecs)% like nothing you’ve ever heard before. —John McCracken
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 29
February 29 is Art In’s last night in operation, which means that Madison is losing one of its most steadfast independent venues. The good news is that Madison has a pretty healthy mix of smaller music venues these days, but Art In has stood out these past few years for its almost freewheeling approach to booking, which brought in a wide variety of artists and audiences. At its best, Art In truly felt like a product of our gloriously messy music community, and by extension offered an important local venue for touring artists who might have otherwise skipped Madison. My favorite memories include a gloriously wacky release show for Lovely Socialite’s DoubleShark EP, the consciousness-scraping electronic assault of Rabit, an experimental sound installation from local duo Filament, a burst of funk from Wilder Deitz and band that seemed to take the whole audience by surprise, and an infectiously fun set just a couple weeks ago from the five young MCs of SupaFriends. So it’s some comfort to see Art In go out on a high note, hosting a release show for a new album from a very good and very fun Madison metal band.
Tubal Cain’s new album, Summon The Mist, is the band’s first release since bassist Bo Chrome Bones joined the founding duo of guitarist/vocalist Alex Drake and drummer/vocalist Kristine Drake. So far, Tubal Cain has been planted pretty firmly in the earliest and most stripped-down forms of black metal, incorporating some doomy undercurrents and the chunky swagger of Iron Maiden. In live sets and on the 2016 album Black Eden, the band balanced the chilling menace of the Drakes’ grimy screamed vocals and austere production values with the accessibility of meaty, concise riffs, and drumming that incorporates both punishing blastbeats and a healthy amount of swing. On Summon The Mist, the band expands on its sound just a bit, starting with a short instrumental, simply called “Intro,” that layers on synths and several mournful tracks of acoustic and electric guitar.
But aside from a few other touches here and there, like the high synth sweeps that accent “Welcome To Gehenna,” this record mostly sets out to enrich the band’s hard-hitting core. Tubal Cain’s riffs are as driving and dense as ever, thanks in part to Chrome Bones’ drilling bass performance, which simultaneously plays off of Kristine Drake’s double kick drums and Alex Drake’s cutting guitar. Especially on the pummeling “Battle Ass” and the tense album closer “Let’s Go To The Sabbath,” it’s clear that Chrome Bones has locked in mightily with what was already a full-sounding two-piece, playing relentlessly heavy but never overly rigid bass parts.
As is always the case with Tubal Cain, one of Summon The Mist‘s great strengths is the Drakes’ vocal pairing, a narrow but charismatic menu of growls and screeches. “Rebirth” is the best Kristine Drake’s paint-peeling rasp has ever sounded on record. Alex Drake’s slightly lower voice takes on a tormented, spectral dimension on “In The Tall Corn.” And the two share lead vocal duties on “Lycanthropix,” which was also released on an earlier seven-inch but benefits greatly from an all-new take here. Matt Jacobs of Ossuary and Jex Thoth recorded the album, and succeeds at capturing the core strengths of Tubal Cain while working in a few new sonic twists here and there. Ossuary, an excellent death-metal trio from Madison, will also be playing this final Art In show, as will DJ Heavy Eye and Milwaukee band Lost Tribes Of The Moon. —Scott Gordon
Helmed by percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, Chicago’s ever-shifting Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has spent 47 years sharpening the edge of jazz’s avant-garde by constantly drawing on the music’s deep roots. In music they describe as “spiritual and Afro-futuristic jazz,” El’Zabar and co. at once strive to create something new and emphasize the very oldest elements of jazz, giving listeners a rich and intuitive sense of the journeys the genre has made between continents, cultures, and sub-genres.
Across its career, and especially on the new album Be Known Ancient / Future / Music, EHE has explicitly reintroduced the West African rhythms and tendencies that informed jazz at its origin. This approach gives the music a new layer and freshness while also making it feel unmistakably right, like two family members meeting again after a long time apart.
This full-circle feeling is particularly strong on “Be Known,” on which El’Zabar swaps out a drumset for a hand drum. Two elements stand out at the forefront of this track: El’Zabar’s percussion and the chanted vocal refrain of “be known.” The persistent drums, never solo-ing or diverging from the initial pattern, and repeating chants create this impression of a cycle, almost like the song will never end and never exactly began, either. The rhythm simply washes over you, carrying Alex Harding’s baritone saxophone and Ian Maksin’s cello with it.
