Savage Aural Hotbed

Article from CAKE Magazine (Fall Issue, 1994) - by Mick Dyer

Industrial Taiko: Savage Aural Hotbed

It's a clear, cold February night. There's a full moon. There's a weird energy - like too much sleep, too little coffee and lots of overtime - and it seems like the city's going to pop wide open. It's just waiting for an excuse. You can tell.

It's time for occupational music, theatrics and performance art. It's time for Savage Aural Hotbed; a band that plays percussion instruments in fascinating and unusual ways with gusto and bravado, a band that plays audiences like a good lover - making them feel wiped out and totally alive.

On a diminuitive stage in a small downtown club, four men carefully arrange drums and large industrial-strength metal and plastic barrels. There is barely room to move around, but they pour over the equiptment like insects meticulously devouring a fallen carcass. The tone is serious and there are few smiles. One palms a hand-held circular saw and studies it grimly. One turns on a fog machine and they all slowly meander off-stage. The lights go out. It's quiet. The tension mounts.

Suddenly four beams of light cut through the thin fog that has filled the room. The four men - now dressed in uniforms of cloth, tattered foil and wide belts studded by tiny red lights - push their way through the crowd to the stage, shining law enforcement-style flashlights on audience members and all around the room.

They climb the stage and begin pounding their drums and howling like high-school drum-corps nerds with a snoot full of crank locked in the industrial arts department. The beat becomes bacchic, the rhythms tribal. Soon even the most casual listener is compelled to bob and weave in exhiliration. After a while it smells like cool CO2, and musky sweat. It's primal. It's modern. It's intellectual. It's physical. It's controlled and frantic...a study in dichotomies. And it might just be the most beat for your buck anywhere.

Savage Aural Hotbed has many striking attributes that set it apart from other bands in Minneapolis. There are the obvious things: all the percussion orientation, the dramatic stage performances, the provocative songwriting, the hypnotic rhythms. But one of the things that really makes this band stand out is the broad audience it attracts.

Something about SAH appeals to a wide variety of people and crosses the spectrum of musical interests and tastes. And you'll see them all - midnight rockers and new-age hippies, academics and neo-punks, post-moderns and the Red Wing boot crowd - all gathered together when SAH plays. Perhaps the attribute that draws such a diverse audience isn't that mysterious at all.

"The adavntage to the music is that it's uncatagorizable," drummer Stuart DeVaan explains. "When audiences come see us they can't define what it's supposed to be, so there's less bias."

"People who like classical music even listen to us," drummer William Melton adds. The music SAH plays is polyphonic and polyrhythmic. As percussionists, the band especially likes experimenting with meter. They often change meters within a piece and individual players playing in different meters at the same time is not uncommon. "We want to challenge ourselves as well as our listeners," drummer Mark Black says.

There are many opinions on the nature of the force that compels SAH to challenge the way music is written and performed. According to some band members, it's as simple as the desire to explore all the possibilities of rhythm or the point that all band members are free-thinkers who like to experiment.

"We're interested in sound color - we beat on metal drums because it sounds good," Black summarizes. "We also do the gimmicky stuff because it's fun."

He's right. The gimmicky stuff is fun. Take the propane-a-phone, an instrument Black invented that consists of a piece of copper tube fitted over the end of a burning propane torch. It makes a harmonic, whistling sound, with several tones stacked on top of each other. "I discovered it while playing with fire in my dad's garage," Black says impishly. Black currently works in a metal shop.

But even the best gimmick isn't incorporated into a performance unless it serves a purpose in the piece. So in some respects, SAH is truer to the bauhaus design philosophy of "form follows function" than many other bands who explore the sounds of industry musically.

"We take the same approach to the tools as we do to the drums," drummer David Sarrazin says. "We don't want to just make noise. If we use a power tool, we want to play it." Play a power tool? The way SAH plays a circular saw is by rhythmically grinding it and striking it on a steel barrel. The band usually wears out a steel barrel every six months or so. At one show at the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre the band lit propane-a-phones around the stage, then used circular saws to cut copper pipes (the cascade of sparks was like fireworks) which band members then played.

