Vertigod: Victory in Silence

Kneel down

Vertigod ain’t exactly benevolent

At Vertigod shows, girls punch each other in the face. At least that was the reported highlight after the band’s March 4 [2006, when this originally ran] show at the Alehouse, which also featured about 170 other kind souls beating each other senseless in a pit the club staff didn’t have a prayer of keeping tame even if they wanted to.

Conventional wisdom might tell you that shows like these are similar to that old hockey joke: People show up for a fight and a concert breaks out. But that would be ignorant of the dynamics at work. At a bad hardcore/punk show, you’ll see two guys swirling fists at themselves, making a case for a check-in at the local looney bin, while the rest of the crowd stands around drinking beer. With a good band, like Vertigod, the crowd is simply compelled to participate. The music inspires a certain energy that’s impossible to resist.

It’s not that different from other genres. With indie rock, you compulsively nod your head. With jam, you kind of shake your ass and wiggle your arms around at your sides. With hardcore, you launch yourself into other people and generally flail yourself about with little regard for the safety of others. Fans joyously evaluate a recent show by the amount of bloody faces and missing teeth, yet are generally some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They just like to wear black and listen to music with lyrics like: “Eraser/ Killing yourself/ Pull the fucking trigger/ Watch the blood hit the wall.”

That’s from Vertigod’s “1000 Pardons,” off their debut full-length, Victory in Silence. Frontman Shawn Adams dips his normally tenor scream low: “No more innocence/ No more subtlety.” No, there’s not a lot of subtlety here. Vertigod are loud, aggressive, and menacing with a genuine air of desperation and disgust. For a screamer/growler, Adams does a good job of enunciating so you can actually make out a lot of the vocals. They’re not what you’d call witty. More like just mean.

“Fuck the system/ Burn it down.”

Though Vertigod play songs that date back to their formation in 2003, all of the lyrics have been rewritten since Adams came on board in early 2005. In fact, the final three songs on their new eight-song disc were included on their three-song 2004 maxi-single, MCCCXXXVI. “Moment of Clarity” kept its title. “The Path” has become “System Addict,” the tune from which the above lyric was taken, and “Two Feet Deeper” is now “Subject of Change.”

Adams, who joined just after new bassist Josh McVane (drummer Mark Sayer’s old bandmate in Rare Form), brings interesting twists to the recording studio, too. On the record’s opening “Volatile” and throughout, Adams lends multiple vocal tracks; sometimes, if you can believe, harmonizing his growls and screams, other times singing his part and then pushing himself aside with a primordial bellow.

“We basically gave him free reign once we got in [the studio],” Sayer says, noting that they’re working on replicating the backup vocals live. He says they recorded much of the disc virtually live with Steve Drown, at the Studio, which can be more than a little difficult with the kind of mathematical, highly technical music Vertigod play, complete with frequent all-stops and time-signature changes.

Plus, they can’t exactly fall into a verse-chorus-verse rhythm. Vertigod seem to write in phrases, revisiting pieces of songs at later points but never establishing what you’d call a pattern. “There’s structure, but it’s almost anti-structure,” says Sayer, “if that makes any sense. It keeps our sound fresh, not coming into the same thing all the time.”

Because of the genre’s intensity, some bands will throw 25 or more minute-plus songs onto one album. Vertigod have gone the other way, averaging more than four minutes, though each song seems to contain as many as four other songs. Pauses, back-steps, fast-without-sounding-fast passages, slow-without-sounding-slow passages, and glimpses of everything from AC/DC to the Phantom of the Opera populate tunes that are impossible to predict.

Long-time dual guitarists Andy Fournier and Jeff Staggs provide all the flare, comfortable in such a tight rhythm section that they can shift easily from being in lock-step with staccato crunches to breaking off a mid-song descending guitar lick, as in “System,” that drops two full octaves, note by note, in the span of two seconds, like sunshine peeking through the clouds.

On the album’s most interesting turn, “Towing the Line Between Insanity and Genius,” the guitars sour after Adams’ promise, “I can set you free.” The song becomes a gothic carnival, an organ played by guest Erik Winter coming in to cement the feeling. Then it speeds up for a finish that seems well separated from the goth, more aggressive, “You lied you fucker/ You said the pain would go away.”

