Named for the conceptual conjunction between the Nick Drake song “Joey” and Pink Floyd’s album The Final Cut, Bologna Italy’s JoyCut put on a mesmerizing set late Sunday night at Chicago’s Subterranean, leaning heavily on electronic sounds and tribal rhythms. At least it was mesmerizing for the few in attendance with the patience to subject themselves to the highly experimental and at times challenging compositional selections from the trio on its first full-length American tour, scheduled to dovetail around an appearance at SXSW (along with Fabrizio Cammarata, the only Italian acts to be invited). Even the sweater wearing couple with trucker caps who do-si-do’d and spilled their drinks early in JoyCut’s set didn’t make it all the way to the end, which is a pity, because the strongest part of the set was the finale, when the leader finally picked up the electric guitar that was begging to be played throughout the set.
JoyCut previously relied heavily on the band’s anonymity, refusing to be photographed and wearing animal masks during live performances, which may explain the lackluster stage presence, despite two very animated drummers, one standing and the other frenetically pounding from a sitting position in the rear. The stage arrangements most likely didn’t help, with the ostensible leader, “singer” and keyboard twerker Pasquale Pezzillo stationed off to the side, facing away from the attendees, for the most part. The stage is not especially large at Subterranean, so they may well have been working as best they could within their physical limitations.
The self-proclaimed “post-rock, dark-wave” trio relied primarily on crafting elaborate electronic soundscapes punctuated by the duo of drummers, and seemed to have jettisoned the vocals and guitar-rich approach of earlier material heard on 2011’s Ghost Trees Where To Disappear. The good news is the new sound is more original and less like an aping of The Cure, but the bad news may have been focusing on electronic sounds from the outset, by opening with “Wireless” from the band’s most recent release, 2013’s PiecesOfUsWereLeftOnTheGround, for example, may have been a conceptual mistake, leaving some of those in the already sparse crowd out in the cold. The limited atmospheric capabilities (no light show, no lasers, no fog, etc.) probably didn’t help either. It was telling that the real highlight was when Pezzillo, playing guitar, picked at his floor pedals until he found one he liked and punched that one over and over again.
Having said that, maybe JoyCut goes for a minimalist stage show for a reason—to minimize the band’s power consumption. The group records in solar powered recording studios, uses cellophane tape from 100% biodegradable tape and its CDs and booklets are made from recycled products, part and parcel with the band’s management of a “gigantic campaign” that pays careful attention to our “sustainable future.”
Openers Panda Riot, despite early electronic roots and some hefty (yet tasteful) preprogramming tonight, sported a more guitar-heavy approach as per usual . They always put on a lovely live set, led by the soaring soprano of Rebecca Hall (also on guitar and keyboard) and her other half Brian Cook on pedal-heavy electronic guitar. Their sound is thoroughly dream-pop and has its roots in the My Bloody Valentine shoegazer miasma, yet the songs and sonic crafting are compelling and credible enough to stand on their own. Now supplemented by stand-up drummer Jose Rodriguez and bassist Cory Osborne (also of like-minded Lightfoils), the foursome sashayed through an enjoyable yet all too brief set, highlighted by “Amanda In The Clouds” and “Black Pyramids” from the excellent 2013 release, Northern Automatic Music. The latter was marred by a microphone issue, and the song selection options were limited because Osborne had to play on a borrowed bass, yet the quartet surpassed these minor hiccups with their usual charm and aplomb. Another bright spot in the shimmering, warm and bright set was a new song whose working title is “Jordan Catalano,” that featured some unusually aggressive and propulsive rhythm guitar parts. Cook later disclosed via email that they’re working on another song tentatively entitled “Angela Chase,” both names drawn from the TV series My So-Called Life, and apparently they’ve joked about keeping the song names as they are and releasing them on each side of a seven-inch single.