December 17, 2003
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'How to Destroy the Universe Festival, Part I'
StudioZ.tv, Dec. 7
MORE THAN 20 years ago well before Burning Man's first death by fire on Baker Beach rumor spread of a Los Angeles-based experimental band that would fill an old school bus with generators, a P.A. system, and a load of friends and head out to the middle of the Mojave Desert to play with fire and make some serious noise. Their instruments: pipes, chains, an empty petroleum barrel, a drum set, and close to half a dozen guitars. Their name was Savage Republic, and they fused our most primal instincts, punk rock's appetite for destruction, and the urban sounds of industry.
I instantly became a fan.
So when I heard that Savage Republic member Ethan Port (now living in the Bay Area) had gotten together with local pyro-noise artist Scot Jenerik and Chrome drummer Aleph Kali to form F-Space, I knew I had to check them out.
I got my chance at the "How to Destroy the Universe Festival, Part I," an eight-hour affair that, as it turned out, was the brainchild of lifelong DIYers Port and Jenerik themselves. The bill included multiple 16mm projections, slides by We're Desperate photographer Jim Jocoy, a few DJs, and live music by Neither Neither World, the Punk Rock Orchestra, the Mermen, and the Serotonins (the latter from L.A.).
The crowd was a blend of aging though still disaffected Reagan youth, artsy brainiacs, and thirtysomething occultish types.
We arrived in time to catch the Punk Rock Orchestra, a 20-plus-member ensemble of mostly female classical musicians that covers old favorites by the Avengers, Joy Division, and others. The PRO was led by a tyrannical, Mohawked conductor in black coattails who, given a different look, could easily double as a World Wrestling Entertainment referee. And they did a decent cover of Dead Kennedys' "California όber Alles" even adapting some of the lyrics in honor of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the end, though, the act boiled down to a kind of theatrical "name that '80s cover" trivia game that could get a bit tedious after a few numbers.
Next, a corpulent, middle-aged white guy took the stage donning a red velvet Masonic hat emblazoned with a single, blue eye: not a particularly reassuring image. MC Howland Owll soon won us over, though, with a masterfully executed, deadpan soliloquy on the causal relationship between Annie Oakley, World War II, and the advent of punk rock.
On his heels, DJ MC Christ set himself to spinning 45s of obscure indie music from the Devo years. Collaborators threw up as many as six projections at a time onto StudioZ's walls: Jocoy's portraits of early-'80s punks in San Francisco and L.A., '60s car crash test footage, a nature film on carnivorous frogs.
Then came the moment I'd been waiting for. F-Space battered the unsuspecting audience with a wall of noise. Port's instrumentation on an electric 12-string maintained the breakneck speed and ominous tones of early Savage Republic. He'd loop a string of notes into a mixer, then switch guitars, or forsake them for a homemade instrument created out of two thick metal springs stretched along the length of a four-foot-long segment of pipe, which he alternately beat on and picked up and let drop to the floor.
Jenerik used drumsticks and even a violin bow to elicit the most raw and, at times, excruciating sounds from a similar instrument propped on a metal sawhorse. Kali added the energy of a runaway locomotive on drums.
The result was apocalyptic: the music summoned a feral, destructive trance state that implied a catastrophic act of nature, a march through the desert on the path to war, or the offender's mental state during a crime of passion.
The Mermen followed with a set of hypnotic soundscapes rounded out with a honky-tonk surf song all deftly crafted but a bit too low-key after F-Space's ferocity.
The last band, the Serotonins albeit possessing a great name came off a bit like an inside joke that, well, just wasn't all that original. We called it a night after two songs.
Altogether, though, the evening was a promising start for what Port and Jenerik hope to build into an ongoing noncommercial, multidisciplinary series, with shows every other month or so at random nontraditional spaces.
The Reagan years that inspired the heyday of California's original punk counterculture certainly have a lot in common with today's political environment. With the neocons back in power and well on their way in their project to overtake the world, something like "How to Destroy" is more necessary than ever. For information on "How to Destroy the Universe," go to http://www.mobilization.com/.