The Mystery of SIGHTINGS

Music Features
The Mystery of SIGHTINGS
Apr 20, 2009, 08:47

Sightings - Through the Panama

SIGHTINGS @ The Vanishing Point in Bushwick, Brooklyn: The New York Eye and Ear Festival. December 13th, 2008

Moving to NYC about the same time Sightings began playing around Brooklyn (2000-ish—back when Manhattan wasn't quite a formaldehyded mall yet), I've had a chance to see Sightings perform many times. And it's always with tentative curiosity I've approached this band. Which Sightings will this be? A trio of inept performers in an amateur sound installation filtered through an over-amplified Radioshack electronic starter's kit OR a spastic fury of grindingly heavy, Frank Stella-like sheets of neon-saturated sound sizzling with sex and violence? Truth be told, I'd never really seen the latter version (ok, maybe glimpses), only the novice shit storm. But I cannot say that anymore.

Unlike most musical groups, who, if and when they change, be it by reconfiguring members, diminishing their previously harsh sound for a larger audience, maybe flirting with different genres, haircuts or new costumes (the copping-out, entertainment aspect of the music world, I suppose)—Sightings is a band that changes even as you watch them—in the temporal NOW. It's their modus operandi: to become "becoming" itself. A perpetual mutation from the inside out: imagine the movie Transformers but interpreted solely through music. And judging from a quick listen to their latest album Through the Panama this, their unique, mercurial aspect, has grown to such degree that you cannot tell what they are even abstracting from anymore. How do they make these sounds, keep it together, keep it interesting and just familiar enough to hold the listener?

And how the hell do they pull this off live?

So with a sort of "what are these guys up to lately" interest, a slovenly, huddled mass and I, converged at the Vanishing Point in Bushwick, Brooklyn for a two-day "Eye and Ear Festival" of new New York's more abrasive-leaning groups—Sightings being one of the feature acts (if not the apotheosis of the festival) on the second night. As we gathered around "Stage 3"—a lowly spot on the floor next to the bathrooms—who could blame us for expecting nothing or at least more of the same (especially after about 20 loud and flinty groups—Zs being the highlight up to that point). It should emphasize the curious impact Sightings had that my tired ears, rotated and of their own accord, dialed into their efforts. It was loud, electronically noisy and violent. Like Tron thrown into a deep-fryer. But there was something more elusive to it too. The independent merchants gathered around rickety bake-sale type tables to sell or give away their scruffily independent wares, stopped pitching or daydreaming to listen. Rats ran into their holes. Darkness lifted under the brick and beam overcast ceiling. The chill of the night was forgotten, and those of us in the front of Sightings, gathered around them tighter; slightly confused, piqued and peering into eye of the storm for some kernel of familiarity we could only feel was there. The melodic-less musical fragments formed, occasionally coalesced, flew apart and came back angularly to form anew. They harmonized without any discernible or at least obvious harmonies; The songs were merely elaborated, slowly exfoliating motifs and their overall sound felt like it had no single point of origin; as if it were composed of un-tethered overtones; and Vanishing Point patron's heads turned to and fro like at a desperately competitive tennis match—who was creating what? To our eyes, they rustled up sounds with motions that counter-intuitively belied the sound emitted and dispatched them with a sort of socially awkward, bewildered yet disdainful manner (ok, it's still "rock n roll" I guess). Which came across as kind of comical since, like sorcerer's apprentices, one gets the impression they don't really know what they are conjuring up necessarily. Then again, maybe they do.

But this description shouldn't lead you astray too much. On occasion there's a nod to Albini in the guitar sound. And even the bass—when it's clear it is the bass—has the assiduously serpentine mid-tone riffage of a 90s Chicago-based band. But these are just flashes of influence. The drums on the other hand—what the hell? Visually, he looks like a yoga instructor suffering an epileptic seizure while scouring pots and pans in Hell's Kitchen. Backwards. Part of the reason may be that his drum kit is a hybrid Simmons-acoustic set, which would be fraught with difficulty to play. And explains some of the visual incongruity. Most electronic drum pads have a slight delay to them; they are not as immediately responsive as the acoustic drums. And so playing both at once presents problems both for meter and cohesion. And again, this hits upon the real, exhilarating mystery of this group: what is the source of cohesion in these mile long motifs/songs?

Naturally, one is tempted to itemize their sound in the cold light of reality (can this band actually be unique!?) and label it as "new" No-Wave, Post-Industrial, or Electronic-Noise-Rock-What-Have-You. There is some truth to all of these, of course. And in some ways, they are just a simple rock band, though devoid of melody—comparable to bands of the NYC Post-Punk No Wave era—with reams of processed sound as a twist. But then again, you could also characterize the group as an overly tech'd, occasionally math-y group. Anyway you attach a label though, it ignores the fundamental, idiosyncratic strengths of this band: 1) It is their ability to straddle chaos and order in an alchemic sort of grace and thereby creating with Ramones-like naivete; 2) a new idiom of street level origins—like inner-city teenagers speaking in a minty fresh slang of blips, bleeps and glass-fractured guitar sound.

I haven't seen them since this show in December so I don't know if they've solved all their live sound issues heretofore or if they have discovered how to harness their own musical idiom, (later LPs will prove that) but at least this night it all came together. It's almost kind of laughable to think that this group has managed to sophisticate "noise-rock" (for lack of better terms) to the upper echelons of music—to a sort of cohesive and poetic abstraction—given the blood-surging feeling underneath (you know I would almost call this band earthy for this reason), and the stupid-ness of rock fundamentally maintained (and we are glad for it!)—but that is exactly what happened this night.

Keep an eye and ear on Sightings: they have crossed over a rare, misty Rubicon—but the burden of proof remains.

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