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Carnival Of Weird: A Guide To Boston’s Art Rock Scene

June 13, 2011 3:00 AM

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Holiday Mountain

(credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal)

By Rachel Leah Blumenthal

Glitter. Stilts. A giant weather balloon. Venetian masks, bunny ears and ghosts. All of these made appearances at a recent show at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge. It was a night featuring some of Boston’s most excitingly bizarre bands: Holiday Mountain, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (releasing their second EP, Questions Are a Burden to Others), Mighty Tiny (releasing their first full-length album, White Dog Rough Again), and Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys.

sickertarmy Carnival Of Weird: A Guide To Boston’s Art Rock Scene

Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys (credit: Justin Moore/via band's Facebook page)

These four bands are among a growing sub-genre of rock where music is a dark and whimsical performance art, often incorporating elements of the circus, vaudeville, steampunk, and burlesque. From themed costumes and props to instrumentation well beyond the standard guitar-bass-drums, these bands are leading a carnival march against the mainstream, one accordion at a time.

And they’re not the only ones. Other bands making headway in this off-the-beaten-path form of rock include Jaggery, What Time Is It Mr. Fox?, Cirkestra, and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. All of these acts put on shows oozing with creativity, strangeness, and an energy more intense than any stadium rock show I’ve seen.

While these bands tend to gain strong cult followings within their niche, it seems like outsiders are scared to come in. I firmly believe that those who express doubts about the Boston music scene aren’t pushing themselves hard enough as audience members and explorers. Go forth, Bostonians, and seek out the weird! We need more bands like these. Let’s make it happen.

Holiday Mountain

(credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal)

Holiday Mountain

Holiday Mountain performs folk-tinged reggae; but it’s the onstage antics that bring them into this art rock genre. At the Middle East show, for example, they were accompanied by Anthony, a performance artist whose cross-dressing resulted in some FCC fine-worthy exposure. Singer/songwriter/pianist Laura Patino, donning an elaborate feathered headdress, soared through her lyrics and wordless syllables, adding texture to her melodies with unusual vocal effects.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

(credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal)

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

The band’s name — and everything else, from the costumes to the songs — is a reference to The Prisoner, a 60s British spy show that amassed a cult following. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein’s television-inspired project may seem to reside in a limited niche, but they recently proved themselves to a mainstream audience by advancing to the semi-finals of the 2011 Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, a Boston institution. They’re just a duo, but DNFMOMD’s sound is earth shattering. Sophia scream-sings gutturally while murdering the drum-set, throwing in flashes of drumstick choreography and camera-ready facial expressions, and Michael strums the bass so hard it’s a miracle the neck doesn’t snap. (At a recent show, however, he did manage to break two strings during one song. Hardcore.)

Mighty Tiny

(credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal)

Mighty Tiny

Mighty Tiny begin their performances theatrically with audience plants starting up the eerie chant of “Hey, Mambosso,” one of their songs, as the band slowly comes to the stage, each wearing a unique mask. While masks are often a means to build a wall between the wearer and the viewer, Mighty Tiny’s marionette-like body language and facial expressions (the bits you can see peeking around the masks) draw the audience closer into the depths of their dark carnival. Somewhere between Southern rock and the circus, Mighty Tiny puts on a creepy, intense show.

Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys

(credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal)

Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys

This carnival-folk group also advanced to the ‘11 Rumble semi-finals, reinforcing the idea that Boston is ready for a little bit of craziness. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the musical genius in the Army of Toys’ complex arrangements: there’s just too much eye candy. From burlesque performers and a man on stilts in the audience to glitter and balloons being thrown from stage, distractions are all around. The music, though, is dark and lovely and loud – well worth tearing your eyes away from the elaborate (and often revealing) costumes to focus your ears for a bit.

Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.
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