Sometimes, you have to see it to get it.
Prior to watching their opening set with MSI last weekend, I didn’t understand Death Spells. The new duo, consisting of Frank Iero (formerly of My Chemical Romance and Leathermouth) and James Dewees (Get Up Kids, Reggie and the Full Effect, Leathermouth) hasn’t actually released any EPs yet. The one song (and music video) I found on their website didn’t seem like anything I was interested it.
The noisy “Where are my Fucking Pills?” from their website is accompanied by a music video of spastic movie images, horror clips, and artistic filler nonsense that looks like a 1990s screen saver. The music has overwhelmingly distorted and garbled scremo lyrics, and sounded like a Bedlum of electronic feedback resulting from two men trying to one-up each other in a race to blow out speakers. Online, I totally didn’t get it.
In person, I totally got it. Read the full review here.
The Death Spells set was unlike any set I have seen in years- possibly in my life. Instead of instruments, the stage was set with two desks filled with pedals, buttons, levers, dials, and other assorted noisemaking nonsense. When Dewees and Iero took the stage, it was carrying laptops and binders instead of guitars. The stage was kept in near total darkness for the entire set, and a giant scrim was propped up behind the pair.
The music itself was played with the sort of intensity that’s almost like taking a punch to the gut. While music born primarily of computers and soundboards often feels cold and un-emotive, Death Spells attacked with unadulterated rage and intensity. At several points during the set, Iero and Dewees were singing while trashing with such conviction, the crowd was treated to the pair white-knuckle gripping the desks to stay standing. Iero (primarily) spat, screeched and screamed out the lyrics to all songs with the sort of emotional response that’s so intense, that it’s barely within the control of the singer making it. In harsh juxtaposition, the electronic equipment was babied to the point of reverence.
I have absolutely no idea what a single lyric to any song was, but I couldn’t care less if I tried. I’m pretty sure that’s the point- this was entirely about the unfiltered emotion and the act of creation (even when the end product isn’t conventionally pretty.) Just when I would be lulled into understanding by a melodic transition, the sounds would push back against me and force me as the viewer into re-evaluating what “art” could be.
The images on the screen were often uncomfortable; Japanese horror films were heavily utilized and they tend to be significantly more graphic and disturbing than their American counterparts. I was raised on a healthy diet of horror films, and even I found some of it a bit much. The gaggle of high schoolers stuck next to me actually turned their back to the screens for many of the songs. Many of the choices of clips boarded on misogynistic, although men were bloodied in the images as often as women. Teeth were ripped out on threads, hatchets were slammed into skulls, and I’m pretty sure there were a few images which might be classified as cannibalism. The same transitions of colors and twisting shapes were used in between clips and songs, creating a long and continuous barrage of imagery that was all together unsettling and still oddly hypnotic. The sensory overload was heightened by the total lack of banter from the performers- they didn’t even stop to announce their name. As the images of extreme disfigurement rolled on the screen in quick and jerky loops, I become less and less disturbed by the content, and more focused on the basket weave the visuals made with the noise. Then, a particularly uncomfortable image or two would roll across the screen, and the process would start again.
While the images combined with the music didn’t make sense at home on my laptop, it meshed perfectly as a live show. The brightness of the colors and pictures overwhelmed the otherwise unlit stage; the result were two performers in parkas silhouetted against the curtain, otherwise unrecognizable. Planned by two artists whose prior works have sold millions of records, the result was a bold choice and an obvious rebellion from any preconceived notions of what to expect.
Overall, I can’t remember another concert that was such a multi-sensory experience. By the way, MSI was amazing too- but you knew that already.
DeathSpells is on tour with MSI until April 19th. They will also be playing Surf and Skate Festival this summer. More info is available here.