CMJ 2013: Exploding In Sound Showcase @ Silent Barn, Brooklyn 10/19/13

The Exploding In Sound showcase at Silent Barn in Brooklyn last Saturday was special for a few reasons. It was a moment of catharsis for fans that watched the label and the growing family of bands associated with them make their meteoric rise to success. It was also the two-year anniversary of the label, a short amount of time when you think about how dear they’ve become to so many people. Also there was going to be free pizza. But that’s just context we already knew, and going in it was clear this was going to be a special day. What actually came out of this showcase was something else that I’m still not entirely sure how to place. It was a feeling that built over the 11-band lineup. It was more than just “a showcase,” it was bigger than CMJ, and it cements EIS as the most exciting rock label in years. This one show had more energy and excitement (both from audience and performers) than entire festivals. Eight hours later, I stumbled out after Speedy Ortiz’s explosive set covered in sweat, ears ringing, with broken glasses and new hope for indie rock. It was one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever been to with too many highlights to count, but we’ll get to that soon.

First, let’s talk about that free pizza.

It’s funny, but so much of the reason why this show was not just great but a sign of the positive shifts in the attitude of indie rock could be summed up in those stacks of Little Caesars boxes. The personality, humor, community feel, and unpretentiousness of these bands shined through in every possible way. One of the members of Pile worked the merch table selling things for smaller bands; a sign was up on the bathroom door begging people to keep it “Number 1 only”; later, Steve Hartlett, the lead singer and guitarist of Ovlov, spent a fair amount of time hilariously bouncing around in the mosh pit. They’re bands that talk to their audiences too, and after seeing many shows from Krill, Ovlov, and Bad History Month, I get as excited to hear what they say between songs as the actual music (if Krill frontman Jonah Furman released a Having Fun With Elvis On Stage-style all-stage-banter compilation, I would pay for it). It was apparent in all of the bands, regardless of their level of popularity. Look at Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, who is standing right on the cusp of indie music stardom. Her band was going on at 11:30 pm, yet she was there right from the beginning, standing in the front row for most of the sets. And it runs up to the top. I’ve never been to an EIS-related show where I haven’t seen Dan Goldin near the front bobbing his head. First impression you’d think he was just a huge fan until someone told you he’s actually the founder and owner of the label. Talk to him and you’ll realize he’s both. It’s all of these things. It’s the fact that anyone who had a fucking clue knew this was the most desirable show to see the whole week, including the people setting it up. And on the same night another band was taking advantage of their popular position to push expensive tickets and dress-codes, these guys simply said, “Come and have a good time, we’ll bring the pizza.”

It’s that combination of incredible personality and killer music that caused people to flock to Silent Barn in huge numbers. CMJ showcases earlier in the week seemed to start sort of sparsely and then gradually build in attendance. I showed up right as Krill opened the EIS showcase, and right as the venue hit capacity. The bookending songs in their set each contain a lyric that sums up the struggle and doubt of a young band, from “Theme From Krill”‘s cheer of “Krill, Krill, Krill forever” to “Infinite Power”‘s closing screams, “If you want to feel like a fucking failure, well that’s your right.” Between those two extremes their music shifts, with funny banter breaking up bleakly depressing songs that nonetheless carry shout-along choruses. And this was only the first band to play.

On next was Two Inch Astronaut, who put out an excellent record earlier this year. Their frenetic hyper-melodic noise rock is even better live, and the next big peak in the show hit when frontman Sam Rosenberg finally said what many of us were thinking all week: “FUCK CMJ.” As if nothing could top their live version of “Spank Jail,” they brought out a brand new track called “Dead White Boy” that got me excited for what they’ll do next time they get into a studio. Speaking of debuting new music (which all the way up to Speedy’s set was a recurring habit), Grass Is Green gave the audience a taste of their new album due next year (called Vacation Vinny and, coincidentally, recorded at Silent Barn). They’re an unpredictable band whose music can shift from fast jerkiness to slow sludge instantaneously. They haven’t gotten as much attention as some of the other bands on this bill, but this set proves they should.

Grass Is Green were a tough act to follow, something that Palehound frontwoman Ellen Kempner mentioned as they began their set. This was one of the most fascinating moments of the night, because Kempner’s project has barely played any shows. This might have been the eighth Palehound set or so, yet the band sounded so fully formed here. Kempner’s razor-sharp lyrics stung while her voice shifted between shy vulnerability, cynical laughs, and brutal screams. “She’s only 19, can you imagine what she’ll be like at 25?” someone said to me. I can’t.

Kal Marks and Ovlov came up next, both providing generous doses of humor and despair in their songs. Kal Marks’s “Life Is Murder” was a track that originally flipped its depressing message into a rallying cry and it absolutely crushes live. It’s the sort of song that always sounded like it was meant to be heard live, sung along to by hundreds of people. Ovlov’s lush sound was even better than when they played Cameo gallery a few days prior. Hartlett’s mumbling and yelling during their final song sums up his uniqueness as a frontman.

A bit after their set, I came back from a cigarette to the pleasant surprise of the Porches set, which had become a giant clapping sing-along. It was also where the mosh pits started to first pop up, as if people were doing their warm-ups for when Pile would go on later. That intensity shifted during Fat History Month, normally a duo, though most of the set was just a solo performance by guitarist/vocalist Jeff Meff. His guitar work has a wonderful fluidity, which complements his vocals, which jump between whispers and scream. It was a nice cool-down before the kick to the face that would be coming with Roomrunner, Pile, and Speedy.

Roomrunner warned everyone that they were playing new stuff “which people might not like.” That didn’t seem to bother anyone as this was the moment when the energy of the crowd rocketed. People would shift from head bobbing to moshing without notice, and a few times the pit looked as if it was at risk of pushing people into the band. Things only got more intense when Pile started. They’re an older band than many of the others here, and as the heroes of the Boston underground music scene, they took their rightful place here as a headliner. Sneaking up for a closer look at the band was like navigating a war zone, and by the time the band was finished playing, it looked that way.

And this was the scene in the moments before Speedy Ortiz — who have become the central figures of this entire movement over the course of this incredible year — took the stage: a sweaty mass of tired and out-of-breath people standing among spilled beers, with more still squeezing into the space. By now my glasses were split in half, and when I tried to hold the pieces together to see what was going on, someone told me I looked like I had two monocles on. They set up, with Dupuis on stage right announcing that in the spirit of these great new bands they would like to mostly play new, unheard material. Some of these songs were literally the first time they had been played for an audience. They were incredible multi-layered songs, especially a track titled “Shine Theory,” all of them littered with Dupuis’s sharp lyrics and filled with promise that this band is only going to get greater. The Major Arcana highlights, “Tiger Tank” and “Plough,” brought the excitement of the entire night to almost a dangerous degree. A girl in the front row got knocked down flat, falling into an amp by Dupuis’s feet. When I talked to that girl later, she said she was okay, but added that at one point she saw the crowd knock the mic stand, hitting Dupuis in the face. And in the most cathartic moment of the entire night the band closed with the final track of their Sports EP, their EIS release, wishing the label a happy 2nd birthday.

This show was so much. It was Pile getting some long overdue recognition; it was a victory lap for Speedy; it was an introduction for many to a powerful new voice in Ellen Kempner. For the other bands it was another big step in promising careers. It was also a turning point for Exploding In Sound, as they enter year three. Looking at what they and these bands have produced over the course of this year is a triumph. These bands are getting bigger, the label is getting wider distribution, and it seems every few weeks more and more people are making the discovery. More than anything it was an incredible and exciting night – but now there’s something even more exciting. Now we get to see what they’ll do next.