A Tuesday night mostly resembling an ‘80s dance party took its final tonal detour when Reptar frontman Graham Ulicny had the Star Theater’s 60-person crowd jumping in unison, screaming: “No good person at the bar tonight / no good person in the heart of life.”
The refrain of the Athens, Georgia band’s “Ice Black Sand” is typical of its bravely indulgent art-rock album, Lurid Glow, out earlier this year on Joyful Noise. Its bounce is unmissable — that’s why all the gyrating — but so is the feeling of alienation. On the album, Ulicny’s carnal growls ascend from an expertly-played, but ragtag-sounding, orchestra of bizarro percussion and horn lines. Last night, like the ponytail stemming from the crown of Ulicny’s head, his voice simply reigned over everything.
You wouldn’t call any of the night’s bands — Reptar, Portland’s own Animal Eyes, Atlanta’s Breathers or Olympia’s Oh, Rose — retro, per se, but the chief decade of influence felt decipherable. To invoke the ‘80s could just be a euphemism for saying they all rely determinably on synths. But there was a bombast inherent to it all, as well, an art-forward grandeur you find in everything from Talking Heads to Toto to Eurythmics to The Human League. Plus, the Star Theater’s scarlet stage curtains gave the proceedings a darkened Vaudevillian feel.
To start the night, going from relative silence to Oh, Rose was stunning, chiefly due to frontwoman Olivia Rose’s apocalyptic voice. In most every stylistic context the band could muster — moody dance rock, tom-heavy tribal drumming, reverb-tinged garage rock — her larynx sounded like a harbinger of death: other-worldly and with a hint of Annie Lennox. Marrying instrumental fun with the menace in stand-out track “Flu,” Rose tilted around the stage like someone deliberating with each passing second to let go a bit more. And the quartet was at its most dangerous when her voice cracked from falsetto to a scream atop a current of near-metal on “Seven.”
Then, Reptar tourmates Breathers came off kookier, with singer/keyboardist T. Lee Gunselman strutting around, crooning and pointing selectively at the audience. There were shades of Future Islands’ Samuel Herring in the motions, but without the wax on his soles and with a mischievous look to all the mugging. The dayglo synth overtones, plus Gunselman and keyboardist Jake Thomson harmonizing — at its hookiest on “New Life” — repeatedly broke into electronic cacophony, a hurricane of bass synth, pitch-bending and drum machine.
Walking in cold, before the music, you would have said there was a Mardi Gras vibe in the crowd, like someone tipped over a costume box and went for glam rock. But that mostly turned to be just the five members of Animal Eyes before their set. The local quintet was an exhibition of fur, glitter and sequin on cloth and skin alike. With heavy pop written around the night’s most minimal riffs, keyboardist Sam Tenhoff cemented the set’s most memorable songs with a booming, theatrical voice. For local followers, they also publicly anticipated a new album coming in January.
More than just ordinary compliments for a touring headliner, all last night’s openers seemed to gesture at Reptar as, if not an influence, an important band. Animal Eyes called it an honor to share the billing. And that makes sense. On a purely sonic level, Reptar’s freaked out sophistication is the high watermark for this sort of highly composed, poly-genre rock.
With a whole country between the band and its homebase, its frenetic energy ruled the evening, even if the complex looks of the album fell away some with only two official members on stage, Ulicy and bassist Ryan Engelberger. (Reptar has been known to perform as many as seven musicians deep.) But the three players of Breathers, most especially Gunselman, who took on Reptar’s demanding lead synth parts, filled in admirably.
As if trying to crank up the visceral, the performance saw Ulicny even hacking away at some of the beauty of the recorded songs, opening with the dainty, gorgeous “Amanda” and cutting his way through it with tinny guitar swats and early onset yelping. “Cable” arrived with similar abandon. A song that peaks after an ornate bridge, felt like it was maxing out the entire way.
You felt the intentional lack of inhibition most when Ulicny left the stage for nearly half the set to dance in the crowd, seemingly available to the small throng that gathered to see him, but very alone too, turning his back to them, screaming his lyrics half out of vigor, half out of sheer inertia.
Words and photos by Chance Solem-Pfeifer