Monday, November 21, 2011

The Diminished Men

The Blue Moon



Unless they're on a bill with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the fastest way for a band to alienate me is to assume they don't need bass... which is to say, it doesn't complicate acoustic folk or singer/songwriter fare, but as soon as a band attempts to rock without a bass, all I hear is the hole in the low frequencies.  There's  a conspicuous-by-absence lack of a bassline that lots of guitarists try to hide with octave pedals and multiple cabinets... but it almost never helps, and the bassless band sounds as hollow and incomplete as all those goddamned White Stripes singles that pop up on the radio.

There are exceptions, however--  I'm not sure how The Diminished Men's Simon Henneman tunes his six string Fender Jaguar, but as a band with drums and two guitars, there's no gaping hole in the sound.  A lot of the time, that Jaguar is a strong bassline, full and musical, completely countering my argument. By my measure, The Diminished Men actually have a fuller sonic palette than lots of bands with more members and instruments; their sound comes out of a live show sounding (for lack of a better word) “produced.”

I wish I'd brought a camera to this show
(I attended last-minute), because I can't find
any photos online of The Diminished
Men live at the Blue Moon
While I understand my concept of psychedelia is a little off (what most people call psychedelic music sounds like blues rock with a phaser pedal, to me), I'd label The Diminished Men as “Psychedelic surf” with respect to their jangly, reverb-laden, instrumental tunes tend to progress towards the cosmic, mind bending, spacious, and sonically sublime... they fit my personal definition of psychedelic.  The surf part of the description might not flatter the band members simply because they're so far past the 60's, but I can't help but hear some of The Ventures in their approach: the way chords are bent, the way melodies are explored.  I hear Steve Schmit as more Nokie Edwards than Dick Dale or Link Wray, but that's just me, and that's me being a touch geeky.  There's always Wikipedia if I'm straying too far.

But surf is a bit of a pigeon-hole, and The Diminished Men are well beyond that kind of easy categorization-- they evoke Ennio Morricone's audio cinemascapes as readily as they do The Ventures, and a number of horizons beyond... there are touches of heavy and progressive in the stew as well.  Drummer Dave Abramson doesn't seem confined at all by arbitrary genre restrictions, tending to snake through the rhythm of a song with an artfulness unheard of in retro or genre-obsessed rhythm sections.

As a pedal geek, I couldn't help but notice Schmit used a Moog ring modulator better than I've ever heard a ring modulator used before-- when a Diminished Men song engages the ringmod, it evokes the kind of cosmic bell tones I always knew the effect was capable of, but never heard realized.  I've heard ring modulators applied by many, many bands, but in a Diminished Men song, it becomes a sort of atmospheric bell chime, both extra-textual and part of the song.  It is part of an amazing soundscape that's impressive, even if you never knew the names of the technology making those sounds, but it's stunning to me because I've never heard that timbre used so beautifully (not by anyone: not Brian Eno, not Devo.... and not by me; I own one myself.)

That's certainly part of my fascination with The Diminished Men: they're using a number of things I'm familiar with, but everything they're doing is surprising.  I can't speak to their recordings, but the live show I saw colored way outside the lines.   The bassless approach lets Henneman come up from holding a bassline and be part of the jangly guitarscape (which is an odd but effective turn, coming up from the low end), both guitarists have interesting and varied pedalboards with myriad tones available, and the songs are surprising but melodic, engaging, and fully realized.

This was my first Diminished Men show, and I found it mind-blowing.  This band is immediately rocketed into my top-10 in Seattle, and I can't wait to see them again.
The Diminished Men Official Site

P.S: Apologies if I got any of the names wrong in this write-up, but I don't know The Diminished Men personally, and there doesn't seem to be a good bio/members listing online... there have been member changes, and I can't be certain I have the lineup for the show I'm reviewing.  I hope I got it right; if not, let me know.