Last time I saw solo guitarist and singer Kirin J Callinan (Mercy Arms/Jack Ladder) he tried to sell me a two-track cassette tape for $40 (ONO) at the merch table. In a display of effeminate pique onstage, Callinan had flung his nylon jacket over a stage light and speculated, “I wonder if you’ll all still be standing here when it bursts into flames?” The coat steamed angrily until an unimpressed security guy plodded over to pluck it off. And somewhere amid the silliness and the eccentricity, Callinan delivered a performance of fitful incandescence that even won over the non-committal early crowd. Me included.
I front up early to HTRK’s sold-out show at Goodgod to see him do it again. Thwarted by MIA door tickets, I mill around brooding as members of Naked on the Vague, Circle Pit, Jack Ladder, Holy Soul and Melodie Nelson file through Goodgod’s hobbit den door. Admitted in time to catch the last few songs, I note Callinan is wearing his trademark assemblage of too-short pants and gimmicky showbiz garments. Tonight he resembles a deranged reverend, bellowing largely and dousing the crowd in the heavenly alloy of his guitar tones: sheet-like, gravelly and golden.
Callinan makes the dynamic of hit-and-miss an art form, alternately flaunting then extinguishing his own power as a performer. All the elements for something seismic are there with Callinan and moments of brilliance erupt from his skinny frame despite his best efforts to present something willfully weird and fragmented.
He returns for Lost Animal’s set, joining bassist Shags Chamberlain as the most recent fixture in Jarrod Quarrell’s live line-up. The collaboration is serendipitous. Listen to the guitar at the end of ‘Lose the Baby’ and you’ll understand why. It sounds uncannily similar to Callinan although it was recorded before his time. But as the clout of Lost Animal’s live incarnation grows, Quarrell gets ever more drowned in sound. It’s a shame to lose lyrics that pack such a punch but if anything, his struggle to be heard above the din increases his intensity. Each syllable appears to take a toll, like it’s being wrenched up and exorcised, like it brings physical pain. Live, we witness the burden of the baggage that spawned lyrics that come across icy cool on record.
From the instant the elongated industrial murmur of HTRK begins to pulsate, vigour drains from the room. Specks of light slide horizontally across people’s foreheads as a low disco ball spins and, like the first woozy head-rush of MDMA, I feel blissfully sapped of strength. “Girls move, to the front/Boys move, to the back,” intones vocalist Jonnine C Standish on ‘Eat Yr Heart’. Her voice is everywhere and nowhere and with each deadpan repetition I imagine the crowd inches a little closer to obeying her. Love or hate the stupor induced by HTRK’s dregged-out slo-mo ambiance, it’s impossible not to respect the duo’s dominion over the vibe. The walls feel like they’re closing in.
It’s a relentless show – relentlessly slow, that is – and it’s apparent some aren’t too comfortable with the pace. “Do you think anything’s going to happen?” asks a guy behind me. While I haven’t been this entranced by an industrial act since Chris & Cosey, I don’t blame others for getting impatient. Goodgod’s diminutive stage offers about 20 percent of the sold-out crowd any hope of seeing what’s happening onstage. Which of course, isn’t much, unless sultry death stares are your thing. I’m one of the 80 percent who can’t see, so a friend fills me in on Standish’s act later.
She wasn’t responding to lights the way people usually do on stage. She was just staring. Not much blinking. Lots of lip biting. Almost as though she was in a trance.
Regardless of the lack of spectacle, we all stand in neat, eastward-facing rows, undertaking our rituals of rock’n’roll: straining to see, clapping and whistling when the songs end. Which all feels increasingly idiotic when everyone’s likely waiting for someone else to launch the sit-in.
I’m still fantasising about a chill-out space when suddenly it’s over. Nigel Yang doesn’t look up as he walks off stage.
He just came off, sat on an amp and looked down. Someone asked him if they were going to play another one and he just shook his head. I don’t know where she went. She just booked off into the crowd.