The Magnetic Fields/Symphony Space/December 7, 2019
Born in Baden-Baden, Germany, a young Stephin Merritt moved with his mother throughout the northeastern United States until they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. As a youth, he began spelling his name differently for different purposes; “Stephin,” the pseudonym he used to sort his junk mail, subsequently became the spelling he used as a musician. At age 14, he made his first recordings with a cheap synthesizer and an old four-track recorder, a low-fi electronic sound he adapted when he conceived the Magnetic Fields in 1989. Initially, the Magnetic Fields (named after the novel Les Champs Magnétiques) was a solo project, with Merritt playing all the instruments himself, until he began recruiting musicians in the nineteen-nineties. The present core of the Magnetic Fields consists of Merritt (guitar, ukulele, keyboards, harmonium, melodica, lead vocals), Claudia Gonson (piano, drums, percussion, vocals), Sam Davol (cello, flute), John Woo (banjo, guitar), and Shirley Simms (autoharp, ukulele, vocals). The band’s 11th and most recent studio album, 2017’s 50 Song Memoir, contained 50 songs, one to commemorate each year of Merritt’s life.
The Magnetic Fields’ two-hour performance at Symphony Space was the third of a four-date Merritt residency (two performances by the Magnetic Fields plus one each by two of his other projects, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes). For this occasion, the core band was expanded with Future Bible Heroes’ Chris Ewen (synthesizers, piano), Pinky Weitzman (viola, Stroh violin), and Gothic Archies’ Daniel Handler (accordion). Thirteen of the 31 songs were drawn from the Magnetic Fields’ best-known work, the three-volume concept album 69 Love Songs, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. The set also included songs from other albums, four as-yet-unrecorded songs making their live debut, and a cover of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee.” The music frequently shifted styles, from cabaret to indie-punk and country music, often spiked with quirky arrangements. Humorous or ironic lyrics mixed with melancholy and bittersweet sentiments, during which Merritt’s unrefined baritone was its richest and most heart-warming; Gonson and Simms also sang lead. Threads of a unique worldview weaved together as if the performance were the soundtrack to an off-Broadway musical. A Magnetic Fields concert is an atypical musical project, effectively eccentric yet completely compelling.
Sick of It All/The Bowery Electric/December 11, 2019
In 1984 in Queens, vocalist Lou Koller and his brother, guitarist Pete Koller, had a name for their band even before they actually had additional musicians. As high school students, the brothers formed Sick of It All in 1986 in their parents’ basement in the spirit of the hardcore punk bands they were enjoying at CBGB’s Sunday matinees. Sick of It All became a major part of the New York hardcore scene and sold half a million records worldwide. The band currently consists of the Koller brothers, plus bassist Craig Setari and drummer Armand Majidi. The line-up has remained unchanged since 1993. Sick of It All’s 12th and most recent studio album is 2018’s Wake the Sleeping Dragon!
In October 2019, opening two nights for Municipal Waste at the Bowery Ballroom, Lou Koller announced that Sick of It All would perform in four of New York City’s five boroughs with Agnostic Front in December. This mini-tour launched at the Bowery Electric. With the audience less than arm’s length from the small and low stage, Sick of It all moshed alongside its fans from the first song. The band’s hardcore was rooted in fast and angry rock and roll and heavy metal, summoning raw power and explosive energy to keep every song exciting. Lou Koller worked a shrill vibrato into his singing, his brother Pete jumped high repeatedly as he played lead guitar, and the rhythm section drove the propulsive beats. Even with this hard and heavy structure, the songs remained melodic yet never leaned towards pop. With no new album to promote, the 33-year-old Sick of It All concentrated on the songs it recorded in its first decade, and the fans seemed fine with this. No doubt this kind of performance will keep Sick of It All at the top of its genre.
Agnostic Front/The Bowery Electric/December 11, 2019
Guitarist Vinnie Stigma (born Vincent Capuccio) was born and raised in New York City’s Little Italy, just a few blocks from what in the early eighties would become the central vein of the hardcore punk scene at CBGB’s. He formed Agnostic Front in 1980 to fit that scene, but initially could not seem to hold onto band members until 1982, when he recruited Cuban-born vocalist Roger Miret, formerly the bassist in the Psycho. With other musicians still coming and going, Stigma and Miret anchored both the band and the local hardcore community. Rather than repeating its music, Agnostic Front was among the hardcore bands that began to embrace and merge thrash metal into its sound without ever leaving its punk roots. The band finally split in 1992, with Stigma and Miret working on separate projects. They reformed Agnostic Front in 1996. The present band consists of Miret, Stigma, guitarist Craig Silverman, bassist Mike Gallo, and drummer Pokey Mo. Agnostic Front released its 12th and most recent studio album, Get Loud!, on November 8, 2019.
Sharing a bill at the Bowery Electric with Sick of It All, Agnostic Front cut like a massive razor blade. Hard and fast, the band tore into its catalog and rallied the audience with angry, defiant anthems. As Miret grunted the lyrics through smoky vocals, audience members huddled tightly to chant choruses alongside him. Meanwhile, the musicians behind Miret played a thick barrage of smoking aggression, thrusting forward powerfully and speedily with no caution or sense of nuance. While other bands from that era eventually evolved into power pop, heavy metal or even progressive music, Agnostic Front is the band that has remained most faithful to its original hardcore sound. Agnostic Front’s performance proved that the band is authentically hardcore for life.
Unmaker/The Red Party at Mercury Lounge/December 14, 2019
Based in Richmond, Virginia, guitarist Jim Reed had written several riffs that developed into songs that were not appropriate for his heavy metal band Occultist. In 2016, he chatted about this with vocalist Aaron Mitchell , who had been singing in the black metal band Crater and the heavy atmospheric band Slowing, who also desired to sing beyond the confines of traditional punk and metal formulas. The two formed Unmaker, played regional gigs, changed their band personnel a couple of times, and released a debut album, Firmament, in 2018. The band presently consists of Mitchell, Reed, former Large Margin, Hex Machine and Brief Lives bassist Chris Compton, and former Occultist and Weird Tears drummer Brandon Whittaker.
The monthly Red Party at Mercury Lounge, a center of gravity for the local goth, darkwave and post-punk underground, proved to be the ideal event to introduce Unmaker’s music to a downtown audience. Unmaker performed a hard-edged multi-textured repertoire of original songs that combined hard rock and dark wave with distortion and atmospheric sounds. Throughout the performance, Mitchell invoked a shadowy presence, often singing in spooky-sounding minor chords, as Reed charged into shimmering guitar leads and thunderous chords, and the rhythm section supported with its own simmering contributions. During the extended instrumental portions of some of the songs, the band came close to sounding like a progressive metal band. Overall, the band captured an intense dynamic and kept it just below the boiling point. Not easily boxed into a singular genre, the band created its own sonic island. As the band matures, it will be interesting to see what it becomes.