Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zorch and the Surreal Bagpiper

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the downtown nightlife in Tuscon, but it was much more vibrant than I expected. There were crowds of people moving around each other, drawn endlessly in and out of bars and clubs while bands blared cover tunes off the rooftops. I was interested in nothing more than a glass of iced tea, so I quickly grew tired of weaving in and out of the mob. I finally meandered into an upscale coffeehouse called Sparkroot, ordered some mint tea sweetened with agave, and settled down with my laptop to blog.

From this vantage point, the diversity of the quirky throng became apparent. Gender-bending cross-dressers and stroller-pushing moms sidled up by each other at vendor stands sharing their anticipation of an upcoming comic-con while mustached hipsters and their girlfriends sipped clear and (I assume) potent drinks from tiny glasses. It all seemed quite normal. No one even seemed particularly surprised when bagpipe and drum ensemble marched up to the street corner and began blaring out Amazing Grace.

It’s not that people weren’t appreciative – they whooped and hollered and took pictures like they would at any good street performance. They just didn’t seem that surprised. I, on the other hand, was stunned and somewhat upset that my phone was back at the hotel recharging. It was too surreal to believe – and it just got weirder when one of the bagpipers noticed the sticker on my laptop.

The sticker has a few bars of piano music and says, in big black letters, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK A MUSIC TEACHER.” When I am out in public, it is not uncommon for me to catch people reading it and share a knowing insider’s glance. This piper caught sight of it, however, and disarmingly strode up to me. Flustered, I awkwardly complimented his group’s performance, but his blank, serious expression did not waver. I was determined not to be intimidated by a man in a kilt, but then I noticed his pupils subtly swirling and changing shape…

I was horrified and slightly dizzy. Without breaking his gaze, he reached behind his beard into his jacket, seemingly farther than normal physics would allow, and pulled out a CD. He placed it carefully on the keyboard of my laptop, turned on his heels, and strode off to catch up with his ensemble.  I looked down at the CD and my blood ran cold. It was ZZorchh, the debut release from local Austin band Zorch.

I have followed this psychedelic noise pop band since I stumbled upon their ear-splitting performance at the Deerhoof after-show. They made such an impression on me back then on that frigid night that I downloaded their demo EP and rather enjoyed it, but like most short-form collections, I had a hard time getting it to compare favorably to other things I was listening to in the long term. I had been considering buying this full-length since I heard of its release for quite awhile – and there it was.

In my recent review of the F*ck Buttons, I bemoaned what I saw as the general lack of technical ability in music that features sonic innovation. Back in the day, artists like Rick Wakeman married technique with technology using Moog synthesizers and the like. Zorch addresses this issue. They manipulate technology in a way that opens up an incredibly broad musical palette, especially for a duo, but their music feels risky in a way that places the controls in human hands.

The resulting chaos is breathtaking. I find it hard not to make comparisons to Frank Zappa, especially due to the frenetic drumming. Certainly, Zorch accesses a tounge in cheek surrealism that was characteristic of a late-70s Zappa band, minus the overt social satire.  The band's use of keyboards and computer assistance is decidedly contemporary, however, rather like Animal Collective collaborating with Terry Bozzio.  A frightening, overstimulating combination, to be sure, but compelling nonetheless.

As far as the means by which I acquired the album, I calmly finished my tea and  made my way back to the hotel as if nothing happened.  There is definitely a point at which reality and surreality mixed that evening, but even now, looking back on it, the details are unclear.  You can figure it out for yourself if you really feel the need.

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