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Feature Thu Feb 01 2007

The Eternals and Skybox: Sound Like Chicago?

Unlike California's skate punk or the South's tendency toward all things dirrrty, Chicago has never been known for a particular "sound." Now, this is not to say there aren't many excellent musical acts that call the Windy City home — far from it. Instead, Chicago nurtures artists from many stylistic venues. Take The Eternals and Skybox: both pull from an eclectic mix of influences, reworking those into something that seems to elude easy definition. Is it indie or is it just odd? Is it reggae, rock, hip hop, or a spaceman freak-out? More importantly, does it even matter? Just enjoy.

The Mix is So Bizarre: The Eternals release third full-length album, Heavy International

It's time to adjust your headsets, ladies and gentlemen: The Eternals are not going to make this easy for you.

eternals_1.jpg

The Eternals (from left to right: Tim, Damon and Wayne).

A typical Eternals song (if there is such a thing) kicks off with whipsnap drumming by Tim Mulvenna, introducing a heavy, twisting bass line by Wayne Montana before Damon Locks' vocals enter the scene. Though every song is doused in dub grooves, along the way the listener may find funk, dance, hip hop and jazz influences, tribal rhythms and Middle Eastern and Asian meanderings. The nonlinear songs morph and flow in unexpected directions. This isn't easy-listening music, and that, says Montana, is exactly the point. "We don't necessarily try to set out and be crazy, but we're always very proud of our stranger aspects," he says.

Causing consternation amongst the pop radio contingent is nothing new for the Chicago-based trio, most of whose members started out in the local 1990s music scene in the equally hard-to-pigeonhole band Trenchmouth. According to Locks, it was during that time that he and Montana began to experiment with the sound that would later become The Eternals' calling card. "As Trenchmouth, we were never in vogue. A lot of bands we played with, and were friends with, seemed to have a place in that time period, like Jawbox, Nation of Ulysses, and Fugazi. They had a place in that scene, and we didn't," he says. "In Trenchmouth vs. the Light of the Sun, we figured we can't win, so we have to do our own thing. It wasn't until The Broadcasting System that we walked out the side door of indie rock, and we didn't look back."

Trenchmouth eventually wound down in 1996, and The Eternals were born soon after. Locks remembers going down (and getting down) to the Deadly Dragon Sound System — a weekly reggae and dancehall DJ vigil at the Empty Bottle, and hearing music that was "infinitely more exciting to me than what was happening in indie rock at the time." At the same time, both Locks and Montana started to explore world music, which began to work their way into The Eternals sound.

Initially, Trenchmouth guitarist Chris De Zutter was an Eternals member, after leaving to pursue school, it was decided to abandon a guitar sound altogether, instead working in keyboards and synthesizers — something neither Montana and Locks had any experience playing. "We didn't want to rest on sounds we were already comfortable with," says Locks. "It made it that much more exciting; we liked what we did before, but the challenge wasn't there anymore."

For Montana, it was a chance to highlight his own instrument, bass, and the polyrhythmic drumming he fell in love with in tracks by dub masters such as Lee "Scratch" Perry. Interestingly, though Montana finds the genre's stripped-down aesthetic its most appealing aspect, The Eternals' third full-length CD, Heavy International (Aesthetics), is far more lush and expansive than their previous recordings.

HI_coverNEW.jpg

According to Montana, it was a conscious move. It was the first album he personally produced in its entirety, and this time he had the luxury of mixing it at the "small but pretty damn good" studio in the home he shares with Locks. Suddenly, they weren't under the gun of having to pay hundreds of dollars a day for studio time, an experience Montana calls "literally brutal." Instead, the band was freed up to experiment with sounds and effects, calling in friends to have a drink and lay down backing vocals, snagging help from past co-conspirator Cecily Langford, as well as Olivia Mulcahy, Nina Fabicon, and the alter-ego behind Jai Alai Savant/DJ Major Taylor, Ralph Darden.

The result is a multi-faceted dance-off, from the complex stylings of tracks like "Beware the Swordbat!" and "Scorpions" to the laid back smoothness of the title track and "Crime." Though Locks' lyrics are still concerned with urban dystopia — his is a world of revolution and gamma rays — he has begun to play heavily with discordant, distorted vocal effects, which proves to be a welcome change from his characteristic talk/bark heard on past albums.

A new effects pedal, and a lot of layering, is much to blame for the experimentation. "We create different textures timbres for our instruments, and I thought, why not my vocals? So, there's a lot of strange pitch-shifting. On "Feed the Youth (Stage a Coup)," I think it's pitched up two octaves, as well as pitched down one octave," he explains. "And then we got my friend Nina Fabicon to sing with me, plus I was already singing in a falsetto. That song was written specifically with that effect in mind." Another resource is the world music Locks has been avidly ingesting. "I'm always trying to grow as a musician or vocalist… I think more on this album than the others, I've been using music other country's music to inform the melodies I make up," he says, pointing to late Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum as a particular inspiration.

