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An Incendiary Concert at a Legendary Studio Immortalized on the BC 35 Album

Martin Bisi is a legend of the New York underground  – and he’s hardly a stranger in many other worlds as well. As a young engineer in 1983, he vaulted to prominence by winning a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s hit Rockit, which would go on to be sampled by thousands of hip-hop acts over the decades. The vast list of acts Bisi has worked with at his legendary Gowanus digs BC Studios runs from Sonic Youth  to John Zorn to the Dresden Dolls. 

His new album BC 35 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded in front of a live audience there over the course of a marathon weekend in January of 2016, a historic event very enthusiastically reviewed here. True to form, Bisi also recorded it and played with many of the groups on the bill, in celebration of the studio’s 35th anniversary. Much as he’s as distinctive and darkly erudite a guitarist as he is a producer, he’s somewhere in the mix here on three tracks: characteristically, he isn’t being ostentatious. His latest gig is at El Cortez on Sept 1 at around 8 on a killer triplebill, in between the perennially sick, twisted noiserock of the Sediment Club and the headliners, no wave sax legends James Chance & the Contortions. Cover is $20.

The order of the tracks leaps back and forth between the Saturday and Sunday sessions. The album’s most notable cut is Details of the Madness, the first recording and live performance by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull (who call themselves New Old Skull here) since 1998. guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins pick up like they never left off, enigmatically catchy, icy guitar multitracks over a relentless fuzztone swing that slows with an ominous nod to Joy Division.

Some of these tracks are improvisations, including the album’s opening number, Nowhere Near the Rainbow. Original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert gives Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, Skeleton Boy from Woman and Lubricated Goat’s Stu Spasm a slinky pulse for sputters and squall punctuated by the occasional anthemic goth riff. SYNESTHESIA!  – an Alice Donut reunion, more or less – is similar but much dirtier. Denton’s Dive – with Hutchins, Skeleton Boy, Dave W, Phil Puleo and Ivan Up – is practically ten minutes of sludgecore, dissociative reverbtoned noise and swaying atrocity exhibition atmosphere.

Here’s how this blog described the Sunday session jam What a Jerk: “Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and booming low-register chords.” What’s here is a judicious edit – if noiserock jams can be judiciously edited, Bisi’s definitely the man for the job. After that, Tidal Channel’s no wave synth-and-spoken-word piece Humash Wealth Management, Inc. keeps the assault going full force.

JG Thirlwell’s characteristically creepy, southwestern gothic overture Downhill features Insect Ark’s Dana Schechter on bass and violinist Laura Ortman leading a full string section. It is probably less memorable for being this blog’s owner’s most recent appearance on album, as part of the impromptu “BC Radiophonic Choir.”

The lineup on The Animals Speak Truth includes Barbez’s Dan Kaufman on guitar, Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch on organ and keys and the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione on drums, maintaining the lingering lysergic menace in a vamping instrumental that picks up to a grimly tumbling, clustering pace.

Looking back to the weekend reportage again: “Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwoman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle.“ That’s His Word Against Mine, by JADO.

White Hills’ echoey End of the Line offers contrast as well as the weekend’s lone reference point to Brian Eno, BC Studios’ co-founder. Bolstered by Wallfisch and Viglione, noir singer/guitarist Ajda the Turkish Queen’s toweringly gorgeous, Lynchian waltz Take This Ride is the strongest track here. The album concludes with a noisy, hypnotically pulsing jam by Cinema Cinema plus David Lackner and Mikel Dos Santos, and more Tidal Channel assault. Warts and all, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year, a magical piece of history. What a treat it was to be witness to most of it.

Cocooning on Multiple Levels

If there’s ever been a time for soothing, enveloping sounds in New York, this is it. Two shows this week gave audiences a good idea of what’s available in an month where pretty much everybody’s women friends are afraid of losing their reproductive rights, everybody’s Mexican friends are worried about being lynched, and everybody’s up in arms about where they’re going to live after 1/19/17.

