Show Review: Cherubs at Barracuda

by Bram Howard

Cherubs Barracuda

Imagine, if you will, a microcosm of people and ideas.  A bookmark in time that started when labels like “Sludge” started getting thrown around as others like “Hardcore” started to fade from the public vernacular.  A bubble that doesn’t quite occupy space, but pervades the creative aura that surrounds all those who happen to find themselves smack dab in the middle of it, whether by the outcome of their creations or the appreciation of the sounds involved.

Prior to the entrance to Barracuda, immense swells of distortion and trudging tempos fractured the reality within as another world descended on the space classically known for its exhibitions of all sorts of loud genres of music.  My partner and I passed the threshold and immediately found ourselves in a dimension quite different than the one we left behind.  How could this be?  The hipsters and drunks stumbling around Barbarellas faded as humans seemingly detached from time took their place.

An old pirate, long removed from his days on the water, now commanded a new vessel, skimming the infinite seas of heavy guitar sounds and buzzing aggressions of musical composition. A Western couple, fully decked out in ten gallon hats, no longer raised cattle, but carefully watched over a well tended herd of ‘45s, tapes, and records going back through generations of rebellious music. I look to my partner, her eyes wide with the understanding that I equally felt deep inside myself: We had thrown ourselves into something beyond just a Saturday night show.

The music had ceased – being only a taste of what this pod of black, psychotic rock music had stored within it – and its source was gone from sight. While reality had skewed from one’s everyday experience, Lonestar seemed to be a constant we could hold onto in this bizarre space. Beers were purchased, and my partner and I stepped outside.

Those around us, while seemingly arbitrary in their backgrounds and lifestyles, all had a common thread of understanding: The Cherubs are sick, and tonight they play with an assortment of Texas sounds, old and new, that carry a banner whose iconography cannot be penned down. I was quite in agreement with the former point, being a fan of Cherubs myself, and have had many a night filled with enjoyment at experiencing an US Weekly show, but what of this USA/Mexico?  Is this a new local band, fresh on the scene?

A man wearing a disheveled suit, seemingly plucked from the corporate world of cubicles and daily reports and flicked into the muck of low, metallic, stoned-out guitar music, spoke rapidly of bats, and Stubb’s, and a member of Butthole Surfers here tonight, and beer, and…wait, what was that last part? A piercing shard of feedback severed our conversation, signaling that more important things needed to be paid attention to. Curious and confused, my partner and I strolled inside.

A man with long grey hair, glasses, and an angular, sparkling guitar stared at his feet as otherworldly tones of distortion seeped from amps behind him. The bassist, younger, but equally as focused on his ingredient in this sludge-y recipe, rumbled out grooves, putting a melody to this mass of noise as a massive, skeletal drummer bared his teeth, bludgeoning his instrument as though it owed him money, churning out a schizophrenic, tribal beat. This was USA/Mexico.

A side project of Shit and Shine, USA/Mexico comprises Craig Clouse, Nate Cross, and King Coffey of Butthole Surfers fame. Though their bodies indicated a corporeal tie to the grind of time, their minds have forever resided in this realm that had permitted me and my partner to enter this night.

A clicking noise over the microphone that sounded like a piece of thick rope being further and further stretched pervaded this band’s music, putting an immense air of tension on every powerful strum from the guitars. Chords seemed to layer on top of each other, dumping this amorphous, heavy guitar sound on the audience that was reminiscent of Locust Abortion Technician, but would occasionally screech like Dinosaur Jr.’s “Little Fury Things.”

Songs had a repetitious, straining quality to them, with a focus on the effects coming from the guitarist, sometimes meandering as a layer of sound in and of themselves, or oozing out in this petulant, insect swarm whine. Vocals would either distort the stretching, clicking madness coming off the mic, or wail in this ghostly, alien screech, further pulling everyone inside this building deeper into the madness of the night.

The band ceased their onslaught, and left as quickly as they came on.

Another drink was necessary at this point. How was it possible that these individuals could crank out such utterly sick amounts of anger having been so far removed from the vehement rebellion and lackadaisical contrariness of youth? The air seemed to shimmer in response. A reminder that we have stumbled upon a world that is obstinately stuck in this perpetual mode of spinning hardcore punk on its head, and trying something new.

As the ashes of a final, introspective cigarette fell to the ground, dynamic and meandering guitars began to spill from the nearby open door to the inside. Familiar sounds grounding me in an experience I’ve had many times before compelled me to the stage once more. US Weekly had begun to play.

US Weekly have been a fairly popular, alternative punk act for a bit now, and tonight drew the younger, fresher crowd to the stage. With Christopher Nordahl on vocals, Ryan Curtis on bass, Ryan Fitzgibbon on guitars, and Kent Hale on drums, the group’s mixture of garage-y instrumentation and hardcore vocals made for a completely tangential, but quite unique, take on the night’s hardcore fusion sound.

