Review: The Knocks and ASTR at D.C.’s 9:30 Club

The Knocks, photo courtesy of The Knocks.
The Knocks, photo courtesy of The Knocks.

WASHINGTON, September 10, 2014 − Crafting the atmosphere of a show consistently is a difficult thing for any touring band to do. It’s an art and a formula a band must be able to replicate night and night out, making the audience feel that what the band is creating is authentic and organic yet as tight as possible down to the tiniest detail.

This is the challenge bands like the Knocks and ASTR faces during their recent appearance at the 9:30 Club. They had meet audience expectations with regard to their sound, while making them forget they even had those expectations, all at the same time.

Both these bands fall into the genre of electro-pop, which is fast becoming one of the most contemporary and hyper-evolving musical genres today. The reasons behind this seem to be enmeshed in today’s communications milieu, which causing many groups to adjust to and often follow the whims and fancies of social media.

They’re not intentionally “trying to stay relevant.” But they’re also not exactly following ground rules laid out by any previous genre.

This is reflected in both bands’ stage performance as well. Both sets here were about as stripped down as a live set can possibly while still trying to hold on the sense that something larger is unfolding before an audience.

Each group’s set hurls large and relatively huge beats towards a crowd ready and willing to dance. Yet each still conformed to the confines of an unwritten crowd/band contract in a way lays out audience expectations for a given live show.

After taking in these performances, it seemed as if these bands would probably feel more comfortable with a greater level of anonymity, as if they were DJs spinning at a club. Even in that conjectural situation, they would still be as original as they are performing live. But then the audience might not care, because the attention would be on their own enjoyment rather than having the spotlight squarely focusing on the Knocks or ASTR.

Of the two groups performing under the Neon Gold headline at the 9:30 Club, ASTR most resembled a traditional band, at least in terms of a performance setting. In that sense they looked and felt like a pop singer delivering the vocal goods to an eclectic rhythm of beats, filling the venue with sounds and trying to convert the proceeding into as much of club atmosphere as possible.

The band essentially consists of Zoe Silverman, whose consistent low-hum vocals, never quite rise but remain at a hypnotic constant; and Adam Pallin who busies himself laying down sounds from the past and taking them over the top.

There is a vintage feel to ASTR’s sound. Their entire set feels like something straight out of an ‘80s B-movie or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film “Drive.” A lot of it escapes being engulfed by that sensation for no other reason than we’re viewing it through a contemporary prism.

Nothing Silverman and Pallin do during their set is particularly new or unique. Yet the sound they’re appropriating is relatively far removed from its original source material, and it’s contorted by relatively new pop ideals that it turns into something completely different. That’s how a duo like ASTR can still feel fresh and vital while drawing material from the past.

Of course the Knocks, headlining this show for Neon Gold, take the notion of modernization even further. They fit into the electro-pop genre much like ASTR, but come at it from an entirely different angle.

The duo of Ben “DJ B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Patterson started off as producers, and in that role they quickly rose to a certain level of fame within the club scene. In truth, they never stopped approaching music from that perspective.

They gathered a following that was attracted first and foremost by their remixes. Make no mistake: there is a large market for this approach and because of that they treat their entire show more like a DJ set than anything. True, their material is original. But everything in their set feels vaguely reminiscent of something else. It’s never direct or obvious. Yet the sensation lodges right there in the back of your head, tugging at some vague memory you still possess.

What you really perceive in your head is the melding of a live concert with the intimate, bordering on claustrophobic, sensation of being in a dance club. Both artists perform each one of their delicately crafted singles to embody an ample amount of pop but nothing that’s overpowering or jarring.

It’s all effective enough for people to take notice, but never quite enough to cause them to stop moving, something that would defeat their purpose entirely. The spotlight is on them but it never quite feels like it should be. In a sense, they operate better as figureheads for the music rather than as the front men.

Both ASTR and the Knocks are examples of the how the pop music scene is changing. Each represents how a small group can form a band, take in underground and club principles while applying DJ aesthetics, and then bring the whole package to a more mainstream audience via both conventional and unconventional means.

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