Constellation Branch and Tugboat at The VAC

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The Constellation Branch at The Visual Arts Collective

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  • Josh Gross
The Constellation Branch, a four-piece from Phoenix, started their set out with some moody, verby noise that put a chill down my spine, the kind of sonic atmosphere that can't be transcribed in tabulature or recreated by cover bands. Perhaps it was because my hopes were so high off those opening moments, that I was so disappointed when the meat of the song kicked in like a funkier version of The Toadies or The Meat Puppets.

But by the second song they were back to it, abandoning one of the guitars for an electric piano and offering a long ballad that evoked the opening of Radiohead's Kid A, but with a serious epic streak. The song moved and shifted and changed like it simply refused to settle on a verse or a chorus. The drummer stood up to wail on his cymbals and the band spasmed all over the stage in a serious rock trance.

But then suddenly, they went back to the same boring rock from their opener. And then back again two songs later. And then back again for the next. It was clear the shifts were planned to mix things up, but the internal layout of their ballads was already doing that for me, and I wanted more of that tingling in my spine.

As a rock band, The Constellation Branch isn't tremendously interesting. The sound and songs and rhythms blend together, using the same arrangement tricks, the same vocal shrieks, the same lines of thought in song construction with little to set them apart from other screamo. But in the transitions and interludes between those passages, as well as in their ballads, they hint at far more interesting and more soulful sounds hidden beneath the thundering cymbals and riffs.

At their best, The Constellation Branch is frighteningly dark, like Radiohead's OK Computer days mixed with a splash of hardcore. But there's still a lot to wade through to get there. They will be an interesting band to watch evolve.

Some show footage and a video after the cut.

Tugboat at The Visual Arts Collective

One of the best ways to get a new sound is to vary instrumentation. But that's not enough. That new tone must be used as the starting point to lead in a new direction. Unfortunately, Tugboat didn't do that. They added a violin to their rock instrumentation, but seemed to stop there, simply tossing it in the pot rather than using it as a centerpiece to craft a new recipe.

Overall, Tugboat had a standard indie sound, all effects pedals and single-coils. But the parts didn't go together, or even the variety of tones, like each band member had borrowed their instrument from a different genre for the performance.

The drummer played a heavier almost nu-rock style and tone that didn't mesh with the rest of the band members who were busy fluctuating with funk strumming to effected-out space solos to staccato blasts of high-toned distortion. The effect was slightly similar to the sound of cycling through a synthesizer's tones in rapid succession looking for the right one, but never actually settling.

It was disappointing from a tonal perspective, because the scope of Tugboat's ambition was something to behold. The drumming was unusually technical for indie-rock and there was an impressive use of a two-hand tapping technique in some of the guitar lines. But the result was cacophony. Melodies on top of melodies on top of poly-rhythms that were counter-intuitive, all wrapped in vast and complex song structures.

Tugboat gets an A for effort and technique, but as the Emperor said to Mozart in the film Amadeus, "There are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening." And it certainly can't hear them all at once.