Monday, May 01, 2023

SHHHH!: Wolves in the Throne Room show compromised by loud, meathead Vancouver audience

Wolves in the Throne Room, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Ever seen a concert in another country? Was audience behaviour markedly different from what you see here?

I lived in Japan from 1999 to 2002. I went to plenty of concerts during that time, from shows by Japanese avant-gardists and jazzsters like Haino Keiji and Kazutoki Umezu to ones by Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, and Joe Strummer. Audiences at shows varied from band to band, in terms of how they behaved, but the one that stood out was GY!BE, who played a venue in Kabukicho called the Liquid Room. This was before their hiatus, around when they were touring Lift Your Skinny Fists; they did a long, entirely-instrumental set accompanied by film projections, with nothing at all in the way of vocals; the films, which I remember as being mostly black-and-white, showed desolate cityscapes and images of urban decay, mostly devoid of people, though perhaps there were a few of the homeless or desperately poor. The band was in fine form, moving and passionate - if somewhat shy; Efrim Menuck, in particular struck me as hiding behind his hair (unbelievably, there is an image online to give you an idea what I mean, not necessarily from the same show, but certainly from the same venue). The thing that stands out in memory now, though, is how the mostly Japanese audience stole the show, because they were dead silent. They didn't cough, let alone talk or whoop. They didn't rattle the ice in their glasses. They didn't even applaud between songs. Instead, they LISTENED ATTENTIVELY AND QUIETLY for an hour long set, then burst into enthusiastic applause when the music was all over. Can you imagine?

It was perfect. It was the RIGHT way of listening to that band; and I found myself wishing for that audience, a few years later, seeing Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (with many of the same musicians onstage) at Richards on Richards, here in Vancouver, where Carla Bozulich opened, touring that first Evangelista solo project before that became her band name. That's an amazing album, if you like your music dark and moody...

...But live, the audience utterly ruined it (incidentally, there is a whole Reddit thread of shows ruined by noisy, disrespectful, or drunken audiences. I went to it specifically to see if any mention was made of Wolves in the Throne Room, but there isn't). It was frustrating and embarrassing for me as a Vancouverite to see ourselves in such poor form. The venue where the show was held - Richards on Richards - was superbly designed for concerts if and when the audience wanted to pay attention, but - with a two-tier room structure, with people leaning on the semi-circular balcony rail above, surrounding the entirety of the concert floor, if people DIDN'T want to watch the show, their chatter would fill the pit from all angles (you can see the room on the last photo of this blogpost, from the Pointed Sticks' Vancouver return). The cacophony of talkers overwhelmed the vulnerable, aching music Bozulich and band presented that evening; it was impossible to get into, maddening to try. I had loved the record, and when I'd spoken to Bozulich beforehand, interviewing both her and Efrim for Discorder, she had talked about how the ideal venue for performing the album was a church; instead, she found herself in the midst of a very crowded, very noisy cocktail party. 

Personable at the merch table afterwards, not apparently put off by the crap reception, the former Geraldine Fibbers frontwoman appreciated my trying to apologize for how we had behaved, but remarked that she had learned that "the people who are talking are not the audience."

It's a nice way to think of things - very forgiving - but unfortunately, the people who, by her estimation, WERE the audience couldn't get into the music because of the ones who, by Bozulich's logic, weren't. And that shit, my friends, ain't right. 

Makoto Kawabata of Japanese psych band Acid Mothers Temple was also quite philosophical about it when I asked him to give his impressions of audiences there versus audiences here, since that band tours a bit more heavily in North America than a lot of Japanese underground acts. He observed that he thought that

Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves. In addition, tickets are expensive in Japanese clubs so most people will only be able to afford to buy one drink. But in the US and Europe people will drink while listening to the music and they'll go to the bar even during the performance. Japanese audiences will also watch all the bands on the bill - firstly because they've paid a lot to get to in, but also because they're simply curious about the bands even if they've never heard of them before. I don't know which attitude is better. If you've paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you're bored you can chat with your friends, it's up to you. Maybe it's more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won't feel like chatting?

