In the Music Hall
Tobacco at the Crocodile
reviewed by Ada Fetters
Tobacco recently came out with a new album, Sweatbox Dynasty. He toured to support it and stopped at the Crocodile, possibly the most beloved venue in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. It is a small, low-key place, standing room only. There were three acts scheduled: Odonis Odonis, High Tides, then Tobacco.
I arrived at 9:30 pm during Odonis Odonis’s set. Their act involved screaming and rushing around the stage. That would be appropriate for more traditional musicians. However, an electronica / trip-hop show works a bit differently than most genres. The music mostly involves manipulating computers, keyboards, effects pedals and so on. Jumping around looks a bit silly, because the person must scoot back to their equipment in time to make the changes.
Instead, many electronica bands feature video projected onto a screen behind them. Tobacco and his band Black Moth Super Rainbow have elevated this aspect into an art form. They are not making up for a lack of movement. Their video projection is a stage presence in itself, sometimes disturbing and always surreal.
Fortunately, High Tides favored video projection over jumping around. They are from Miami and their sound was like seaweed waving gently back and forth at the bottom of the ocean. Lots of sub-bass and gentle keyboard. The video was heavily-filtered footage of beaches. The crowd swayed dreamily.
At the end of the set, High Tides played their own remixed version of Tobacco’s “Eruption (gonna get my hair cut at the end of summer).” It was definitely High Tides’ own, laid-back take on the song but the crowd recognized it immediately: “Lick that popsicle...” it was a taste of things to come.
High Tides broke down their equipment and the stage hands rolled a black screen with Tobacco on it to the far right side of the stage. There was a drum set in the middle and a mysterious gong to the left side.
The lights went down and the word on the black screen lit up with Tobacco in drippy blue dazzle.
While the show was billed as Tobacco because Sweatbox Dynasty was his solo project, the members of Black Moth Super Rainbow were also there. They nearly always conceal themselves at live shows and did not announce their presence, but a fan of their sound knows what to look and listen for.
Tobacco and The Seven Fields of Aphelion were concealed behind the black screen. Their drummer, Iffernaut, was onstage at the drum-set with the projection screen behind her, but she was dressed head-to-toe in black, with a black mask so that only her eyes showed. There is no mistaking her heavyset, strong build.
Their guitarist / bassist, New Fumes, was also outside the curtain but in deep shadow, with the brim of his hat down so it mostly covered his face. This was actually pretty open for them: sometimes they all wear masks for good measure.
Black Moth Super Rainbow elevated anonymity into a hallmark. It is an interesting reversal of most bands because when the colored lights turned on, they swirled across the crowd, not the stage. Black Moth Super Rainbow sees their audience better than the audience can see them.
Now and then, Tobacco and The Seven Fields peered over or around the curtain. Between songs The Seven Fields put her tiny, pale hand over the black curtain to wave. The stage-lights gleamed off her rings. Mostly they were hard at work.
They opened with “Human Om.” Not only were images projected on screen, but also onto the gong. The images on the gong were rubber masks with empty eye holes and their mouths moving.
In the album version, the bridge of this song sounds like the synthesizer is revving. Live, Iffernaut got up and smashed the gong. The mask and projected colors on the gong changed every time she did this. The masks were crumpled into sneers so her smashing them was visually satisfying as well as having this big musical payoff.
Unlike most bands in the genre, Tobacco does not use a computer. He records on a tape deck. Iffernaut is a live drummer. This makes their sound dirtier and warmer than that of other electronic artists. It is the aural equivalent of sucking on a piece of candy after it’s been licked and then dropped into a stranger’s ashtray. Then it turns out to be the best candy you’ve ever tasted — ashes, scorched lipstick and all.
Tobacco once called the vocals “a sticking point,” but he puts a vocorder mouthpiece in and sings the lyrics live anyway. Sometimes he sounds a little breathless, but all this allows more freedom to work live.
The beat for “Lick the Witch” was a little different, a little delayed, because they knew what the audience was waiting for. “I’ll give you what you want, but wait for it... wait for it...”
New Fumes’ shuddering bass dropped into a person’s chest and out the other side, especially as close to the stage as I was. The images on the projection screen included scenes from old kung fu movies, 1980s exercise tapes, cheesy horror films and some of BMSR’s official music videos. Sometimes these visuals played in sequence, other times they were short loops reminiscent of GIFs. That plus the masks leering from the gong and the bass vibrations combined to create the intensely surreal experience.
Tiny chips of rainbow-colored light swirled all over the venue, the stage lights shone hot and blue across the crowd, and the last song built into a massive crescendo. It was a gooey-candy-lemon-venom meltdown... which ended as abruptly as the hard stop on an audio tape, complete with a warped noise.
The lights immediately turned up. We all blinked, dazed. The band vanished before the crowd’s eyes adjusted.
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Fetters