Of the three bands playing the late show at Empire last Wednesday, it was the first band who seemed to generate the most buzz. It was the first show ever for Real Talk, a Richmond supergroup of sorts featuring Kevin Broderick of The Catalyst on drums; Cole Hutchinson, formerly of Operation Latte Thunder, on vocals; Graham Scala, also an ex-member of Operation Latte Thunder, and currently of Souvenir’s Young America and Forensics, on bass; and on guitar, Joe Hunt, best known as the drummer for Brainworms.
Real Talk, Forensics, and Pujol
August 11 at Empire
Of the three bands playing the late show at Empire last Wednesday, it was the first band who seemed to generate the most buzz. It was the first show ever for Real Talk, a Richmond supergroup of sorts featuring Kevin Broderick of The Catalyst on drums; Cole Hutchinson, formerly of Operation Latte Thunder, on vocals; Graham Scala, also an ex-member of Operation Latte Thunder, and currently of Souvenir’s Young America and Forensics, on bass; and on guitar, Joe Hunt, best known as the drummer for Brainworms. It was hard to know what to expect from musicians with as varied a background as this quartet possessed, but what the crowd at Empire got was fast, angry hardcore. At this point, a description like that can mean many different things, not all of them good, but Real Talk were excellent, and their performance was full of nervous energy. Facing the rest of his band as he sang, Cole always seemed like he was just about to plow into the front row of the audience, and Joe wasn’t afraid to invade the personal space of both Cole and the crowd. The vibe remained positive, though, and the audience’s reaction to the frenetic performance was one of approval. Real Talk’s version of hardcore was reminiscent of early 80s DC thrashers Void, whose deceptively complex song structures could sometimes appear sloppy at first glance. Joe’s occasional guitar solos were very much in the vein of Void guitarist Bubba Dupree, while Graham’s bass playing seemed more like that of Born Against’s Tonie Joy. There was also a hint of late-90s Chicago fastcore in Real Talk’s sound; even though they never broke out any full-on blast beats, their speedy, chaotic thrash sometimes resembled the music of MK Ultra or Das Oath.
While the two bands that followed Real Talk were not quite as hotly anticipated, both put on excellent shows, though unfortunately neither played to as many people as Real Talk did. This had more to do with poor timing than lack of interest; the show was supposed to start at 10, but Real Talk didn’t start playing until after 11, and it was nearly midnight by the time Forensics began their set. It’s a tradition in the world of underground music to start shows later than they’re advertised, but once the hour grows late enough, this tendency goes from an asset to a liability. This is especially true in the case of a 21-and-over show on a weeknight. A lot of people at the show had work the next morning, and a slow but steady exodus began as soon as Real Talk finished playing. If they had started at 10, when they were originally scheduled to play, perhaps more people would have stayed for the rest of the show. It’s just a thought.
Forensics have been around for a while (though their current lineup has been together for less than two years), and I’ve seen them a few times before. However, this was the first time they put on a really impressive performance. Their sound combines different musical styles that had previously seemed a bit of an awkward mix. At times, they have the dark, heavy hardcore sound of bands like Tragedy, while at others they sound more like the post-metal style of Isis or Mastodon. They used to have some pretty awkward transitions between these two styles, but on Wednesday night, the different sounds flowed together much more smoothly. There are some similarities between what Forensics are doing and the new sound Coliseum explored on their most recent album, and even though Forensics were playing in that style for a while before Coliseum adopted it, it seemed to me that hearing Coliseum create the same mixture of dark, heavy hardcore and post-metal had opened my mind to other bands doing it. But then they played a song I recognized, and I noticed the exact sort of awkward transition between styles that had caught my attention before. That’s when I realized that Forensics had just gotten better. Speaking with guitarist Graham Scala afterward, I asked how much of their set was new material; he told me that almost all of it was, which seems to confirm my suspicions. Based on this new material, I fully expect the next Forensics record to be a rager.
It might have been a little too much of a rager for Empire, in fact. Empire is a long, narrow room, most of which is lined with booths on one side and the bar on the other. The open space at one end of the room where the bands play is not that big, and it’s the only area with much of any space for people to stand and watch. If a show at Empire attracts even a decent-sized crowd, the people in the back end up squeezed between booths and barstools, unable to see much more than the back of the person standing in front of them. Sonically, Empire’s dimensions have an even more unfortunate quality–the walls, being so close together, compress and muffle the sound of the music being played, so that it develops a dull, indistinguishable quality. This isn’t really a problem for bands that don’t play too loudly. Forensics plays very loudly, though, and some of the nuance of their performance was definitely lost in the subpar acoustics of the room.
By contrast, the final band, Nashville’s Pujol, had a pretty ideal equipment setup for Empire. As opposed to Forensics’ huge amplifier stacks, Pujol’s members mostly used small combo amps. They probably could have been a little louder, as at points their live sound lacked impact, but after having my eardrums blown out by Forensics, it was a relief. Pujol’s musical style fit well with the sounds of their small combo amps–they played melodic garage rock, complete with vintage guitars and 60s-style bowl haircuts. At times, their songs reminded me of the droning yet melodic single-chord riffs that the Velvet Underground did so well, while at others they had a more Nuggets-like sensibility. Their songs always led with melody, and while the guitars were a bit too jangly to have power most of the time, the basslines added a fuzzy tone that thickened up the sound and pulled all of the instruments together. When Pujol’s lead guitarist did use effects, instead of going for modern distortion, he used a wah-wah pedal and the tremolo bar on his guitar to generate the sort of noise that was much more common 45 years ago than it is now. These noisier guitar breaks made me think of the jazz-influenced solos on “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. Pujol sounded like a lot of bands who were putting out records a year or so after that single came out, and had been influenced enough by it to mix modal drones into their primarily pop-rock based songwriting, but hadn’t gotten self-indulgent enough to start throwing 20-minute instrumental jams into their live performances. Where garage rock is concerned, they nailed the sweet spot.
It’s a shame that, by the time they started playing, the lion’s share of the audience had long since departed for home. It seems a little unfair to make the least-known band on a bill play last, and I think Pujol would have been a lot better served by an opening slot on the show. I’m not sure why the people who set up the show chose to sequence it in the way they did–they may have had a very good reason that I’m not privy to. Nonetheless, I think everyone who books shows should be aware that with late shows, especially on a weeknight, sometimes starting earlier is better. All of the bands that played Empire on Wednesday night were good; if more people had been able to stick around and see all of them, the show would have been even better.