Dark City opened the monthly Saturday night surf rock show at Otto’s and played with a ferocity and tunefulness unmatched by most other instrumental rock bands. What they write is ostensibly surf music, but it’s a whole lot of other things, from art-rock to metal: there is no band on the planet who sound anything like them. Guitarist Joe Kazer played a Jazzmaster through a Fender Twin, his reverb turned up all the way, but he varied his attack from the expected twang to ominously blurry tremolopicking, eerie upper-register glimmers, roaring punk chords and flesh-tearing monster surf riffage. Bassist Davey Mass had brought an amp that was a lot more powerful than Ottos’ small back room required, grinding out nimble, explosively melodic lines with a growly, trebly tone much in the same vein as the Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel. Drummer Andy Mass has the chops to play both metal and funk and didn’t really play either; he just anchored the songs with a shapeshifting attack that never ended up in the same place where it began, the quality that defines this band’s style more than anything else.
What makes Dark City different is that they steer clear of all the cliches that so many surf bands fall into: their music has a total lack of cheese. Their songs are labyrinthine, and there always seems to be a minotaur lurking around the corner. They opened with a swaying, tumbling horror surf tune that reminded of Boston marauders Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion, snarling guitar chords giving way to menacing tritones. The song after that had the bass leaping around over resonant guitar chords and then an unexpectedly plaintive chorus. From there they took a bouncy latin-flavored groove and then hit an anthemic progression that evoked the Jam, and then went into more traditional, jangly surf territory.
The next tune began with pensive broken chords over a big bass crescendo, swayed slowly, morphed into horror surf, went halfspeed, then into a hotrod theme: a mini-movie for the ears. Nocturnal began as a surf version of the Buzzcocks’ Hollow Inside, then went galloping as the bass and guitar played roaring chords against each other. A darkly enigmatic, funkier tune suddenly shifted into reggae and then back up with an assault-rifle drum riff. Their best song, their bassist asserted, was Pillars, and at this show it was, an epic that began with hypnotic guitar, a galloping metal bass riff and rose to a chorus that sounded like Iron Maiden covering Iggy’s The Passenger. As it lumbered on, dynamics rose and fell, eerie guitar microtones mingling with surfy chords over shifting tempos – it sounded like they were playing in 15/4 at one point. They closed the set, returning to a more-or-less horror surf vibe, with a viciously crackling song that hinted at both the Hawaii 5-0 theme and Black Sabbath’s Electric Funeral without actually quoting from either one, Kazer finally hitting his pedal for a blistering Dead Boys roar.
Fred Salzburg aka Unsteady Freddie has been doing his surf rock shindig the first Saturday of the month, more or less, since Otto’s opened in the old Barmacy space around the turn of the past century. After all these years, he’s still there, still making videos, which he posts on his excellent and constantly updated youtube channel. The crowds are a little thinner now, a little older, but among the old standbys that he brings in every month – many of whom are still fantastic – there’s some new blood. This time out it would have been fun to have been able to hang around to hear the pretty self-explanatory Bongo Surf, the hauntingly surreal Greek and Middle Eastern-flavored Byzan-Tones and then Strange But Surf. But in what promises to be one of several final middle-finger salutes from a lame duck mayor to a city where he is despised like few other mayors before him, Bloomberg and his henchmen had shut down several subway lines in anticipation of the New York marathon – which was more than twelve hours away at this point. That there would be terrorists bent on attacking the marathon, never mind why those terrorists would think they could dodge all the cops in the subway, is a paranoid daydream best known to Bloomberg himself. Let’s hope the DiBlasio administration will be more reasonable.