I’m glad my father all but beat the idea that patience is a virtue into my spongy little pre-adolescent brain. Oh, sure, there’s something to be said for instant gratification – who could live in New York if they didn’t have an appetite for easy and immediate pleasures? You’d either have to have the patience of a saint or all the drive of a Segway to make it through even a day in this modern day nightmare without giving into temptation – but sometimes you just have to sit and take the measure of things. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit and listen: some pleasures reveal themselves only in the fullness of time. Sontag Shogun’s performance at the Palisades last Tuesday was just one such occasion.
First, it took the band forever to get up on stage. There wasn’t just one, not merely two, but god-damn three whole opening acts, each more laborious than the last. OK, that’s not entirely fair: only the very first of them, Real Adult, was a drag, an experimental outfit that consisted of two kids, a single drum, a wire and what can only be described by the words my grandfather once reserved for the radio: yup, it was an honest-to-god “noisebox.” Cantenac Dagar and Ashcan Orchestra might have known how to build tricky, intricate and rhythmically inventive numbers but damn if you can only listen to bells chiming in the gloomy confines of a warehouse for so long before you start to wonder – no, hope – for a change. I’d headed out to see a band called Sontag Shogun, damn it, a name that brings to mind literary theorists of the late 60s and 70s slicing up their instruments as violently as they might slice up their enemies.
It was almost midnight by the time Sontag Shogun took the stage, and then after a bit of quibbling: would they, wouldn’t they, now that the other bands had all indulged themselves a little too much and gone thirty minutes over stage time? I kind of wished they would. I was tired and more than a little dopey after all those chimes. I had the feeling that these guys weren’t going to shred like I wanted, after all.
And then they started playing and I was thrilled that they were. And that they weren’t at all what the rockers I’d figured they be (why on Earth have I not learned how stupid it is to judge a band by a name?). They weren’t exactly from the same wheelhouse as their openers, either. ‘Stead they were something like some previously unsuspected missing link between Tim Hecker and the better, more arctic bits of The Shipping News. Sparse openers – little more than pianos and a few ghostly sounds from a synthesizer – built imperceptibly to rhythmic shifts that seemed minor and pointless until the songs finally opened up to something that sounded both wholly new and, paradoxically, entirely familiar. It was controlled and slow but it wasn’t boring, this performance, and never self-indulgent. Intent was clear in the arrangements and on the faces of every member of the band, all of them focused so hard on their instruments (and they played just about everything you might expect and then some things you wouldn’t; my favorite was the unlikely pairing of paint-brush and chopsticks that produced the kind of ghostly warbles you don’t get even with wide-range Theremins) you might have expected them to burn holes right through to the ground. Kinda thought that I might end up burning holes through the stage, the instruments and the performers, myself, intent as I was on it all. Good thing that the show ended when it did, and not but thirty minutes after it began.
Not to say I was happy. Sontag Shogun makes haunting music, commanding, exactly the kind of music to make standing around a hole-in-the-wall like Palisades seem somehow important, exactly the kind of music that leaves you thrilled if just a little mystified. It’s not music easily walked away from; subtle and creeping, it’s got that classic minimalist pull that makes each and every second seem like the beginning of something new and terrifying. It’s music that may seem ambient at first but inevitably reveals itself to be much fuller than any of that. It’s the kind that makes you pay attention, the kind that demands consideration, the kind that can make three hours of waiting for thirty minutes of music seem not just sane but justified.
Write-up: Austin Price
Photos: Jason Wien