Home / Music / Concert Reviews / Death Blues w/ Olivia Block, Cages and Peter Woods

Death Blues w/ Olivia Block, Cages and Peter Woods

May 4, 2013

May. 6, 2013
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Jon Mueller
Saturday’s show at Cactus Club, curated by Peter J. Woods for the Experimental Milwaukee series, featured four very different experimental acts from in and around Wisconsin. Woods, himself one of the major nodes of experimental music in Milwaukee, got things started. Performing with his back to the audience and lit from below by an eerie green light, Woods used pedals, a frayed bow and an ornate candelabrum to create disastrous noise and horror-movie suspense. I can’t say I’ve ever been “scared” at a show before, but Woods’ piece gave me the creeps. Hunched over his instrument like a mad professor, he waited for his cue, a garbled voice sample, to begin raking the bow against the candelabrum, which resulted in harsh, uncontrollable quaking. Woods’ performance was nightmarish and uncomfortable, and in that sense, successful.

Next was the experimental duo Cages, hailing from Buffalo, currently living in Milwaukee. Singer Nola Ranallo put on a tortured, dynamic performance, stretching her voice—which sounds a lot like Björk’s soprano—up and down the layers of noise and feedback provided by the guitarist. The duo hit its stride in the second half of the set, when the guitar’s output turned from blankets of noise to actual riffs and melodies.   

Chicago musician Olivia Block followed, with a table full of electronics that included walkie-talkies and an autoharp for a slow-building sound collage called “Dialogue.” Block twisted knobs with a placid satisfaction while garbled chatter, fuzz, hiss and distant metallic clangs rose to a dark, sinister climax.

It was interesting to see how the crowd turned over for Death Blues’ set. The lonerish noise fans seemed to disappear and be replaced by couples, hipsters and rock fans. After all, Death Blues, the latest project of local musician Jon Mueller, is a rock band, albeit in its most primitive form—most committed to the strange magic that happens when someone hits something the same way over and over and over again. The official Death Blues manifesto asks “How do we become more ‘present’?” and the group’s repetition of basic rhythms operates like a mantra, giving the listener a chance to look inward, contemplate the “big questions” and maybe transcend.

Mueller is a fascinating drummer to watch. There is a purpose to his playing, as if every strike (and he hits hard, throwing his entire upper body into each beat) is an urgent, vital message. As a vocalist, he is equally intriguing. The set actually opened with Mueller speaking in tongues, in a rapid stream of consciousness, which he then looped and layered before bringing in a driving kick drum pattern. Eventually the two guitars, played on tables with dulcimer hammers, joined him, ringing out long, dark chords as the song steadily built to its peak. Without words or melody, the true essence of Death Blues is simply rhythm and pure, unbridled sound. What more could you ask for?


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