BOSTON/NE BANDS, Music, Went There

Fuzz in the Time of COVID: Danse Macabre in the Jaws of the Late-Stage Capitalist Machine

by

 

Night 1

Boston Fuzzstival 2014 was life-changing. For the first time since moving to the city in 2011, as I watched the Televibes, Magic Shoppe, New Highway Hymnal, and Ghostbox Orchestra set the basement of the Middle East on fire, their shadows looming against a backdrop of psychedelic projection art, dynamic bursts of distorted guitar noise erupting from every corner of the room, I felt I’d finally found a home. The noise, the chaos, the immensity of it all enveloped me the way most people appreciate a warm jacket on a blustery day or a reassuring hug. 

I just happen to be one of those weirdos who feels safest swaddled in a blanket of overwhelming dissonance and sonic decay.

After that first year, even though I attended every Illegally Blind production I could, Fuzzstival was the summer ritual I looked forward to: three days of the most cutting edge, exhilarating acts in Boston music. And the best part? I didn’t have to sleep in some grimy tent or pay $15 for a bottle of water. When the show was over, I could get a slice at Cinderella’s and bike the Mass Ave Bridge to Hynes, along the way exchanging the particular kind of energy that comes from a post-show buzz with the particular kind of energy that emanates from a high summer moon shining down over the city.

These experiences feel almost unreal in my post-COVID hindsight, like they happened in some kind of dream world, too vivid and wondrous to be real life. How had we all been so carefree? How had we all been so free? How could we not have recognized in the moment how fleeting it all was?  

After a year of losing beloved venues, beloved bands, and beloved friends, finding out that Fuzzstival would resume at the Charles River Speedway in September of 2021, felt like maybe the gateway to that other world — the one where we dance and shout and scream and sweat unselfconsciously, purely for the love of craft, art, and expression — could swing open once more and envelope me in its affirming, infinite embrace.

But on the way to the show, I find myself gulping breaths of chill autumn air in a feeble attempt to lower my heart rate, calm my nerves. 

As I drive along the Charles on Soldier’s Field Road, it’s not excitement I’m feeling. It’s yet another panic attack, maybe the one thing in life I’ve found it impossible to get used to or endure. The fluttering pressure in my chest, the icy coldness of my hands and feet, and the deep desire to just not be in my body are nothing like the exhilaration I felt cruising from Brighton to the Middle East on my Cannondale in the blistering August heat of 2014, unaware of the magical passage that lay ahead. In my ragged, manic state, I’m unable to access emotions like anticipation or excitement. Instead, I simply feel uneasy, laden, as though a dark, wormy creature is working its way up through my body from the depths of my guts. 

Mostly, it’s because my mouth hurts, and my throat, and because I can’t stop worrying about it.

It’s been about five months since I first discovered the lacy, white lesions on the insides of each of my cheeks, three since a painful biopsy and diagnosis: Oral Lichen Planus, a chronic, incurable autoimmune disease that causes my own body to attack the mucosal linings of my mouth, throat, and possibly other organs in my body. For the better part of half of a year, I’ve tried to cope with a restrictive diet consisting of cold foods, mild fruits and vegetables, unseasoned meats, eggs, and some cheeses, as well as a myriad of related symptoms, like digestive unrest, migraines, and fatigue. I can’t do a lot of simple things, like go out for burritos with my wife, get a bag of popcorn at the movies, or run long distances. Sometimes I get lightheaded just standing up. 

I’m 37, which is for sure the oldest I’ve ever been, but I guess I just thought I had at least a few more years before I would have to transition to a soft-food diet or reach for something to grasp onto whenever I stand up, just in case.

Worse, every day, the environment in my mouth shifts and changes in more disconcerting ways. And I know this because I can’t stop looking. OLP is prone to malignant transformation, and thus raises my risk of developing oral cancer significantly. Over the last several months, I have become obsessed with the idea that I will somehow be able to see it happening. If I just look often enough, I’ll somehow sense the cells mutating and sound the alarm just in time for the doctors to save my life, so that I won’t have to leave my wife alone in this increasingly moronic, hostile, and broken world.