Vertigod demand an honest listen and never hide their intentions. Is it sometimes painful? You bet.

Baltic Sea: Period Piece

Minding every Period

The Baltic Sea craft a crisp dystopia

It’s been nearly three years since the Baltic Sea’s phenomenal debut, Through Scenic Heights and Days Regrets, but when you’re making music like this, I can see how it might take a while to build a second edifice [this ran originally in 2011]. An artful construction of post-rock meandering and serious guitar heroics, the brand-new Period Piece can be even more ponderous, but also has more extended periods of high-energy explosiveness, making for an album like a cross-country drive, miles of pastures and sunflower fields rolling by between cities that dominate the skyline.

With seven songs comprising the hour of music here, you know you’re in for some multi-faceted pieces, and Baltic Sea don’t ease you into things. The opening “The Free Design” is over 14 minutes, beginning with a repeating high-register guitar note like an ice pick and hinting at some true prog. But by the time Todd Hutchisen’s vocals enter, backed by Nate Johnson (who made the band a five-piece since the last release), the song is a force of nature, driven by Jason Stewart (Sidecar Radio, 6gig), who has replaced Jason Ingalls on the drums.

The whomping digital percussion is like a combination of Air and Minus the Bear, especially with Hutchisen’s high vocals, before an effect chops them up and spits them back out rippled and unintelligible. The early section is attacking, like the Conifer records but not quite as heavy, though Ray Suhy (Colepitz) does deliver something close to a metal solo on guitar, setting you up for a full pull-back to acoustic at 6:30.

There’s even a slide guitar, hinting at a country vibe, with a poppy bass from Jeremy Smith. But the guitars soon snarl back in, a crunching fuzz in the right channel, an ascending guitar riff in the left.

Finally, they cycle back to the opening vocal take, getting fairly sunshiney with the harmony, Stewart doing a martial thing on the snare, before slowing down to a crawl like a wind-up box running out its last rotations.

Whew. One song in and you feel like you’ve made a major investment in the album.

And, I know: If you like singalongs, this doesn’t sound like the band for you; if you’re into this kind of proggy rock, you’re no stranger to multi-suite songwriting. So what’s the big deal?

Well, first, this isn’t some kind of Rush/Yes homage. Baltic Sea are much more charming and aloof than that, and while they’re nerdy enough to have a song called “MirrorrorriM” and design an album that’s virtually symmetrical in its musical presentation, they also can put together songs like “Foss,” with sections that could rest comfortably on “Bridge over Troubled Water,” string arrangements by Dave Noyes meshing perfectly into guitar riffs like lightning bolts, energy crackling right up to a dénouement of fade-out.

There may also be birds chirping at one point. It’s hard to say.

Sure, there’s weird robot-gal talking about booster rockets and shit in the open of “Swiss Ticking Time,” but the way the elastic “just pretend to seem alarmed” bit launches into ’70s rock at the five-minute mark is genuinely thrilling, Hutchisen calling for you to sing along to a “la, la, la” bit that manages to be both mocking and completely heart-felt at the same time.

The title track gets pretty damn head-nodding, too, with a minute of music you could listen to for an hour straight and be totally happy with, inserted between sections where the drums seem to hit every five seconds and guitar harmonics chime in like gemstones falling onto a pipe organ. That sound’s only bested by the spacey intro to “MirrorrorriM,” which has strong positive association, like a super hero’s theme song, or maybe Supertramp.

Only in the closing “The All Consumers,” a 13-minute amusement-park ride, do the Baltic Sea completely let it all hang out. There are sections here of true chaos, a car-wreck in slow motion with theremin, industrial sounds like banging pipes. But there’s also what might be Hutchisen’s best vocal take, a low-register and breathy delivery with gravitas, sitting on top of intermittent 10-note guitar runs.

The best bit on the album might be where they take a two-minute chunk of guitar noodling and basically just change up the tone and effect, making them instantly aggressive and menacing where they’d seconds before been jammy and esoteric. Like the rest of the album, it makes you start to question what you’re hearing and why you’re feeling the way you do about it, and what you “like” in a song.

No, there’s nothing here that’s easily consumable, nor particularly summery, but, like the Whitcomb record before it this year, if you love to think about your music as much as you feel it and hear it, Period Piece is a must-listen.