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Dub Like Dirt

Celebration, the Eternals, and Thank You, the Ottobar, Feb. 23

Jefferson Jackson Steele
THIS BEAT IS TOO ORIGINAL: Damon Locks puts words and melodies to the Eternals' ambidextrous grooves.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 2/28/2007

Before drummer Fred Armisen was cracking wise on the real-life, unfunny version of 30 Rock, his band Trenchmouth was sticking its bass in frostbitten Chicago faces, taking the rubbery post-hardcore/dub mix outside the Washington Beltway. Trenchmouth’s singer, Damon Locks, went on to form the Eternals, allowing the rhythm section to gradually rub down the pointy tips of the guitars with a postrock pumice stone. Heard in a context outside of a chilly Ottobar last Friday night, you might not have thought that the Eternals’ Jamaica-by-way-of-the-Hog Butcher burnt-umber studio grooves would have much to do with the bony, akimbo skronk of local trio Thank You or with Celebration’s swirling goth rock. But whoever booked the bill knew what they were doing. All three bands were trios—Thank You’s democratically ordered, no-frontman-allowed instrumental lineup contrasting with the obvious magnetism of Locks and Celebration’s Katrina Ford—for one probably coincidental surface comparison. But more importantly, they were all slaves to the rhythm, in love with tribal beats, syncopated percussion, and knotty changes. You could definitely dance to the polyrhythmic results, but the remnants of winter’s bite meant that hips didn’t really start moving until nearly the end of the night, probably when everyone’s blood-alcohol level was providing sufficient warmth.

Thank You’s cutting mix of minimal bass thwacks, stop-start drums with wild accents, and a guitar like tripping face-first into a pile of off-brand razors was really only dance music for hearses with booming systems—all of it vocal-free except to let us know they were from Baltimore and a wordless three-part harmony. Friends heard griping before showtime about the current preponderance of instrumental bands—especially the long, slow, and boring post-postrock kind—should have been waylaid by Thank You’s pinprick precision, a band that can get sharp sounds out of a slide whistle and a harmonica. If the abrasive eczema itch sometimes recalled classic no wave, it was DNA’s differential equations scribbled in childish chicken scratch rather than Mars’ bloodied fisticuffs whomping.

Opening with a buzzing, tense take on “High Anxiety,” the highlight of their 2004 album Rawar Style, the Eternals showed how far you could go with just the wide warmth of Wayne Montana’s fat bass locked into place with funky drummer Tim Mulvenna, his kit strung up with blinking white Christmas lights. When not dancing with the hesitating hauteur of a James Brown with perpetual nervousness, Locks played the band’s scant melodies and hooks on his keyboards—like the cantering guitar loop of “Silhouette”—but there wasn’t much to the music other than low-end and vocals. Locks’ voice, occasionally run through live phasing effects, was what was going to make you decide if you were an Eternals fan or not. His mannered falsetto (though not as reedy and eerie as on record) dipped low into a post-industrial Midwestern version of a reggae DJ’s baritone chant, this hypnotic sing-speak just another part of the band’s rhythm section. You could call the alloy of rippling groove, spectral atmospherics, and semi-rapped vocals “trip-hop,” but the set, like the Eternals’ new Heavy International, was too good for that ever-contentious label.

Another thing that united these bands was a love of cranky horror-flick organs and keyboards, something Celebration had in spades. The trio greeted their perennial hometown faithful with a by now crowd-pleasing set of dark dervish ditties, but the handful of new songs the band had apparently just recorded suggested a new lightness diffusing the debut album’s smoky pitch. It made you wonder if forthcoming material might put some crinkles in the black celebration.

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