As its name implies, Atlanta’s Drunken Unicorn is equal parts whimsy and piss. Looking like a punk-rock bomb shelter crouched on the outskirts of downtown ATL, the venue comes equipped with loving portraits of its mythical namesake alongside exposed ventilation and a graffiti-coated bathroom. It was the perfect site to witness a collection of rock groups that seemed torn between notions of melody and brutality.
Openers Untied States took the stage in ragged assembly and proceeded to conjure up a sustained, featureless rumble. The band simply had no need for transitions. Its members would occasionally hit upon a patch of melody, repeat it a few times, and then toss it away uninterestedly with a scream and fresh explosion of guitar feedback. It was one of those instances where I felt bad for not “getting” a group — clearly, these were five individuals out pursuing their muse on the outer reaches of tonality. God bless ’em.
Love of Diagrams followed. The Australian trio has been on the receiving end of plenty of well-deserved buzz for its Matador debut, Mosaic, and the group plowed through the album’s contents with workmanlike efficiency. All the while, the three members kept a tight balance between them, each sticking to his or her corner of the arrangement. Drummer Monika Fikerle pounded out urgent patterns with the authority of a Janet Weiss; guitarist Luke Horton scrawled out his jagged lead riffs; and bassist Antonia Sellbach stuck to the center of the three-instrument circus. Her shouted vocals gave the band’s sound its color, and although she appeared a bit stage shy, Sellbach slugged through Mosaic highlights like “The Pyramid” alongside her bandmates. By the end of the set, both of Horton’s guitars were falling to pieces, which only seemed to complement the group’s gritty approach. Never did the musicians deliver the knockout blow that I kept expecting, but they stayed sharp and relevant despite those technical issues.
After some fiddling with their electronics setup, the members of Enon dove into their headlining set. Despite the group’s rich back catalog, Enon essentially played Grass Geysers . . . Carbon Clouds on shuffle (including the album’s iTunes bonus track) with a few older numbers thrown in. The band spared only Grass Geysers’ “Dr. Freeze” and “Paperweights” from its set, and so the performance wound up neatly reflecting the album’s strengths and weaknesses. However, the live setting really did bring out the freak in lead man John Schmersal. Beginning the night with a bit of verbal sparring with the crowd, Schmersal let loose on the microphone, pushing the more manic elements of his vocal style to the fore. He clawed away at his guitar, screeching and moaning all the while.
However, even Schmersal managed to get upstaged by this crazy drummer of his, Matt Schulz. A proud graduate of the Animal school of kit-bashing, Schulz laid into his drum set savagely. His Ringo mop-top flopped wildly with every emphatic strike of his crash cymbal, and his eyes remained fixed in a steady, zombie-like stare. At the same time, he displayed a deft touch on some of the band’s trickier rhythmic numbers (“Collette,” “Pigeneration”), showing a rare combination of ferocity and grace. Next to these two wildmen, bassist Toko Yasuda graciously took a back seat. When she did sing lead, Yasuda brought the humanity and warmth necessary to balance Schmersal’s deranged sonics.
Included in the set was a new song, “The Ghost of Jon Benet,” which should be eligible for “song title of the year” honors whenever it sees a proper release. For tonight, however, it blended in seamlessly with an evening of quick and thrashy sets. I left the strange confines of the Drunken Unicorn satisfied, if a bit jostled.