Live Concert Review: Beacon with Natasha Kmeto and Blondes
February 11, 2016
If you’ve been frequenting this site over the course of its almost six year history, you’d probably be familiar with JOVM mainstays artists, the New York-based electro pop duo, Beacon. Comprised of Thomas Mullarney III (vocals) and Jacob Gusset (production), the duo caught my attention with the release of their debut EP, For Now and their debut full-length effort, The Ways We Separate, both of which pair Mullarney’s aching and yearning vocals with a minimalist and spacious production consisting of chilly synths and wobbling bass to craft a sound that meshes elements of R&B, house music and electro pop. Thematically speaking, Mullarney and Gusset’s work explores the complexities, difficulties and nuances of human relationships — including the difficulty of truly connecting with others in a society that frequently values superficiality and platitudes; the confusion between love, lust and obsession and how they drive and ruin every romantic relationship we’ll ever have; how longing can quickly turn into life-consuming obsession; how all human relationships are driven by both selfishness and selflessness — often simultaneously; how our pasts continually influence and haunt our present and future, and so on. In some way, their material suggests that human relationships can be a process of self-flagellation as much as they can teach us how to be our truest, most honest selves. And as a result, their material generally possesses a sense of regret over what was and what could have been, as well as a sense of dread over fucking it all up from your own blindness, selfishness and stupidity. Personally, the New York-based electro pop duo’s material has struck me as being much like the sound of what’s really inside our heads and hearts when we’re desperately alone and are forced to confront our innermost doubts, demons and fears head on.
Released earlier this year, Beacon’s sophomore full-length effort Escapements takes its title from clock mechanics — escapements are timekeeping regulators specifically designed to transfer energy at a regular and constant pace. And as Mullarney explained in press notes “I was attracted to this concept because of the entropy it implies. Friction and changes in amplitude over time mean[s] every escapement, no matter how well crafted, will lose its accuracy and effectively slow down time via its own decay.” Thematically, the album focuses on what may be a familiar Beacon theme — time and the baggage it both creates and brings. Interestingly, the album reveals that the duo experienced a period of restless and relentless experimentation that had the duo changing their songwriting and production approach to allow more space for the members of the duo to follow wherever their muses take them — and it often meant that Mullarney and Gusset occasionally came up with a musical idea on the fly, essentially capturing the free-flowing energy of the creative process.
Performing in front of a projection screen that featured specially designed animation and eerie lighting effects — including animation which appears in the stunning and surreal video for “IM U,” the duo’s live set at the Bowery Ballroom back in February began with fairly straightforward version of Escapements‘ opening track “IM U,” and a nervous and skittering “Escapements,” and a gorgeously shimmering and propulsive “Better Or Worse” before quickly segueing into the eerie and spectral material of The Ways We Separate and from the early going it was obvious that Mullarney couldn’t quite hit the yearning and breathy falsetto of the recorded versions and yet it still packed the same devastating emotional punch that initially won me over. There was a creepy version of “Bring You Back” that brought out the obsession and frustration that the core of the song — and it makes the yearning and pleading within it seem desperate and unstable.
Towards the second half of the set, Mullarney and Gusset went much more expansive and seemingly improvised, as though capturing the energy and spirit of a crowd who sang and danced along the entire night. In fact, the thumping house music-leaning single “Preserve” began with a lengthy, thumping Chicago house music-like intro and they played an even moodier and more spectral version of “Feeling’s Gone” that captured the song’s creeping and anxious dread that somehow managed enough oomph to keep the song from floating off into the ether. And then they ended it with a extensive and driving motorik groove-filled outro.
Their live set reminded me that there are a couple of things that set the New York-based electro pop duo’s sound apart from their contemporaries — although focused on an eerie sense of mood, their material manages to be thoughtful and deliberately constructed, as though every single note and word is considered in setting up a specific mood, a specific feeling with a novelist’s attention to psychological detail. Perhaps more important, it packs a haymaker of an emotional punch, while being slickly produced. Simply put, if there isn’t a song that captures and reminds you of a relationship you once had or are currently in, you’ve likely not have had a whole lot of worldly experience — or you haven’t had a fucked up relationship yet.
Don’t expect a lot of stage banter from Mullarney or Gusset. Unlike countless artists, who might spend a few minutes explaining what a particular song is about or what inspired a particular song, you won’t get any of that. Hell, you won’t even get a title of a song — and frankly it didn’t matter, since the very pro-Beacon crowd knew all the material anyway, including the material off the then-recently released Escapements. Still, it was one of the best electro pop sets I’ve seen this year.
(Photo Caption: Beacon performing songs off Escapements, For Now, L1 and The Ways We Separate at the Bowery Ballroom back in February.)
Opening the night was the Portland, OR-based electronic producer and singer/songwriter Natasha Kmeto who has developed a growing national profile for a soulful and thoughtful electro pop that pairs her sultry pop-belter vocals with boom bap drum programming with a sound that possesses elements of contemporary house music, industrial electronica, industrial house, R&B and funk, complete with a sensual, swaggering dance floor friendly feel. Perhaps the most impressive of her set was the material off her latest effort, Crisis, an album that’s informed by several things including affairs of the heart, Kmeto’s newly affirmed outlook, in which she has increasingly embraced her own identity as a queer woman. As a result, Kmeto’s material manages to feel and sound liberated and empowered — as though she’s openly encouraging everyone to let their freak flag fly! And she does so with humility, grace and a sense of humor. In particular, a song about her engagement to her fiancé was a slow-burning R&B song with an industrial house music feel as hot and thundering drum claps and shimmering synths were paired with Kmeto’s vocals and if it didn’t make you want to dance and then take someone home and fuck something must be wrong with you.
By the end of Kmeto’s set, I wanted much more from her. And I suspect that you will across the blogosphere as she’s played at Coachella, Bumbershoot, MusicfestNW, Electric Forest, Symbiosis, SXSW, Decibel Festival and Low End Theory — and she’s opened and toured with an impressive list of renowned artists including Four Tet, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, Flume, Machinedrum, Dam-Funk, Kode 9 and Shlohmo. Adding to a growing profile, Kmeto has been praised by the likes of NPR, Pitchfork, Spin, Fader, Resident Advisor and Rookie.
(Photo Caption: Natasha Kmeto performing at the Bowery Ballroom in February.)
Following Kmeto was Blondes, a New York-based DJ and production duo comprised of Sam Haar and Zach Steinman. Several years ago, I caught Blondes play an raucous and insanely loud, propulsive and abrasive set of electronica at the now-defunct Death By Audio, opening for Teengirl Fantasy. And what I can clearly remember to this day is that the duo started lighting five dollar bills on fire while on stage — and I have pictures of it.
(Photo Caption: Blondes at Death By Audio 2/27/10)
Over the years, Blondes sound has become larger, louder and somehow more menacing industrial house with psychedelic leanings — and beneath the murky clang and clatter, there’s a shimmering and shimmying beauty similar to the work of Blanck Mass. Despite the fact that I dug their sound, I felt as though their particular setup for the night would have been much better suited in a nightclub and with an audience that would be much more willing to follow them into the dark crevices of the human psyche that their material delved so deeply into — and I say this because the duo weren’t very engaging; in fact, they made sure that they were almost completely enveloped in the darkest lights possible, as though they wanted to be obscured in their murky aesthetic. Considering their past exploits, this choice seemed deliberate and kind of odd.
(Photo Caption: Blondes performing at the Bowery Ballroom in February.)