Virtuoso violist Ljova explained that he was new to loopmusic, so he cautioned the crowd at Barbes Tuesday night that they should take what they hear with a grain of salt. Then he launched into a characteristically ambitious solo soundscape that echoed the rigor of his Moscow conservatory training, his wide-ranging eclecticism as one of this era’s great film composers, as well as the wry humor and irony that pervade his work across the board. His setup was pretty simple, mirroring the directness of his melodies: his signature, custom-made six-string “famiola” running through delay, loop and volume pedals. It was interesting to watch him think on his feet: when he hit on a riff he liked, he ran with it. There were also a few times when he’d hit on one he didn’t think worth keeping, scowled a little and then moved on.

Then the great Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the festivities. While his music can be kinetic – he leads a fantastic jazz group, his City Band – it more frequently tends to be on the serious side, often extremely poignant. The early part of the duo’s calm, methodically shifting improvisation echoed the eerie washes of Azmeh’s upcoming album with the similarly brilliant Turkish guitarist and soundscaper Erdem Helvacioglu. But Ljova was in a restless mood, and began to pull away, and Azmeh stayed in sync with some judiciously spaced, bubbly phrases in contrast to his more usual brooding resonance. At the end of the set, the two joined in an enigmatically lilting, minor-key waltz by the violist. The two have played together many times, although this was their first joint improvisation. Azmeh plays his song cycle Songs for Days to Come, featuring the work of Syrian poets in exile, tomorrow night, Nov 19 at 8 PM at Symphony Space with pianist Lenore Smith, soprano Dima Orsho and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. $25 tix are still available as of today. Ljova stays busy on the road: his next gig as a bandleader is with his vibrantly cinematic Kontraband string ensemble on Dec 3 at 7:30 PM PM at the San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W Main Plaza in San Antonio, TX, reservations to (210) 464-1534 are required.

The soundscapes played last night at Spectrum by guitarist Martin Bisi, multi-instrumentalist Thursday Fernworthy and ambient music artist Robert Pepper were more  lushly enveloping, a dense, misty, slowly swirling vortex. Seated within an audience with closed eyes and slowly bobbing heads, just about everybody reclined in a comfy armchair, it felt weird to rise up and actually watch the musicians at work rather than  drifting off in a surrealistic tequila buzz. Although the overall sound was contiguous, a single river fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, there was a lot of interplay and camaraderie among the three. There were distinct segments where each musician essentially got to lead the trio, whether that meant Pepper intoning into what looked like a mini-digeridoo, or Fernworthy sending keening violin overtones spiraling through her mixers, or Bisi doing the same with an emphatically minimalist riff or gentle chordal wash. Meanwhile, trippy projections played on a screen behind them, the best being a slow walk into the woods, Blair Witch style. Likewise, about two-thirds of the way through their roughly forty-minute improvisation, the three laced their ultraviolet backdrop with bracing close harmonies, jarring rhythmic hits and lower, more distinctly ominous drones.

Pepper books and plays the regular Ambient Chaos series at Spectrum, typically on the third Thursday of the month starting at around 9 in the welcoming, comfortable second-floor Ludlow Street space. Bisi and Fernworthy – someone whom Facebook does not believe is an actual person, notwithstanding the evidence of her performance here – have been known to do live atmospherics at Bisi’s legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios on Sunday evenings. It’s not a public venue per se, but if you know them or care to keep in touch, you may be able to get an invite.

Ambient Comfort and Distant Disquiet from Martin Bisi and Genevieve Kammel Morris

For those whose passion is diving as deep as possible into hypnotically swirly, psychedelically atmospheric sounds, there’s a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 17 at 11 PM at Spectrum when guitarist Martin Bisi joins forces with multi-keyboardist Genevieve Kammel Morris and Ambient Chaos impresario Robert Pepper. Bisi is best known as a purveyor of menacingly melodic art-rock (and for producing famous people like Swans, and Herbie Hancock, and Sonic Youth, and the Dresden Dolls, among many others). But he’s just as interesting when he jams: either way, there’s always a tune percolating through the mix somewhere.