After parking at the Speedway, I take a quick look in the rearview mirror, finding just the right angle with my cell phone flashlight, an attempt to memorize every disturbing nuance of today’s version of my condition. I linger on a spot that looks a little too reddened, a little too sunken, a little too swollen. I’m  looking for comfort and finding none.

“Last one,” I lie to myself, more out of sheer exhaustion than any real confidence that I’ve accomplished anything at all by checking. “After this, I’ll just relax and enjoy the show.” 

I won’t.

Even more harebrained than the idea that I’ll somehow be able to see a malignant transformation taking place in my mouth is this other idea I have that, one day, I’ll look, and it’ll all be gone, and my life will go back to normal. It’s magical thinking, pure and simple. 

Maybe that’s because some such miracle is the only hope I have. By far the most frustrating aspect of my diagnosis is when my doctors tell me that advancements in treatment for OLP during my lifetime are unlikely due to the lack of profitability of OLP research. The fact that I have a disease that is simply not profitable enough to cure is hard to swallow, which seems appropriate, given that dysphagia is another prominent symptom of OLP.

As I’m asked to produce my vaccination record at the venue entrance, it occurs to me that this is my first show since the beginning of the lockdown. But in a year that’s supposed to be all about moving forward, all I want is to wind the clock back, even if it means returning to a time of paralyzing stasis and isolation. Those early days of the pandemic, when I was healthy, seem halcyon now, painfully easy to idealize, and it’s hard not to feel bitter when I overhear other showgoers share their excitement that “things are finally going back to normal.”

Not for me. My normal has been irrevocably changed by what seems like happenstance, something so arbitrary, even my doctors’ explanations consist of half-hearted shrugs and platitudes about how autoimmune diseases are “very mysterious,” as though in the face of my particular problem, the workings of the physical body are suddenly akin to those of the Bermuda Triangle or those grainy Sasquatch tapes.

Once inside, I find a spot in the back where I feel like I’ll be out of the way and start taking notes: the newness of the spot (Fuzzstival is the Speedway’s inaugural show, and the gentrified cleanliness of the venue is a stark contrast to Illegally Blind’s characteristically DIY aesthetic), the various brands of craft beer for sale at the bar, all of which I can no longer drink, and the guy milling about who looks like he’s come straight from work at the docks, orange bib overalls and all. Maybe he did. I argue against my own cynicism. Or maybe that’s just the latest permutation of normcore’s obsession with appropriating working class culture. Feeling frustrated by my inability to just feel comfortable in a place I really want to be, I resist the urge to duck into the bathroom and check my mouth. 

Five minutes later, I do it anyway.

To paraphrase a throwaway line from Joan Didion’s incisive “On Morality,” it’s quite possible that you’re growing impatient with me by now. Me too. But I promise this is going somewhere. Regardless, it would be inauthentic of me not to tell you in plain terms that finding the right headspace to enjoy Night 1 of Fuzzstival 2021’s line-up, however excellent, was beyond my grasp. 

Still, let me do my best to show you what it was like to be there.

Lane
Lane is a Wes Kaplan project (The Channels, The Craters). They describe themselves as “polyrhythmic hyperpop shoegaze,” and while the hyperpop label eludes me during their performance, it makes sense when I dig into the band’s 2020 album If You Say. On record, their music percolates with swirling synths and heavily processed vocals. Live, Lane relies on its rhythm section. Strong bass performances evoke the angular rock of Talking Heads and Modest Mouse, but sprinkled with a dash of Palm’s mathier tendencies. 

My favorite song of theirs is an up-tempo, post-punk rocker with a lead vocal that reminds me of Hum. I think it must have been “Shaking Light” from If You Say. That’s when Lane is at their most compelling: when they straighten out the rhythms and let Kaplan’s strong melodic sensibilities carry the tune. 

