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Health and Entrance Band: Reaffirming the idea of the rock band

October 5, 2009 |  7:00 am

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It’s a golden age for “projects” in pop music. Stars are frequently ciphers for the skills of equally famous producers. Rappers as singular as Jay-Z turn over huge swaths of albums to guests. Mainstream rock acts can be just as singles-devoted as their pop and R&B counterparts.

A pop nation of unattached free agents yields tons of unexpected pleasures. But two young and rising bands in Los Angeles, Health and Entrance Band, are reaffirming the more old-fashioned virtues of being in a band in new ways. “Band”-ness is a different thing from being a guitar-drums-bass rock combo. It’s about being a cohesive unit where each member is distinct and irreplaceable, and where the interplay between them adds up to something singular and new. Entrance uses the pyrotechnic instrumental virtuosity of its three members to aspire to a stoned, Hendrix-sized wallop, while Health explodes practically every trope of punk, noise and electronica and puts the pieces together in almost gallingly ambitious ways. They don’t have much in common, except that each act evokes a bit of that old saying about the Velvet Underground -- that everyone who heard them went and started their own band.

For almost two-thirds of his life, Guy Blakeslee, the frontman of the power trio Entrance Band, has played guitar. Eighteen years of practice would hopefully yield a few good ideas, but a pass through Entrance’s new self-titled album (and first as an official band) of crackling psilocybin-rock proves Blakeslee’s main gift as a player and a writer is how seamlessly he weaves labyrinthine jams and unapologetic riffage into memorable, hook-centric songs.

“I don’t think any of us are technical by nature, but it’s just like being fluent in a language,” Blakeslee said. “The fluency allows us to reach farther with such a small setup.”

The name “Entrance” has long been a vessel for Blakeslee’s psych-addled bluesy solo work. But after cementing a lineup with bassist Paz Lenchantin and drummer Derek James for Entrance, the band became a slinky, watertight trio that fans of sylvan freak-folk and their Cream-devoted dads could get behind. Backward-looking references come easily, especially given Blakeslee’s abject earnestness in writing songs about things like the civil rights’ movement (“MLK”) and shirtless sex jams (“You’re So Fine”). But the sheer skill of the band and their polyglot influences keep Entrance contemporary.

“I listen to a lot of Tinariwen, the Tuareg blues band,” Blakelee said. “They have these ancient musical traditions that go back well before rock music, but they play them on electric guitars and sing about what’s happening in their community today. The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, all these things impacted them too. All our references are like that, really subliminal. We’re mostly inspired by each other’s playing.”

It’s not vain when Blakeslee says that -- it’s more of a sign that he’s found the perfect foils to his playing that make everyone in the band try harder. Blakeslee’s guitar and Lenchantin’s bass licks often wind around each other in tight coils, while James’ drums function less as a beat than as another set of tones for the trio to work with. It’s a giant sound from very few people. But when the musical personalities of its players are so powerful and attuned to their talents, you don’t need much more.

“If there was a goal for this record,” Blakeslee said. “It was to be ourselves as much as possible.”

Health, by contrast, is seemingly on a mission to destroy any and all possible reference points both for their sound and the way they behave as a band. On the devastating new album “Get Color,” the synthetic squall of Suicide’s Martin Rev gets pummeled by thrash-metal drumming and serrated bass, beneath the ephemeral, androgynous vocals of singer-guitarist Jake Duzsik. Each song has about 50 moving parts that toe the edges of melody and rhythm while never quite falling to pieces. It’s an exhausting record but one that near-constantly affirms that there is still ground left to break in modern music.

“It was very hard in the beginning to figure out how this band worked,” said bassist John Famiglietti. “But we’re a modern band, we’re ready to bring out the big guns of ridiculousness.”

For Health, this means creating an entire universe of Health-ness that only begins with their records (which also includes a self-titled debut and a marvelous techno-centric remix album). The band designs all its own merchandise and is looking to expand into men’s high fashion. A contest for the September release of “Get Color” included prizes such as a trip to kick it with the band at Six Flags Magic Mountain, a copy of Famiglietti’s student film project, and a lock of drummer B.J. Miller’s considerable hair. They’re very seriously considering producing a project called “Health Visions,” an online variety series that will include, as Famiglietti put it,  “short films starring us, documentaries, comedy sketches, erotica.”

Maybe the last was in jest. But it might not be. A live Health set is a reaffirmation of how a band’s physicality on stage is the dividing line between competently playing songs and making a show out of them. At a recent Troubadour set, songs only ceased for dramatic effect as the band dropped jaws while flaying about the stage at banks of pedals, electronic triggers and enough sound processing equipment to put a satellite in space. Their turn opening the last Nine Inch Nails tour obviously helped -- the band’s antagonistic sound needs a visual spectacle to go over in an arena, and having to win over thousands every night made them an untouchable live act. Sometimes, though, the task was a daunting one.

“In the deep South, we’d get called [gay slurs] on stage, rednecks would tell us we bled pink,” said guitarist Jupiter Keyes. “In Jacksonville [Fla.], I thought someone was going to hit me with a Skilsaw.”

It might not go over every time, but Health is doing something no other band is even really trying these days -- detonating every rule about songwriting and musicality while underscoring how the framework of a band is completely, utterly still valid.

“We really try to open ourselves up to the audience,” said Miller. “I mean, if you win the contest you can go around wearing my Little League jacket. It’s really personal to me; there’s a reason I kept it this long.”

-- August Brown

Health photo, left, by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times; Entrance photo by Sasha Eisenman

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