Tallying Up Seattle's Instrumental Bands
"People assume that the meaning of a song is vested in the lyrics. To me, that has never been the case. There are very few songs that I can think of where I remember the words." —Brian Eno
The lounge at Showbox Sodo is dark, save for a few dim lights over the bar. The majority of patrons have risen from their seats in the back of the room and gathered aroundthe low-standing stage toward the front. Even though the crowd can barely see the members of Sleepy Eyes of Death through the thick cloud of fog—growing denser by the minute thanks to the band's overactive smoke machines—their eyes are fixed forward.
An amp starts buzzing; a few fuzzy hums leak from a synthesizer; a red light fades on, illuminating drummer Keith Negley, seated at the front of the stage. Some distorted notes bleed from the guitar as a yellow light reveals guitarist Cassidy Gonzales. Then the speakers go boom—sharp percussion breaks through a haze of ethereal noise, soaring guitar teases toward a climax, shadows dance in the smoke as Andrew Toms and Joel Harmon, bathed in blue light, blast out cinematic riffs on synth and keyboards.
The audience is mesmerized—hypnotically bobbing their heads to the band's pulse. When the song ends, there's a beat of silence before the room bursts into giddy ovation.
Sleepy Eyes of Death don't have a frontman, but no one seems to miss the instant connection that comes from having a lead singer with a strong personality. In the swirl of fog and shifting red, blue, and yellow lights helmed by the band's visual guru, Brandon Lanich, the band exist as part man, part machine. Silhouettes of legs blend into instruments, which blend back into shoulders, necks, and heads.
Sleepy Eyes of Death aren't the only local rock band experimenting with wordless sounds and a dazzling visual show. A growing number of Seattle musicians are taking the frontman-free route, taking cues from national names like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky. Here are a few more names worthy of your attention:
Bird Show of North America
Personnel: Ian Peters (guitar), CJ Miller (drums), Curtis Poortinga (painting).
Bird Show of North America paint pretty, gentle landscapes with only guitars and drums. All their songs are named after birds: "Peregrine Falcon," "Greater Roadrunner," "Great Horned Owl." Their best songs flow casually along and then burst into sunny, fast-paced, organic jams that feel more improvised than rehearsed. When they play live, one member of the band, Curtis Poortinga, stands to the side of the stage and paints pictures of birds, which can be bought following the show.
Personnel: Jim Acquavella (drums), Bryce Shoemaker (guitar), Steve Becker (bass), Dan Wilk (video jockey).
Bronze Fawn's instrumental tunes jump from relaxing and fluid to energetic and bouncy. Sometimes their constructions are heavy and intense; other times, they feel weightless. Like Sleepy Eyes, they also incorporate a visual aspect to their live show, expanding their bipolar journeys with projections of odd vintage films of chicken farms and grade-school playgrounds. "Lyrics tell you how to feel," says Bryce Shoemaker, the band's guitarist, of their instrumental approach. "And bad singers can really ruin good bands."
Joy Wants Eternity
Personnel: Emory Liu (drums), Michael Sterling (guitar), Rob Thompson (guitar, Rhodes), Salvador Huerta (guitar), Daniel Salo (Rhodes, guitar).
Joy Wants Eternity are more melancholy than the other bands here, even when their songs, like "Above the Clouds," fight to be optimistic. Their music has a classic loud/quiet/loud dynamic led by heavy guitars, and their brooding sound has earned them comparisons to visceral shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine. They keep the lights low during their performances, sometimes projecting large images (mostly colorful abstract light studies) on a screen behind them, and they're almost always joined onstage by a mannequin with wings, a TV for a face, and glowing nipples. Seriously.
Personnel: Joshua Grapes (guitar), Andrew Grapes (drums), Kelly Mynes (guitar, drums), Jon Wiens (bass).
Panther Attack's strongest feature is the bright, staccato guitar that flutters through their rhythmic structures, but the band, featuring two brothers, also have an abrasive side. On their new EP, Sharp Moments (coming out in May), the band race through songs that summon badass swagger via thrashing riffs and driving percussion.
Personnel: Brandon Salter (bass, programming), Brian Woods (guitars, loops), Michael Clark (percussion, piano).
One of the few local instrumental acts that eschew any visual aids, You.May.Die.In.The.Desert have a loose, atmospheric prettiness similar to Bird Show's, but their new material incorporates surprisingly solid piano and concussive bursts of guitar. They just released a split full-length with Virginia's Gifts from Enola, called Harmonic Motion: Volume 1, celebrating the CD release with a showcase of Northwest instrumental bands that included Bronze Fawn and Panther Attack.