Blue Ray

Blue Ray are exactly the kind of confrontational, noise-centric act I’ve grown to expect from past Fuzzstival lineups. The band’s performance is anchored by Johnny Steines’s manic energy and novel vocal approach. He runs his mic through a Boss Metal Zone guitar distortion pedal, something I’ve definitely never seen before. Shirtless and sweaty, he leers over the audience, screaming, gasping, and groaning, creating vocal passages that feel more like occult jazz improvisations. In fact, I’m not even sure if any of Blue Ray’s songs actually have lyrics. I also don’t care. As Steines takes the mic grill between his teeth and lets loose a volley of guttural shouts, the sheer audacity of their performance overwhelms me.

Beeef

Beeef represent a sharp left-turn in the bill, as well as my mood. While the first three bands focused on confrontational energy and urgency, Beeef offer tuneful, hook-driven post-punk with driving basslines, sparkling guitars, and admirable songwriting. The key to their sound is the infusion of various 90’s alt and grunge tropes, like big flanged guitar leads and anthemic, sing-along choruses. They sound a bit like Polaris, the band that played the Pete and Pete theme song, who I’m pleasantly surprised to learn is from Springfield, MA.

Beeef is one of the biggest draws of the night. Fans respond to lyrical cues in song, clapping in unison and singing along. Between songs, people shout “Beeeeeef!” while frontman Perry Eaton deadpans about having “another chestnut” for them. However, despite the clear exhilaration of those around me, it’s about this time in the night that the wormy thing in my stomach identifies itself in its truest form: that of a bottomless, gaping sadness. 

Watching Beeef reminds me of watching Flipside at Reflections in New Bedford when I was a teenager. They were my girlfriend’s favorite band, and we used to do that corny thing where the guy wraps his arms around the girl from behind and you sway to the music. The memory returns to me so viscerally that I have to stop myself from reaching out for something to anchor me to the ground in my mounting panic. At that moment, I hate that I can’t be 15 again, carefree, swaying to the music, my biggest worry in the world: whether or not my parents would wake up when I snuck in after curfew.

It’s during Beeef’s set that I decide to go for a walk. On my way out, I stop at the bathroom to take another look. Still no miracle.

Editrix

By the time I get back, Editrix has taken the stage. You don’t need me to tell you that Editrix is a great band. Their nascent ascension is already well-documented by a recent Pitchfork review that rightfully gushes over the band’s frenzied, multifaceted approach. 

An Editrix song reads like collage, several songs melded into a maze of satirical pastiche. The band trains their incisive, deconstructive approach on a slew of indie tropes, from angular polyrhythmic guitar stabs to roving basslines and anthemic build-ups. Editrix’s impulse to undercut what is typically powerful about each of these tropes is what makes their approach unique and compelling, as it calls into question the necessity of indie-rock staples like linear songwriting and elegant dynamic shifts. Their set also features a healthy dose of truly impressive guitar playing by singer-guitarist Wendy Eisenberg. 

But it’s all too much for me. Too confrontational. Too abrasive. The noise and chaos no longer offer any comfort. They only seem to compound the wormy feeling writhing within. Once again, I find myself ducking into the bathroom, waiting for a moment alone so I can complete my delusional ritual of magical thinking and perpetual disappointment.

Landowner & Really From​​

As I mentioned, I want to be authentic and so I must tell you that it’s during Editrix’s set that I decide to go home. Despite the night’s impressive line-up and excellent sets from every band, I can’t shake my feeling of detachment, like I can’t fully be myself, can’t fully be there. No matter where I train my gaze, part of me is always staring into the mirror, staring down the cavity of my mouth, wondering when the dark, wormy thing stirring up my insides is going to finally make itself known. In my worst moments, I wish it would just hurry up already, because the waiting around for something to happen feels infinitely worse than whatever is on the other side of that existential crevasse. 

