Photo Courtesy of Ithaca Underground

April 21, 2016

ITHACA A-LIVE | Getting Pumped at Polaris: A New Venue for Ithaca Underground

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Last week on Wednesday, April 13, Ithaca Underground hosted yet another fantastic lineup of bands at Casita de Polaris—a cozy, new venue down on N Tioga Street. The evening featured four lyricless bands: _____ (Cornell), Sarah Hennies (Ithaca), BRIAN! (Ithaca), and Les Rhinocéros (Brooklyn/D.C.). I’ll be covering this show on my own, but co-writer Olivia Tice covered another show from last week.

The silently named band, _____, opened as the first band from an Ithaca Underground lineup to perform at the venue. They christened the space with a pleasant performance that earned their audience’s respect and smiles. Their setup was deceptively simple: just two players, electric guitar and drums, no vocals, looping kept to a responsible minimum. However, the compositions they performed from their new album set to be released this Friday, were thoughtful and expressive, pushing the two instruments to a surprisingly full sound.

Although I called them “compositions,” what you hear on the album is a different version of what you hear at the shows. These two perform as if they are engaging in a conversation, and watching them feels almost like eavesdropping. The drummer, Carsten Thue-Bludworth was a joy to watch. He would occasionally stop drumming to engage with his bandmate’s guitar playing. While guitarist Brad Nathanson took the tune in a new direction, Thue-Bludworth would listen patiently for the right moment to come back in with a creative response. It was fun to watch the songs unfold with natural pauses and shifts in rhythm and emotion that flowed like a conversation with a close friend. The duo’s ability to improvise together not only  impressively demonstrated their musical prowess, but also allowed for playful moments of spontaneity, such as Nathanson reaching his guitar over to tap Thue-Bludworth’s cymbal. It is this spontaneity that makes the band so exciting.

THIS FRIDAY, April 22, _____ will be celebrating the release of their new album by performing alongside Pilgrims and Paulitics at the Electric Buffalo Records artist showcase. The doors will open at Watermargin at 8pm. Be there to pick up your copy!

Sarah Hennies was up next. Hennies played vibraphone over white noise recordings reminiscent of  a bit of light rain, a downpour on a windshield or the fuzz from a TV or radio between stations at varying volumes. The performance opened with Hennies listening intently to the recordings, standing in front of the vibraphone, but not playing. This action created suspense. When she began to play, the notes only continued to build tension; a single note would be held by a sustained roll for a physically challenging length of time. There was no break between notes for the musician to rest. Her playing became more physical as the song slowly increased in volume, reaching uncomfortable and likely unsafe levels. Nevertheless, Hennies continued to play with determination. Her performance related the emotional endurance needed to bear intense grief and suffering to the physical endurance needed to play the grueling piece. The sounds metamorphosed as my ears adjusted and my mind explored the soundscape. It was one of the most suspenseful performances I had ever seen, even compared with tightrope walking and other physically suspenseful acts.

She was promoting her new solo album Gather & Release which came out on April 5. You can read more about what went into the album as well as the ideas behind her work at:

The next group, BRIAN! specializes in an interesting blend of math-rock, jazz and classical music. Despite assumptions about these genres of music, they play with all the intensity of hardcore rock. They let the bassoon take center stage, an instrument that never seems to get this kind of spotlighting. It takes on the role of both electric bass and center-stage sax. David Resig’s bassoon playing was expressive and inventive, colored with overblowing techniques found in early free-jazz. Bubba Crumrine on guitar seemed to be physically holding himself back from excited guitar-shredding with a minimalist playing style. His energy on stage reflects the enthusiasm he puts into organizing Ithaca Underground, spotlighting local musicians for all to enjoy.

They performed a new song to close their set, playing with fresh, raw energy. They seemed to be as excited to play as the crowd was to listen. The group traversed their dynamic compositions expressively creating wonderful imagery. Check it out for yourself:

Last up was Les Rhinocéros, a band which describes itself as playing a “mixture of heavy metal riffs, world music, noise, math rock, klezmer, reggae, minimalism, soundtracks and sick improvisation.” The cozy venue had ample seating on comfy, leather couches, but I certainly couldn’t sit for this one.

Les Rhinos was energetic and talented as many bands before them, but what made them intriguingly different was their imaginative bending of the rules around their genres, instruments and song-structures. They played songs that sounded almost like eastern waltzes and even looped guitar parts backwards for a psychedelic effect. The band members were resourceful, using atypical objects in their songs such as toys with unintelligible voices put on a loop. The drummer, Jonathan Burrier, was using everyday objects like chains and beads to produce unique percussive effects. However, if you weren’t playing close attention, you mightn’t notice that he was doing this at all. The idea wasn’t to draw you in with attention-seeking gimmicks. Rather, his playing style was very “intentional,” said Nathanson of _____, as he used each object for just the short moment he felt was necessary. His exciting and genuine performance was my favorite of the night. He left no inch of his drum-set untapped and played with whatever part of his body felt natural, from bare hands on cymbals to feet on drum-heads. He was constantly aware of the space he created with his instruments as he moved parts around his setup mid-song. His bandmates clearly wanted to spotlight him, and allowed for the longest drumroll I’ve ever seen performed outside of Veterans Day and graduations. The other two musicians, Michael Coltun on bass and Amit Peled on guitar, deserve their praise as well. Their creative minds can be thanked for the songs’ unique compositions and genre blends. Peled energetically leaped around the stage and produced sounds from his guitar inspired by klezmer music as well as experience on other stringed instruments. Coltun played the whole set barefoot to have precise control over the pedals and knobs at his feet. His grooving bass lines over hardcore guitar riffs allowed the head-banging to extend to hip-swaying and foot-tapping by departing from traditional heavy metal. The two faced each other for the whole show to communicate over the mess of effect-producing machinery between them. I would love to see this original band again! Check them out at: