Like a wonderful mid-week oasis, I stepped into the Mercury Lounge on Wednesday 10/6 for a much needed respite from the chaos of life which somehow only seeing a live band with a camera in my hands can make right for me. On the bill were no wave art punks, Parlor Walls, and experimental indie rockers, Activity, neither of whom I had actually seen before, but both of whom I was highly anticipating and looking forward to.
I had been a fan of singer/guitarist Alyse Lamb’s earlier project, Eula, for some time but had yet to see Parlor Walls play because life somehow always got in the way (working nights will do that for you). I was very happy to break the missing streak and finally get to see them because Lamb is a powerhouse performer. She never stays still and translates the emotion of the songs into the movements of her body and in the way she plays guitar which is anything but “traditional.” Her guitar style is experimental through and through, and is perfectly augmented with drummer Chris Mulligan who adds not just percussion but also synths. All of these elements meld for compelling discordant and atmospheric dips into noise and controlled chaos, their no wave influences serving them well and their self descriptor of “trash jazz” a very apt one. They are a two piece but for this show added live bassist, Andy Kinsey, who brought a nice depth to the sound.
Their latest release Heavy Tongue came out in 2020 just prior to the pandemic and catches this range of musical feels. I have enjoyed it a lot, and now that I have seen them, I think an even better way to experience those songs is to see them performed live so I absolutely will be making it a priority to get out to more of their shows.
Parlor Walls at Mercury Lounge
Fresh off the release of their new single “Text the Dead,” Activity headlined the evening, which also served as a belated release event for their 2020 album, Unmask Whoever. The show was additionally a tour kickoff for a two week run they will be embarking on (with touring bassist, Bri DiGioia, filling in for regular bassist Zoë Browne on this run) and was their first show back since all hell broke loose with Covid, unfortunately right around the time they released their record last year (a story that happened to far too many great records by great bands).
According to their Bandcamp: Activity are an avant four-piece featuring Travis Johnson, and drummer Steve Levine, both from the band Grooms, bassist Zoë Browne from Field Mouse and guitarist Jess Rees from Russian Baths. Produced by engineer Jeff Berner of Psychic TV, their debut forms a casually menacing framework for lyrical themes of paranoia, exposed character flaws, and the broader human capacity for growth when an ugly truth is laid bare.
Activity at Mercury Lounge
Their music is very much in the indie range though with a definite and prominent experimental edge. The songs range from quiet, more serene finger picked passages and/or synth explorations, to louder more forceful turns with heavier guitar work and booming drums for straight ahead rock outs. But no matter the feel, everything was approached with a cool headed control, never reaching the point of frenzy or disarray. As someone who is used to being at a lot of punk shows and who listens to a fair amount of what amounts to musical pandemonium that very much does tip over the edge before it can pull itself back, Activity’s music is a change for me in terms of my norm, but absolutely a welcome one. I was impressed by this dynamic and their ability to be intense without ever spiraling away into unruliness.
I always love watching great drummers play and locking in with them and Activity’s set was a real treat for me in that regard. Levine’s drumming was of particular interest to me and I really loved his sensibilities, which had a firm rock undertone but for sure touched on a jazz feel, every fill a calculated addition rather than just something to insert at a more dramatic turn of the music.
Coming from mostly punk shows (in terms of watching tons of bands and playing in punk bands for years), it is very nice to take a look into a different way of making music, a place were complex and layered things are going on and it’s not just shouting over three chords (though there is certainly nothing wrong with that either!). Both of these bands have their own distinct sounds, but what I loved from each is that there is space for each instrument and feel to operate independently of each other to then weave back around together, creating a lush tapestry of sounds. I am going to need to explore this path more because I had a wonderful time watching these bands and studying the significant depth they had to offer.
Scroll down for more pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)