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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Esper Machine Live at the Milk, Denver, CO 11/08/08

This is in some way a review of the performance by Esper Machine at the Milk in Denver on 11/08/08...

First, go to this band's site and listen to "Siberia" as you read....

Esper Machine can look like this:

In this picture you're looking at James the singer and Ryan the DJ. Both live in that strange, half forgotten frontier of Springfield, Missouri to Northern Arkansas, which is a land of menacing ice storms that give trees the appearance of having broken arms, half- abandoned outlying towns where dogs and children may chase your car as it passes through, a goth/industrial/metal club called Ground Xero, conservative white people who look at you strange for having a mohawk, and enough of an assortment of artsy weirdos to make things like GX and Esper Machine possible. Such innocuous, unsuspecting holes in the wall for goth/industrial/darkwave do in fact exist more often than you might expect, and are always a pleasure to find out about.

Also present at this show was Morbid Kitty (from Sacramento) on Keyboards. There is allegedly also an occasional guitar player for this band but I have never seen him.

Esper pretty quickly reminds you of other bands in the "darkwave" sub-genre of things. VNV Nation, Diary of Dreams, Informatik, and a half dozen other names come up pretty quick to describe that popular, dance-friendly infusion of brooding darkness into synth pop. A lot of their sound will already be quite familiar to readers of scene publications such as this one. Gone are most samples of clanging metal, and much of the raw, angry, distorted vocals. Drums are mostly clean but very tight and punchy. Instead of multi-layers of found sounds, synths make up most of the "atmospheric textures and haunting melodies", and a clean voiced man who can actually sing (!) contrasts with the musical "spookiness" to comfort the black clad listeners out there in this cruel and wicked world...

Given the nature of their far flung living arrangements, if you are trying to figure out who exactly is in Esper Machine, where they live, who writes what parts, or what message their lyrics are all about, or some other such basic fundamentals of a band, you'll probably just get confused. It's perhaps more useful to understand this project not as a few people who at a certain time and place have come together to create music, but as a Time and Place itself which formed back in the mid 90s out of that black void of Skinny Puppy's break up and the emergence of a "new school" of music that quickly took over most DJ's playlists.

In this sense one could call Esper Machine in 2008 the Darkwave equivilent of draft Pabst Blue Ribbon, Dr. Roxo the Rock and Roll Clown, or even Barak Obama. What all these things have in common is that while they are unique products of individuals working to promote themselves, had they not existed you could be damn well sure that given historical conditions like hipsters looking for a cheap "alternative" beer, Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, or the level of popular revulsion against eight years of George W Bush, something like them would have been created by someone and most likely by now would come come along to occupy (more or less) the same place. Also like (at least) PBR and Dr. Roxo, we're glad it's them on stage paying this role, and not some inferior imitation.

If we have made up our minds to listen to this kind of thing, or to even go so far as to put it on a stage and watch it perform, Esper Machine does the job about as well as you'd hope, and a good ways better than a lot of other people out there trying to do the same thing. Watching Esper play is a lot like a VNV show, except with better lyrics, slightly less repetitive beats, and sans the embittered mutterings of resentment from the many goths and rivetheads who've elevated the expression of jealously and loathing against *that* band into damn near an Olympic sport.

Also, they're not the only band that does this, but they are one of the few that I've seen perform: backing tracks for Esper are refreshingly left off a laptop, and are mixed by a DJ with two cd players. Fans of live, complex, multi-instrument live performance, or anyone who agreed with the sentiments expressed in my review of another band that (essentially just) sings over backing tracks might wonder why I'm describing the phenomena here in a positive light...

To answer that question you need to understand that, for better or for worse, Esper is not (primarily) "a band you go watch play live." More accurate might be to call it a self-conscious experiance in finding a solution to The Band vs Dance Club Controversy.

Cross fading the backing tracks into each other keeps a steady beat, so dancers are happy because they can keep doing what they come there to do every week anyways, without having to endure the burden of, say, listening to inter-song lead singer banter. Promoters also win out because though there is a guy singing up there where ordinarily there would just be a DJ, and someone may be playing guitars or keyboards over it all, the heard experiance is relatively the same. This means anyone who books Esper for their venue is likely to endure far less flak for choosing them, rather than say, a less dance-oriented band, from that unfortunately-quite-influential population of scenesters who love dancing to a band every week the DJ plays them but who nonetheless will complain with nauseating predictability should the same band arrive to perform in person.

At this show there were a few technical problems but they appeared to have more to do with the house system messing up than incompetence on the part of band members, and most people seemed to give them the benefit of the doubt and not worry too much. One problem I did notice though has to do with the fact that the keyboardist who flew in from out of town should have had more time to practice with the band. I say this not because she played the parts wrong (she played them fine, as far as I could tell), but she seemed a little bit nervous on stage, and not as at ease and feeling into the music as the singer and DJ did. However, this writer understands that when some of your band members live in different cities and can only fly in for a show or two out of a multi-show tour, getting practice time and the subsequent relaxed, confident attitude for all your band mates can be hard. Also for medical reasons it was not possible for this person to consume alcohol before going on, which may have been a factor as well, understandable and forgivable as it may be misfortunate.

To close this review I may emphasize that for many who enjoy patronizing goth-industrial nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Milk bar, the fact that there was even a band here playing at all is way more of a surprise and worthy topic of discussion than would be the assessed talent of this particular band. According to a random sample of many club attendees I personally conducted during and after the set, more people enjoyed this performance than disapproved of it. A majority of respondents said that, "if they are good", more bands should be booked at this night, though I did run into a vocal minority that wanted a stronger line between "live venues" and "dance clubs".

You can hear them here, and buy their CD here. The Dying Life tour is now concluded, but this band loves playing live, and you're likely to get another chance to see them if you keep your ears open.

-by Christian Wright

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