Live Review: Wrekmeister Harmonies, Xasthur, Johanna Warren @ Metro Gallery in Baltimore, 5/21/17

It was totally backwards thinking that got me to this show – one week before I would return to Baltimore for Maryland Deathfest – and it just got more backwards, upside down and inside out as the night progressed. But I’m ahead of myself.

While waiting in line for the bathroom during the Junius/InAeona show last month, I saw a peculiar flyer posted with the baroquely illegible but very familiar logo for Scott Conner’s long-running, drippy-mopey black metal project Xasthur. My understanding was that he had deep-sixed that name years ago in favor of an acoustic and very non-metal band Nocturnal Poisoning, in which he played a musical form he referred to (in an album title, at least) as doomgrass.  I was intrigued by the apparent resurrection, and when I did some research and found that these shows were, indeed, acoustic, I determined that this was a show I needed to experience.  Whether the show would be good or bad, skipping a likely rare appearance in such a setting just seemed like a poor decision.

The poster I saw situated the Xasthur logo at the top, with Wrekmeister Harmonies in the middle and a tiny space below for opener Johanna Warren‘s name.  As advertisements go, it probably did its job selling the show, but in terms of impact, the poster turned out to be as confused as it could be.  To begin, Xasthur (or Nocturnal Poisoning, I’m still unsure of the distinction at this stage) played second, leaving the headlining slot for Wrekmeister Harmonies.  It was Wrekmeister’s show, apparently, with ample set times for the two supporting acts.  And secondly, neither of those bands was the revelation of the evening.

That title goes to the excellent guitar and vocal performance by Johanna Warren, a Portland, OR singer/songwriter with a fluid, trance-inducing picking technique and a smooth alto worthy of any stage of any size.  She played to a sparse audience, one time audibly wondering at our respectful silence while she performed, saying that she was used to playing noisy bars.  Given the heavier proclivities of her tourmates, it was amusing when she complained early in the set about hearing some feedback in her monitor, something we on the club floor could not hear.  She played various songs filled with folk contemplation, including a new one called “Witch Sickness” that recalled Steve Von Till’s quietest work.  The range of quality in Warren’s chosen style is wide, and most of her peers are far less listenable; it was a joy to experience music on the higher end of that scale.

Conner and his pair of companions took the stage quietly, with Conner wearing his now familiar bandana across his face.  The trio played proficiently through songs that clearly share a chord and compositional throughline with Xasthur’s blackened drear of yore.  This approach sets aside all the artistic grandeur of louder music, lays bare the gritty humanity of the musician and his creations, which is both very brave and – it turns out – very odd for such a well documented misanthropist as Conner.  Though performed in a confident tenor voice, the lyrics lurched clumsily toward unfiltered diary rants dumped out of an uncomplicated mind.  Such uncrafted non-poetry screeches by unrecognizeably in the context of lo-fi metal, but when stripped of its wild sonic trappings, such directness ruins the mood a bit.  The performance I had paid money to see was the least interesting of the three.

I didn’t know what to expect from Wrekmeister Harmonies.  I have listened to their past couple recordings and have been left wondering what I gained from the experience.  There were clearly interesting ideas lurking throughout the compostions, but I didn’t seem to have the attention span to allow them to spool out entirely.  In a live setting, though, the duo is mesmerizing, potent and transcendent.  J.R. Robinson lays down a crawling guitar base, over which his partner, multi-instrumentalist Esther Shaw, builds heavy synth contributions and by turns haunting and aggressive violin work.  Robinson’s baritone murmur is complemented by Shaw’s feminine croon, mapping out uncomfortable and challenging regions of the brain, body and spirit.  The crescendos reached by Robinson and Shaw are stultifying.  From pretty melodies and flowing/ebbing chord washes, elemental bombast is born.  The tantalizing video accompaniment projected behind them suggests narrative but is interrupted intercut with formless impressions that speak more to unconscious fear and aspiration.  Overall, the show was powerful, and worth every penny I paid, albeit in ways I didn’t expect.