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Carnie Death Explosion

If the Phantom Limbs were a boy band, they'd all be the greasy one in rehab

Kimo's is a dank, humid, smoke-filled San Francisco hole, and far too hot. The booze is cheap, and the between-set music is usually '80s "satanic" metal and glammy black metal acts. Yet the place continues to pack 'em in each week. One night last summer, most of the crowd had already lost the battle to regain consciousness after a decent but way-too-mellow prog-metal set by San Diego's Tarantula Hawk. Then Oakland's Phantom Limbs started playing, and the nearly comatose crowd seemed to explode into life (yes, it was that dramatic). The night went from being merely decent to downright great; well worth being doused in MGD amid joyous, friendly violence.

For two years, the band's reputation for putting on frantic, insane and, above all, good shows has spread, culminating in a record deal with Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles. After laboring in independent obscurity with no supporting label since 1999, the band will now be able to labor in independent obscurity supported by AT. The new album, Applied Ignorance, includes several songs from the band's out-of-print self-titled CD, other songs previously released on seven-inch (one of which is a split with the Fleshies, who cover the Limbs' "Somebody Twisted Your Arm"), and a few new tunes. The question is, can the barely controlled chaos that the band projects work after being filtered through a studio and released on shiny plastic? (One listener described the aural experience of the record as "like being attacked by a pack of insane, rabid bunnies," so they must have done something right.)

The band consists of singer Hopeless, guitarist Jason Miller, bassist Sköt B, drummer Mike Klösoff and keyboardist Stevenson Sedgwick. They produce music that seems to unravel as it's played -- it's too furious to be goth, too "psychoclown" to be hardcore. In contrast to usual practice, the Limbs' music is keyboard- and percussion-driven; Miller uses his guitar as an accent rather than as the main instrument. The funereal keyboards and Klösoff's rhythmic banging hold the songs together tenuously, and Hopeless's yowling is strikingly reminiscent of Darby Crash's howled mutterings. The lyrics make no mention of politics, nihilism or nonconformity, but are dark and fragmented stories that, in fact, bear a remarkable resemblance to those of the Birthday Party. Visually, none of the band members can be said to fit the description "dreamy" (except perhaps Miller); if the Phantom Limbs were a boy band, they'd all be the greasy one in rehab.

Be prepared: The Phantom Limbs don't allow for the stand-and-nod routine at their shows.
Be prepared: The Phantom Limbs don't allow for the stand-and-nod routine at their shows.

The live shows are bolstered by Hopeless's interactions with the audience, his thrashing and jerking, and his tendency to find and play with random things lying around the venue. He infuses the band's high-energy "carnie death explosion" with low theater by wearing face paint and fronting the band's cobbled-together costumes. Yet the possible pretension here is thankfully not realized -- the band has an almost cheerful onstage presence and zero ren-faire posturing. Offstage, however, Hopeless is much more reserved. Without the energy of a live show to inspire his spastic musings, he's much more self-contained. He chooses his words carefully, and is obviously one of those quiet people who runs a continuous internal monologue.

Despite the disorganized feel of the band, and the sense that each song could fall apart at any minute during performances, the band members consider the Phantom Limbs a serious project, not a gimmicky one-off. After all, to have a gimmick, you need a coherent vision and some organization. For the Limbs, that's too complicated.

"We're just spazzing out, basically," says Hopeless. "It's a bipolar stage show. Sometimes we have some sort of verbal thing, but mostly it's physical. I use whatever [props] I find -- what's around." At one show, Hopeless found a bowl of blue-green gunk, presumably left by some other band from a previous night's performance, and covered himself in it. Needless to say, the live show is where it's at. Proponents of the "stand and nod" school of audience reaction should stay well back to avoid bruises, spilled beer and the occasional head-butt from an overly avid fan. You'll end up reeking and in pain, but blurred memories of spastic joy should last at least until your ears stop ringing.

 
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