This past evening at his legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios – which deserve to be turned into a museum and landmarked – Bisi put down his guitar and mixed live with his usual psychedelic flair while Kammel Morris and Gabe Raines spun slowly oscillating, subtly shifting shades from banks of both analog and digital synths, plus flute, cymbals, a series of mixers and what sounded like an Indian veena but turned out to be an electric violin. The result was comforting and womb-like, an immensely satisfying experience considering the shock and horror of the past week. But the performance also had an edge.

It was akin to a goth chick falling asleep in your arms: soft skin, sharp shoulderblades underneath. Silky black hair that smells of acrylic and clove cigarettes. The acrid petrochemicals of her shiny black lipstick linger on your tongue. Her sleep is troubled, her breathing shallow and uneven. Once in awhile she mumbles something like “The music is reversible, turn back.” You reach to stroke her arm and the steel of one of her rings slices your wrist. There’s no pain, but you’re bleeding. Do you stop the blood? No, you let it drip onto the futon. She’s a goth chick. She’d like that.

Speaking in musical terms, uneasy close harmonies pulsed against a comfortable octave drone and then receded into the ether as the work went on. Astringently metallic timbres rose and fell while a comfortable sostenuto loomed and keened underneath. There were a few instances where the acoustic instruments could be heard for what they were before being spun out into space and then refracted in what seemed like dozens of concentric spheres.

A violin riff signaled a change, and then the goth chick morphed into Galadriel in a Barbarella outfit while warm, belltone chords rang out from one of the synths and a comet tail of attractive, baroque-tinged major-key melody began to emerge, winding down to a gentle wash of organ tones. The audience stretched out on the studio carpeting in a smoke-machine haze as prismatic visuals rose from the floor, fading from red to green to an aurora borealis and then back, many of the spectators choosing to view all this through dollar-store 3-D glasses supplied by the hosts. There’s no guarantee that there’ll be candles, or a smoke machine for that matter, at Spectrum, or that the performance will have much in common with this beyond enveloping bliss underscored with distanct menace. Either way, it will put you in some sort of trance.

What about the goth chick?

You know the deal. Right?

She disappeared. That’s what goth chicks do.

A Historic Marathon Weekend at Martin Bisi’s Legendary BC Studio

While booking agents clustered around the East Village at several marathon multiple-band bills this past weekend, another far more historic marathon was going on in a Gowanus basement. As chronicled in the documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, Martin Bisi has been recording and producing some of New York’s – and the world’s – edgiest music in that space for the past thirty-five years. A couple of years ago, a dreaded upmarket food emporium moved in, sounding an ominous alarm bell. Like a smaller-scale Walmart, when that chain shows up, the neighborhood is usually finished. And with rents skyrocketing and long-tenured building owners unable to resist the lure of piles of global capital, what’s left of the Gowanus artistic community is on life support.

BC Studio’s lease runs out next year. The historic space is where Bisi earned a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit, where Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls and innumerable other defiantly individualistic bands made records, and where a sizeable percentage of the foundation of hip-hop was born. If there’s any artistic space in Brooklyn that deserves to be landmarked, this is it.

This past weekend, to celebrate BC Studio’s 35th anniversary, the producer invited in several of the most noteworthy acts who’ve recorded over the years, to collaborate and record material for a celebratory anthology. Both a Sonic Youth (Bob Bert) and a Dresden Doll (Brian Vigliione) did and lent their eclectic pummel behind the drumkit to several of the acts. It was a quasi-private event: media was invited (look for Beverly Bryan‘s insightful upcoming piece at Remezcla). Bisi also spilled the beans and invited the crowd at his Williamsburg gig this past week, and from the looks of it, some of that younger contingent showed up to see some of the more memorable acts who’ve pushed the envelope, hard, over parts of the last four decades there. It wasn’t a concert in the usual sense of the word, but it was a rare chance for an adventurous crowd beyond Bisi’s own vast address book to watch him in action. And while he’d fretted out loud about keeping everything on schedule, that hardly became an issue, no surprise since he knows the room inside out. The most time-consuming activity other than the recording itself was figuring out who needed monitors, and where to put them.

