Thursday, January 08, 2009

Lycia, live in Scottsdale

Below is my short review of last Saturday's Lycia show that was recently published on the Alterati webpage. Thanks to Wes Unruh :

The legendary darkwave/ethereal act Lycia played their first show in ten years Saturday night in Scottsdale, Arizona. There is an extensive history of the band on their wikipedia entry. They are absolutely essential listening in some circles, but totally obscure to most. They have been cited as an influence by numerous bands, most notably in my memory by Type O Negative during the October Rust era. Type O had toured at the time with Lycia as an opener, and Lycia’s influence permeates October Rust.

The crowd was varied, but the goth-industrial crowd seemed to be most fully represented, as expected. My contact with and knowledge of this subculture these days is severely lacking. To be frank, I never really “got it” in the first place. While in high school in the mid-nineties, my little group of metalheads and musicians was separated by one or two degrees from those hip enough to be part of the “industrial” crowd. As a Projekt records act, Lycia was lumped in with a crop of goth/darkwave bands popular with that crowd, but Lycia was different in that their music seemed to defy categorization, and avoided the “slit-your-wrists” lyrical content of other bands. Even the artwork was ambiguous, creating an ethereal atmosphere all on its own. And they were extraordinarily weird. Their music almost did not make sense, seeming to exist in a world apart. As Aaron Turner said of the psychotically bizarre doom band Burning Witch, “when I first heard Burning Witch I laughed…and then I did not”.

Also on the Scottsdale bill were Hotel Hotel, whom I missed, and local acts Bella Lune and Audra. I arrived just in time for Bella Lune, a Phoenix-based darkwave group. Their brand of lush, electronics-laden darkwave has always been too danceable for me. The “shoegaze” style Lycia exemplifies makes much more sense to my ears. Nevertheless, their melodic sense is brilliant, and singer Fuchsia has a slightly nasal vocal delivery that is actually quite amazing. It may help that she is stunningly beautiful. The interplay of harmony and melody on the last song they played was brilliant, and I will probably purchase their debut album for it alone.

Audra is another local band that plays a fairly indistinct style of post-punk influenced rock. They seem to be hugely popular locally, but they just didn’t do it for me, although a fair assessment of the band would require a show without anxious anticipation of an act I had waited 13 years to see.

After Audra, the crowd thinned a bit, and by the time Lycia took the stage, a good portion of the crowd had either left or settled to the back of the bar, as there was considerable crowd noise coming from the rear. There were probably 30-40 people huddled close to the stage as the sound-man played “Summerhead” from the Cocteau Twins 1993 album Four Calendar Café. As the last track played before Lycia came out, this seemed of particular significance to me, as I have always heard an odd parallel between Lycia and the Cocteau Twins. In fact, it was Peter Steele who mentioned both bands in a 1996 interview for the now defunct Guitar magazine.

The Lycia lineup consisted only of Mike VanPortfleet and Tara Vanflower. Mike explained before the show that in the absence of a full band situation, their set list would consist mostly of their synth-based output from the Estrella album. In the nineties, the press dubbed virtuoso Eric Johnson’s guitar tone the “violin tone”. Mike Vanportfleet’s incredible guitar sound could be described the same way, but more like a synthesized violin section playing delicate washes.

Due to feedback problems, Mike could not sing the songs he intended to, instead playing his songs without vocals. While disappointing (Mike’s semi-whispered singing voice is every bit as evocative as Tara’s), watching him play three instrumental tracks reminded me how much of Lycia’s sound was Mike’s vision from the beginning. You can hear this going back to their album Wake, a collection of early demos from the 80’s. The soundscapes he creates are like nothing else. It is hard to tell how many layers of synth are piled in there sometimes, but they never muddy, and are perfectly rounded out by the delicate guitar lines. Tara’s vocals on the other songs were beautiful, though most lacked lyrical content. Her voice is truly distinctive and beautiful, and fully realized in a live setting where she can just belt out the wordless cries of much of the Estrella material. Getting the live sound right is important for music like this, and I went in not knowing what to expect, but what they do translates incredibly well live. It is a shame that Mike’s voice produces so much feedback.

The setlist was short (they only played seven songs), and as Tara explains in a blog entry on her Myspace page, the technical problems they experienced cast a shadow over the show for them. Nevertheless, it was great to finally see such an important band live. Hopefully more live appearances are forthcoming.


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