The Showgoer: Destruction Unit/Ascetic House Weekend

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 07.08.14 in News

The members of Destruction Unit — in this iteration, they numbered eight — took the stage in total darkness on Monday night, and dark was how it remained for the entirety of their punishing 30-or-so-minute set. There was no reprieve: no flashes of white to illuminate the musicians slashing angrily at their instruments, no breaks for breath between the non-stop avalanche of dense, suffocating chords. Instead, there was only shadow and noise, a kind of bleak black blizzard that buried everything within earshot.

“Shadow and noise” would be a good shorthand for the entire weekend of shows curated by the Arizona collective Ascetic House, which is helmed by Destruction Unit guitarist Jes Aurelius. At a time when secrets seem antiquated, Ascetic House has done an excellent job of cultivating a sense of mystery without seeming cloying or calculated. Instead, most of the work they produce — tracts and pamphlets and hyper-limited noise tapes with decidedly occult overtones — is almost chilling, clinging to an aesthetic that calcified somewhere around the late 17th century. Most of their output employs religious language and iconography to ominous effect: A flyer advertising the weekend of shows was emblazoned with the words “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,” the grim phrase the disembodied hand of God wrote on the palace wall of King Belshazzar. In general, Ascetic House has the eerie feel and character of a secret society: though they were in New York for the entire weekend, there was nothing available for purchase at any of the shows — nothing tangible to prove they’d been here — and the bands that played seemed to belong to some strange, demonic dimension. For those weary of both the agreeability and accessibility of independent music, Ascetic House functions as a welcome tonic — the last bulwark of the sinister and the spectral.

The weekend’s shows — which began on Thursday and ended last night — furthered that mission. They were as musically challenging as they were grave and ghostly. The best of them not only demolished the boundaries of conventionality, but also produced riveting, fascinating music. Chief among these was Marshstepper, a noise duo who performed at the Palisades on Friday night and whose work gets more nuanced and gripping with each performance. Their songs are angry blasts of percussion and static, the rough frequency approximating something like steel scraping against steel. Like most of the bands who fall under the Ascetic House banner, Marshstepper seems driven by the desire to make sound physical. Their music’s gruesome grind was chilling, sharp blades of noise slashing between furious, distorted vocals. They couple this music with staged performances that mirror its bleakness and violence. Friday’s set began with two nearly-naked performers — a man and a woman — engaging in a prolonged bout of sadomasochism, and ended with the man slashing his bald head open with razor blades and the band’s vocalist smearing the resulting blood across his face. Throughout the performance — which took place on the venue’s floor — a gaggle of people onstage threw lit firecrackers into the audience. Whether or not they were a sanctioned part of the performance or simply giddy hooligans was almost beside the point. Marshstepper’s aim is to create a climate of fear, and to that end they succeeded masterfully.

Mercury Living Presence, who played at a loft in Bushwick on Sunday, matched their harrowing intensity. Their music, full of angry, blade-like guitar and grinding, turbine percussion, was practically revelatory; the rhythm kept shifting beneath the squealing chords, and the result was riveting and hypnotic. Saran Man, who played that same night, took a different tack. His name was fitting: he emerged bound in Saran Wrap (especially impressive given the venue’s punishing lack of air conditioning) and proceeded to play a series of mournful synthesized elegies, as bleak and baleful as a ghost weaving its sorry way through a cemetery in early morning.

By those standards, Destruction Unit seemed almost conventional. The group operated from a base of punk rock — its hammering rhythms and pile-driving chords could come from nowhere else — but its members quickly grew bored of those limitations. Instead, they liquefied sound, letting the onslaught of guitars pool into something thick and black and tarry. At the end of the set, one of the group’s two drummers produced a massive metal sledgehammer and proceeded to pound his instrument into oblivion. That he couldn’t be heard over the squall of guitar is a testament to the group’s mighty, leveling power.