Brooklyn, New York– it was a late summer sunset and sticky as hell. I was at St. Vitus Bar, an all-black metal dive with a King Diamond poster behind the bar and candelabra on the way to the back room. The evening began with an ambulance.
Bain Wolfkind, an apocalyptic bluesman who you might imagine playing in the slums of a dystopian nightmare, had been imported from Australia for a brief, two-stop tour. This was stop number one, on which he would be playing with Swedish industrial impresario Peter Andersson (better know as Deutsch Nepal) and the up-and-coming American power electronics acts Kama Rupa and Burial Hex.
Unfortunately, Mr. Wolfkind had just gouged his shin on the edge of the stage– all the way to the bone. I held the door for him as he hobbled back inside for whatever reason, a gauze bandage wrapped around his leg. That was the last I saw of him before they rushed him to the hospital.
It was a jarring start to a night where few things would go exactly right. The stars which seemed to have aligned in favor of this unusual show were now in apparent revolt against it … though in the end, there would still be a constellation of bright moments that made it a night to remember.
The first band to go on was the New York based Kama Rupa: a noisy, loose knit group with a revolving line-up and ritualistic flavor. Formed in 2010, the band rallied around the creative leadership of Erik Jon Proft.
Proft is a prolific musician of varied tastes and talents, who has at one time or another been a part of Planned Collapse, The World Inferno Friendship Society, EMP, and Grafvolluth. However, despite his central role in the project, Mr. Proft seemed content take to back seat in the live show. He spent the set hidden behind a wall mixing boards. The imposing, candlelit visage of vocalist Jean Paul Castano dominated the dim stage, his tattooed brow contorting with passion as he rasped mysterious proclamations over the pulsating din.
Rumors of Bain Wolfkind’s injury had already spread by the time Proft and Castano took the stage. As the opening act, they had a quite a bit to overcome. The apprehension as to whether or not the night would be a total loss weighted heavy as the crowd fell in, but once the Kama Rupa began its unrelenting barrage of thrumming bass and screeching feedback, any such concerns were immediately pummeled into submission. The set was short, earsplittingly loud, and to the point. It did the trick.
Next up was Burial Hex, the mystical one-man project of Madison, Wisconsin’s Clay Ruby.
“I like to have two things on stage with me when I perform,” Mr. Ruby stated before he began. “A keyboard and a bottle of whiskey. Tonight, I don’t have either.” Again, less than ideal circumstances.
Live electronic music can often come off as a bit silly– having set a prerecorded program to play, the musician can find himself stranded in front of the audience without much to do. Without any real instrument besides a few rectangular black boxes and a small bell, it seemed like Mr. Ruby might be in danger of falling into this trap. To put it lightly, he didn’t. In fact, he stole the show.
Though Mr. Ruby’s performance ended up filling the entire space, most of the actual instrumentation came from a small suitcase, out of which spilled a tangle of wires and electrical equipment. Before he even started to perform, he began by burning a quantity of incense. He paced the stage, checking things, letting the room fill with a rich, churchly smell. After he had satisfied himself with whatever was going on in his luggage, he started up the music, a deep strange hum. Grasping a microphone, Ruby made a few more adjustments to his hidden equipment. As the feeling took him, he would utter a few unintelligible syllables into the mic.
Ruby soon departed the stage to mingle with crowd. He wove through the room, aggressively intruding into audience members’ personal space, twisting and throwing his head back to howl and shriek in what might have been English, but sounded like tongues. The only real instrument he used was a pair of rectangular metal cases, housing what looked like a couple of bass guitar strings. He would punctuate particularly emphatic statements of his ecstatic speech by beating these objects against the stage to create a cacophony of crashing echoes. I would later learn that these were old spring reverb tanks. In any case, I got to thinking of this device as his “thunder box.”
He returned to the stage and rang his bell furiously, as if it were a kind of weapon he was using to ward off an invisible attacker. Following this, he produced a small knife, which he used to attack a small piece of wood. Once he had successfully speared the wood on the end of the knife, he held it over one of the candles that lit the stage to set it ablaze. It produced a sweet, aromatic smoke as it burned, adding another layer of olfactory texture on top of the incense.
With the blazing knife in hand, he plunged back into the audience, screaming and brandishing it so close you could feel the heat prickling on your skin. The block of wood was totally engulfed in flames by this time, and it refused to go out, even when it dropped from the knife onto the floor. Ruby hunched over it, stabbing it a few times to reattach it to the end of the blade. There was a palpable air of tension in the room. A few people were nodding along to the pulse of the music enthusiastically, but most of the audience just stared. No one really seemed to know what to do, and there was a hint of real danger reverberating through the atmosphere. At one point, the burning wood fell onto the stage very near a few of the wires that snaked away from the table. A show-stopping catastrophe did not ensue, but given the luck we had already experienced, I think more than a few people held their breath for a moment.
Once the fire was out, Ruby used one of his thunder boxes to cover the tops of the candles. One by one, he extinguished them in this way. When the lights were all out, he thanked the crowd and left the stage.
We had reached the point in the night when Bain Wolfkind was scheduled to go on. Much to everyone’s chagrin, there was no sign of him. The news was now circulating that he hadn’t even made it past the waiting room yet. Reportedly, this was due to the fact that the Brooklyn ER was already full to capacity with junkies and drunks. Figures. We skipped straight to Deutsch Nepal.
Some anonymous internet biographer has characterized Peter Andersson as “Everyone’s favourite drunk”. This has been copied and pasted enough times to where it is impossible to tell exactly where it came from, but from my observance of his performance, it was accurate. Andersson took the spotlight with a tallboy in hand, and proceeded to favor the audience with a number of gloomy and darkly humorous songs standing to one side with a mic stand and a small mixing board as a multimedia sideshow displayed images from a menagerie of strange creatures that seemed to have been created in Photoshop out of mostly genitals.
Andersson presided over this spectacle with good natured ease, leaning over to the microphone to belt out the lyrics as they came up. Upon discovering that his beer had run dry, he held it theatrically to his ear and gave it a little shake. In what can only be interpreted as parody of the prerecorded style of live electronics, he casually left the stage while the song continued without him. After a few minutes, he returned triumphantly with another tallboy in hand, right on time for the next verse.
As the set wrapped up, he left the stage à la Burial Hex and threw his arms around a few of the audience members while he sang and tapped his foot on a distortion pedal. Hardly as riveting as being threatened with fire, but it was a jovial enough way to end the evening. He closed the show to rousing applause and exited back to the bar, leaving the final feedback whine to continue as the audience turned to applaud the pedal which had been left in their midst.
Stuart Sudekum writes for a number of online publications, including Examiner.com (where he provides coverage of New York City’s underground music scene) and Ritual House (an online resource for investigations into ritual magic). You can follow his work on Twitter, or email him with your comments and questions.