WMSE’s Radio Summer Camp: Group Of The Altos, A Lull, All Tiny Creatures
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What kind of radio station is WMSE? Sure, the cop-out answer is “college,” but that doesn’t quite describe how the station operates or the type of music it plays. There’s no genre the mighty 91.7 FM won’t touch, so it makes sense that the station’s original festival brings representatives from across the musical spectrum to play a multitude of clubs throughout the city. As such, there was no single show during the five-night event that could encapsulate Radio Summer Camp by itself, but Friday night at Club Garibaldi was a damn good microcosm of what makes WMSE and Milwaukee’s music scene so great.
The night got started with one of the city’s most enigmatic bands, Group Of The Altos. The dozen-member collective has been in a constant process of evolution since its inception, and Friday’s set was almost unrecognizable from the one the Altos played at Locust Street Festival just last month. With a full complement of trumpeters (three, to be precise), songs that may have once floundered a bit were bursting with new life. The focus with which the group members played was a feat in itself, especially considering the many disparate musicians and the occasionally nebulous nature of their music, which eschews the typical post-rock slow burn for more distinct dynamic movements. The effect is often haunting—sometimes with doom-y metallic overtones, sometimes reminiscent of the orchestral leanings of Sufjan Stevens, and sometimes like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack piece. The music never seemed too busy for all of the instruments, and the group’s relatively newfound focus on singing was a revelation. The set was a powerful and cohesive statement from a band that seems to have finally found its definitive sound.
Chicago’s A Lull played the middle slot after a borderline-ridiculous setup and soundcheck stretch—but if that’s what it takes to get this band’s sound perfect, it’s worth the wait. Fans of the group’s recent full-length, Confetti, might have expected a set based largely on electronic-gizmo sounds, but it was actually a more traditional rock-ish show, although not exactly acoustic. Having two percussionists onstage often screams “gimmick,” but in A Lull’s case, every beat has meaning, and an overpowering barrage of tribal rhythms blended with futuristic synth and guitar sounds, somewhat reminiscent of New York kitchen-sink pummeler Skeleton Key, emerged from the stage. Far from inaccessible, the pulsing swells of sound were punctuated occasionally by irresistible pop hooks, particularly set-closer “Weapons For War.” Lead vocalist Nigel Dennis was magnetic onstage. He came off as a bit tortured at times, but was nothing if not passionate about the sounds he and his band were making. An eclectic group like this could get lost in today’s swarm of anything-goes indie rock, but the ability to pull it off live—not duplicating the album, but instead transforming the songs into something even more effective—ought to secure A Lull’s reputation.
It felt like All Tiny Creatures might have been short-changed, as the band had to cram in a quick set before bar time, but the Madison-based band definitely made the most of it. As interesting and varied as ATC’s music is, it felt oddly conventional following a couple of potentially groundbreaking acts, which made the set just a bit less effective than it otherwise could have been. The band’s music draws favorable comparisons to The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl era, but although drummer Ben Derickson was the driving force for the faster, more rock-based numbers, there were times when his brazen enthusiasm seemed at odds with the rest of the group’s more minimalist approach. Nevertheless, the band played a solid set, and one that was especially effective on the more upbeat jams. It was a pleasant comedown that sent everybody home happy.