Cosmic colors

Psychedelic lights steal the rock show at art gallery

Exquisite Corps and a liquid light show, compliments of Mad Alchemy, sans audience.

Exquisite Corps and a liquid light show, compliments of Mad Alchemy, sans audience.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Exquisite Corps, Lantz Laswell and the Vibe Tribe, Father Howl and Mad Alchemy at the 1078 Gallery, Saturday, Sept. 6.

The back wall of the 1078 Gallery was, for an evening, awash with the colors of a dying star going supernova, but hardly anyone showed up to gaze upon them.

So it was the night of Saturday, Sept. 6, during a rock showcase featuring Father Howl and Lantz Laswell and the Vibe Tribe of the Bay Area, and headliners Exquisite Corps out of Sacramento. I did a head-count of the audience upon arrival; there were 14 people, including band members awaiting their turn on stage.

To be sure, plenty of bands, both touring and local, have played in Chico to practically no one. That’s nothing new. What made the poor turnout tragic was the dazzling visual component, something uniquely of the moment, which mostly went unappreciated.

Behind all the pretty colors was Mad Alchemy—two hippie dudes manipulating oil, water and ink between transparent dinner plates over two projectors. The bubbles trapped between the glass and constantly changing color concoctions, in addition to the movement of the plates themselves, made for a real-time, old-school psychedelic light show projected behind each band.

That atmosphere was particularly well-suited to the first act, Father Howl, a three-piece instrumental rock outfit from San Francisco that’s equal parts Tool and Explosions in the Sky. For instance, I arrived while they were playing “Ursa Major,” an ambient creeper that abruptly became a prog-metal thrash. Later in their set, it was more progressive rock, but with a groove—like King Crimson if they were any fun at all. Then they delved into pensive trip-hop beats, all deep bass swells and dissonant guitar chords. In other words, Father Howl was all over the place, and I loved it.

Frontman Aaron Guadamuz apologized on behalf of the three-piece for being “rough around the edges,” explaining it had been a long day on the road after playing Olympia, Wash., the previous night. There were several bum notes, but during the performance of such ambitious music, little mistakes didn’t subtract much from the experience. The compositions themselves were impressive enough.

Next up was Lantz Laswell and the Vibe Tribe, a group of fantastic musicians that bored me to death with a series of predictable pop numbers, though they did deliver an interesting electro-cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Watching Laswell adjust his microphone stand during another song without missing a beat was, for me, the most entertaining part of their set.

Then there was Exquisite Corps. The group got its start playing orchestral chamber pop, but has just recently gotten heavier, trading strings for distorted guitar on its new album, Vignettes. Frontman Bryan Valenzuela has charisma to spare and played like hell, putting visible effort into songs like the anthemic “Caught in a Wave.”

But performing almost exclusively for other musicians on the bill must have been discouraging. At one point, Valenzuela told the sparse audience, “I wish those people outside would come inside.”

In between sets, I introduced myself to one of the performance artists, Lance Gordon, who explained that he had learned the “analog liquid lightshow” technique during the heyday of the psychedelic rock movement, splashing the walls of San Francisco’s ballrooms with wild color in the early 1970s. Now, Mad Alchemy tours with North State bands, including Exquisite Corps.

Looking around the mostly empty gallery, I quipped to Gordon that Chico’s music and art aficionados should have made a stronger showing. He scoffed.

“You think? That happens in these college towns, man,” he said. “People just don’t come out for shows anymore. It’s a bummer—we had some really special colors tonight.”