Wolves in the Throne Room, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

I write all this in regard the recent Wolves in the Throne Room show at the Rickshaw. I don't have much to say about the show; I do have some things to say about the audience. When I last saw Wolves in the Throne Room, in 2012, I had no trouble with the audience at all. I'm not sure what was different, then, compared to now, but I was able to lose myself in the music so deeply, with my eyes closed, that the room's coplike security hassled me for sleeping (I mean, sure, I was a bit tranced out, eyes closed, head down, but even if we were to describe that as sleep - it was certainly an altered state of consciousness - it was dream-rich and powerful and mind-alteringly rapturous; why interfere with it, if that's where the music took me?). Nowhere did I complain about the audience in that post, maybe because I hadn't gone expecting anything, whereas, based on that experience, I had hoped, last night, to lose myself in intense listening, just like I had before. 

Kawabata's quote suggests that the band has some culpability for presenting themselves so people pay attention, but Wolves in the Throne Room did nothing wrong that I could see in the buildup to the show. The event organizers, also, were blameless; they had picked an opening band, Tribunal, who employ what I am going to describe as a cello (see below) as one of their key instruments, and have plenty of moody atmosphere in their music (which I thought they struggled a bit to present live, to be honest, but I don't want to discourage them, since only by playing live more will they develop; I quite liked their conception of sound and stage presentation, and did think their playing improved as their set progressed). 

Tribunal by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

The WITTR stage setup, with what seemed mysterious, magickal, mangificently ornate sigils and such behind the stage, also suggested something more like an ancient pagan temple - or maybe the gates of Midian? - than it did a rock concert. There were decorations of pine boughs with small candles placed around the stage, moody (read: dark as fuck) lighting, and a lengthy recorded intro of minimal ambient music, with sounds of running water, to set a somewhat sombre tone (it reminded me quite a bit of the intro to the first song on Electric Wizard's Time to Die, but without the Satanic Panic news reports and a bit more music). We were smudged, too - a member of the crew, I guess (or perhaps the band?) came out with burning sweetgrass or sage and blew it gently out into the audience and around the front of the stage, again suggesting something sacred and ritualistic, a mood of prayer and focus. I was standing up front for this, but my phone is no match for Bob's camera; I did my best:

  The candles are lit and the audience is cleansed, by Allan MacInnis

This was an exquisite buildup to the band taking the stage (nice and early, too - it was only about 9:15).  But even then, before the music proper began, I was finding myself irritated with the audience. There were these two drunk girls in front of me, y'see, with a male friend with furs about his shoulders, and they were already - BEFORE the band had started to play - doing this ironic representation of people telling them to SHHHH!, going SHHHH! at each other and laughing, making fun of the indignation of whoever had previously tried to quiet them down (presumably during Tribunal), making fun of the very idea of being quiet. They would adopt these ironic cookie-monster vocals and growl a bit over the ambient music, laughing at each other's performance, throwing ironic goats at the empty stage, presumably so stupid with drink that even their own drunkenness and stupidity were amusing to them. I was, at that point, trying to get into the correct mindset by listening to the ambient music, which went on for at least ten minutes - it's apparently is a regular feature of Wolves in the Throne Room live shows, and not that far off the mood achieved by their dark ambient album, Celestite. Instead, all I, or anyone around us, could likely pay attention to, was these girls' loud, self-amused, self-worshipping inebriation.  

I mean, don't get me wrong, I've got nothin' against people having fun. They were choosing to have fun in a way that would interfere with the enjoyment of others, but clearly they were having a good time; and, like, I don't WANT to play cop.  But I did eventually lean forward and say to them, as mildly as I could, "Y'know, some of us are actually trying to listen to this." And they toned it down for a minute, to their credit. Maybe even two. But they were back to SHHHHing each other and throwing the goats and adopting a mock cookie monster growl and talking to each other like they'd run into each other on the street, not even attempting to be quiet.    

It didn't matter, really - they were the loudest of the people in proximity to me, but during the two minutes where they actually did try to keep their voices down, you could hear that there was plenty of crowd noise happening elsewise, people talking left, right, and behind me. I stood there trying to tune it out... 