Historically speaking, the most noteworthy event of the entire weekend was the reunion of Live Skull, who were essentially a harder-edged counterpart to Sonic Youth back in the 80s. One of their guitarists, Tom Paine couldn’t make it, but his fellow guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins made their first public performance together since 1988, in this very same space. Methodically, through a series of takes, they shook off the rust, the guitar lingering uneasily and then growling over the band’s signature anthemic postupunk stomp. Watching Greenholz Jaffe play a Fender with frets was a trip: in the band’s heyday, she got her signature swooping sound as one of very few rock players to use a fretless model. In a stroke of considerable irony, Mark C’s use of a synth in lieu of guitar on one number gave the band a new wave tinge very conspicuously absent from their influential mid-80s catalog. Both four- and six-string players sang; neither has lost any edge over the years. Greenholz Jaffe ended their last number by playing an ominous quote from Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades, arguably the weekend’s most cruelly apt riff.

Of the newer acts, the most striking was guitarist Adja the Turkish Queen, who splits her time between her more-or-less solo mashup of folk noir and the Middle East, and ferociously noisy, darkly psychedelic band Black Fortress of Opium. This time, she treated the crowd to an absolutely chilling, allusive trio of jangly, reverb-drenched Lynchian numbers: a brooding oldschool soul ballad, an opaquely minimalist theme that could have passed for Scout, and a towering art-rock anthem. Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch supplied a river of gospel organ, elegant piano and then turned his roto to redline on the last number, channeling Steve Nieve to max out its relentless menace.

Dan Kaufman and John Bollinger of Barbez – who have a long-awaited, Middle East conflict-themed new album due out this spring – were first in line Saturday morning. Bollinger switched effortlessly between drums, lingering vibraphone and a passage where he played elegantly soaring bass while Kaufman jangled and then soared himself, using a slide and a keening sustain pedal. Togther they romped through apprehensively scrambling postrock, allusively klezmer-tinged passages and elegaic, bell-toned cinematics.

Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle. In perhaps the weekend’s best-attended set, Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and boomoing low-register chords, followed by a gorgeously contrasting ambient soundscape by Dave W and Ego Sensation of White Hills. It was the weekend’s lone moment that looked back to Brian Eno, who put up the seed money to build the studio.

There were also a couple of performances that echoed the studio’s formative role as hip-hop crucible. The first was when Tidal Channel frontman Billy Cancel channeled the inchoate anger of the Ex’s G.W. Sok over Genevieve Kammel Morris’ electroacoustic keyboard mix. The second was former Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey‘s New Orleans second line rap over the virtuosic fuzztone bass of Don Godwin, better known as the funkiest tuba player in all of Balkan music. Wallfisch was another guy who supplied unexpectedly explosive basslines when he wasn’t playing keys.

The rest of the material ranged from industrial, to cinematic (JG Thirlwell’s collaboration with Insect Ark frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, bolstered by a full string section and choir), punk (Michael Bazini’s wry gutter blues remake of an old Louvin Brothers Nashville gothic song) and to wind up the Sunday portion, an unexpectedly haunting, epic minor-key jam eventually led by Bisi himself, doing double duty on lead guitar and mixer.

Music continued throughout the afternoon and into Sunday night after this blog had to switch gears and move on to another marathon: the festivities included Bert backing Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, an Alice Donut reunion of sorts and a set by Cinema Cinema. As much a fiasco as Globalfest turned out to be that night, the wiser option would have been to stay put and make an entire weekend out of it. As Kammel Morris put it, Bisi should host a slumber party next year.

