Live Review: Monster Magnet Doing Dopes to Infinity, with Naam and Quest for Fire in Brooklyn, 01.13.12

There was a moment, as I made my way around the block of North 6th St. in Brooklyn last Friday night, that I thought I’d never be able to find parking, and that I would just spend the rest of my days driving in that circle, like something out of The Twilight Zone. Maybe it would be some bitterly ironic punishment for having one time inadvertently dicked someone out of a spot, masterminded by that person secretly like Saw. I don’t know. Either way, I was sure I’d never get to the Music Hall of Williamsburg in time to see Monster Magnet, Naam or Quest for Fire, let alone LadyKiller, who were opening the show.

Turns out the opener was the only act I actually missed. I wound up finding a spot right outside the Academy Records Annex and rushed down the block to the venue with just enough time to spare to get my ticket and head in for the start of Quest for Fire. I felt like I lucked out. The room wasn’t too full as they got going, and as they opened with “Greatest Hits by God” from 2010’s Lights From Paradise (review here), it seemed like the universe was suddenly in the business of doing me personal favors. Amazing how fickle luck can feel.

I remembered standing outside the Bat Cave at Roadburn while Quest for Fire played, getting up on the bench along the wall opposite the open door of the room and trying at least to soak in some of their set and being tragically unsuccessful. To see them now, especially alongside labelmates Naam, was enough for me to make the difference between catching Monster Magnet in Brooklyn or going one night later to see them at the Starland Ballroom on a bill populated by pay-to-play openers. Seems like an easy call, but when you factor rolling into Williamsburg on a Friday night, you gotta really like Quest for Fire to make that weigh out.

Playing on Naam‘s equipment, the Toronto psych rockers justified the trip — both mine and theirs. Their songs were heavier in person, and rawer without the layering that comes through so lush on Lights From Paradise and its 2009 self-titled predecessor. Part of that is probably due to the fact they were down a guitar. Chad Ross, who also handles vocals, was playing bass, but even with justĀ Andrew Moszynski‘s guitar, their psychedelia was subdued and moody where it wanted to be and never out of control when heavy, and drummer Mike Maxymuik gave each piece a dynamic pulse.

When they finished, I went out front to look for their merch, hoping to find a copy of Worldwide Skyline from Rosssolo-project, Nordic Nomadic, or maybe some other goodies, but no such luck. Monster Magnet had a tour-exclusive EP called Dopes for $15 that I’m still not quite sure why I didn’t buy, and neither Quest for Fire or Naam had anything for sale. Oh well. I didn’t get a shirt either. Or beer. All things considered, it was a pretty austere night. A $4 bottle of water and gas on the way home. Go figure.

Having seen them twice at Santos Party House in Manhattan last year (here and here), I knew enough to be sure Naam would do well in the role of the hometown heroes, and joined by the keys that seem to be more and more a regular fixture, they did just that. I had been hoping for some new material and it came in the form of “Starchild,” the title-track of their next EP, reportedly due in May. I’d heard the song live before, but it’s grown some in the months since, both in jammed-out presence and actual length. Naam have done a fair amount of touring at this point (most recently in Europe with Black Rainbows), and it showed in their performance.

They didn’t play many songs for time constraints, but guitarist/vocalist Ryan Lugar seemed more at ease on stage and bassist Ryan Preston Bundy‘s vocals were both better mixed and more confident than any other time I’ve been fortunate enough to see the band play. If they’re the hometown heavy psych heroes, it’s because of the wandering they’ve done in the past.

And maybe it’s just because with the Monster Magnet kit backlined behind him he was pushed further toward the front of the stage, or maybe it was following Maxymuik, but drummer Eli Pizzuto seemed to be especially crisp in his performance. Through the newer stuff and Naam‘s standard closer, “Kingdom,” from the EP of the same name, his fills served more than basic percussive function, and his focus was intense to the point of intimidation. While Lugar had his sway to the riffs and Bundy was ready at a moment’s notice to tilt his head back and hoist his beard aloft like an offering to the gods of facial hair who’ve blessed him with it, Pizzuto a little bit looked like he wanted to kick someone’s ass, and the variation in stage presences among the four players on stage only enriched the experience of their set.

It was almost like two shows rolled into one, though. You had Naam and Quest for Fire on one side, and then Monster Magnet coming from somewhere else completely. Sure, this was the tour where they were performing 1995’s Dopes to Infinity in its entirety, and you won’t hear me deny that record is a classic of American heavy psych rock, but where Naam and Quest for Fire both feel like they’re just getting to that point in their careers, that they’re really getting a handle on their aesthetic and the creativity they can bring to the form, Monster Magnet have long since moved onto something different, sound-wise, so for them to revisit it in Brooklyn was, in light of everything they’ve done since on their subsequent and more straightforward hard rock records, a bit incongruous.

For example, after Naam was done, the mood in the room changed. It was packed by then — a diverse crowd of fans young and old, some hard rockers and some heavy rockers — and as Monster Magnet‘s crew set up and checked the gear, it was like the air got colder, more clinical. It’s been a long time now since Monster Magnet decided they were a professional band, and the thing about Dopes to Infinity and their material preceding it is that they weren’t really professional albums, so as the crew taped down setlists all over the stage on all four sides, taped down wires so they wouldn’t get tangled, shifted monitor positions and warmed up the amps for guitarists Garrett Sweeny (of Riotgod) and Phil Caivano and bassist Jim Baglino (also Riotgod), I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if Monster Magnet just came out and played?