It's an amalgamation of sounds the band feels they could only get away with coming out of Chicago. "The music scene that I came up with here really tried to be different, there weren't a lot of joiners and copycats," says Montana. "I mean, at any given show we can play with a free jazz group, a rock group and a hip hop group. I never saw such a mix of people and styles in New York. I think that exchange is vital."

"The music we make can only be made in Chicago," agrees Locks. "In some ways, The Eternals have operated in reaction to Chicago's music scene, the more radio-friendly bands that come out of here. But then, in some ways, Chicago has enabled us to make this music — there's cheap rent, and we have a huge network of friends to collaborate with, and borrow stuff from, and it's easy to book shows… It's really a yin and yang of inspiration and expiration."

The Eternals' CD Release Party features The Eternals with The Watchers and Low Down Brass Band at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave. on Friday, Feb. 16, 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, call 773/276-3600 for more information.


It's a Bird, It's a Plane…Skybox prepares to take off

It's only been less than a year, but Skybox is starting to finally feel at home.

Last April found the Chicago-based indie rock group selling their wares in a huge lawn sale, packing up their van, and moving from the sunny climes of Phoenix, Ariz., to seek relative fame and fortune. After all, they had accrued a nice-sized following in Phoenix, right?

Skybox_Press_4.jpg

Skybox (from left to right: Aurelio Damiani,

Tim Ellis, Christian Fields, Anthony Hornyak).

Small fish, welcome to bigger pond. Instead of hitting the Windy City's streets running, the band found themselves a little mired in reality. According to singer/vocalist Tim Ellis, the first Skybox shows were a little less than optimal. "The first few shows were really downers," he says, hanging out at the Metropolis coffee shop in the Edgewater neighborhood. "We were playing divey places, and no one would show up. We started to question ourselves, 'Man, did we make the right decision?'"

Apparently they did. In a relatively short amount of time, the band — including Ellis, Aurelio Damiani (drums), Anthony Hornyak (percussion and all-around "texturizer"), and Christian Fields (keyboards, lead guitar, vocals) — have gone from playing sparsely attended shows in little-known venues to amassing small hordes of acolytes who faithfully attend every Skybox concert. Saturday, February 3, marks their first headlining show at the Subterranean, and at the end of the month, they will embark on a six-week cross-country tour. Joining them is Rick Roberts (bass), the replacement for previous bassist Jeff Gonzales, whose departure was, says Ellis, a "mutual decision."

Paving the way is the first Skybox album, Arco Iris (Big Red Balloon), which has garnered plenty of praise since its release in February 2006. Straddling the line between modern rock and classic — think 1920s, rather than '70s — the CD is probably most notable for the sheer number of musical styles Ellis and company are able to work into a 14-song package. The rumpshaker "Disco Duck" is well, just that, and "Superglued to My Spaceship" is an airy pop tune, adding equal parts Radiohead and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. While the album is tight in and of itself, live crowds are drawn to the goofiness in the piano-tinkling smirk of "Various Kitchen Utensils," the rowdy "The Lass, the Bitch, and the Butcher, and "Cue Conversation" — a song whose live performance features Ellis and Fields' playful back-and-forth repartee.

Skybox_albumtitle.jpg

While there aren't any firm recording plans set yet, Skybox has been working on tracks for a new album. Many of the songs have made their way into the band's live rotation, allowing for the songs to have some time to ferment. In a band where every member touts a number of varying influences, Ellis wants many metaphoric cooks in the kitchen. "With that many people involved, it gives [our music] a sort of post-modernist edge. But it has to be done right in order to get a stability down. We're good at the stability part, but still feel like we're on the edge of falling apart a lot of the time. And that's a lot more interesting to watch," he says. Skybox shows of yore, prior their exodus to Chicago, were chock full of pirate dancers, cupcakes, video artists, and confetti. They're ready to make their shows "events" again, says Ellis, who hints that the upcoming concert at the Subterranean will feature a bird theme, and an appearance by Beetlejuice.

In the meantime, the band will continue allowing their music to grow and ferment. Ellis says he wants the new album to have much of the same elements as the dualistic "Cue Conversation."

"Lyrically, musically, the song is very symmetrical," he says. "For example, mercury is one of the most poisonous chemicals out there, but it also has all of these medicinal properties. I guess especially in the last few years, and especially in my personal life, I'm beginning to see that in everything. And if you keep that in mind, it all makes a lot more sense."

Skybox with Ignite the City and Company of Thieves, Saturday, Feb. 3, 8:30pm at Subterranean, 2011 W. North Ave. All ages, $8; Call (773) 278-6600 for more information.

-Kara Luger

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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