Catchy Postpunk Tunefulness and Joyous Noise in Williamsburg Last Night

Melody and noise are two sides of the same coin. Martin Bisi and his band, and Parlor Walls know that, and work that dichotomy for all it’s worth. So did Guerilla Toss guitarist Arian Shafiee, who opened a vastly enjoyable bill featuring both those acts at Aviv in Williamsburg last night. His single, long, droning, pitchblende intro – “Like an invocation,” Parlor Walls frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb beamed afterward – built a warm, welcoming ambience in the lowlit space, all the more resonant for Shafiee dedicating it to David Bowie.

Bisi and his three-piece European touring band kept the ultraviolet gleam going with a set that alternated between kinetic drive and a vortex of ominous low register sonics. The secret to this band’s sound, other than Bisi’s umpteen pedals, disembodied vocal loops and occasional whoops, is Diego Ferri’s baritone guitar. Sometimes he’d play straight-up basslines but other times went into trebly Peter Hook territory, then washes and bursts of chords to match the bandleader’s swirling menace. Rather than letting any song end cold, Bisi would let a chord linger, filter through the mix and then pulled out of the chaos toward another. Toweringly anthemic post-Velvets hooks swayed and punched side by side with shimmering pools of noise, muted Syd Barrett-ish motives and creepy chromatics ramped up a notch by Genevieve Kammel Morris’ ragingly insistent viola and washes of organ. Dummer Oliver Rivera Drew negotiated the thicket with a nimble pulse and drive: oldschool punk energy, newschool psychedelic atmosphere.

Parlor Walls drummer/organist Chris Mulligan chose to keep that murky river flowing. The segue between bands was so seamless that it was almost as if it was the same group onstage, if with completely different personalities. Parlor Walls never play a set or a song the same way twice: this was. an enveloping blanket of dreampop-laced, no wave-referencing postpunk. Alto saxophonist Kate Monahty was motionless, a human statue firing off slithery Coltrane gliesandos, coyly minnmalistic rhythmic bursts and squawks and austerely shifting sheets of sound. Lamb’s vocals bent and swayed with the music; likewise, the band would let the organ and guitar siren and shimmer, Lamb firing off a jagged phrase and then swooping to her pedalboard to sculpt an edge or extend the envelope. On their latest album, Cut, the opening track is a sort of mashup of indie classical circularity and droll faux “R&B” – onstage this time, they reinvented it as skittish postpunk. Likewise, they extended the stampeding miniature The Key into a fullscale gallop across a postapocalyptic plain.

Zs drummer Greg Fox closed the night with his Guardian Alien duo project with Eartheater’s Alex Drewchin. Swaying and bending, she intoned her vocals low over a rippling electroacoustic backdrop, shaping its edges via a mixer/keyboard as Fox clustered and circled with an elegance that brought to mind Lukas Ligeti’s more kinetic adventures in indie classical music. But by the end of the relatively brief (half-hour) set, Fox was machinegunning and volleying, at one point in 15/8 time. As precise and purposeful as the drums were, the pulsing, pointillistic electronic backdrop and the vocals were uneasy and messy, a long way from contentment. It ended the night on an aptly energetic yet enigmatic and restless note.

Parlor Walls are at the Citizen, 332 2nd St, about six blocks from the Grove St. Path station in Jersey City at around 10 on January 28, then they’re back with a couple of February shows at Shea Stadium and Trans-Pecos.

A Surreal, Creepy Treat From Dark Rock Legend Martin Bisi

In a past century, Martin Bisi was best known as a producer with a list of iconic albums – most notably Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation – to his credit. Fast forward to 2014 and Bisi finds himself touring Europe and probably better known to this generation as a solo artist and bandleader, the purveyor of a distinctive New York brand of surrealistically menacing, psychedelic, melodic art-rock. His new album Ex Nihilo (Latin for “from nothing,” due out April 1) is a throwback to the raw, chaos-embracing, adventurous experimentation of albums like 1988’s Creole Mass. There’s plenty of Bisi’s signature savage erudition, literary and mythological references, and archetypes from across the centuries, scattered throughout these songs like bodies across a battlefield. And while there’s also plenty of bleakness and a relentless cynicism here (you just have to love the title of the concluding cut, Holy Threesome), Bisi’s irrepressible, sardonic wit glimmers amidst the chaos and desolation. He’s playing the album release show on April 15 at around 8 at Glasslands; cover is $12.

