ETHER

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For those of you who’ve been kicking around the underground music scene in Salt Lake over the past two decades, Ether hardly needs any introduction. Even someone like me, who didn’t turn of age until after the new millennium, can remember hearing about this band in high school, seeing guys with Ether T-shirts and wondering what all the fuss was about. When I eventually did see Ether in 2001, they were opening for Fugazi, definitely a strange gig for them, and their thundering percussive maelstrom had the crowd divided, leaving those of us who like a good challenge breathless—and the kids who just came to hear “Waiting Room” angry and confused. Little did I know, this would be the last time for several more years that I would get to see Ether play. So, for those of you who’ve missed them, and those of you who never knew they existed, now is the time to get re-acquainted.

Ether was formed in 1994 at a time when the music scene in Salt Lake was dismal at best. “When you’d go out to bars, all you’d hear is funk-rock,” says founding member Eli Morrison. “I just wanted to say, ‘Hey, there’s already a Pearl Jam. Go home.’” As a response to this, a small and very tight-knit underground scene began to flourish with little regard to stylistic continuity. “There would be shows with a punk band, a goth band, and a metal band on the same bill,” Eli recalls, “and you dug it all because it was weird and different from the mainstream.” Ether began without a definite agenda or direction, but rather a sense of restlessness and boredom. But this too, proved ultimately tedious. Ryley Fogg remembers seeing bands like Tragic Mulatto and Hitting Birth, who placed a heavy emphasis on percussion, as well as Crash Worship and Semen, who focused on over-the-top live shows, as major inspirations for what Ether was to become. “We were inspired by bands that were creating an event rather than just standing on stage playing music,” he says.

Ether began adding drummers and abandoning vocals and 4/4 time in favor of less standard, more challenging structures. This is really one of the only constants among Ether’s full-length albums, which otherwise tend to diverge widely in style and mood. Another trademark is their unorthodox use of guitars as a way to process sounds, not just play chords. “All of the sounds you hear on our records are being made by or filtered through electric guitars,” says Eli. “We don’t use samples. It’s all played live.”

While music based on atmospheric noise and multiple drummers may conjure such images as kids fucking around randomly with delay pedals and hippies at a drum circle, Ether’s approach is wholly different. Rather than build songs out of jam sessions, each album is written collaboratively and carefully crafted as a whole work rather than a series of disconnected tunes. This sense of structure is what truly sets Ether apart. A cursory listen to Hush, which morphs seamlessly from soft murmur to Middle Eastern dub to noisy squalor and back again over the course of its hour length, or the more stylistically consistent and apocalyptic Music for Air Raids, will tell you that this is not the work of snot-nosed punks with effects pedals, but thoughtful, studied musicians.

However, Ether in the studio is one thing; Ether on stage is an altogether different beast. This being instrumental music, the band wants to give the audience something more to look at than just a bunch of musicians noodling on stage. In the late 90s, Ether became notorious for their exciting live shows, which typically included lots of dancing and projectile fire. These performances could be as dangerous as they were exhilarating: during one gig, a fire breather caused the gas inside of an intricate fluorescent light display to explode, eliciting a chain reaction and leaving the stunned crowd to pick glass out of their beers. Another gig saw the excited crowd demolishing a piata Ether offered them, only to find that it was full of stale donuts and raw chicken fat. Though these performances didn’t always win them friends at venues, they did create a devoted fan base dedicated to their unpredictability on stage and on record.

After the release of Music for Air Raids in 2000, Ether continued to play gigs and record sporadically for a couple years until they just sort of stopped. The way the band members explain, it wasn’t that they broke up or even decided to take a sabbatical; they just ended up getting sidetracked by life and other projects. Indeed, the core members of Ether are busy men: Ryley has Ether Orchestra (a jazz group with a loose aesthetic relation to Ether), James plays in Purr Bats, and Eli divides his time among The Wolfs, Vile Blue Shades, Pink Lightnin’, and “about 20 other bands,” according to Ryley. With all of these other obligations, Ether began to slowly fall by the wayside until now, six years later, it has finally been brought out of its accidental hibernation.

Though partially jumpstarted by the vinyl re-issue of Music for Air Raids on Rotofelief Records, the band shows ambivalence about the reasons for starting up the band now, making the decision seem nearly as arbitrary as the decision for taking a break. However, the band members identify certain aspects of the current state of the local music scene that seem to point to the time being ripe for re-starting Ether. The scene has changed a lot since1994; rather than choosing between funk-rock and whatever the alternative may be, we now have a wide variety of indie rock, punk, hip-hop, noise and countless other genre permutations to choose from. Nonetheless, Eli feels that the scene has become too fragmented: “It’s hard not to be nostalgic for the old days when everyone would go see bands just because they were different.” Ryley identifies another void for Ether to fill. “I feel like there are a lot of great musicians and music here but I often feel underwhelmed by the performances … I very rarely see agitators or provocateurs on stage. Utah to me has always felt like a place with a lot of self-hate or at least self-consciousness that prevents both the performers and the audience from thinking too big. When I go out and see bands, I see lots of people looking cool and playing cool music, but I rarely experience bands who are reaching for an ecstatic state and trying to bring the audience along with them.”

2008 will (hopefully) see the release of two new Ether records and more performances to be announced. While the band is reluctant to divulge any of their ideas for their new live shows, Eli mentioned a move from fire to electricity, as well as the potential introduction of Jell-O. How these elements will be used, I can only guess, but it’s assuredly going to be memorable. While the band may not be playing to the same tight-knit scene that nurtured it, I can only say that regardless of your aesthetic proclivities, whether you frequent the Urban Lounge or Uprok, Slowtrain or Red Light, you should do yourself a favor and mark your calendars whenever you see the word Ether on a marquee.

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