No prissy fingers
First of all, the setting is important: This was a punk show in somebody’s basement, the three or four bands that had proceeded had all been loud and rocking, the crowd was young and wearing all black and patches. I’d had a great time and had just gotten my fix for loud, live rock music and was about to leave when a friend suggested I stick around for Snooty Phalanges. I stayed and was elated by what I saw and heard.
The band, a duo consisting of sprightly bassist Jonathon Gibson and lanky guitarist Steve Gustin, plays sitting down—and a seated, drummer-less two-piece is not something one expects to see at a punk show. Their music comes as even more of a surprise: Almost entirely instrumental, utterly bereft of distortion or effects, it is comic, endearing, technically daring, harmonically complex and utterly unique. A crude shorthand description might call it a punk approach to baroque chamber music.
The crowd, myself included, that had been jumping around during the previous bands now sat with mouths agape and attention rapt.
Gibson and Gustin first began working together five years ago with American Substandard, a “garage punk” band. The punk roots of their music shine through in certain inflections and occasional rhythms, as well as the electric guitar/bass instrumentation. Occasionally, the complex counterpoint shifts right into parts that almost resemble rock riffs, but the Snooty Phalanges never actually rock. Their music is more contemplative, and they cite big-name composers like Bach and Mozart as influences.
All the same, the band has been fostered by the punk scene and feels indebted to it for all the support, especially to individuals like James Dardis and Joe Ferguson, who encouraged the band to play some of their first public performances. The band relishes its role as a sort of after-hours act after headliners at hardcore punk shows, but one gets the sense that a connection with an even wider audience can’t be too far off. They’re now getting positive responses at coffee houses and open-mic nights.
There is wide-ranging appeal to Snooty Phalanges’ music: Though it’s strange, it’s pleasant and pretty. Gibson’s sinewy bass-lines are occasionally funky (in a good way), and the band has a great sense of humor. The music is funny, not in a gimmicky or joking way (though there are occasional moments of spoken humor), but in a way that I tried to describe to the band as musically “witty, wry or clever,” before Gibson suggested “snooty.”
Though the band’s strange, unique sound is partly rooted in their individual idiosyncrasies as musicians, they consider their instrumental abilities to be secondary to their role as composers.
“We’re really lucky to be able to play our instruments the way that we can,” says Gibson, “but that’s really not as important to us as the writing is … We’re not into taking epic solos or anything.”
Though the band’s music is impressively tricky, there is a general lack of ego and an absence of individual showboating in their performances—it’s just good music.
The next chance to see Snooty Phalanges will be on Dec. 19 at the Spacement. Snooty Phalanges will probably play last because the band is usually, according to Gibson, "at the end of the bill and the bottom of the flyer."