Zebrapulse has been making some of the strangest music in Edmonton for 10 years now. This past week, they held their decennial at The Sewing Machine Factory in Old Strathcona.
I’ve listened to Zebrapulse since I first played on a bill with them about 7 years ago. The show was Bagelrama 5 (an annual fundraiser for womens’ shelters in Edmonton) and I still remember every moment of their set. Never before had I conceived of a band structured like Zebrapulse – drummer, 2 people dedicated to creating an array of synthetic and analog sounds on multiple platforms, and a bassist. The wall of obscene noise they produced that evening sounded like Ornette Coleman had risen from the dead and joined forces with Bjork to fill the dingy Edmonton garage with confusion.
I’d heard talk of Boothman, the opening act, around the scene a little, but had never heard his music before. I half-assumed that the name was simply another in a long list of monikers used by local vaporwave aficionado, Carter Booth.
This was no Carter Booth. This wasn’t even a John Wilkes. This was more intense.
Just before Boothman began his set, he turned on a smoke machine from beneath his equipment, and just the right amount of smoke poured out to cover the stage at ankle height.
I’ve always been a sucker for smoke machines, particularly at small venues. Whether they produce a comically small, reasonable, or eye-wateringly large amount of smoke, they always add to the performance, in my humble opinion.
Boothman himself held an air of relentless calm as his set began. He wore a plain black long-sleeved shirt, brown slacks and brown belt, and had possibly the most piercing eyebrows I’ve ever seen on a stage. His small table of carefully organized micro-controllers, keyboards and effects devices lit up one by one and the room was flooded with sound.
It started with a loud, satisfying electronic drone layered under haunting, repeating 8-bit melodies. About 3 minutes into the massive arrangement of synthesizer melodies, everything suddenly went silent.
Unfortunately, solo performers often make the fatal error of relying on a single faulty power source for their entire array of instruments. I’ve done it myself. If it all shuts-off at once, momentum crashes to a halt and all you can do is take a deep breath, plug your shit back in, and keep going.
Boothman did exactly this and within seconds the room was once again flooded with some of the most intriguing tones I’ve heard in Edmonton in years. The sounds coming out of that little table full of noise reminded me specifically of the 1988 animated movie Akira – not only in that the melodies were strongly reminiscent of the film’s score, but because the tones and notes he played sounded like they should score some sort of robotic dystopian nightmare. He swayed slowly back and forth, twisting knobs and pressing keys while smoke billowed around the stage.
While somewhat brief, Boothman’s set was great. I’d strongly recommend seeing him next time he plays.
As Zebrapulse set up their cacophony of electronics and instruments, DJ Gulzar laid down some relaxing techno as an interlude. He was half-hidden on a table near the soundboard with his laptop and decks. His tunes were pretty solid. They suited their purpose perfectly as Zebrapulse slowly but surely populated the stage and a large area in front of it with their vast assortment of gear.
At this point, I stopped by the soundboard to say hi to local 8-bit sommelier, Brett Klein. He operates said board during most of Sewing Machine Factory’s shows. He informed me that the oncoming set was going to be unnervingly loud. My excitement grew.
Parker Thiessen, the man behind Pseudo Laboratories – the sound art label that organized the show – stood front and slightly off-centre, beginning the Zebrapulse set with a series of notes glitching and repeating on a record player he controlled.
This was soon joined by an ambient, swelling bass line. The bassist, Dave Shaefer, knelt far to stage left and carefully adjusted numerous effects added to his instrument.
Sitting cross-legged in front of the stage, Owen Strasky played eerie melodies on his Korg keyboard and droned vocal sounds into a stout, ancient-looking instrument microphone.
To complete the wall of lunacy growing in volume, Sean Macintosh tapped quick, constantly-changing beats on a small drumkit centre stage. Only near the end of the set did his drumming streamline into a driving rock beat with occasional syncopated bursts to remind you that you’re still listening to Zebrapulse.
Their set was one long-form piece that lasted about 20 minutes and had the crowd of about 80 people in silent awe for the duration.
With about 3 minutes remaining, just as he began the simple rock beat on drums, Macintosh leaned over to a synthesizer on the ground next to him and poked a few of of its large orange buttons. From that instant, a shrill, high-pitched group of dissonant notes rung out over the mix until the end. Admittedly, this sort of blatant dissonance isn’t for the average music listener, but in the context of this set, it fit quite nicely.
Afterward, I stepped out for a cigarette and asked Macintosh whether the out-of-place rock beat he’d played was as painfully sarcastic as I had suspected. “Glad you caught that,” he replied.
It will come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed Zebrapulse. I’ve never seen them put on a disappointing show, and this one was no exception. If you ever want to have 4 musicians digitally ruin your hold on reality for about 20 minutes, you can hardly do better than a Zebrapulse set.
Until next time, quit complaining that all the bands in Edmonton suck and start a good one.