Kristin Hersh

No mere precious folkie, Kristin Hersh is a living, breathing rock titan, a highly idiosyncratic and influential force in modern rock music for 20 years and counting. Plus she pretty much discovered the Pixies, so shut up. Starting in Boston in the mid-'80s, Hersh unleashed bushels of youthful angst as leader of Throwing Muses, one of the most uncompromising and respected bands of the pre-grunge alternative era. (Her fellow Muse, step-sister Tanya, later left to join the Breeders and eventually stepped to the mainstream mike in Belly). Time has most certainly not mellowed Hersh's harshness, but it has put it in perspective. Her current rock band is the hyperspastic power trio 50 Foot Wave, and their five-song EP is fierce, tight, garage-y art rock, even more aggressive than Throwing Muses at their most strident. However, she's road-testing acoustic songs for an upcoming solo disc. "It seems like the louder my band is at a particular time, the quieter I am by myself," says Hersh. "Plus I'm able to stretch out more in terms of timing. The power-trio format requires a lot of precision, so playing acoustic is very freeing that way. I'm stretching out a lot, just because I can." Check out her quieter side this Thursday at the Mucky Duck. Then contrast it with the 50 Foot Wave disc for a composite portrait of a major artist fully in touch with both her yin and her yang. -- Scott Faingold

Thursday, February 10, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999.

Norma Jean, with Atreyu, Scars of Tomorrow and Unearth

Metal/hardcore merchants Norma Jean make quite an unholy racket, a blend of brickshit-heavy breakdowns and scalpel-sharp riffs. What's more, both the cover art of their latest record, Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, and the vocal style of singer Cory Putman resemble Linda Blair at her most demon-possessed. However, all misleading signs aside, Norma Jean loves the Lord, and with plenty of other haloed headbangers out there injecting gruesome Mel Gibson-style violence into their lyrics, it's often difficult these days to discern inverted-cross-brandishers from the divinely inspired right-side-up brigade.

Let's see if you can separate the Strypers from the Slayers in this sacri-licious quiz.

1. "Impaled crucifixion / Compassion forgot / Eternal damnation / Once upon a cross"

2. "I'll take your soul and you'll be like me / In Emptiness, free / Just bow to me faithfully / Bow to me splendidly"

3. "Thrusting needles in eyes / while your empty sockets swarm with maggots inside"

4. "Silent scream / Bury the unwanted child / Beaten and Torn / Sacrifice the unborn"

5. "He'll smear the offal from your feasts on your face / your sacred places will be filled with human waste / your desolation, so cruel and complete / the flesh of your children you'll hoard and eat"

6. "Paralyzing brilliant light / Trying to run / Want to scream but cannot speak / I cannot look at God 's face"

7. "Crushed skull / dismembered head / snapped spine / severed torso / shattered ribs / punctured throat / squashed spleen / stabbed eyeballs / ripped-out intestines"

8. "A blade you gently inserted / I did this for you, not for your religion / I am stabbed by grace and slinging blood"

9. "You go to church / You kiss the cross / you will be saved at any cost / Jesus saves / No need to pray / the gates of pearl have turned to gold"

Key: God squad: 3, 5 (Frost Like Ashes), 7 (Vomitorial Corpulence) and 8 (Norma Jean)

Devil's horns: 1 (Deicide), 2 (Morbid Angel) and 4, 6, 9 (Slayer). -- Andrew Miller

Wednesday, February 16, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.

Octopus Project and Peelander-Z, with Animals of the Bible

We know how you feel about bands with the word "Project" in their name. They must be some emo-inspired pabulum purveyor of mall punk for teenage girls, right? Wrong, pal. The unfortunately named Octopus Project fills your earholes with complex electronic bleeps, blips and bloops. Their reputation as the band that "hooked up their half-broken electronic shit all wrong" caught the attention of a home-team label, Austin's Peek-A-Boo Industries, in 2001, and the two continue courting each other. Their latest release, One Ten Hundred Thousand Million, combines organic sounds and robotic heat to create highly original vocal-free opuses that build from single pulses to onion-layered mature dance pop. Even hard-hearted hipsters who might otherwise find keyboardist (and centrally focused) Yvonne Lambert's flipped-up, cute-as-can-be coif a little sappy will find it hard not to be caught on the OP's sharp melodic hooks. The octopus has eight arms and, therefore, quite a reach. Expect a diverse crowd to be drenched in ink.

If a band is known for its kooky costumes and outrageous theatrics, people might assume there's something lacking in its sound. Not so with the J-pop punkers in Peelander-Z, who back their whack with some solid songs. Their origins are a closely guarded secret, but news reports from "Area Z" indicate the tacky triumvirate of Peelanders Red, Yellow and Blue might've been born from some dastardly science experiment gone amok, where the more garish garnishments of wrestling, anime and the club-kid aesthetic were grafted onto a trio of rockers from NYC, creating the world's first fully functional "Japanese Action Comic Punk Band." The frenzied and rapid nature of their music is exemplified by the chaotic madness of their live shows, where past high jinks have included games of human bowling and crazy kung fu action. -- Brian McManus and Benjamin Leatherman

Saturday, February 12, at the Rhythm Room, 1815 Washington Avenue, 713-864-6962.

Pepper, with Authority Zero and Shark Attack

Anyone anticipating that Hawaiian punks Pepper will deliver a night of luau music can leave their expectations with the cardboard palm-tree cutouts on stage. An aggressive power trio with flashes of instrumental brilliance (usually when everything drops out and bassist Bret Bollinger anchors a tune on his lonesome for a few bars), Pepper plays a harder rock-reggae mix than the Police ever did, with flashes of Sublime, especially when singer-guitarist Kaleo Wassman insists on singing in his ridiculous clipped Jamaican accent. The band's just-released Pepper Live DVD captures the group during a two-night stand at the Troubadour in front of an adoring crowd that still seems to elicit far too many belligerent "make some fucking noise" requests from Wassman to make for enjoyable viewing. It makes you wonder if all the spliffs the musicians light up in the course of the show aren't just making them more paranoid than mellow. A word of caution to those acolytes up front who don't want to wear Pepper spray from Bollinger's mouth: You might want to bring your Gallagher ponchos with you. And another thing: Here's predicting Authority Zero blows them off the stage. -- Serene Dominic

Saturday, February 12, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1817.

The Toasters

You may think you don't like ska. In fact, you may be 100 percent certain of it, but that's no reason to dismiss the Toasters sight unseen. Yes, the band has been ska's undisputed American flagship act for upward of 20 years, but that doesn't mean much to the nonaficionado who isn't necessarily interested in a history lesson or curious just for curiosity's sake.

What you need to know is that the Toasters are the one ska band that will win you over.

The intense, almost aggressive power of their groove stands a good chance of capturing almost any ear -- especially live. But the Toasters bring an emotional dimension not often associated with ska. Their pressured, edgy subject matter and gruff delivery works perfectly in counterpoint to the good-time bounce for which the music is most widely recognized.

"The best way to judge ska music is to come to a live show," says Toasters front man Rob "Bucket" Hingley, "because it's really impossible to record all that energy." Every band would love to claim that about itself, but Hingley means it about ska music in general, not just his own group. Fortunately, in the Toasters' case, it also happens to be true. -- Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Thursday, February 10, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1817.

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