Årabrot, Helen Money, Insect Ark, & Rabbits 5.14.16

Årabrot poster

Portland is undeniably a hotbed for live music. On any given night, there are at least two promising gigs in town. However, even for such a busy city, it’s always a treat when international bands come through.  When Norwegian Grammy winners Årabrot announced they were bringing their bizarre brand of heavy alongside a diverse and talented bill to town on a Saturday night, it quickly became a must-see show. Luckily for all in attendance, the promise was delivered in full from start to finish and the crowd responded accordingly.

Rabbits

It’s rare enough that the first act of the night is a band with enough history, skill, and energy to headline in its own right, but if any group could stand as the “can’t miss” opener, it’d be Rabbits.  Like a punkier take on Melvins’ classic sludge-rock or a more aggressive and thrash-oriented child of Nomeansno, their set was intense enough that I didn’t even notice the lack of bass guitar until three songs in because I was too busy nodding my head along with the music. The fact that the band’s primary vocalist managed to have some of the most well enunciated lyrical witticisms in songs like “Pack Up Your Shit” was especially impressive considered the throaty and raw nature of his vocal delivery. In essence, their set was tense and left me wanting more, especially due to an almost deliberate sense of brevity. I’m sure they played for half an hour, but the energy was high enough that the set seemed to have just begun. I’m already a decade late to the party on Rabbits, but if you’re a local and haven’t caught them yet, let their next show be your first.

Insect Ark
Up next was Insect Ark, a group who I’ve seen pegged as a “members of” band but is an act worth note based simply on its own merit. The duo of multi-instrumentalists Dana Schecter and Ashley Spungin performed a set of hypnotic experimental doom and drone with crackling static interludes that kept the crowd locked in a trance. While Schecter set loops upon loops of distortion and melody, Spungin laid down precise and tight rhythms on drums before the two locked into a solid groove, taking compositions originally recorded with drum machine and giving them new vigor and weight in context of live performance. While Schecter’s stage presence was at its finest while playing the bass, I personally found myself most engaged when she took to the lap-steel guitar at the center of her setup. The otherworldly sounds conjured from this instrument and the many pedals to which it was linked could have held my attention far past the reaches of Insect Ark’s set. The sense of blissful, expansive emptiness carried over from song to song, tying together a set in a way that surpassed my expectations based on already impressive recordings.

Helen Money
Following the energy and tension of Insect Ark would’ve been hard for anybody, but cellist Alison Chesley performing as Helen Money delivered a captivating set. I went in with a knowledge of her reputation but no actual idea of what to expect. I’d heard the phrase “rock cellist” tossed around, but this description fell so far short of the scope of her performance. With a handful of samples serving as backup, Chesley was able to pull off layers of pure melancholy in one song only to deliver a furious performance complete with tremolo-picking and recordings of blast beats in another. The unpredictable nature of her songs and the care with which they were delivered made her set gripping in its entirety and instantly won me over. Her polite thanks after songs of otherworldly passion and creative madness only served to further endear me to the very personal element in music that was otherwise inhuman in nature.

Årabrot

Rounding out the night was Årabrot. With their debut US release in the form of last year’s You Bunch of Idiots EP out on Portland’s own Eolian Empire and a brand new record, The Gospel to tour behind, they took the stage with the hauntingly heavy “Faustus” and proceeded to lay waste from there. Frontman and guitarist Kjetil Nernes had the presence of both clergyman and demon, with his suspenders and trademark hat lending an eerily timeless image one wouldn’t expect of a noise rock artist.  In fact, the whole thing felt like some sort of unholy, psychedelic take on an old fashioned revival. Instead of a congregation of the devout, Årabrot delivered their filthy sermon to a room of the depraved.

With a stomp and a lurch in even the freest of moments, Årabrot gave extra energy to even the lighter elements in their songs due to throaty backing vocals from bassist Milton and flautist/synth wizard Karin. In a way, the sludgy stomp of the band’s recordings was swapped out for swirling textures of guitar and synth that still carried the same degree of urgency, especially with Magnus Nymo’s double-kick drums hitting at all the most poignant moments. The band’s hour-plus set still felt like it ended all too soon, despite closing with a massive jam that faded into nature sounds and ambiance. I could’ve easily found myself lost in another half dozen songs, dancing in place as if possessed. Perhaps it’s a good thing, though. When Årabrot returns to town, the buzz will be even greater and there will be even more energy in the crowd for the band to feed off.

In a city like Portland, noise rock and its sludgy cousins can sometimes be overdone, but on a night like this, Årabrot and Rabbits both showed the expansive and psychedelic properties the style can hold while Insect Ark and Helen Money displayed their experimental prowess in the fringes where genres have little purpose. As I watched other attendees leave with armfuls of merchandise, I felt sure that I was not alone in my opinion. I’m already looking forward to each of these groups’ return to Portland.