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Prime Suspects

Prime: Morphius XII, the Talking Head, Sept. 23-24

Frank Hamilton
COMING OF AGE: Daggerhearts factor in at Prime: Morphius XII.

By J. Bowers | Posted 10/5/2005

Never let it be said that Morphius Records doesn’t know how to throw a birthday party. Prime: Morphius XII, a celebration of the Baltimore-based label/distributor’s 12th birthday (and founder David Andler’s latest trip around the sun), brought an eclectic lineup of bands to the Talking Head. Emceed by Slot Racer’s Jason Dove, who attempted to inject some sense of continuity into a wide-ranging two-night bill, Prime mixed the usual local suspects—postpunk powerhouse Two If By Sea, twee Water School, the well-coiffed Daggerhearts, and Washington lurkers Sick Sick Birds—with a handful of Morphius-associated out-of-towners.

Daggerhearts started Friday off with an intense set. Melding lush synth work with boot-stomping energy, this fairly new trio has yet to disappoint. The momentum was quickly sapped by Water School, a Morphius-distributed quartet with a reputation for making good girls sway dreamily to their unthreatening, McCartney-esque pop. Roman Kuebler, lead singer of the Oranges Band, provided backing vocals for one song, while Water School’s co-lead singer Chris Myers offered heart-on-his-sleeve ballads. Accomplished musicianship, yes, but about as much edge as a Care Bear.

Luckily, Death Set—a young duo from Sydney, Australia—came armed with two guitars, jury-rigged microphones made out of telephone receivers, and a wall of speakers blasting backing tracks from its frenetic EP. Playing in front of the stage usually feels like an annoying gimmick, especially in the tiny Talking Head, but Death Set’s flailing filth-and-fury antics left the assembled crowd breathlessly asking, “Is that all?” after its manic six-song set. The band repeated its entire repertoire on Saturday night, before taking off for its new home in Brooklyn. Keep your eyes out for these guys.

Cleveland export Coffinberry offered up crunchy alt-rock with terse, emotive vocals. Friday ended with Morphius-signed Bang! Bang!, a three-piece desperately wanting to sound and look like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and failing, despite singer Gretta Fine’s thrift-store chic and her male cohorts’ matching polka-dot shirts. Combined with the wheezy porn-star vocals and electronic keening, Bang! Bang! are all forced retro style and very little substance. A surprise set by Baltimore club hero DJ Rod Lee rounded out the night.

Saturday’s lineup brought more surprises—Morphius mogul/ drummer Andler reunited with his old band, National Razor F.D.I.C. and had the thirty-something punks pogoing, revealing Andler’s considerable chops. Local favorite Two if By Sea ended Morphius Prime on a high note, reaffirming its status as Baltimore’s most danceable rock band. The five-piece’s new material is darker and more harrowing than the songs that appeared on its 2004 Translations debut. Bassist John Jorde and drummer Chuck Cole have tightened up their game considerably, laying down thick grooves under Chris Cowan’s heart-in-throat vocals. Whether or not TIBS overcomes waning interest in the ’80s postpunk sound, it is evolving naturally—and the kids are still dancing, always a good sign.

It would have been nice to see a major-league presence in the lineup—early rumors had Morphius trying to secure the almighty Hold Steady—and a few of the mellower acts (Water School, Your Imaginary Friend Gary Barrett) felt out of place on the mostly rock bill, but overall, Prime was one of the better local summer festivals, genuinely offering something for everyone.

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