Industrial music is probably the first musical style that comes to mind when you think of SAH. But there are several other less obvious influences that contribute to the overall SAH sound.

Take Taiko for example. Taiko is a traditional Japanese musical form that shares many qualities with martial arts. It is as much a discipline as an art. It is extremely physical, yet has a deeply spiritual element. It is characterized by bold, dramatic beats often played on very large drums. At times it's boisterous and aggressive, at other times quiet and more subtle. It is always deeply moving to both the performer and attentive audience. The Kodo drummers, as seens on PBS or at the Guthrie Theatre, is a good example of Taiko drumming.

"Taiko is probably our biggest influence, musically and visually," Black specualtes. "It's visially and rhythmically attractive, it's so compelling." "The discipline and athletic element [of Taiko] appeals to me," Sarrazin says. Taiko requires arm strength and endurance, making it a natural extension of the quality which band members agree both unites SAH and sets it apart from other industrial bands. Precision drumming. When you get down underneath it all, that's what SAH is really all about.

Precision is expressed as composed music played with a structured approach. Although they may look as if the band is just jamming away freeform - writing the song as it goes - it's just that they are good performers and songwriters. Everything is planned, everything is ordered. To SAH composition is more important than improvisation, although they sometimes improvise within a strict set of rules

One technique that provides the band with a god set of rules to work with, and indirectly contributes to the repetitive industrial sound, it the "math as art" concept (something atonal composers first explored around the turn of the century). Band members apply this technique by taking esoteric numerical concepts and assigning them musical values such as meter or accent. "There are songs we've had to print out on graph paper to see how they work," Black comments

SAH has had some success with this compositional method, but not always. Take for example, the song based on prime numbers. They spent a long time learning to play it physically, only to decide that it was boring and abandon it once it was mastered.

Another unusual thing about the music SAH composes is the sparse use of vocals. Lyrically, the band limits itself to monosyllabic barks and growls that punctuate the music the way an abstract impressonist painting relies on color and brush strokes to highlight its mood. Artistic reasons aside, there's another reason for stark vocals; some songs are just too physical to sing along'd never catch your breath. That, and band members don't want their music to be background for barroom conversation. "When people sing, people stop listening to the music," Melton offers. "They focus on the words."

Songs are composed equally by all band members. According to Black composition responsibility is, "anarchistic in the form of true democracy." And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. "A song is put together the way the band is put together - we all come from different backgrounds," DeVaan says. "It's a melting pot of styles in a small garage in Minneapolis."

Then, of course, there's the rush that goes along with playing such dynamic, visceral music. Like some audience members, some band members claim to achieve an elevated state of conciousness. But there's some disagreement as to the source of the elevated state: Is it physical or spiritual?

"It [performing SAH songs] requires zen-like concentration," Melton reflects. "I'm constantly throwing things out of my mind to keep track of the beat." Or..."I'm a percussion atheist - I think it [the effects of the music] is more about endorphins," Black supposes. "We get alot of blisters." Maybe it's a little of both.

In any case, there's a sense of maturity, seriousness and prupose about this band. Nevermind that the four band members combined have nearly 60 years musical experience. They play some dynamic and challenging music that might appeal to long-hairs of a classical music bent. Or an alternative one, take your pick. There's also a healthy curiosity about music and sound, and a playfulness to the songs and performance style that makes their shows refreshing and thouroughly satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally.

In addition to regular local and out-of-town performances, the band also travels to give workshops on how to make and play found objects. They recently received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to expand a piece on which they collaborated with the Flying Foot Forum (a dance company). And look for their Mjollnir: The Hammer of Thor, an epic production based on Scandanavian mythology, to premier in April 1995 at the Southern Theatre in Minneapolis.

While the music stands on its own merits - listeners are still motivated by the recordings sans the theatrics - the theatrical element is equally important to the whole Savage Aural Hotbed experience. In other words, live performances are not to be missed.