Savage Aural Hotbed

Article from River Cities Reader (April 30/May 6, 1997) - by Jeff Wichmann

Savage Aural Hotbed

This show should have come with a warning: "Wear safety goggles at all times!" Life-threatening power tools, rusting, dented oil drums, sparks and sounds of shredded metal — that's what this show is made of.

CSPS in Cedar Rapids wrapped up it's month-long New Music Festival last weekend with the post-industrial, Minneapolis quartet Savage Aural Hotbed, who nearly set the art space aflame with their latest musical-theatre performance titled Danger. But for protection, all the audience members were given cotton swabs to stuff the ears.

CSPS, Legion Arts, is the six-year-old art organization based in an historic, renovated Czech social hall, set in a blighted industrial area of Cedar Rapids. Outside, empty warehouses stand with rusting potential. Inside, that potential — Savage Aural Hotbed's use of industrial tools and scrap — came alive in a musical soundscape as modern as electricity and as ancient as the Congo.

The stage was systematically littered with 50 gallon oil drums, plastic drums, roto-toms, troughs of water, power saws, cables, lights, and microphones. After a delayed start, where the capacity crowd of nearly 130 people stomped their feet in an attempt to jump start the show, the four members paraded out on stage looking half Mad Max and half S & M — they wore black plastic Glad bags as shirts wrapped with black straps, along with leg and arm bands. The questionably effective outfits, combined with the dim black, blue, green and red lighting, along with billowing projected smoke and flaming gas pipes, made for a post-apocalyptic scene more like New York City, year 2020, than Iowa 1997.

Starting out, SAH members Mark Black, Stuart DeVaan, William Melton, and David Sarrazin each carried a metal pipe that they sliced through with a table saw; showering the stage with sparks. Each pipe was then stuffed with a flaming propane lighter, creating droning harmonic pitches. This innovative experimentation with "the elements" was indicative of the whole show. But much of the soundscape consisted of percussive numbers that drew inspiration from poly-rhythms of Japanese Taiko drumming, industrial rock, and primitive world beat.

While holding onto their complicated compositions (trading rhythms while beating on metal cans, modern drums and plastic barrels), they exuded entrepreneurship as musical scavengers, borrowing from such world-renown acts as trashcan-beating Stomp and the contemporary Japanese drum group Kodo, in addition to the 1980's garbage-sampling pop group Art of Noise. Also apparent were strong hints of complicated mathematical meters indicative of Philip Glass. SAH streamed sweat while performing physically enduring choreography, but for the most part, they appeared loose, like a bunch of dudes rockin' out in a big jam session.

What prevented some moments from turning into a draining drum-circle was the incorporation of traditional instruments, such as bass guitar, trombone, clarinet and even rhythmic growls, hoots and screams. In addition, Some heavy reverb and sound looping made for a more digi-90's techno sound.

The more raucous numbers like "Mark's Attitude" and "Bong Hits At the Great Pyramid" were balanced out by subtle songs, such as "Drowning In The City of Lakes", which incorporated water. The splashing noises, water dripped drum cymbals, and shaken containers of fluid, combined with a haunting clarinet background, made for an organic, peaceful environment. For another song, three members connected a three-pronged cable extension to each other's waist saddle belts. By beating and stroking the stressed cables, the three musicians produced sounds akin to a space-aged, tribal ceremony.

By the end of the hour and twenty minute performance, Savage Aural Hotbed was scraping steel cans with hand-held circular saws and rubbing electric guitars with drills. This was before they enclosed themselves in huge a plastic cube and banged on strobe-lit plastic containers while it filled up with dry-ice smoke, creating bouncing human silhouettes.

A standing ovation from the audience brought them back for an encore, where they proved themselves to be one of the Midwest's more innovative contemporary ensembles that could rock anyone's senses silly. This was one of the wildest shows seen in Eastern Iowa in quite some time.