Iconoclast at Michiko Studios, 10/17/14
Iconoclast -- neither the hardcore punk band nor the metal band of that name, rather the New York-based duo of Julie Joslyn (alto saxophone, violin, vocals) and Leo Chiesa (drums, keyboard, vocals) – formed in 1987 and ever since has combined avant-garde conceptualist with post-punk attitude ever since, playing at CBGB but also the European festival circuit, and making nine albums. The most recent, this year's Naked Rapture, was heavily featured when they played at Michiko Studios on Friday, October 17. Hometown shows having become more of a rarity than they used to be, I made sure to catch it.
Joslyn kicked the set off with a three-note sax theme that repeated, then blasted off in a thunder of drums and alto squall. Then she suddenly switched to frenetic nonsense vocals that ended with a scream, at which point it was back to sax. Chiesa started the next number solo with a stark, asymmetrical beat. Joslyn joined with an almost lyrical sax theme keened morosely, repeating it as Chiesa went wild on his modest kit (three crash cymbals, traps, two rack toms, snare, floor tom, bass drum). Next up was "Five Finger Bruise" from the new album, with Joslyn on electric violin. She strummed a harshly minimal figure as Chiesa played a keyboard pattern that looped against itself in a phase-music way but busier. Joslyn began to mix singing and cries as the keyboard got more random, booming cluster over a more processed loop. At five minutes, this was positively epic compared to the previous three-minute tracks.
Joslyn returned to sax for the following ditty while Chiesa played sparely on the rack toms and crash cymbals, never leaving that mode for this four-minute piece. "Fifteen Vestal Virgins," another Naked Rapture track, by contrast found them playing in rhythmic unison. It was at this point that it occurred to me that their short pieces are like avant etudes, focusing on a particular technique or effect each time. This one was further distinguished by some effects on the sax; Joslyn played into two mikes, one of which was connected to her effects boxes while the other conveyed the instrument's natural sound. Also sparsely arranged, the next piece brought to mind film depictions of Native American music, or perhaps Antonin Dvorak composing a theme for Ornette Coleman.
There are two 'covers' on Naked Rapture, and one of them, Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," followed, much more angular than it used to be, with a lot more crashes and stripped down to squared-off motivic signifiers. A double-time section added variety. They stuck to Naked Rapture for "People Should…" with Chiesa starting solo on drums, joined by Joslyn on electric violin, this time bowed; she sawed energetically, eventually frenetically, but in such a way that one could discern actual training (as opposed to the untutored violin stylings of the aforementioned Mr. Coleman).
A rarity -- a Leo vocal -- made "When I'm Gone" stand out. It mixed wit and pathos in winning fashion, its whimsically melancholy toms and mournful alto making it sort of a ballad but to comical effect. "The Naked Flame" also stood out, as the longest piece of the evening (8 minutes). It opened with a drum solo where Chiesa alternated floor tom and snare, then rack toms, cycling through a series of those alternations. Lamenting sax joined, then went solo, then engaged in exchanges with keyboard. Chiesa then took a long keyboard solo running through a variety of settings -- harpsichord, synth, organ, piano, rocksichord -- as his theme slowly mutated, including at times feelings of schizo Thelonious Monk/Cecil Taylor and a bit of J.S. Bach-esque invention. It was rounded off with a return to the sax/keyb duo theme. The brief "No Time to Feel Good" was a sort of slapstick hoedown that eventually started to swing more with sort of a Latin lilt; then it was time for another relative epic, "A Decisive Little Habit." It started with highly processed pizzicato electric violin, sounding like a traditional Asian sort of lute, under which Chiesa daubed mallet cymbal rolls like gongs, building to quite a din. Joslyn switched to striking her strings with the bow; Chiesa gave up drumming to play keyboard with pitch shifting. Joslyn hit on a pattern of two dyads and a squeak, over and over again, under the keyboards, until suddenly becoming harsher. Then she took the lead, but still repetitive; her pattern shifted over the drums, slightly martial in tone. Chiesa matched her intensity with double-pedaled bass drum rumbling under a snare roll as the violin got more 'outside' for the piece's climax.
The focus on Naked Rapture material (every named piece came from it until the encores) continued with "Think About My Mind," which turned out to be another relatively monumental work at around 7 minutes. Chiesa opened it solo with cymbal crashes and double bass drum pedals. Joslyn joined on alto with three notes oscillating, interspersed with seemingly freer bursts and split tones. Chiesa echoed the theme on his keyboard (organ setting) while keeping the beat on traps, sounding very prog-rock when he soloed on keys. The sax rejoined in its upper range with nagging repetitions while Chiesa added pitch shift to his arsenal. Joslyn switched to providing a clave with a pair of drumsticks; Chiesa matched her on his rack toms' rims and traps in a slow fade.
The three-minute "Big Stuff" was another evocation of Native American music. In a "now for something completely different" juxtaposition on the set list, "Master Fader" found Joslyn back on electric violin soloing with highly amplified scratchings, then doubled down the octave with a pedal effect. Chiesa joined with his most free-jazz beat of the evening. This piece was like one big tremolando. They closed the set with their drastic reworking of Frederic Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude." It's certainly the only rendition that starts with a drum solo (lots of toms and double bass drum pedal); Joslyn then keened the theme above him in tart, emphatic fashion. The well-deserved encores consisted of excerpts from two new tunes planned for their next album, and "Scotch and Eggs" from their first CD.
Falling in the cracks between genres, sounding like nobody else on the scene, Joslyn and Chiesa have carved out a brave niche for themselves as Iconoclast. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.