By: Natty Morrison
“We’re in Chicago, so you know we’re going to play some house music!”
It’s Friday evening at the Congress Theater, located deep within Chicago’s North Side, and New Deal drummer Darren Shearer is shouting this into his overhead microphone. Everyone in attendance seems to find this highly agreeable, so the electronic trio dive right into some of the most melodic house music this side of the 1990s. This is Pandemonium Fest, after all. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?
One of the strangest things about the evening was how expectations were defied. Certainly there was music. There were bass wobbles and big drops and hula hoops and flat brims. But if the night was about expectations, then certainly the other headliners were most concerned with defying them. Youthful opener LoBounce surprised everybody, mainly because not everyone knows who he is. His” drippy bass” sound, served over-easy on top of glitch-hop style beats, sounded excellent even in the echoing Congress Theater. While smaller acts played downstairs at the second stage, it was hard not to smile at the sight of a young guy doing well for himself.
Nero surprised everyone by coming out not as a duo, but as a single DJ, spinning hard UK style dubstep and drum n’ bass. At times he sounded like a graffiti artist, spraying blurts of bass liked spray paint. Other times he worked the crowd like a festival DJ, with huge alarm sounds over heavy, heavy drum breaks. And then sometimes he decided to just press play, like he did while segueing the Beastie Boys classic “Sabotage” into Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in Name.” It was a smart decision by the seasoned vet, and it threw the still filling crowd into a feeding frenzy.
If Nero and LoBounce surprised people with their set placements, Conspirator mixed things up by playing like a rock band. Usual suspects Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein were backed up by Lotus drummer Mike Greenfield and RAQ guitarist Chris Michetti, and instead of coming out with the usual tech/IDM sound that fans have become accustomed to, they opted for a big-guitar sound. Michetti sounded eager to please, but at time it still feels like he’s searching for his role. The quartet hit its stride mid-set with a smoking Lunar Pursuit>Orch Theme, and it was here that Michetti seemed to find his best voice: playing blissed out lead lines, drenched in reverb and sustain. It will be very interesting to watch this spin-off group develop as a live act as time goes on.
But, as usual, the New Deal delivered what Shearer promised early in the set: pounding live house music. But house music isn’t really as fitting of a term for the Toronto-based trio. The New Deal injects waves of color and tone into the typical four-on-the-floor formula, layers that most groups simply don’t have. It doesn’t hurt that they have Jamie Shields, aka the Human Riff Machine. One of the most startling things about Shields is his refusal to utilize sequencers or arpeggiators in his playing. He’s been quoted as saying he uses only his two hands, and, “sometimes even [his] nose.” It’s tough to fathom how he’s able to invent such ingenious melodies on the fly, but it also can’t hurt to have a beast on the bass like Dan Kurtz. I spent a long time watching Kurtz, and at times it was difficult to distinguish if he was playing a bass, a guitar or a keyboard. That’s because his wall of effects, coupled with his unique attack in playing is so his own, the sound seems unrestricted by definition. And while Shields provides the color and Kurtz the backbone, it’s drummer Darren Shearer that pumps the blood of the band. An absolute monster behind the kit, Shearer is somehow able to replicate the incredible accuracy of a drum machine without losing any feeling. He truly has a master’s ear. And as the New Deal kicked into “VL Tone” near the end of the set, he raised a single fist into the air. Nearly every fist in the house joined him, too. And that, as it was, turned out to be something everyone expected. Expected and embraced.
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