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.

The Popsicko: Frankenstein Presents the Popsicko, Vol. 1

Albee alone

With a new band and a growing résumé as a local producer, Spence makes a name for himself outside of his Rustic day job

Originally published Oct. 13, 2000

Frankenstein is an apt name for Spencer Albee to adopt. The whole that he projects is certainly the sum of a number of parts. He’s the keyboardist for Rustic Overtones, and like everyone else he’s waiting for the album [what would be Viva Nueva] to come out so they can get on with their musical lives. That’s a given. But as of October 14, with a performance at the Skinny as part of the Shebang music festival, he will be the frontman for his very own band, The Popsicko. Albee will then release a 14-song album —Frankenstein Presents The Popsicko, Vol. 1, on which he sings and plays 90 percent of the instruments — October 31 through his own imprint: FPFC, the Fun Portland Fun Club. 

He’s the man in the big cowboy hat, curled up and weather worn. He’s Captain Beautiful on the 1995 Rustic Overtones record Long Division. He’s currently sporting a pinkish stripe of a goatee, saying with a straight face that he’d like to be known as Frankenstein. “Do you think I’d run into copyright problems with that?” he asks earnestly. He figures that as long he doesn’t use the image he’ll be fine.

And that’s not all. Albee has become the producer-in-demand around town. In the past year he has manned the board for Loud Neighbor’s initial 10-song demo, No Gain; four 6gig tunes, including the single “5” that’s getting all kinds of radio-play in anticipation of Tin Can Experiment’s release on October 16; and a good portion of Jeremiah Freed’s five-song demo. He even produced the last song, “You Could Be Mine,” on Jenny Paquette’s latest album, See What You Do, and, starting late this month, he will begin production on a new Hawthorne album, Traces of the Muse, which will appear in early 2001.

Whether he’s Albee, Frankenstein, or the King of France, he is a driving force in the Portland music scene, and more than just an industrious 24-year-old. He’s talented as hell.

Just ask Shawn Saindon, local singer/songwriter and the organizer of the Bull Moose Shebang event that will feature 14 local bands in all. He signed up The Popsicko before the band had even played a show together, or even practiced together as a working band. “I heard the CD from Spencer a couple months back and it blew my mind, and I knew it would be successful,” says Saindon, an admitted pop fan with a penchant for the Beatle-esque sounds that pervade the disc.

Saindon was also impressed enough with Albee’s production abilities to enter into talks with him to produce his next album, though their schedules have so far precluded setting a date for getting in the Studio (capitol “S” intended; it’s the sometimes confusing name of Tim Tierney’s studio on Casco Street in Portland). His production is “really slick for a local producer,” says Saindon. “He’s got a lot of talent for using the technology he has to get that national-act sound. He and Jim Begley are really into the music that they do.”

It is telling the Saindon mentions Begley, as he and Albee have become inseparable as a producer/engineer team, working together as early as the 6gig project, and even earlier than that. “The people we were each living with were both coincidentally getting married,” recalls Begley. “So we were left as bachelors, and we ended up living together for about a year.”

They discovered that they had a lot of mutual interests — Spencer a performing musician with Rustic Overtones, Jim with a degree in music performance from UMass Lowell and a trained studio engineer working at the Studio — and they ended up doing their first recordings right there in their kitchen. Begley would bring mics home from the studio and they’d work with whatever they had on hand getting some of what would eventually be The Popsicko on tape.

It was only a matter of time before they started collaborating on professional projects. Finally, the opportunity presented itself. “He was friends with 6gig,” says Begley. “So I set it up at the Studio, and Spencer sold us as a team.”

Albee has a penchant for recognizing a break and going for it. “I was at Prime [Artist Studios, a local practice space] when Walt [Craven, 6gig’s lead singer] was at Prime,” recalls Albee. “And then Steve Marquis [6gig’s guitarist] was in with Rig, his old band, doing “Hit the Ground” at Big Sound, and I said, ‘We really need to get that.’ ”

Albee and Begley ended up recording and mixing four of the songs that would eventually wind up on Tin Can Experiment. Ultimatum Records licensed and re-mixed their original production, combining the result with the efforts of legendary producer Ron St. Germain, who has heavyweight albums by Creed and 311 on his résumé.

“That was my real foot in the door,” says Albee.

