SEATTLE — Rachel Carns, drummer for electronic-punk duo the
Need, stood behind her kit at Graceland Friday and looked askance at a speaker above. It continued to hum with the Replacements' "Answering
Machine," despite the fact that the Need were ready and raring to launch into their set.
"I think we'll start playing now," she said, or something to that effect, and the band slammed into "Dark Sally," from their latest album, The Need Is Dead (2000).
By the time the three-part mini-epic started, the soundperson cut the Replacements — but if anyone could have let the tape roll and woven it into the song at hand, it would've been the Need. "Dark Sally," for instance, throbs with chunky metal, but also incorporates snatches of punk and a cappella opera break. During the rest of the gig, an opening stint for Blonde Redhead, Carns and guitarist Radio Sloan conjured elements of new wave in their vocals and Judas Priest in their addictive metallic riffs.
But the Need weren't the sole flag-bearers of new-school indie punk and metal in Seattle on Friday. Across town, their fellow travelers in Two Ton Boa were bomping out a set of their own at Breakroom.
Together these bands, both hailing from the fertile Olympia, Washington, punk scene, are redefining what it means to be a metal troupe in the new century.
On The Need Is Dead and Two Ton Boa's self-titled EP, artfulness stands shoulder to shoulder with aggression. While that alone isn't novel, the bands ply their sounds with unorthodox instrumentation and color their lyrics with a creative awareness of sex and sexuality issues that has roots in the riot grrrl movement of the early '90s.
No one has ever tackled them quite like the Need, however. The band tosses elements of science fiction and Broadway into its mix, and complicates the picture with occasionally impenetrable lyrics, as on "O Sally How's It Feel With a Fake Hand" (RealAudio excerpt): "We'd sure like to know!/ Who took your wig out of the bag?/ Who taught you to swim?/ Who told you to kiss the Swamp Thing?"
Onstage at Graceland, the Need were just as striking visually. Sporting a headphone mic tied on with a bandanna headband, Carns pounded her kit — which was placed at the lip of the stage opposite Sloan's tiny figure — standing up. It was an active arrangement, allowing both women to take dynamic roles in the show.
During "Circuit Side," their voices blended in appropriately off-kilter fashion. If the Indigo Girls convey a sense of earthiness in their vocals, the Need are something entirely different, perhaps like vinyl — a little odd, but tough and untearable.
Later, over at the Breakroom, Two Ton Boa soared, crawled and slithered through a gig that happened to be the final show for bassist Brian
Sparhawk. Singer and songwriter Sherry Fraser also plays bass in the band, which is rounded out on the EP by drummer Dan Rieser.
Two Ton Boa create musical fuel from both the grounding of their ultra-heavy rhythm section and the inviting quality of Fraser's melodies. During the song "Two Ton Boa," the concentrated drum toms and two basses sounded utterly natural, particularly in these days of booming subwoofer bass.
Here, there are no solos, and sometimes not even choruses. On the band's title song and "Bleeding Heart," Fraser sent out sharp "aahs!" and "oohs!" for the refrain. Each syllable was an arrow shot arching into the air to fall somewhere off in the distance.
Her verses, meanwhile, were often sketches of dysfunction, as on "Have
Mercy" (a song whose studio version features the Need). "Who could tell?" Fraser sang Friday in that song, "You can't smell poison in a perfumed well/ So I fell into a softly padded empty shell, forged in hell."
It's certainly not the sweetest stuff to swallow, but fan Anna Huff summed up Two Ton Boa's appeal in one word: "conviction," she said.
"Sherry Fraser is an incredibly powerful singer and songwriter," said Huff, 22, of Olympia. "They don't f--- around."