Wolves in the Throne Room, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

...and then the band took the stage and began to play - I believe kicking off with "Mountain Magick." As soon as the drums kicked in, something I didn't expect began to happen: the guy in the furs, who had been chatting with the girls, began to MOSH, jumping up and down in the pit and colliding into the people around him, some of whom seemed to be moshing back at him. 

I don't think he meant it ironically. I think that's how he thought the band would have him behave, thought he was showing appreciation for what they were doing. I guess I can't fault him for that, if that's how he hears their music, if that's his response to it; it was certainly intense enough and the double-kick-drum pummeling loud enough to sustain that reaction, and I can't lay claim to having cornered the market on how to listen to WITTR. I mean, it's not like I was going to ask him not to mosh. But to my mind, moshing to Wolves in the Throne Room is almost as inappropriate a reaction as moshing to GY!BE (note: GY!BE actually picked WITTR for an All Tomorrow's Parties that they curated, so the comparison point isn't entirely unfounded, here). There's a live review of a show in Australia with an audience that apparently listens to the band the way I would like to:

The feeling Wolves In The Throne Room invokes is like no other, I close my eyes and am transported from the hell-pit designed bar to old mountains and forests from brutal storms to pleasant dewy spring mornings with a fawn running through the trees. This is the power of WITTR, music so encompassing it is like magic transporting you to a new realm. 

Nathan Weaver of Wolves in the Throne Room, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

It started to seem like the only way I was going to be transported anywhere last night was if I left the venue, which indeed is what I eventually did. But it wasn't the first recourse. My thought in the pit was, "Oh, shit, are people actually going to mosh to this? Guess I'll go back to the seats." (The Rickshaw is great that way: if you get tired of standing, have a disability, are not enjoying the pit, or just want to listen to the music without being slammed into, there's plenty of seating available). So I made my way back to the seats to sit down and close my eyes for few songs, contemplating as I sat down how I could still feel Aaron Weaver's pummeling assault on his kit deep in my body. It does kind of sustain moshing, I thought, but if you just close your eyes and LISTEN to it, let it penetrate you...

I didn't take notes as to what the people behind me were talking about. Or the people beside me, or the people in front of me. Some of it was just whoopin' and screamin', which I resent less - at least it's an attempt to show appreciation - but loud as the band was, there was all too much conversation going on for me to concentrate. I mean, if you're ever at a rock concert and someone stands up in the middle of the room and explosively bellows, THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT WAY TO LISTEN TO THIS MUSIC, COULD YOU ALL JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!????... jeez, it's probably me. 

Wolves in the Throne Room by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Bob was still taking photos - surprisingly great ones, given the lack of light - by the time I realized I wasn't going to be able to enjoy myself, but between the challenges of capturing lucid images with the lights out and listening to rapturously meditative, transportive music in a room full of noisy buffoons, we only got about a half hour into the show. Have audiences gotten that much dumber since 2012? Has the year-plus we took off for the pandemic warped people's social skills? Did WITTR's core audience somehow drop radically in IQ in the last ten years, or do people just go to any ol' metal show now, without caring whether the band is an unusually thoughtful, serious, and sonically sophisticated one? (Because WITTR certainly are all of that). As I made my way towards the exits, pausing so Bob could shoot a few images from the back of the room, I noticed that there was a guy in the aisle wearing a wifebeater and baseball cap, both arms up in the air, rocking the goats over his head; I saw someone else pass by with his baseball cap on backwards. Who were these people? Why were they there? Do Wolves in the Throne Room fans WEAR backwards ballcaps now, or did they think they'd come to see Nickelback or something? 

Maybe it's my fault. Maybe the person who didn't belong in the Rickshaw last night was, in fact, me [I imagine cheers from the peanut gallery, here]. But it's too bad, because that 2012 Venue show was one of the most trance-inducing, sonically rewarding metal shows I've ever seen, and I love the idea of a metal band trying to draw on the energies of the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Plus the art for Primordial Arcana is just beautiful. The music is very powerful. Bob snagged a killer t-shirt too. It could have been a very intense night. Instead...well, I hope y'all had fun.


Wolves in the Throne Room, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

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