On a frigid and windy night one week before Christmas, Chop Suey is pleasantly full, if not quite sold out, for the latest offering from Portable Shrines. The promotional company driven by a passion for all things psych, surreal, or improv-based has been making a name for themselves by putting together compelling bills like tonight's quadruple threat: Story of Rats, Sic Alps, Magik Markers, and AFCGT. This last stands for A Frames Climax Golden Twins, an acronymic expression of the merging of the A Frames' dark, art-damaged noise rock and the Climax Golden Twins' fearless, sonically adventurous soundscapes.
Save the date: AFCGT With Kinski and Arbitron. The Comet Tavern, Sat., Feb. 27.
As a swirl of pink, blue, and orange graphics flashes on a screen behind them, A Frames drummer Tommy Wolfe Northcut and bassist Min Yee slide methodically into a thunderous lockstep, while Climax Golden Twins Jeffrey Taylor and Rob Millis begin erecting a wall of squall that reminds one why they've collaborated with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in the past. As if that isn't enough, A Frames guitarist Erin Sullivan also inserts himself into the mix, slicing through the storm with brash chords. Though the shape of a song emerges slowly, complete with nuances and refinement, to call this cacophonous would be a sweeping understatement.
"There's a broader spectrum of dynamics on the record, but as a live unit, we pretty much want to kill you," says Taylor. Three weeks after the Chop Suey gig, Taylor is reflecting on it and recovering from a cold, nursing himself with a hot toddy. He's joined by Northcut and Yee around a table at Al's, his regular neighborhood bar in Wallingford. Two years into the collaboration, the group has two self-released efforts under its belt, and will release its eponymous debut for Sub Pop this Tuesday.
The merging of AF and CGT started slowly, when Yee and Taylor met at Wall of Sound, the record store that Taylor once worked at and now owns. "I'd been going to CGT shows since the late '90s," recalls Yee, his hand cupped around a chilled pint glass of Rainier. "I was always interested in art music and abstract music, and they were the ones to see. I met Jeffrey through Wall of Sound, before he owned it." AF eventually played a show with CGT at the Crocodile in 2004, and the two camps began spending more time together, socially and creatively.
In 2007, AF invited Taylor and Millis to a rehearsal to add guitar parts to a new album they were recording. "As we were mixing the album, it wasn't doing so well, and we realized that the best stuff from that session was what we did with these guys," says Yee. "So we decided to forget about trying to mix this album and decided to play with these guys. It just kept going from there."
Three years later, the band has clearly hit its stride. Recorded by local producer Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Boris, Kinski), AFCGT essentially sounds like the menacing, lysergically rendered soundtrack to a horror movie set in a black hole. That might sound like difficult listening, but the lucid dialogue among the players and their collective level of experience actually makes for a compelling collection of genuine songs, not just scattershot jams by cranky veterans with too many effects pedals on their hands. In fact, the musicians take great pride in taking a minimalist approach to their gear setup.
"We're not gearheads," asserts Yee. "One thing I really like about these guys is that I don't have to listen to them tweak out on gear stuff. You would think that the CGT side would be because they have so many weird sounds, but it's a pretty minimal set-up. It's just a couple of effects."
One of the new album's most memorably fearsome tracks is "Nacht," a seven-minute journey full of brassy cymbal crashes, above-the-fret-board fingering, creaky lines of feedback, and the dry, dread-filled voice of Dr. Harrison Stuart Daniel, an 84-year-old history professor and friend of Taylor's. "He studies dead languages, so we got him to recite these incantations which are almost entirely in languages that don't even exist anymore," says Taylor, beaming with pride.
Aside from an obvious shared affection for creating unsettling and unexpected sounds, an egalitarian approach to writing has served this group well. "It's completely equal contributions," affirms Taylor. "Anyone can do what they want within the course of a particular song. People will bring their own ideas and structures to any particular piece. Erin, however, is a ginormous riff monster, and will often come up with the riffs that we use. It can go any number of ways."
Perhaps the key element to their harrowing harmony lies in feeding their shared need to continually rebuild their compositions. "The beautiful thing about this band for me, and perhaps for the other fellows in the band, is that improvisation is a big part of it," says Taylor, gesturing around the table. "We can have a pretty solid structure that we work with, but there's loads of room to move around within that structure. And that's kind of a glorious thing."
AFCGT's self-titled Sub Pop debut is in stores on Tues., Jan. 26.