October 2 / Le Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent)
Post-punk is dead. No-wave? Over. Or at least, that’s what These Are Powers might have you believe. The trio’s self-styled ghost punk aesthetic balks at comparisons, featuring shrieks, chirps, and incantations over tribal drums and bass-lines that sound as though they couldn’t possibly emerge from any stringed instrument. “We wanted to create a movement that could just as easily be dissolved the next day,” explains singer Anna Barie, of the deliberately nebulous ghost-punk tag. Appropriately, she and her band are also known for giving two other terms to describe themselves: the strangely apt “Pentecostal regaetton” and tongue-in-cheek misnomer “ambient ska.”
While atonality, distortion, and enthralling, repetitive rhythms can’t help but evoke no-wave and other movements past, the band has unequivocally set itself in opposition to rock as a medium. In the early 20th century, the European Situationist movement appropriated aspects of popular media to subvert their original meaning. These Are Powers have clearly taken note; the primary melodic support for Barie’s entranced vocals is Pat Noecker’s “prepared” bass, modified with a wooden dowel under the strings and set in nonstandard tunings. For his part, percussionist Bill Salas plays standing up, pounding bone-shaking patterns at an electro-acoustic drum set of his own construction. In more expressive terms, These Are Powers sound like jazz musicians who got stranded in the Amazon and started practising voodoo rites with power drills, urged on by deep-sea whales.
Indeed, the spiritual plays a central role to the band’s approach to art. Barie explains that meditating before shows allows them to “acknowledge each other’s presence…and establish a common thread.”
“It also becomes Pavlovian,” she laughs, “We do this, and now it’s time to perform.” Asked whether spirituality and noise music make an unlikely pairing, the singer adamantly disagrees. “I think the two go hand-in-hand. Around the world, music has an important role in evoking the spirit. Certain frequencies and sounds, as well as repetition, can manifest emotional and transcendent responses.” In fact, These Are Powers cite Kandisky’s efforts to express spiritual truths through art as an essential influence on the band. Drawing lyrical inspiration from dream imagery and stream-of-consciousness, Barie seeks to “translate visual things into sound.” Noecker once explained on a San Francisco blog, “We use [effects] pedals like a painter uses paintbrushes.”
As both Barie and Salas attest, the sheer volume and physicality of These Are Powers’s live performances give the shows a ritualistic quality. “We’re very aware of the interaction between the audience and the performers,” the drummer adds. “Anna [Barie] steps offstage and invites you to join the show.”
“We are entertaining, but we are not entertain-ers,” Sala stresses. “We played one show at a bar/restaurant where the crowd remained seated the entire time. It was like dinner theatre. It’s hard to immerse yourself in the moment when [everyone is] not fully immersed. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” In the ritual of a performance, he continues, “You have us, the audience, and the space. The space is just as alive as the performers and the audience. It takes all three to have a really good show.” The group makes it a point to play all-ages alternative spaces wherever possible, be they warehouses, basements or parks. “We’re not a rock bar band,” Salas says with frustration. “Those spaces kill me, kill us, kill the music.”
Thoughtfully poised between technophile noise nerds and inept guitar-bashers, These Are Powers’s cerebral yet raw approach to music carries a certain clout not often seen in experimental music. They talk art and philosophy, they seek the transcendent, they writhe on the floor. And they want you to do the same.
– Joshua Frank