As the lights slowly brightened on the scene, the Of Montreal (stylized “of Montreal”) members, minus bandleader Kevin Barnes, came out and started up a few notes. A man appeared dressed in black with a red cape and a brown, vaguely Christian cross on his chest – a False Priest, if you will – and began to hype the crowd. He exclaimed how tonight, for one night only, he’d been granted power over us to do whatever he’d like. According to him, we were in for a transcendental experience.
I was amazed, looking at the four band members, none of whom I recognized from previous tours. Much to my dismay, the legendary guitarist Bryan Poole, magnificent keyboardist Dottie Alexander, and multi-instrumentalist James Huggins III were all absent. The musicians who were on stage were dressed in white country outfits, hats and all. Confused, I assumed the “preacher” and country dudes were a fake band, and that the “real” Of Montreal would soon take the stage and kick them off. Much had changed in the five years since I’d seen them.
The last time I saw Of Montreal was in 2010, when they played the Paramount Theater with Janelle Monáe. The band was still mostly the old lineup, and the songs were great, but I felt frustrated at the time spent on theatric interludes. I just wanted to rock out to my favorite songs, but it seemed every five minutes the band was pausing for some strange display. To be clear, Of Montreal’s theatrics are what make them so much fun to see live, but at a certain point, the focus should still be on the music. My biggest question going into Neumos Friday night was whether their live show has devolved into mere spectacle. Would they revisit their older, musically eclectic sounds, or would the show be more focused on this year’s Aureate Gloom, which I found dull by comparison?
It’s not that the new album isn’t pleasant or well-put together, but it lacks something that the older albums – hysterical, explosive expressions of love, passion, and sensuality – did so well. The classic bleary-eyed, euphoric psychedelia of Satantic Panic in the Attic (2004), The Sunlandic Twins (2005), and Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (2007), and the playful, stripped-down jangle of older albums like The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (1998), and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (2001) seem absent from the band’s newer incarnation. Check out “Penelope” from 2001 for a taste of their oldest gleeful vibes. And for the classic introspective, brooding genius of the middle years, see “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” from 2007. At an impressive 11 minutes and 52 seconds, the latter is in my top 20 songs of all time, and when the insane Casio solo breaks at 8:10, I still feel my most alive. It’s intense, it’s smart, it’s urgent, and it can never be replicated in the watered down, chilled out albums of recent years, technically advanced though they may be.
I’d lost track of the band after their 2010 release False Priest, which featured their familiar drugged-out dance numbers and some killer guest appearances from the aforementioned Janelle Monáe. Paralytic Stalks from 2012 continued in the same vein, but pushed the old-school psychedelic vibe even further, densely mixing a diverse range of styles and inching towards a slightly more country aesthetic. Barnes is based out of Athens, GA, so the departure from their indie rock roots isn’t so surprising, but it’s in stark contrast to the sound fans have come to know and love. By the time the band put out Lousy with Sylvianbriar in 2013, Barnes had ceased holding back. The album is thoroughly country, with slide guitar, rawer recordings, and bare bones vocals. At their kindest, critics found it more relatable and less erratic, while the haters called it “beige” and “asexual.” It’s no wonder that a sea change of such magnitude would inspire varied reviews.
Despite these changes, Of Montreal still performed old favorites like “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider,” “Suffer for Fashion,” “Gronlandic Edit,” “Rapture Rapes the Muses,” and “The Party’s Crashing Us.” The band used a variety of visual elements, mostly in white, which they projected imagery onto, bathing the musicians in dazzling effects. Dancers emerged from the sidelines to hold up props, wearing elaborate, long white dresses or cloaks. For “Hydra Fancies,” the dancers held white circular canvases up, with one dancer in front holding up an all white male mannequin. Barnes stood on a pedestal behind this effigy, surrounded by elaborate undulating imagery, and belted out the romantic notes of the song. When the keyboard solo hit, the crowd became a dancing frenzy.
During another interlude, two boxers emerged wearing American flag print bodysuits and dog masks, and proceeded to fight one another on stage. By the end of the song, they had each begun inexplicably stripping, revealing full naked bodysuits with large, exaggerated breasts and nipples. It was hilarious and disturbing all at once, and the dancers surrounded Barnes, rubbing their breasts on him.
But the strangest moment musically was when Barnes suddenly announced, “We’re from the South, so we’d like to take it down a notch and get a little country.” Two unintroduced women in southern-belle style dresses emerged, Barnes left the stage, and they played a cover of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” by Kitty Wells. I appreciated the nod to the band’s homeland and admired them for taking a risk, but looking around, the crowd was so confused, unsure whether to dance or just watch respectfully, and the song ultimately felt out of place. They might have had better luck with a little theatrical segue or story of some kind. By the end of the show, they were back in their element, closing with the heavy hitter “She’s a Rejector.”
In any case, Aureate Gloom is a well-rounded mix of the extremely varied styles Barnes has explored, bringing back those old psychedelic vibes in songs like “Bassem Sabry,” while also exploring new manifestations in tracks like the almost drone-garage “Chthonian Dirge For Uruk The Other.” When the album is considered on the grand scale of the band’s long history, its more subdued attitude makes sense. Yet it doesn’t grab me deep down in my soul in the way the older albums did, and the live show was unfortunately a reflection of that.
Also hailing from Athens, were openers Yip Deceiver, analog dance music duo Davey Pierce and Nicolas “Dobby” Dobbratz (joined onstage by another drummer and at times, an additional guitarist). Their website describes them as “music that can stoke a party-fire,” and they brought a great set of electro-funk with engaging, syncopated drums. They were melodic and easy to dance to, with an energetic stage presence, switching back and forth on their machines and trading microphones. Dobbratz played live bass and both he and Pierce slammed rhythmically on toms, belting out high pitched, catchy lyrics. Their frequent nods to R&B-style vocals in their 2013 debut Medallius got the crowd amped for Barnes’ special blend of romance.
I took a walk down memory lane and found this video of my favorite Of Montreal show, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on November 13th, 2007:
Forecast Fascist Future
Last Rites at the Jane Hotel
Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider
Beware Our Nubile Miscreants
Suffer for Fashion
It Wasn’t God Who Made the Honky Tonk Angels (Kitty Wells Cover)
We Were Born The Mutants Again with Leafling
Rapture Rapes the Muses
Chthonian Dirge For Uruk The Other
Like Ashoka’s Inferno Of Memory
The Party’s Crashing Us
Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse
She’s a Rejector
For All The Haters
World Class Pleasure
Tops Part II
Crush (Jennifer Paige Cover)