The venue wasn't as big as many a recent D.C. metal all-star show, and certainly not the crowd, either, but the volume and weight of noise-metal veterans Unsane, more recent underground contributors 400 Blows and Mouth of the Architect, and local fave Wooly Mammoth is unmatched in recent years. And though the bill was overcrowded, the bands kept the evening-into-morning interesting with their diverse styles and the virtual lovefest that marked the end of a six-week tour.
While the first three bands each offered compelling heavy music, the elder Unsane put its experience to good use, performing the tightest, most-focused set of the show, though not many people remained to see it. Many a lad was dragged away from the Rock & Roll Hotel by their ladies midway through the set, and others had sought refuge for their ears long before the headliner took the stage.
The powerful trio opened with the searing combination of "Release" off 2005's "Blood Run" and "Against the Grain," the opening track from the recent release "Visqueen." The fast-paced "Release" was the sparkplug, with Chris Spencer's pulverizing and relentless chords. "Against the Grain" offered somewhat of a contrast with its grungier, more somber intro before Spencer's thrashing guitar came in on top of Dave Curran's fuzzy bass and the hypnotic drumming of Vinnie Signorelli. And Spencer's edge-of-insanity shriek was as frightening as ever. Having not recorded an album in the seven years prior to those last two, it was no surprise that Unsane focused largely on those records, and it's better to hear those songs live. The albums themselves don't offer anything new to the band's rep, only expanding the catalog, but they do show that Unsane is still the best at what it does, fusing hardcore punk and noise rock into a dark, metal monolith. "Killing Time's" haunting gloom was in step with "Against the Grain's" mood, sounding like a terrifying nightmare.
The band did reach back to its first run, and no Unsane set would be complete without "Scrape," the trio's high-water mark thanks to its cult classic 1995 video of skateboarding disasters. That little piece of art showed what a well-conceived and amusing video can do for a band, but the song stands up alone. It's a little heavier in 2007 than it was 12 years ago, but it remains one of Unsane's most infectious songs with its funkier bass and mid-'90s alt-rock sound, and the 25 or so fans remaining were whipped into a frenzy. Who would walk out before "Scrape" of their own volition? Following that, "This Stops at the River" offered one of the only new wrinkles of Unsane of late, with Spencer breaking out the harmonica -- he did in fact bring it on the tour -- for the intro. And the song holds that vibe with bluesy undertones. Way under. Buried beneath the throbbing hardcore.
Despite Spencer's tendency to lord over Unsane's sound, the driving force behind the set, and in many ways the entire show, was Signorelli's unpredictability on the kit. He was the most intriguing player, banging out hypnotic tribal rhythms and full throttle beats with equal aptitude. No song better demonstrated this better than the set closer, which developed into a droney, metal jam by following Signorelli on a journey. Spencer stepped down into the crowd well before Signorelli and Curran were finished, getting one last look and listen with the fans. But before bringing the show and the tour to a close, Spencer professed his love for his friends Curran and Signorelli -- earlier he'd similarly stated his fondness of 400 Blows and Mouth of the Architect, saying, "These guys are truly decent people" -- a sentiment that'd been expressed throughout the evening. Signorelli celebrated the night by treating the openers to a host of pranks -- garlic on the microphone, hot sauce in the beverage, powder on the cymbals -- like a loving older brother.
400 Blows' set was goofier, befitting a metal band rooted in punk. Their song titles alone attest -- "The World's Largest Miniature," "The Root of Our Nature" and "The Man Who Danced Himself to Death" established the silly vs. probing tone of the set. The trio -- vocals, drums, guitar, but no bass -- took the stage in matching black shirts with three arrows down on their sleeves -- singer Skot Alexander's shirt looked uncomfortable over his paunch, but he looked perfectly Ponch with his highway patrol shades -- though the drummer quickly cast his aside in the muggy room. But it isn't all trivial with this band. Set closer "The Kids Are Not at Home," while maintaining a certain amount of levity, was the Blows' most thought-provoking tune.
Mouth of the Architect's sound, though, was the most forward-thinking of the evening. Its proggy metalgaze is not entirely unique -- Jesu and Neurosis have dabbled here and Isis has made its name and established its reputation on it -- but it remains an intoxicating direction for heavy metal music. With keys added to the standard two guitar, bass and drums lineup, Mouth of the Architect took the crowd on a couple of 10-15 minute journeys, focusing on the music more than the words. When they announced their last song, the sound man protested that their time had expired -- thanks to the band's long time spent setting up and the late start of the show. But MOTA protested, "C'mon, it's the last show." The band insisted the finale would only be five or six minutes long, which was hard to believe. But they kept their word. A better three-song set you'll never hear, certainly not in metal and hardcore circles.
Though Wooly Mammoth seemed to be the crowding factor on this bill, it was a smart move to anchor the show with the locals. While the band seemed to add one too many bands to the show, its six-song set also seemed too short and sweet. Again, Mammoth set itself apart from the other acts of the evening, though maintaining the hardcore nature of the show. This trio's brand of hardcore is cousin to stoner metal, and frontman Zac Eller's impassioned squeal makes the music.