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Double the Awesome

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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RESPONSES (16)
  1. Anonymous says:

    The walrus is not going to like you dissing his boyz…though his opinion tends to be rather dynamic…though you never can tell…they may now not be the new black

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  2. Lizzy says:

    I dig THOTS a lot but this is a well considered review and its great to see a different perspective. I do think that their music is more to be felt than thought, and it needs to be acknowleged that they do a mean acoustic set 🙂

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Thots is definately not a band you simply rage to- agreed that once you see there acoustic set it will bring tears to your eyes, and more and more you’ll realise they are not just making music but creating art.

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  4. Righard says:

    Hi, thanks for the comments – i hope it doesn’t come across as if i’m simply dissing THOTS, in fact i take great pains to emphasize that parts of their set totally hit the spot for me. I haven’t seen them play acoustically , and since an acoustic set would by definition exclude the bits i didnt like, i’ll be the first in line when the opportunity arises.

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  5. Ross says:

    Nicely written Righard, it’s great not to have to go to the Zula Bar!

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  6. Chrisco says:

    Righard I’m with you man…

    Never seen these guys – perhaps they’re fantastic. I wish them luck. It’s such a common thing though with South African bands to always be close to a decade behind the curve. There are guys I used to work with who continuously plug away at their Nu-Metal(ish) sound, and they’re clearly accomplished, well known and experienced musicians, but all I want to do is plead with them to stop wasting their time and bloody-well do something NEW. It’s such a freaking waste when dedicated South African bands seem to only be listening to / be influenced by American bands who were big on tv 8 years ago. Could so many local alternative bands update their musical heroes please?

    You know, I guess they’re happy, they’ve got a few hundred regular groupies who will always make it to the gigs, they’re good enough that they’ll always play the festivals and yes, always have 20 dreadlocked guys moshing it up at the barrier… .but oh for more bands willing to be on the leading edge, rather than just the ‘rough-and-angry’ edge… they’re not always the same thing.

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  7. junk says:

    Sub (is that even a word?)
    Wow really bad writing!

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  8. Righard says:

    @junk: really? wow, here’s me thinking that it is some fairly decent writing at the very least, but i’ll take your word for it based on your cryptic example of unmitigated shitness.

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  9. junk says:

    (Shakes head) Fuck you’re an idiot. Big words don’t make a person smart, or even a good writer. ‘Shit-detected!’ Hemmingway would have said.

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  10. Roger Young says:

    Hemmingway is over rated.

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  11. Tryn says:

    Your review was great! I really enjoyed it, your opinion was honest without being offensive and I found myself agreeing with almost all of what you said…
    Being related to one of the musicians makes me a little bias generally, but I think what you had to say held a lot of weight.
    Their show at Zula wasn’t really on top form, and I hate to blame the sound, but I think that played a huge role in what, to me, was a little disappointing. Their set seemed to consist of all of their “heavier/angry/shouting” stuff and very little of their softer, more “radio friendly” tracks.

    I think their album is definitely a better example of their range and versatility than their set at Zula was. I hope that their next visit to Cape Town allows them to play in a venue with better sound.

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  12. raheem says:

    i like.lets all just keep listening.i always say that u are as good as your last performance so we keep climbing as an original unit representing the now avante garde in hope of giving birth to the future newish.creating something new will take alot of time, dedication and experimentation.and i know that we amped for that.lets travel.one ,and thanks for the honesty.

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  13. sarah f says:

    True that about the sound. We have filmed at Zula before and plugged into their PA to record it… and it was so unbalanced we couldn’t even use the footage. They should totally have gigged at ROAR.

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  14. Tommy Erstwhile says:

    @junk

    What the hell are you talking about? This review was great! What don’t you like about it?

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  15. alicia cheese says:

    junk is still trying to work out what all those “big words” mean.

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  16. Tryn says:

    Junk is retarded

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