August 12, 2014
Great American Music Hall
Seeing The Mars Volta at 2 p.m. at some big dumb festival.
Antemasque is the third iteration of the ongoing creative collaboration between vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The first was At The Drive In, a thrilling non-starter of a next big thing whose epic neo-post-punk couldn't survive untenable creative differences. After their promising debut the band splintered into the half that wished to focus more (Sparta) and the half that felt they'd yet to adequately shoot the moon (The Mars Volta). The latter, headed by Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez with a rotating cast of drummers, keyboardists, bassists, Latin percussionists, and woodwinds-men, shared unprecedented vistas where the improbable roads of King Crimson, Tito Puente, Ennio Morricone, Eddie Palmieri, Metallica, and Fela Kuti met. Their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach deterred some but attracted more and for the better part of a decade, the two were pigs in creative shit.
No one is precisely sure why the two dissolved The Mars Volta—there were murmurs of a rift between the two principals—but they've kissed, made up, and returned as Antemasque, a pared-down combo making their SF debut headlining Great American Music Hall last night. Needless to say, expectations were high.
And expectations only grew in the wake of openers Le Butcherettes, a feral tour de force and the best opening band this writer's ever had the pleasure of witnessing live. Magnetic is an understatement when describing frontwoman Teri Gender Bender's stage presence. Over a well-deserved hour, she flailed, brayed, squealed, and growled her way through her band's primal neo-Cramps punk attack. It's a simple backdrop of sturdy AC/DC-ready drums and bass atop which she convulses with such convincing emotion and infectious intensity, she very nearly dares the headliners to top her. Regardless of what else happens tonight the dancing women in the audience already know: Le Butcherettes are never to be missed and are heretofore not to be ignored. Utterly stunning.
The roar that follows as Antemasque take the stage is arena-worthy as are the band. Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez have intensity and vibe to spare as they push their minimal, intense debut towards the rafters and beyond. Gone is any semblance of epic sweep—it's deeply unlikely there'll be any horn sections or multi-voiced synth lines atop the music of Antemasque—and in its stead is tight, weird rock, like a My War-era Black Flag helmed by Robert Fripp and Steve Perry. They delight in every tight close to songs that almost never veer past the five-minute mark. Whereas The Mars Volta languished in every crevasse, eking jams from even their most modest selections, Antemasque's M.O. seems closer to the At The Drive In's, although compositionally, even that band was more exotic. This is straight-ahead rock as envisioned by terminal weirdos and comes off hot and relevant as Bixler-Zavala shares charming, meandering anecdotes over Rodriguez-Lopez's melancholy vamps. They close with a slight nod to The Mars Volta's sprawl, a thoughtful, extended interlude that's in fact closer to Slint than Yes, but truly, Antemasque is its own beast. It's a rare delight to see titans at the top of their game take the risk of (ahem) re-branding and presenting us with a new vision but it's a delight when they retain what works (their utterly infectious energy) and re-imagine it into a novel context. Thumbs up, Antemasque; SF looks forward to catching you at The Warfield next time.
Teri Gender Bender pulled off the most sincere and enthusiastic stage dive in recent memory. Punk as all get-out.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s story of his grandmother’s ongoing support for his enthusiasm for everything from KISS to touring in his own band was simply heartwarming.