Ponyface review (Howler, Melbourne)

Sometimes you really want to see a band because you think or know they’ll just be great. You’ve only heard good things about them and everything feels right. Then the night happens…

We missed Ali E, but heard via the unusually effusive and friendly doorbitch, (who plainly didn’t understand the job as titled), that Ali E was the “best thing she’d heard here in a few weeks”.

Flyying Colours were up next. From seeing their YouTube clip I’d got the impression that they paid homage to a sort of Stone Roses/Jesus and Mary Chain lineage: pop songs over noise and a driving drumbeat.

The drums were driving and excellent, channelling Dave Grohl in his hair days. The bass player, while also solid and doing what needed to be done, had the faraway look of the models in Addicted to Love, and could easily have been playing in a different band.

The two guitarists created a veritable barrage of sound, over which their light, poppy vocals could not be distinguished at all. It wrecked the set.

Pet hate #1: When you can’t hear the damn singer over the band. Even when he talks between songs. Barely a distinguishable word.

Flying Colours finished, leaving our ears ringing, and feeling like we’d missed what was potentially a good set. They also used a looping pedal to keep the feedback going in between songs while they tuned and got ready for the next aural assault. It meant no relief.

Pet hate #2: Looping pedals that are used to create noise walls that mush up the sound, when you already have a full band going.

We breathed with relief while waiting for Ponyface to appear. They’re essentially a three-piece with add ons, so there was quite a procession on and off stage through the set. I was confidently expecting the sound to markedly improve, as that’s what happened last time I went to Howler, when the difference between Jess Ribeiro and the support was huge.

Not tonight.

See pet hate #1 above. Ponyface did exactly the same thing, although it was less of a full frontal assault and more of a knife to the head in a sea of mush. It felt like we were watching them through a glass wall. Again barely a single word was distinguishable — it was “nnghn drmmfg grundhft mmmmph” all set. There was one brief break in which Simon Bailey (singer/guitars) took advantage of the lull to (ironically) announce that this is a “song about c**ts”, but again it was lost. The first encore song was also nearly discernible.

Even the melodian (Pet hate #3 — get a keyboard or a clarinet or an accordion, not some kid’s toy), was largely inaudible in the mix. The same thing happened when they had two backing singers for a song — completely wasted. Bringing a second guitar onstage similarly brought virtually nothing detectable to the show. It was a real shame as plainly the band had prepared thoroughly.

The really frustrating part is that from what you could hear, they’re obviously a great band. People in the crowd more familiar with the songs really enjoyed them, but I think that’s partly groupthink and partly their own heads filling in the words they couldn’t hear.

Punters accept crappy mixes far too readily, with a shrug and a “doesn’t that happen all the time?” Noisy bands do not have to have indistinct, shitty soundscapes. I’ve been to a Beasts of Bourbon gig where Charlie Owens’ guitar amp drowned out the entire band all by itself, (and felt like a laser shearing off our ears), but that turned into a beautiful warm melange of sound as the vocals were brought up to match. No such luck tonight.

You can’t really blame the band though, as I’d guess they were oblivious to it — the onstage mix would have been very different, and they couldn’t tell what it was like out front. The blame lies with the mix. Howler looks to have an A grade PA system in place, and I’ve heard it pump out some great stuff. What went wrong guys?

There are a few possible reasons:

* There was a technical issue – frankly that’s pretty poor and I don’t think it was the case tonight.
* They might have meant to have the mix that way? I really don’t think it is the case and cannot see any point that they could have made from this strategy.
* I could have been standing in a spot where the sound was poorly tuned – unlikely as we were in the centre of the crowd in the centre of the room –a good mixer will usually do a tour of the room to check that this doesn’t occur.

I can’t really think of anything other than the mixer was having a bad night or did a poor job.

On the plus side the lighting for both bands was effective — moody and reflective of the music.

I feel like I need to see Ponyface again; tonight I saw Facepony instead. Their treatment of Springsteen’s Nebraska album was brilliant, filled with imagery from Badlands and hauntingly done. They plainly understand the concept of subtlety in their music. I’ll spend some time listening to their recorded stuff. Sure they have a droney feel with quiet vocals in their own albums, but tonight it just didn’t translate to a live setting. Hugely disappointed. I sincerely hope it’s just a one off.

Ponyface at Howler, Brunswick last night. At least the lighting was effective.

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