Do you remember being in high school? Do you remember that impressionable stage in life when great shows weren’t just great shows, they were “OMG! That was the best show of my life!” or when great albums were life-changing works of impossible art? This was certainly the case for me when I was 16 and saw The Appleseed Cast for the first time at the Bluebird in Denver, CO. By the band’s own admission that wasn’t the best show of their career—the levels were horrible, the crowd talked over the set and as a minor I was shoved to the upper balcony where I needed binoculars to see the band. But still, the simple pleasure of being at a show with my friends, seeing my favorite band play my favorite songs live made me totally oblivious to factors that today probably would have made me pissed off and sullen during the whole experience.
Good thing youth isn’t totally wasted on the young. Fast forward almost 10 years and I am seeing The Appleseed Cast again, this time in a new city, at an all ages venue, with my younger brother who grew up listening to the band. 2010 finds The Appleseed Cast looking back with an appropriate sense of nostalgia after forming over 10 years ago. In the undisputed height of their career they released the sprawling Low Level Owl doube album that somehow formed a bridge between the cathartic expressionism of late-90s emo and the textured ambience of post-rock. Spanning 26 songs, Low Level Owl was a fully formed musical statement that wove hypnotic guitar work, impassioned vocals and swirling ambient segues around Josh Baruth’s layered drum work. This album was an unprecedented triumph for the band and a high watermark for any type of music stuck with the “emo” or “post-rock” tag at the beginning of this century.
At the end of a tumultuous decade following the release (they have seen two record labels fold underneath them) the duo of original members Christopher Crisci and Aaron Pillar have recently signed with Graveface Records and are playing the entire Low Level Owl album in its entirety on their current tour.
Chicago shoegaze/post-rock band Dreamend, fronted by Graveface Records founder/Black Moth Super Rainbow guitarist Ryan Graveface, opened the show. After having their 2005 release Maybe We’re Making God Sad and Lonely on repeat for the past few weeks, I was ready to see how these somber, albeit triumphant, passages would play out live. Utilizing a tête-à-tête drums/keyboard set up which allowed bassist Mike Mularz to roam freely between the keys on their swirling shoegaze anthems and providing the back bone on their crescendo heavy post-rock tracks. Graveface’s voice, which was used sparingly, hearkens back to early 90’s Doug Martsch nasally croon. And with that the nostalgia-fest began.
Over 10 years in the game lends itself to an astounding level of proficiency. Shortly after Dreamend finished their set Appleseed Cast began setting up. Sharing two members of Dreamend (Mularz on keyboard and John Molmberg on drums) cut the awkward take down/set up time in half. This short hand off was absolutely essential for what Appleseed Cast was about to perform: a two-hour, note-for-note, live rendition of their landmark album. This album was the definitive musical statement of mine, and probably most of the 20 somethings at the venue’s, teen years. Low Level Owl showed me that the unbridled emotion I was attracted to in bands like Braid and Mineral could be repackaged into something equally as cathartic but much more ambitious in scope. It introduced many of us to the incredible power of instrumental music as a means of conveying palpable emotions without the vocal histrionics associated with the genre. This sentiment was certainly shared amongst the packed Kilby Court as the first drum blasts of “On Reflection” reverberated around the small venue. The fists of every kid who lay in his bed memorizing Baruth’s bass drum kick and echoing tom hits were in the air pounding along to Molmberg’s spot on re-creation.
Crisci and Pillar attacked each song like it was their swan song. After the gorgeous return-to-form instrumental heavy album Sagarmatha last year and an album in the works for Graveface, there is no indication that this tour would be a kiss-off. The sincerity and tenacity that the duo went after these decade old songs showed the recognition that they had created something truly special and an attempt to recapture whatever it was that inspired these albums. Or it could be a huge thank you to fans like me who internalized every song off their first four albums. Crisci had a spiral notebook with lyrics written down for reference, after knocking it down early during the exultant “Steps and Numbers” and never bothering to pick it up, it was clear that these songs were as much a part of him as they were of us.
After a short intermission The Appleseed Cast returned for Volume Two. The prospect of hearing “Rooms and Gardens” in the context of the full album alleviated any desire to move from my position or even think about complaining about sore feet, my general disdain for crowds, or anything else that usually occupies my mind without direct auditory and visual stimulation at shows. Volume Two, which expands on the soundscape based segues of Vol. One was delivered with the same intensity that the structured songs of the first album inherently possess. Perhaps knowing that this is the last time they would play “The Argument” in a live setting, in the context of the album, in Salt Lake City fueled their all out aural assault and sell-all crescendos.
The show ended in typical Appleseed Cast fashion, amongst a squalor of feedback that remained looped for a few minutes before the band came back for an encore of new material. As the show let out I found myself in a similar situation I was in 9 years ago. Walking back to my car being filled with that ecstatic giddiness that real life tends to polish off, talking to my friends about how that was the best show of my life. Only this time they live hundreds of miles away.