Last night at Flushing Town Hall, four-piece Seoul band Black String left a sold-out crowd awestruck and blown away with a vast, oceanic, often thunderingly intense set of darkly picturesque, suspensefully and often plaintively shifting themes that transcended any kind of label. The four-piece group improvise a lot, but they’re not a jamband, at least in the hippie sense of the word. They can rock as hard as any group alive, but they’re not a rock band per se. Although traditional Korean themes are central to much of their music, their striking riffs and hypnotically pulsing, kaleidoscopic waves of sound draw just as deeply on the blues, and possibly early heavy metal. They use folk instruments, but their themes evoke vast continental expanses far more than remote villages. In 2018, this band has a franchise on epic grandeur.
Guitarist Jean Oh’s Telecaster sent an icy shimmer wafting through his vintage Fender amp, then bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo responded with an offhandedly savage flicker from the strings of her low-register geomungo lute, and then they were off. Throughout several long interludes, including the night’s opening number, Aram Lee breathed and vocalized through his daegeum flute, adding another layer of surrealism to the mix. Drummer Min Wang Hwang began with washes of cymbals contrasting with a couple of booming floor toms, later in the set switching to doublebarreled janggu drum, then coloring a couple of the quieter numbers with sepulchrally dancing accents on a couple of small hand-held gongs.
Yet for all the band’s titanic sound, their riffs are catchy and anthemic to the point of minimalism. Oh’s majestically sustained flares. awash in digital reverb and delay, often brought to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Otherwise, he built dense atmospheric clouds, with a couple of vividly furtive detours into Marc Ribot-ish skronk.
Hwang drove the music from ominous valleys to majestic peaks with a dynamic attack that was more distant thunder than lightning directly overhead. He also turned out to be a powerful, charismatic singer, ranging from insistent and shamanistic, to angst-fueled, melismatic pansori drama on one of the night’s most fiery numbers.
Lee built mournfully expansive ambience with his solos on a couple of the quieter songs, including the aptly titled closing epic, Song of the Sea. With a steely focus, Heo displayed breathtaking speed on the strings, especially considering that the geomungo is plucked with a stick rather than fingerpicked, By the end of the show, she was drawing on all kinds of extended technique, evincing all kinds of ghostly overtones out of an instrument more commonly associated with magically warping low riffage. Throughout the set, she’d spar with the drums, or the guitar, when she wasn’t anchoring the long upward climbs with pulsing pedal notes or octaves.
The rhythms shifted as much as the music. The first number was in 7/8 time; a later song galloped along with a groove that almost could have been qawwali. Arguably, the high point of the night could have been a new, as-yet untitled number with savage salvos from flute and guitar. Black String have been making waves in this country; it seemed that the Korean expat contingent constituted only about a quarter of this crowd. Watch this space for at least one Manhattan appearance this summer. And you’ll find this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year, if we make it that far.
This is typical of the kind of show that you’ll see at Flushing Town Hall this year: their 2018 season is pretty amazing, Barbes/Jalopy/Lincoln Center-quality. The next concert there is on Feb 2 at 7:3 PM at with the Queens Symphony Orchestra playing works by Villa-Lobos, Tschaikovsky and the Beatles. What’s even better is that the show is free; if you’re going, get there early.