The worst feeling, though, by far, is that I’m going to miss Landowner and Really From. Both are incredible bands. Landowner is like the post-hardcore of various Ian Mackaye projects channeled through the manic energy of the Minutemen. Their music takes Pinback’s formula of clockwork rhythms and baritone picking and sets it alight with rocket fuel. And Really From is a stunning genre fusion anchored by Michi Tassey’s ethereal vocals and Matt Hull’s lyrical, eloquent trumpet work. I’m upset by the prospect of missing both their sets, but these last several months have taught me how to better listen to my body and my mind, and right now, my body is telling me that it’s had it with my mind’s unwillingness to look away from the void.

Still, on the way home, I feel the first signs of a thaw. Kero Kero Bonito’s 21/04/20 comes up on shuffle, and instead of finding myself wishing I was back in the Spring of 2020, when everything seemed so simple as stay home and stay healthy, I find myself just hoping my wife can’t tell how scared I am when I get home. That, and I hope I can bring a better version of myself to Night 2 of Fuzzstival.

Night 2

“There’s something in the air tonight,” Caufield Schnug of Sweeping Promises says when I talk with the band in a small alcove outside the Speedway, removed from the throng gathered to see his band headline the show. Caufield’s excitement is palpable. As he talks, he bounces on the balls of his feet in precisely the same way he does while performing. He is, of course, talking about the energy surrounding the revival of Boston’s best independent music event, but when he says it, I also can’t help but think that there is, in fact, something in the air, something sinister that has kept many of us away from the people and places we love for the better part of two years. 

But to be honest, I haven’t really seen it that way. 

Sure, I miss my friends and family, and simple things like going out to get a drink, but I’ve always had a complex relationship with socializing. I’m an extroverted introvert, which is confusing to people and makes it hard to connect. One day, I might come off like a retriever, all golden hair and enthusiasm, while the next, I might barely be able to make eye contact. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, I often think during the stilted conversations that inevitably happen whenever I’m drained of what I call my “people energy.” It’s just that I don’t want to talk. Or be looked at. Or acknowledged. Or thought of. 

Over the last two years, holing-up in my apartment and focusing simply on taking care of myself and my wife has been a kind of salve. Where others have felt isolation and ennui, I’ve experienced a time of great healing and self-actualization, something about which I often feel quite guilty. 

Worse, since being diagnosed, the impulse to isolate myself has only grown. It’s a family trait. My grandfather somehow managed to hide a brain tumor from his entire family and all of his doctors for nearly a year by lying about his symptoms and hiding away in his basement workshop. Something in my Swamp Yankee blood makes me want to dig myself under the porch like a dying dog and just disappear, maybe to save others the pain of watching it happen, maybe to save myself the pain of causing others pain.

Still, as alluring as the prospect of lonerism may be, I know I can’t live my life that way. So, despite my fear that my chronically dry mouth will broadcast my disease to anyone close enough by, and convinced that people have been purposely moving away from me all weekend for this very reason, I work up the courage to talk to Caufield and Lira Mondal, two people whose work I’ve admired for years after seeing them at the Middle East as Mini Dresses. When I do, they’re characteristically welcoming, and their generosity in answering my possibly inane line of questioning instantly puts me at ease.

Caufield speaks directly to the malignancy that’s hung over the city, nation, and world when he tells me that he and Mondal relocated to Texas during the pandemic. “We were forced out of the city during COVID when we lost our jobs and income and have since relocated, which makes us sad,” he says. “But we’re excited for the road ahead as we tour all of North America, England, and Europe.” 

The band’s resilience is a reminder that, however difficult and scary my life may have become over the last six months, and as placid as the lives of others may seem from an outsider’s perspective, everyone is dealing with their own submerged chaos.

I also interviewed Kaley Honeycutt of Honey Cutt and Anna Fox Rochinski and discovered that both artists have been wading through their own murky pandemic metamorphoses. Rochinski went through a break up, a move, and a reinvention as a solo artist. Honeycutt’s tour in support of her debut album was canceled the day lockdown measures went into effect, forcing her to turn to home-recording projects to keep her band afloat.

