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98 Rock Loosens Weirdness Standards for Local Bands

May 8, 2008

Last Monday at Fletcher’s, one person stood out of the crowd well before he took the stage to perform. The tall black man covered in tattoos–with a stripe of white paint across his face, a fluffy boa, and fingerless gloves–turned out to be Symbol, the frontman for local band the Hot Magic. The singer’s androgynous appearance and over-the-top stage presence stood out even more in the context of his bandmates, three scruffy white dudes who looked like any other trio of scruffy white dudes you’d expect to see on the Fletcher’s stage.

Taken altogether, though, the Hot Magic’s sound and visual spectacle were a cohesive and striking whole. Over a rumbling modern-rock guitar/bass/drums backdrop, Symbol slathered on synthesizer melodies and slithered around the stage, crooning and caterwauling. And though the singer sometimes came off like one of those overly eccentric American Idol hopefuls who doesn’t realize how ridiculous the shtick looks like to others, there was something admirable and involving about the way Symbol played to a small, half-empty club like it was an arena, selling the band’s weirdly funky midtempo songs as lung-busting anthems. Hot Magic wasn’t quite awesome, but we could definitely see it getting there with time.

The last time we checked out Noise in the Basement, 98 Rock’s weekly local-band showcase, the dominant flavor was emo, or at least some pretty wussy punk rock. This time out, ambitious art rock came out on top, with the Hot Magic and the other bands on the bill all incorporating some combination of freaky time signatures, complex song structures, or pretentious theatricality into their sets. In other words, these were bands that 98 Rock wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole if they weren’t local.

A power trio called Armed Elephant used some kind of weird prerecorded narration between songs as a proggy framing device for its set that pretty much went over our heads. We Read Minds, which at first sounded like an average band that owed a clear stylistic debt to Radiohead, gradually established itself as, at the very least, a better than average Radiohead-influenced band. That is to say, the band has some songwriting chops that shined through its epic, faux-futuristic aesthetic, at least when the drum machines didn’t over power the live drums. And the lead singer’s gentle falsetto thankfully didn’t obviously originate as a Thom Yorke impression.

Still, all the bands that shared the stage Monday had a hell of a time leaving much of an impression in comparison to Symbol and the Hot Magic’s spectacle.

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