The album’s real stand-out, though, might be “Pharaoh,” named after the great saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. On the surface, the song is so compositionally sparse that it hardly resembles jazz. The center of this song is a shaken percussion instrument repeating a straightforward pattern over the song’s 7-minute length. It becomes like a jolted, racing heartbeat, and the elements that join it, like a meandering saxophone and El’Zabar’s guttural vocals, become like sensations of the nervous system. This is music that feels intuitive despite its complexity, almost like it occurs naturally—its existence is the result of an ageless, naturally occurring process. In a sense, EHE’s music has been occurring forever, and El’Zabar and his collaborators serve as its powerful conduit to the present. —Henry Solo
SUNDAY, MARCH 1
While Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown ’81 (2000) may be seen as a cinematic curiosity that hones in on the nomadic avant-garde periphery of Manhattan in the early 1980s, the film withstands as an essential, humane document of artists’ struggles and reveries. Following street artist and musician Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mysterious hospitalization, the young neo-expressionist finds himself navigating the eccentricities of New York City as singer Saul Williams narrates his encounters from the chic clubs to back-alleys. His wanderings are compounded with the stress of attempting to pay his rent by selling one of his paintings and dealing with the aftermath of stolen music equipment.
The film, screening on a new 35mm print at the Chazen, was largely conceived by Warhol protégé Glenn O’Brien, who constructs the short feature like a beat poet tapestry of musical performances, beginning with MC Cool Kyle and ending on the avant-rock of Walter Steding And The Dragon People. The largely diegetic soundtrack is brimming with the No/New Wave rawness of lived-in anxiety that’s amalgamated with a jubilant, Leftist spirit, which is all absorbed into the film’s tonal daydreams. All speaking parts are dubbed slightly out-of-sync, so it feels like Basquiat is existing in the flesh and as an omniscient specter at once. Often, Downtown ’81 realizes the portrait of the artist’s trials and tribulations as fantastical escapism, like a chance interaction with Milanese model Beatrice (Anna Schroeder) who offers to take care of Basquiat for the rest of his days, or a Bag Lady (Blondie’s Debbie Harry), who asks him for a kiss that will transform her into a fairy princess.
Point of view may largely be confined to Basquiat’s alternatingly commonplace and fanciful travels, but the film does take a couple detours into the worlds of other artists like aforementioned violinist Walter Steding, who breaks the fourth wall to lament the musician’s lifestyle for its lack of autonomy and financial viability. In this section, Bertoglio and O’Brien cut to a hilariously hyperbolic dramatization involving Steding and a sneering cokehead of a record executive. What keeps Downtown ’81 centered, though, is its setting— an obvious creative haven for offbeat iconoclasts who relentlessly supported one another and pursued the interplay and intersection of disciplines. Many of the NYC artists featured, like Basquiat and Steding, excelled with visual ingenuity in addition to their DIY experiments in sound. —Grant Phipps
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4
A cult classic with a mile-wide anti-authoritarian streak, Repo Man (1984) is a violent black comedy and one of the first and best “punk movies” ever made. Repo Man was writer-director Alex Cox’s first film, and it’s bursting at the seams with his ideas about nearly everything. It’s an endearingly low-budget funhouse look at 1980s Los Angeles, overflowing with running jokes, eternally quotable one-liners, and satirical barbs at the banality of Reagan’s America.
Teen punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) is broke and unemployed when he gets duped by grizzled repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton at his very best) into helping him repossess a car. While stealing cars from poor people initially disgusts him, Otto quickly gets hooked on the adrenaline rush, as well as the regular amphetamine usage that the job requires. Soon, Otto and the other repo men get involved in a shadowy conspiracy involving a radioactive Chevy Malibu. From then on the film is a madcap series of coincidences as repo men, rival car thieves, the FBI, and Otto’s old punk buddies all chase after the glowing Chevy.
Cox is a well-known B-movie aficionado, and he filled Repo Man with fantastic, underused character actors, many of whom give their most memorable performances here. Besides Stanton’s speed-freak philosopher, Tracy Walter as the zen mechanic/possible acid casualty Miller gets the biggest share of scene-stealing moments. Hardly a hero, Otto is maybe the least interesting character of the film: a naive lout who goes from slam-dancing to wearing a tie and breaking into cars without ever thinking about it.
Apart from being a wildly inventive, incredibly funny film, Repo Man’s place as a cult classic was really cemented by the fact that it’s one of the first movies to deal with punk rock with any legitimacy. Punks had previously been portrayed on-screen mostly as cartoon villains. While Repo Man also has its fair share of cartoon punk villains, the rest of the characters are absurd caricatures, too. The film is full of authentic LA punks, a solid soundtrack with a theme song by Iggy Pop, and an anarchic worldview that feels truly authentic. 36 years later, it’s still a wild ride, but as Harry Dean said, “repo man is always intense.” —Ian Adcock
2/27: TS Foss, Graham Hunt. Mickey’s Tavern, 10 p.m. (free) (Read more about this show in our interview with TS Foss.)
2/28-3/1: Uncut Gems. Union South Marquee, see link for all showtimes (free) (Read more about the film in our review from December 2019.)