With synthesizer adding a dash of flavor to the otherwise heavy music, the band’s sound took on a ‘90s slacker-rock-meets-hardcore attitude feel. Warbling melodies would lead into intense breaks of jagged tempos as Nordahl, wearing slacks and a button down shirt (very business casual), would twitch and writhe to the music flowing behind him.

While the screamed vocals, and moments like the fifth song sounding reminiscent of SSD’s “How Much Art,” have an obvious intrusion of ‘80s hardcore influence, the band exhibits this desire to progress and add new sounds to a very established style. US Weekly’s flows would have this groove to them that would border on ‘60s pop music, making their songs danceable and catchy, but would then charge into moments like chants about ice cream, sending the crowd into a frenzy, keeping every ounce of punk energy present during their set.

The band’s final song was a kind of epic, running longer than any song before. Nordahl’s shirt was completely off at this point, as he spasmed in response to the sounds flowing through every orifice of his flesh. Incredible drum rolls added a math-y quality to the band’s sound, while squeaky, futuristic guitar solos flavored the outro in ways one could never expect.  The band ceased, and stoked the fire, stating a fact that was on everyone’s mind: The Cherubs were coming up next.

It was clear, at this point, what all this meant. As I repeated my last name for the nth time to the bartender, looking like a distant cousin of Ninja of Die Antwoord, I began to understand that while hardcore had its place in the ‘80s, as an explicit and intense response to the realities of Reagan and cookie-cutter rock music, there came a point where an artists would find themselves in need of something more.

As another cigarette was inevitably lit up outside, I began to traverse the timeline of “indie” music, starting around the time of DIY labels in the hardcore scenes of New York, and Boston, and Washington D.C., and witnessing the changes in attitude as things like sludge, and post-hardcore, and even emo began to develop.

Hardcore was an impetus, or perhaps a foundation, that encompassed everything that the youth were feeling during its heyday. But while its sound is almost timeless, it was almost inevitably meant to be built upon. Bands like the Butthole Surfers added an air of psychedelia to it, fabricating a vibe that can only be felt by those who enjoy a bout of self-punishment from time to time, turning a “bad trip” into the equivalent of getting your ass kicked in a mosh pit.

The likes of Fugazi, and Rites of Spring, and Husker Du took the genre’s simplicity and completely reversed it. The vocal delivery and instrumentation didn’t have to be repetitious and fast. It could be technical, and composed, and deliberately placed in exactly the right place to formulate a song much more complex than your average punk song. It could be something altogether different.

Bands like Super Thief, and Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes, and New China, and US Weekly could carry the banner, and add elements of noise, and jazz, and synthpop to the mix to create something totally familiar, but totally unique thirty years later, keeping ideas and attitudes and creativity born from a simple drive for something else alive.

The familiar sound of feedback, embraced by all those who seek a bit of abrasiveness to their music, compelled my partner and I to return to the inside as Cherubs began their set. A group of guys who you might see on the street or in the store as just another bunch of oldies grinned on stage as powerful jabs of guitar chords wound a thread among anyone in the room, connecting everyone with a common appreciation of hard music, and everything that that pushback against clean sounding guitars entails.

Beyond saying that the Cherubs embody a contemporary brand of straightforward Rock ‘n’ Roll, it’s really hard to describe what exactly this band is. With members Owen McMahon, Kevin Whitley, and Brent Prager, you get this altogether “Texas” sound that both cruises along like a convertible on a desert highway, and smashes its head through panes of glass like a totally uncaring, inexplicably aggressive punk rocker.

Drop D guitars will slog alongside party rock melodies, making for a sound that haphazardly grooves, but instills a sense of “fuck you” amongst its fans. Noises like perpetual dial tones setting the tempo for a whole song create a surreal, out of control feel to things as moments will be fragmented into these quick bouts of headbanging heaviness, separating composition into fleeting pieces of melody that jerk the listener around in unconventional musical tidbits.

An encore bout brings us super catchy guitar melodies, as the drummer flings every one of his reserve sticks into the audience, commemorating the appreciation and drive this band has for the audience and the music they have, and continue to, create. As they finish, left-on guitar pedals and amps create this crunchy, pulsating sound of distortion as the crowd roars in response to the return of nasty, unapologetic Texas Rock to the streets of our fair city of live music.

As the crowds shuffled to the portal back to the world of responsibility and only fleeting moments of artistic expression, I find myself content that there are those who believe in this music, and have been continuing to write and play all this time.  If nothing else, this night is a testament to the perpetuity of a passion for a sense of change; a shift that, in any other circumstance, would be fleeting, but in the case of Cherubs, and those would would follow or parallel as peers to them, has lasted for decades, and has been a lasting inspiration.

Long live Texas noise.

Bram Howard is a music writer living in Austin, TX. He also plays in Leche.