They have a job title for people who classify things like music into distinct sets and subsets. They're called taxonomists. The reason there's a whole field of study attached to this task is that it's an exceedingly difficult one. Just ask any music journalist or employee of All Music Guide who's charged with categorizing bands into genres.
On the other end, bands will gripe to no end about being mischaracterized as "freak folk" or "alt-country." This brand of aggravation is not an unfamiliar one to either band that appeared on the bill at the Independent last Friday, June 22, 2007.
Openers The F***ing Champs, a three-piece featuring two guitars and a drummer, have had to come to grips with their classification as a metal band, or, only slightly better, members of the subcategory indie metal.
The reasons for and against this classification are equally compelling when listening to their April 27 release on Drag City titled VI, but stand in even more stark contrast at their live show. Though I caught just four or five songs of this particular F***ing Champs show, you couldn't miss the young kids in front of the stage thrusting devil horns in the air or beckoning notes from their musical heroes' wailing guitars. And the sound coming from those guitars is unmistakably metal -- heavy on the power chords and distortion. On the other hand, these guys do distill the best sonic elements of the genre and leave the rest. There is no posturing. The swagger is all in the guitars and drums, not in the clothing, strutting, soloing, or wailing overwrought, illiterate, grade-school lyrics.
As with the Minutemen and punk, the F***ing Champs are way too complex for the genre in which they've been placed. Metal brings to mind guys with hair hanging halfway down their backs who wear painted-on stonewashed jeans or (wince) spandex, not the ones who showed up on stage at The Independent in t-shirts and plain denim jeans (and not particularly tight ones at that). And beyond that, the arrangements are more complex than those of the vast majority of metal bands. Nonetheless, before leaving the stage, the guys did allow themselves one indulgence to the traditional metal ethos, raising their guitars over their heads and shaking the last squeals out them before triumphantly crossing guitar necks.
Headliner Tortoise has managed, for one reason or another, to distract the jam-band crowd from their vaporizers and hacky sacks long enough to be lumped in with that much-maligned genre. Their sound, especially in recent years, has much more in common with jazz (somewhere between smooth and experimental), but is too-often described by critics as post-rock, a label only a taxonomist could love.
The crowd displayed some of the telltale signs of the jam-band aficionado, but on stage, it was all jazz grooves and electronica. Tortoise leaned heavily on material from their classic 1998 album, appropriately titled Standards and threw in a fair amount of tracks from 2001's TNT and 2004's It's All Around You. Not only did the band feature vibraphone and a pair of drummers, they also broke out the mallet synth (a sort of electronic vibraphone) on TNT's "Ten-Day Interval." Like The F***ing Champs, Tortoise is light on the pomp. Stoners may have relished the lighting and the ever-shifting patterns projected behind the band, but the notable lack of banter and relative immobility of the players would have been more familiar to fans of electronic music, noise or indie rock than the Phish crowd.
At this particular juncture in the life of the band, Tortoise is playing as a five-piece with keyboards, two laptops, a guitar, a bass and even a cowbell joining the vibes and drums.
Their set was eclectic to say the least. Moving effortlessly from the dynamic tom-heavy rhythm of "Monica" to the Latin guitar and heavy, serpentine bass groove of "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Women and Men" to the surf guitar of "Six-Pack" to the tense drum-roll build-up to "Seneca", Tortoise seems to take on a new sound with every song of their set. That'll keep the taxonomists guessing.