Square and Compass Mango's January 25, 2013
Sometimes you have to go backwards in order to make progress. In years where dubstep continues to proliferate and Owl City insists on building a genre around a Postal Service record that is now over a decade old, I'm perfectly OK with re-examining the best and brightest in post-hardcore from years past.
That's exactly what Square and Compass very aptly do on How to Escape, the Houston quintet's most recent release. Weaving equal parts Jets to Brazil and Texas is the Reason with more intense acts like Gospel, How to Escape is a composed and poised, if relatively safe, study of the past 15 years of post-hardcore.
Shows at Mango's are a crapshoot. For every small regional touring act that deserves far better yet manages to bring in less than 20 people, there could be an inexplicably large crowd for a bill full of high-school-talent-show rejects. I wasn't sure what to expect Friday, but when I arrived a crowd was milling around the front parking lot even two hours before Square and Compass was slated to play their 1 a.m. slot.
I walked into bad intermission music -- riddled with intentional clipping and static -- and wasn't sure whether the sound system at Mango's finally shit the bed, or if I was having a stroke. As it turned out, this was a one-man act playing in the middle of the crowded main room.
Broken Satellite, a chiptune artist, had a small DJ stand with a screen in front playing the 1983 arcade game Star Wars. I have no problem with chiptune, a subgenre built around sounds from 8-bit video games and electronic synthesizers. I enjoyed Anamanaguchi's contribution to the Scott Pilgrim universe. And while a lot of the home-cooked equipment involved is admirable, it's still a very niche genre, and making music that sounds like your amplifiers are cutting out isn't clever, it's just annoying.
The parking lot began to slowly file in and fill up for Square and Compass. Combined with the crowded back patio, Friday wound up as one of Mango's larger crowds in recent memory.
Square and Compass started in complete darkness, a small string of Christmas lights strung on the amp behind drummer Jacob Warny all that was illuminating the stage. They began with the pair of opening songs on How to Escape, "Imminent Demise: and "Detente." While "Demise" opens with quickfire staccato guitar that crops up frequently on How to Escape, "Detente" grinds to a slow burn as among the more mellow tracks on the album.
The band highlighted the strongest riff on the entire album on "Time is a Blacksmith," a searing track that sees the opening notes smartly anchor vocalist Tommy Grindles wandering train-of-consciousness lyrics. One of the highlights on the album, this is also a standout track live.
On How to Escape's title tack, the band evoked a brooding theme and smoldering guitar work from Grindle, and Spoth highlighted what may be the best bass work Square and Compass have to offer. Thomas Heard was leaning precariously off the stage, as if he was about to double over in pain, falling back on his heels only just before he would have certainly tumbled off.
Heard's onstage energy and emotive presence was the show here -- he careened and tumbled as he heaved and huffed through the set. "What's the cure... for Futility?" he screeched on "Hacksaw," pausing before stomping off to the furthest he can on Mango's small stage.
The band continued the entire set in virtual darkness, and the crowd pushed close. The band closed with "1123," a languishing track that builds to a fluttering sing-song chorus that is punctuated by Warny's drums. Spoth and Heard harmonized here for just a moment before the song bursts, angry and dwindling. It was a stellar track to end a set --and an album.
Personal Bias: Warny -- who played in Eyes Like Lions with Robert Ellis -- is a neighbor of mine.
The Crowd: Packed. The two beer fridges were empty by 1 a.m.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Does this E-cigarette smell like maple syrup to you?"
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Random Notebook Dump: Mango's seems to be back to its anything-goes heyday as a venue and social hangout. With AvantGarden next door, if you are missing your hipster BFF on a Friday night, look here first.