Contrasts abound here: Bisi’s cool, matter-of-fact, often half-spoken vocal delivery in the center of a whirlwind of overdubs, dead-girl choirs courtesy of chanteuse Amanda White’s epic multitracks, vocal samples, and vertigo-inducing orchestration. Likewise, Bisi’s guitar slashes and clangs, but with a purposefulness and tunefulness (Syd Barrett often comes to mind) that’s the one constant within what’s often a vortex of sound, most of it played by Bisi himself through a maze of reverb, delay and loop effects. This succinctness makes the sprawl around it all the more disquieting. Billy Atwell’s counterintuitive but propulsive drumming adds extra spice. .

The opening track, Nihil Holy begins as a cloudbank of nebulous, disembodied voices joined by muted, gritty electric guitar, drums and tumbles of keyboards, an acidic kaleidoscope of sound that sets the stage for the rest of the album. Eventually, the voices drop out and a starlit soundscape emerges. Bisi segues into the wickedly catchy 80s-style new wave goth anthem Sin Love Hate, with its massive, operatic choral arrangement and an unexpected free jazz free-for-all fueled by guests the Stumbebum Brass Band before it all comes together at the end. “I run around with animals,” Bisi intones sarcastically, “I pull their ears and pinch their tails.”

The Mermaid Queen, a duet with White, reminds of the Black Angels at their darkest and most focused, its slow, swaying Blue Jay Way-on-opium verse giving way to a catchy, early Pink Floyd-ish chorus, the backing vocals evoking a big gospel choir while the drums roll, the verses rise and an endless parade of devious psychedelic effects wafts and flits through the mix.The eight-minute Invite to Heaven Hell builds a stygian spacerock ambience, like the Chuch (or, for that matter, the Byrds) at their most psychedelic, with hints of peak-era Sonic Youth peeking through the pulsing guitars, disembodied vocals, soaring trumpet and that dead-girl chorus again. It’s one of the most deliciously tuneful things Bisi has ever done.

Suffer the Moon, another big epic, also evokes the Black Angels, but with a more grim, dramatic focus, cartwheeling drums paired off against the otherworldly choir, jaggedly tuneful guitars, rising and falling dynamics and a very devious melodic quote at the end. Fine Line finds Bisi and guest drummer Brian Viglione having fun with tempo changes that eventually coalesce into a murky post-Velvets groove, a snidely goth-tinged anthem about a girl who seems just a little too eager for her own good…or, for that matter, yours. The concluding cut is the album’s noisiest yet also quietest one: echoes of Pink Floyd (yeah, that’s a pun), the Church, the Velvets and the Beatles’ Revolution 9 swirl and overlap and obliterate each other in turn as the maelstrom spins, Bisi throwing a characteristically LOL ditsy vocal sample into the mix for extra sardonic bite. That’s a nuts-and-bolts look at what’s going on here: obviously, there are so many layers that it takes a lot of listening to figure what else is happening, if in fact such a thing is possible. More twistedly ornate aural junkyard sculpture – like a sonic version of the old Gas Station on Ave. B – than surrealistic pillow, it’s one of the most flat-out intriguing albums of the year. Bisi plays the album release show at around 8 at Glasslands on April 15; cover is $12.

A Classic Small Beast Reunion of Sorts

[cross-post from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with today being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized last week upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This past Monday’s show was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.

The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff  donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.

Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.

Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.

And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t.  Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.

Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was  joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.

Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.