Korean postrock band Black String’s show at Lincoln Center last night seemed much more terse and minimalist than their feral set last year at Flushing Town Hall. Yet while the songs this time out seemed more focused and stripped-down, the music was no less psychedelic. There, bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo was all over the place on her geomungo bass zither, delivering every texture and timbre that can possibly be plucked – with a stick! – from that magical instrument. Here, she was more percussive, and in that sense, hypnotic, and the band followed suit.
At that Queens gig, guitarist Jean Oh let loose majestic, David Gilmour-esque flares and got lowdown with some gritty Marc Ribot skronk. Here, he played mostly big, icy, resonant block chords, adding contrasting delicate flavor via flickering electronics. Last night, it seemed more than ever that multi-reedman Aram Lee has become the group’s lead instrumentalist, switching between wood flutes of various sizes, running endless variations on simple pentatonic riffs, often with a bluesy majesty. Drummer Min Wang Hwang made the tricky time signatures and metric shifts look easy, whether adding marionettish cymbal accents, fullscale stomp on a couple of floor toms, or with the thump of his janggu barrel drum.
The enveloping, persistent unease brought to mind the insistent, grey grimness of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most focused…or Jethro Tull playing a Glenn Branca symphony (that’s where the flute comes in). To max out the psychedelic factor, the band rode the sonic rollercoaster, often bringing the music down to a simple pairing of instruments: there seemed to be fewer moments when everyone was charging along in unison.
At one point, Heo marvelled that the ancient Korean folk themes which the group use as a stepping-off point seem absolutely avant garde today. She could just as easily have said no wave. Black String’s most hammeringly emphatic instrumentals would have been perfectly at home in the early 80s downtown scene.
The most poignant moment of the night was a gently imploring prayer of sorts wafting up from Lee’s flute: here as elsewhere, the electronics (when they were working) added subtle echo or sustain effects. The most explosive interlude was a ferocious geomungo-drum duel: it was astonishing to witness Heo snapping off so many volleys of notes against a single, pulsing low pedal tone.
They closed the set on an insistent, triumphant note with Song of the Sea, a mini-suite of ancient fishermen’s songs that Hwang delivered in his powerful pansori baritone, modulated with a wide-angle, Little Jimmy Scott-style vibrato.
What’s become most clear after seeing this band in two very different spaces – each with an excellent sound system – is that they need better gear. The guitar rig Oh was using delivered a cold, trebly, flat, transistor amp sound that died away too soon. And Heo needs some custom pickups for her geomungo. She was out of breath at the end of several numbers, yet there were too many places where her riffs got lost in the mix. A performer so mesmerizing to watch deserves to be heard.
The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is their more-or-less monthly salsa dance party. This time the featured band is oldschool Cuban-flavored charanga Son Sublime. Showtime is 7:30; the earlier you get there, the better the chances of getting in.