I never do this. I never care enough to do this. My observation of live performance can usually be summed up with a shrug. I’ve seen shows. I’ve seen “acts.” With the exception of bands like Devo, Gogol Bordello, or The Decemberists, most just get on stage and play. I was in such a band. Save the time we performed wearing inflatable penis costumes, we simply got up there, played our songs, had fun, and departed. This isn’t to say such bands aren't enjoyed by audiences – it is simply that my role as an audience member has been a timeline of indifference. I am a hard person to please when it comes to entertainment. Oh, and one more thing:
I don’t care for hardcore music.
It is with reasonable shock, then, that I found myself enjoying Extreme Turbo Smash. However, I will say that their music hardly entered into it, acting instead as an ironic counter-weight to the performance: they wear animal suits and hurt each other on stage. The singer falls a lot and feigns injury (or is he really hurt?). Between songs he speaks with the eunuch voice of a panda bear. He sometimes kicks off the next song by smashing an acoustic guitar on a band member before falling into the trademark “cookie monster” voice of the genre. (Note: the poor penguin and bunny took a great deal of beatings in the thirty minutes they were on stage). A friend of mine noted that they were “the Andy Kaufman of live music.” Which is a stretch, yes, but mostly accurate, because, what exactly are we looking at? Is this for real? Are they serious? The difference is that here I knew I was being entertained – Mr. Kaufman liked to keep that up in the air.
Watching the band lumber around in suits that must literally bake the players within them I began to take note of their musicianship. While I may not be an enthusiast of hardcore, I do understand the skill it takes to play it. Their riffs were fun and engaging while still maintaining the proper conceits: hard, loud, and unapologetic. And tight. Very tight. I marveled at the right hand of the polar bear, and the constitution of the reindeer(the drummer). Considering how encumbering the suits must be, their live show is a testament to their dedication as players, as well as performers, because it would be very easy to get up there and half-ass the music hoping their antics fill in the gaps.
From what I can tell of hardcore it is intended to be less “serious” than the sound of the music, or look of the fans, might indicate. Still, I never considered it to be much more than barbaric posturing. This is where the Extreme Turbo Smash live show comes in. Like magic, it serves to elevate the music to new understanding. It becomes at their hand a celebration of good-natured aggressiveness rather than anger. Something akin to, say, the frolic of baby animals – specifically bear cubs or lions. In this regard, Extreme Turbo Smash takes the genre and makes it more accessible to a guy like me. Up until that Saturday night I had seen a few hardcore shows (not many) but never walked away with much more than a buzz from the vodka I was drinking. Not so with ETS. They create a gap between themselves and other bands who may sound similar, and I left feeling delighted. An example of that difference came in a breakdown over a two-chord vamp:
They began swaying back and forth in a manner akin to a séance, which would have created a somber, serious mood, save that they were men in animal suits. Even the reindeer was involved. The panda, who was MIA, made a sudden beeline from somewhere behind the audience, tripped just before the stage, and hit his face on a railing. The music started up again. Still writhing on the ground, and without skipping a beat, the panda jammed the microphone through his mask and began singing. He took a few kicks from the polar bear. Eventually he got up and broke another guitar – this time over his own head. Moments later, he tripped the penguin. Then he punched the bunny. Neither faltered in their playing. When the song ended he squeakily thanked the audience.
I am reminded of this past Winter Olympics, watching a half-pipe snowboarding event – a competition which, after several combatants, became a traipsing of redundancy: each competitor did his thing, flipped in the air, and was given a score. Such is the nature of those events, and why I am never interested in watching. Then it was Shawn White's turn and it was suddenly a different thing to look at. Granted, what I know about snowboarding is on par with what I know of hardcore music, but this guy took it somewhere else. I became invested. And that's the point I'm making: sometimes the the thing we are looking at is given the means to transcend the standard form and stand out from the rest of the guys who are merely doing flips. In those moments we are given an appreciation for a look or sound we may have formerly misunderstood. Something we may have passed off as not worth our time is suddenly interesting. It only requires someone to take that thing and shine a new light on it. And it would seem that occasionally that someone is wearing an animal suit.