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Double the Awesome

by Righard Kapp, images by Kevin Goss-Ross / 08.07.2010

Ah, rap-metal, that old chestnut. It hasn’t been as long as most people would like to believe since Limp Bizkit would clamber onstage from out of a giant toilet bowl and Linkin Park were soundtracking difficult suburban adolescences. And while I wouldn’t dare insult Tree Houses on the Sea (THOTS) by comparing them to those nadirs of the nineties (or was it noughties, I forget), I mention these names as a dire warning of how easily sonic signifiers of brute force can be appropriated for the purposes of the idiotic and the overwrought.

Ever since someone, somewhere, remarked between bong hits that if metal is awesome, and hip-hop is awesome, surely to combine the two would create something even more awesome, the combination of downtuned guitar chug, scratching and belligerent rap has become a sort of shorthand for masculine defiance, for sticking it to The Man and railing against, y’know, conformity. It’s a sound that’s so devoid of ambivalence and humour, so driven by the need to appear hard as nails, that it becomes rigidly prescriptive.

I want to like Tree Houses on the Sea: for one thing, I like their name, it reminds me of a poster for the Decemberists in which several cottages inexplicably dangle precariously off a cliff-face above the ocean. Also, from a nomenclaturial (is that even a word?) perspective it would make them a cousin to the acoustic duo Cabins in the Forest; if anyone would start a band called Chalets in the Cederberg, the triumvirate of dwelling-by-natural-location bands would be complete. I’d also wager that, considering how cold it is in the Cederberg, if you were to skulk up to said chalet and peer inside, you would see a Fire Through the Window.

They’re also a diverse looking bunch, which bodes well for the prospect of an eclectic experience. The two white guys look like they are a bit partial to what the young folk these days call heavy metal music. They have a ridiculously cool-looking bassist who dresses as if he belongs in Konono No.1; two wonderfully nerdy guys (I mean this in the most complimentary sense possible) on the decks and keyboard, and an imposing hulk of a frontman.

And for a while, they deliver on that prospect: a strange mutant strain of R&B with chorused guitar and vocals mangled by effects, songs bleeding into each other by way of abstruse segues in which you can’t be sure who’s doing what. The guitar player spends more time wobbling his whammy bar than actually playing strings, which I like, and the keyboardist at one point hams things up with an almost operatic interlude, while the drummer for once frees himself from the quantized machine rhythm of the hip hop beat to provide a more textural impulse behind the music.

However, the further they progress into their set, the more monochromatic and tailored for synchronized pogo-ing it becomes. I’d say from about one-third onwards it just becomes an undifferentiated stomp which is made even harder to discern through Zula’s not quite up to scratch in-house PA. Then again, maybe this is not so much music to be listened to as to simply rage to. Funnily enough, the one moment in this second two-thirds that I find undeniably exhilarating is when the guy on the decks steps up for his cameo on the mic. And I suspect it’s precisely because he cuts such an unassuming figure otherwise, that I find this unlikely insurrectionist so compelling.

Having said all that, I realise that there will always need to be a sonic equivalent of unbridled machismo (I suppose so, at least), and that the boom-wikiwiki-boom sound will always go down a treat in a crowded room full of dreadlocked punters. It’s just a sound that, to me, feels dated, and doesn’t give its practitioners much room to maneuver as far as light and shade is concerned. Maybe it’s just a matter of this being their genre and me not liking or understanding it enough to engage with it properly, but it’s when they dig deeper and take more liberties with their influences that they produce something that I find truly exciting. They do definitely have a good thing and are clearly not afraid to take chances with it. I know that it’s not fair for me to want them to be what I want them to be; they paid all their dues to make it. That’s why they’re easy.

All images © Kevin Goss-Ross.

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