Story by Anand Harsh
Photos by Gordon Keiser
The side project is one tricky beast. Generally, the band is comprised of friends and colleagues from similar acts who are looking to play some small, fun shows between major tours and recording stints, and maybe want to break out from the stylistic and compositional constraints of their day jobs. These side projects can show flashes of its members’ past or future sound, or present wildly different material. However, there is always some sort of expectation attached.
Taking this trend and applying it to the world of live electronic music kicks out some interesting results. Take, for example, Conspirator, featuring members of the Disco Biscuits, or the Join, with Darren Shearer and Jamie Shields of the New Deal and random guests. These acts cover some of their own, original material, but spend a lot of their sets jamming with friends and creating a sound more or less in the same vein as their respective bands. An act like EOTO, on the other end of the spectrum, takes the drummers from String Cheese Incident far, far away from their sunny, bluegrass-reaggae-jam roots, and flings them unceremoniously into the acrid underbelly of dubstep. Worlds apart, is the most appropriate description.
Digital Tape Machine is the brainchild of Land of Atlantis guitarist Dan Rucinski. Conceived as a video game orchestra, the band is comprised of members from elite Chicago-based jam and rock acts, and includes keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Kris Myers of Umphrey’s McGee. While Rucinski is the de facto head of the group, as his compositions make up the foundation of DTM’s sets, the pull of UM members in the Midwest is undeniable. As the group prepared for its Lafayette Theater debut last week—and only just their third performance as a band—several factors were in play. As technical players fluent in a multitude of styles and sounds, how would the band approach the electronic dance aesthetic? Would the band sound like Umphrey’s, Strange Arrangement (also on the bill that night), or something completely different? With only one other show in circulation, and an album yet to be released, this side project remained a sort of indefatigable mystery to most of its audience.
Cincinnati’s Skeetones opened the show, sounding quite beefy through the theater’s revamped concert sound system. Their blend of progressive house, live electro, and dubstep caught the attention of a number of new ears. The fair number of early attendees grew significantly throughout their set, catching one of their better shows in recent memory. Skeetones have made inroads throughout the Midwest over the past year. Their big Retrospektive Tour will really show what they got, with dates in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky throughout mid-March. Cincy’s golden boy Freekbass is even showing up for their CD release show on Saturday, March 26th, at Mad Frog’s.
Strange Arrangement is in no way an electronic act, although keyboardist Joe Hettinga and bass player Kevin Barry would return to the stage later that night as part of the Digital Tape Machine battery. While Strange is, in most aspects, a jam band, they break the mold with structured compositions that don’t dwell in ruts typical of the genre. Quick changes and grin-inducing grooves, along with really quality hooks that’ll keep you humming—not to mention the truly overbearing Chicago sound—recall memories Umphrey’s circa 2002. Evidence of their infectious groove can be found on their latest album released just last week, Polygraph. Their new drummer Steve Sinde is a terrible rapper, absolutely loves dubstep, and holds his own in a tight-knit group. Welcome to the fold.
A livetronica opener followed up by a jam middle set the stage perfectly for the Digital Tape Machine sound. Splitting the difference, DTM lives in the world where electronic music doesn’t just vamp, it invigorates. Builds and breakdowns, polyrhythms and multiple melodies—they’ve given birth to a genre that should just be called “the thinking man’s dance music.”
Rucinski just wanted to make video game music. Instead, the Machine is pumping out these lush, proggy chords that make half the audience members bang their hands and the other half twirl in place raver-style. Compositions like “X Tasty” explore beautiful chord progressions that are fleeting and chaotic, breathless and intoxicating. There is no easy way to describe how dense and intense the wall of sound can be. Kevin Barry and Joe Hettinga, along with Cummins on keys create soundscapes vastly different from Strange or the McGee. The combo of Hettinga and Cummins add layer upon layer of full, synthy bliss. The Hue’s Marcus Rezak harnesses his frenetic metal and prog guitar wizardry in tandem with Rucinski to create a flow that is both heavy and danceable on songs like “GRP.” Digital Tape Machine is, in a way, the Kris Myers show. His unmistakably crisp sound and impossible percussive maneuvers are piled on thick throughout the set. He opens songs, he changes the flow, he triggers effects—nearly running the operation with his metronomic precision.
Each members plays their instrument in a way that is instantly recognizable as their own, but the combination of their vastly different styles and the fact that none of Rucinski’s compositions follow traditional rock structures with heads and choruses and solos create monster epics with grace and flow that build and build until the dam bursts and the flood of notes and beats envelops and overwhelms. When their debut album, The Elephant in the Room, is released in the very near future this side project might just have to think about hitting the road. There is nothing “side” about this project, anyway, it’s a gourmet entrée piled high with fixin’s.
Visit the OMFC galleries to view more photos from the show.
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