Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes: Best Single-Band Concert of 2012

by delarue

Friday night at Barbes, the back room was packed. Some of the crowd swayed, lost in the menacing grooves that echoed from Ulrich Ziegler’s amps, while other people responded with more obvious enthusiasm. This was a diverse bunch: that they were all entranced by this band’s hypnotically pulsing noir soundscapes is a welcome reminder that there still is an audience for dark sounds in a city increasingly decked out in simpering pastel shades.

Over the last five years or so in this project, Itamar Ziegler has gone from apprentice to sorcerer. The Pink Noise guitarist carried most of the lead melodies – such that there were distinct leads – digging in hard as the reverb resounded from his amp in tandem with his guitarist pal, Stephen Ulrich, the noted film composer and heir to the Bernard Herrmann noir soundtrack legacy. And who knew Ziegler was such a great bass player? The first number he played four-string on was a lickety-split, bustling tune that built to a screaming crescendo capped by one-man woodwind section Peter Hess’ shivery, shuddering, sustained clarinet lines. Ulrich delivered more softly screaming, minutely tremolo-picked lines as the organ’s funereal tones swirled and dipped over Wave Sleep Wave drummer Yuval Lion’s tense pulse. It seemed that these guys had come to kill – literally.

Ulrich had a memorable run as the leader of Big Lazy, arguably the world’s best and darkest instrumental rock band for a good ten years starting in the mid-90s. Since then, he’s collaborated with Sway Machinery’s Jeremiah Lockwood and written all sorts of film scores for PBS and others. Which put this project on the back burner, at least as far as live performance is concerned, until recently. They’ve got a new album just out and played several tracks from it. The highlight of the night was a macabre waltz driven by a cruel marionette theme, Ulrich’s spiky slashes contrasting with Hess’ pensively atmospheric flute, building to a toxic mist of organ, bass clarinet and guitars. Or, it could have been the lickety-split Tickled to Death, equal parts 4 AM urban drizzle, southwestern gothic and warped latin groove. The most morbid of all the song was another absolutely morose, haunting waltz, Ulrich’s endlessly meticulously, surgical tremolo-picking anchoring Hess’ tensely suspenseful flute and Ziegler’s menacingly direct lead lines.

A Bill Frisell-ish grey-sky tableau quickly got dragged deeper into the shadows, cleverly concealing its simple, innocent, underlying 60s pop riff. Then they got quieter and more jazzy, swinging into 7/4 time. They closed their first set with a hypnotic, bitterly sad vamp that Ulrich sardonically predicted would clear the room. But it didn’t, and those who stayed were rewarded with brooding close harmonies, murky bass clarinet and a theme that morphed into a Russian dirge of sorts before retreating to its earlier angst and alienation. And for all the darkness, there were all sorts of deviously humorous touches. The organist delivered quietly bone-rattling percussion on woodblock and syndrums on a handful of songs, Hess swooped and dove when least expected, and Ulrich tuned down his Les Paul a la Alvin Lee at the end of the Frisell-ish number. Other than Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin a couple of weeks ago, there hasn’t been such a darkly engrossing show in this town in a long time.