I realize that at this stage in the band’s career, that’s an unreasonable expectation. It’s not what they’re about. They’re about a more commercial brand of hard rock — one with a bent in the songwriting that appreciates the structures of late ’60s and early ’70s classics and with no shortage of personality thanks to the lyrics and vocals of band founder and principal songwriter Dave Wyndorf — but still a huge step away sonically from the band’s beginnings. Once they got going following a long stretch of house lights down, no one on stage and sitar drones coming through the P.A., watching Monster Magnet in 2012 play Dopes to Infinity was like seeing a completely different band.

Because it was a different band. Their last connection to that era, apart from Wyndorf himself, was lead guitarist Ed Mundell, who left following the release of 2010’s Mastermind (review here). Rounded out by drummer Bob Pantella (also Riotgod and The Atomic Bitchwax), the latest Monster Magnet lineup around Wyndorf is built to rock the way new Monster Magnet rocks — and they’re good at it, but it’s enough of a difference from what they did on Dopes to Infinity to be notable and definitely affected their interpretations of the material on stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.

One can’t really fault them for it, since they’re different musicians with different modes of playing than those that originally appeared on the album, and I won’t deny that Monster Magnet rocked the Dopes stuff hard, playing it out of the original order to better account for it being a live show and saving “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” for the encore. “Look to Your Orb for the Warning,” the title-track, “Dead Christmas” and “All Friends and Kingdom Come” were highlights as they are on the record, but the apex of the show came with “Third Alternative.” Wyndorf, ever one for killer stage banter, prefaced it by saying, “As this thing goes on, it gets darker — kinda like life, huh?” but then laughed it off and said, “But we won’t talk about that.” Why not? For a song that says, “I’ll stuff myself in a pit of darkness and slam till I can’t see home,” it’s not like there’s any beating around the bush going on. Own it.

That was the darkest part of their show, and among the most honest. Wyndorf nailed the delivery of the vocals — he called the song a “21st Century blues,” which was a little ironic since it came out in ’95 — and then left the stage as the band transitioned into the instrumental “Theme From ‘Masterburner'” before regular-set closer “King of Mars.” The crowd was in their pocket the whole time, and didn’t thin out at all when they finished “King of Mars” and went backstage, where they stayed long enough for me to get distracted and let my mind wander. It was late by most show standards these days, getting on 1AM, but there was no way I was missing the encore.

My perpetual hope is that at some point I’ll see them do “Spine of God” and have my consciousness fractured by it, spending the rest of my days in blissful, devastated catatonia. The reality — no doubt in part due to the circumstances of the band I described above — would no doubt be different, but if reason had anything to do with it, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Nonetheless, no such luck on the encore. They did “Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” a welcomed plodding rendition of Mastermind opener “Hallucination Bomb,” “Powertrip” and, naturally, “Space Lord,” their biggest hit and most unavoidable single. Even if they didn’t want to play it, they couldn’t not.

Wyndorf himself acknowledged this, giving the most concise summation I’ve ever heard of a band’s view on their own material. As Sweeny and Caivano began the riff to “Space Lord,” he said, “Obvious? Yes. Necessary? Yes!” He was right. For whatever reason, Monster Magnet had to do “Space Lord,” and everyone knew it was coming, and everyone dug the hell out of it. I spent all of the subsequent Saturday with the chorus ringing in my ears — it’s simply undeniable.

So too is Monster Magnet‘s legacy. They may have departed sonically the field in which their influence is most felt, namely heavy psych and stoner rock, but their stage presence in the current incarnation is remarkable, and the players with whom Wyndorf has surrounded himself are masters at what they do — Caivano and Sweeny on guitar, Baglino like some kind of born rock and roll salesman on bass and Pantella on drums. I left the show and went back to my car outside the Academy Annex, stared down the block at the luxury riverfront condos that stood where once there had been vacant lots and run-down warehouses, and had to recognize for a moment that nothing is static, nothing stays undeveloped and that to ask the present to be the past is foolish. Dopes to Infinity had its day, Monster Magnet were as faithful to it as they wanted to be 17 years later. You either enjoy it for what it was or sulk, and sulking seemed to me a waste of time.

Extra pics after the jump, and thanks for reading.

Quest for Fire


Monster Magnet

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One Response to “Live Review: Monster Magnet Doing Dopes to Infinity, with Naam and Quest for Fire in Brooklyn, 01.13.12”

  1. Mr Red says:

    Goddammit, they better do this some more (playing ‘Dopes’ in it’s entirety). It is a total kick in the balls that they do shows like this while I’ve been a fan of these guys for nearly 17 years and only seen them twice. When I’ve seen them (the 1993-2001 band), they’ve been a much more primal, over-the-top phenom. Totally fucking rock and roll. So many people into stoner/heavy music I know aren’t into them, but I always tell them to see them. They just don’t seem to get out there though. It seemed like they played too many bigger shows (Van Halen, Marylin Manson) in their prime touring years and a lot of the stoner rock bar crowd missed out. Ah well. Here’s hoping for a Dopes show on the West Coast eventually.

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