But the real watershed moment for me comes while watching The Cherry Tree perform their ethereal songs about healing and recovery. In that moment, I feel almost uncannily in sync with the Night 2 vibe, and for the first time in a very long time, in sync with myself.

The Cherry Tree

Of all the acts I see over the weekend, it’s the Cherry Tree that leaves the most resonant impression. Featuring former members of St. Nothing, the Cherry Tree play selections from their EP healing. Frontman Marco Lawrence describes the EP as a response to an elongated period of isolation due to illness shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, and their performance articulates the forlorn beauty of the EP adroitly. The songs are driven by subtle drum-machines and feature ethereal melodies and arrangements, using lush synths, gorgeous cello and harp, and aching, understated vocal performances. 

This is arresting, beautiful music, more focused on being affecting than experimental, and the crowd responds. The bands’ audience grows at least threefold before they play their final song, a live debut of the closing track of healing, “defuse,” dedicated to a friend who succumbed to their battle with mental illness. Watching the band perform “defuse” is an experience I can only describe as cathartic, a feeling I think I share with many in attendance. It’s almost as if Marco’s music is welcoming me back into my own body, reminding me that I have nowhere else to live, and that regardless of what the future may hold, I must live while I can.

Nova One

Nova One is surreal in the way that the bands that play at the Roadhouse during the closing scene of an episode of Twin Peaks are surreal. Their music is rooted in 50’s and 60’s rock ‘n roll aesthetics, but stripped of its dancefloor predilections and distilled down to its most fundamental elements. A stark contrast to her all black stage outfit, Roz Raskin’s pink thick-fringe cut floats above the microphone as she croons evocative, ear-catching melodies over reverb-drenched guitar. Next to her, a twin performer in the exact same outfit, with the exact same hair, functions as a visual and aural echo. Watching them, I think, David Lynch would love this. I do, too.

Despite the conspicuous absence of a rhythm section, the crowd sways and bobs to Nova One’s affecting, heartfelt songs, taking in the lush sonic textures that build on the ethereal, otherworldly start to Night 2.

Seed

Seed is a logical choice to follow Nova One, as they have the unique skill set required to move the Night 2 line-up from the ethereal and otherworldly into the more immediate and direct territory that’s to follow. Characterized by their fixation with stasis, Seed offer a series of slow burns that coalesce and build around the ghostly conjurations of vocalist Chelsea Ellsworth. Adorned in black, Ellsworth forgoes the stage and performs on the floor in front of the band. This seems less an attempt to engage with the audience and more as though Ellsworth is trying to create space for herself and her massive, wailing incantations. When each song reaches its climactic peak, the audience is appropriately hexed, transfixed and swaying along with the doomy, half-time rhythms and guitar bombast erupting from the stage.

By the end of Seed’s set, the thaw that had begun on the ride home the night before feels vernal, substantial, something more than a passing zephyr. Whatever spells Ellsworth has cast, the enchantment seems to have taken hold. This is not magical thinking; it’s real magic.

Cliff Notez

But the crux of the entire show, the entire festival, comes when Cliff Notez, the festival’s only nod to hip-hop, invites anyone in the crowd who’s had a bad day, week, month, year, or life to simply give their fucks away. “I just gave my fucks away!” we all croon, and it’s like you can feel them, the fucks, wafting up to the ceiling, catching a breeze through the open bulkheads and dissipating into the starless night sky. 

It’s about that time that I realize I haven’t looked at my mouth all night. I haven’t snuck into the bathroom. I haven’t craned my neck and crammed my cell phone flashlight at some absurd angle to try to see something that my logical mind knows I won’t ever be able to see. 

Maybe that’s the trick to all of this, the body horror, the existential dread, the fear, the magical thinking, the obsessive behavior. Maybe sometimes it can be as simple as remembering, in the face of something you are powerless to change, to simply give your fucks away.

Sweeping Promises

“We’re obsessed with mono, the idea of being one, being mono, just doing one thing,” Caufield Schnug says of Sweeping Promises’s single-mic approach to recording their latest record Hunger for A Way Out. “We were in a room that was kind of similar to how the Speedway is set up, where it was pretty much all concrete with really high ceilings,” bandmate Lira Mondal adds. “Naturally that meant that the reverb trail was really long, and we were able to get away with setting up just one mic on the drums, and then pointing the bass amp at it, so it would capture it in a really beautiful but not too saturated way.” 

Based on that description, one might expect a sound on Hunger akin to the stripped-back dream-pop of one of Caufield and Lira’s previous projects, but the contrast couldn’t be more stark. Hunger bristles with post-punk energy, leaning more heavily on Lira’s driving basslines and elastic vocals, as she bends from a subtle croon to a palette of cathartic shouts and shrieks. 

“We like to think of ourselves as chameleons,” she explains. “Whenever we find that we’re writing something that might be a little bit different, we’ll just build a project around that.” 

Sweeping Promises’ high-energy punk underpinnings make them a perfect candidate to close out Night 2 of Fuzzstival, but Sweeping Promises aren’t your typical headliner, rolling in at the last minute to play their set before jetting for the after party. Over the two nights of the festival, they watch every band. When asked who they liked best, Lira says, “Everyone we’ve seen has been incredible.” Still, she takes time to shout out The Cherry Tree’s performance, saying of their music, “Being at a show in the COVID era, it just hits differently.” 

In talking about their history with the scene here in Boston, Lira and Caulfield reminisce about their first show at Church in Fenway, which they note was attended by 3 people, before speaking about the importance of Illegally Blind in facilitating their career. “Illegally Blind  just believed in what we were trying to do. And so we’re really grateful to them for being a stalwart in supporting whole-heartedly artists that they believe in,” Lira says, before Caufield adds, “I don’t think that we would’ve been able to continue like we did without him.” 

Again, Caufield’s words become eerily prophetic, even if only in the most coincidental and indirect way. 

During just the second song of Sweeping Promises’ set, something happens at the front of the stage that I can’t quite see. The band stops playing, and the crowd disperses. A frenetic buzz of confusion and concern makes its way toward the back of the room, where I’m now perched on an empty merch table, taking notes. 

When I stand to make my way toward the stage, I see someone lying prone, unconscious at the foot of the stage. Lira calls over the PA for security and a medic. A few minutes later, security leads a dazed young man through the crowd. He’s clutching a tote of merch and asking for his friends. People are glad to see that he’s up and walking, but no one knows what happened or if the music will start up again.

During the break, security tries to convince the young man to let them call an ambulance, but he refuses, and when the music eventually starts again, he rises to rejoin the sea of jostling bodies. 

Dubious as I may be of this decision, wading into a mosh pit with what is almost certainly a serious head injury, I find myself thinking about chaos and resilience, about obstacles and how we overcome them, about the sheer will to live. Not simply exist. But live. I think about the acts and venues and promoters and labels that have soldiered on with little support in the wake of a global catastrophe, and about those who have not been able to. 

As artists, we exist in the context of a sociopolitical doctrine that regards us most generously with indifference, but more often with open hostility. Over the last two years, as opportunities to perform and make money have dwindled, that hostility only feels more palpable. I start thinking for the millionth time about the economic instability of the path I’ve chosen, about overdue medical bills, about malignant transformation and the raw horror of existing in a body made of flesh in the jaws of a relentless late-stage capitalist machine. 

But then Caufield plays a catchy riff, and Lira thumps a danceable rhythm on her bass, and the crowd begins again the ritual of joy and catharsis. As the band tears into the title track of Hunger for a Way Out, my thinking changes. I think that if we’re all here, trapped together in the jaws of the machine, we may as well go out dancing.

Author’s Note: While I don’t cover sets here by Kominas, Pet Fox, Anna Fox Rochinski, Rong, & Honey Cutt, this was purely in service of the personal angle this piece unexpectedly took. Sets by all of these bands were noteworthy in their own right and each band deserves mention for their excellent performances.

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