It didn’t hurt that Albee went through the experience of recording the Overtones album for Arista. “I learned a lot from working with Tony Visconti, David Leonard, Roger Sommers,” all seasoned industry producers, says Albee, “I got to sit and watch them work, and now I can listen to records and say, ‘I know how that happened.’ ”

If the new Popsicko album is the evidence, it’s pretty clear that Albee now knows how to make things happen as well. The record was put together in bits and pieces, whenever Begley, Albee, or Studio head engineer Steve Drown could get away from the grind to record. “We all hit it off,” says Begley. “Spencer and I did a few tunes, Spencer and Steve did a few tunes together, we did a few tunes with all three of us. It would be whoever was available.”

The same was true of the “guest musicians” that play on the project. Eggbot plays the coronet. Jeremiah Freed guitarist Nik Goodale lends soaring guitar riffs. Spencer’s sister Katherine sings backup and plays some horns. Begley plays drums. Drown plays guitars. Overtone Ryan Zoidis lends some saxophone. Overtone Jon Roods even recorded a bass track in the old kitchen. When the Popsicko plays out, Albee will be out front on guitars and keys, while Eggbot handles the rest of the keyboard duties. Begley, who also fills in for Motor Booty Affair on occasion, will play drums. Pat Hodgkins will play bass. Albee’s old friend Adam LaCasse will come up from Boston for lead guitars, and sister Katherine will lend backup vocals and horns.

Because of this catch-as-catch-can approach, each song on the disc takes on its own personality. “The cool thing about doing tunes one at a time,” says Begley, “is that every song sounds completely different.” Some are decidedly low budget, where they were going for an old-school production value; others are very, very slick, making use of every effect available. Each song is clearly a different experience for Albee, and it seems natural that each song should have a different sound and feel.

“Two Feet,” the first single, is driven by Albee’s blues piano and a crescendo of voices in a very hip radio chorus. The production talent is in the little things: a bridge that consists of an apparent lunatic rambling in the background; a fade-out of Albee whistling the melody while he snaps his fingers to the beat.

What directly follows is a Ween-esque send-up of the Portland bar scene: “Beer Goggles.” This time it’s space-age synth effects, wild yells in the background, and crunching guitars that define the sound. Blur-like “whoo-hoos” carry the song home, until Albee sneaks in a little classical piano over the distinctive sound of someone scanning the radio dial for something different.

Which is then, of course, what the listener gets, with “The Mess I’m In.” All of a sudden we hear Albee over the top of simple synthesizer chords that reveal his undying reverence for Paul McCartney’s Wings. It’s Beatles with a disco ball, Sergeant Pepper in a vinyl suit. There are soaring George Harrison “oohs,” “aahs,” and guitar solos. The high-pitched John Lennon “yeah” feels so right.

“I love the Beatles, but there’s something about Wings that’s just different,” says Albee. “They’re the one band that define the ’70s. I feel like I was born at the wrong time; I wish I was 24 in 1970, so I could witness the birth of heavy metal and synthesized funk.” And if we take “The Porno Song” as an example, he’s also interested in living some of that decade’s depravity. “Spread your cheeks, show me that ass,” says an anonymous porn star repeatedly in a seamless splice. “Do you still want me?” he asks. “Yes I do,” replies the imagined blonde. What follows is a hilarious plea to be “like the guys in the magazines, getting laid, getting paid.” Surrounded by serious songs about world peace, getting over bad relationships, and dealing with corporate greed, it is a calculated risk. Yet, says Albee, “it’s my mom’s favorite song. I mean, some parents may be offended by it, but if they’re parents they had to have had some porno in their lives at some point.”

It’s all part of Albee’s æsthetic, which is appealing to more and more folks all the time. “He knows that I am looking for him to bring us into hipness,” says Hawthorne lead singer Mike Falkingham. “Our big weakness was that we were writing what we thought were really good songs, but were missing a very tiny thing that could turn it from a mediocre song to a very high-quality single or album cut.” Falkingham believes that Albee can provide just the right amount of mojo. “Spencer will not change what Hawthorne is,” he says, “but he can do anything and everything he wants to make the sound better, throw in effects, a sample, anything.”

All of this points to questions about whether this solo activity as producer and frontman might be a safety net against a worst possible Rustic scenario. Could Albee and Begley become a producer/engineer team on the level of Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake, who work with Cheryl Crowe, Los Lobos, and Soul Coughing; or Mark Howard and Daniel Lanois who oversee albums by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris? Is Albee ready to take his pleasing pop voice and step out from the shadows like a Phil Collins leaving Genesis? We’ll find out.

“It’s just something else that I like to do,” says Albee. “I really enjoy being in the studio. I like working with other people and artists, and right now, it sure beats all the shit jobs out there. The work may have its ups and downs, but I can keep my life simple.”