After five weeks and performances by 20 bands from all corners of the state, we're down to the finals for the 2013 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. In keeping with the Ancient Protocols of the Council of Showcase Elders, we'll be moving down the street to Revolution for the final round, which will be this Friday at 9 p.m. It's all-ages, $5 for those of legal drinking age and $10 for those 20 and younger. The winning band will be announced that night and, in addition to all the goodwill, glory and approbation, that band will net beaucoup prizes and the opportunity to perform on some of the state's biggest and most high-profile stages.
Also, we're giving away several pairs of passes to several music festivals, including Bonnaroo, Wakarusa and Thunder on the Mountain. You must be present to win, so don't skip it.
Russellville's The Sound of the Mountain won Round 5 of the Showcase with swirling instrumental post-rock that was by turns powerful, loud, dynamic and sweepingly cinematic. That last description is especially apt, as more than one judged referenced movies on their score sheets.
Also: it never hurts when your drummer is a stone-cold badass, as is the case with Sound of the Mountain. But it was excellent musicianship all the way around.
Up first was Fayetteville's Bartin Memberg, a.k.a. Martin Bemberg, formerly of The Memphis Pencils and an incredibly prolific solo artist. Bemberg had a bit of trouble at first getting his whole laptop/guitar/pedals/what-have-you setup set up. But once he did, he performed some challenging, weird pop, with a Young Marble Giants feel, with sparse sound and pinging percussion.
Showcase judge CT wrote, that the set "started off roughly, when it took off it got better. Nice songs." Guest judge Eugene Whitmore, a record producer and recording engineer who owns Genetics Studio in Little Rock, wrote, "Not bad tone, but tech difficulties."
Grayson Shelton wrote, "I enjoy his songs, but I think I would enjoy them more if he would put a band together instead of the samples." He also noted Bemberg's "Bowie-esque delivery." Judge Mandy McBryde wrote, "Interesting sampling of "Auld Lang Syne" in the first song, especially since the celebratory hymn we all know so well is based on a poem about life, love and other tragedies. I liked his "song to 4-year-olds. If I had a kid, I would TOTALLY play this song for them (and probably wish I'd written it myself)."
North Little Rock quintet Knox Hamilton anchored the middle spot of the Showcase with impressive vocal harmonies and sunshine-y, even danceable, indie pop.
McBryde wrote, "They're both spiritual and secular in a very new way." Shelton wrote, "Really great, catchy indie pop songs. A band that you can take home to your mother, but still seal the deal with your girlfriend. Really good vocals."
Whitmore wrote, "Nice sound, but needs a little practice," while CT wrote, "Amen North Little Rock. Very nice songs, awesome melodies."
Little Rock trio The Midnight Thrills brought some Southern-rockin' soul to the Showcase, boasting an incredibly full sound that would be the envy of any number of bands, but especially considering that there's just the three of them up there. Guitarist/singer Drew DeFrance also plays guitar in The Stephen Neeper Band, who'll be in the finals.
In my chicken-scratch notes from Thursday evening, I wrote: "Replacements x Neil Young & Crazy Horse = The Midnight Thrills." I'd probably had a couple beers at that point, but I think that still holds up pretty well.
CT wrote, "Very tight — rhythm section had it on lockdown! Nothing better than a solid three-piece band," and McBryde wrote "Man this guy can play guitar ... Holy smokes!"
Shelton noted that "Drew really does a standout job with Stephen Neeper Band, and I really like what he brings to them. It's good to hear him out in the front. Good tone and a solid, solid lead guy in his own right." Whitmore wrote simply "Great guitarist!!"
Closing out the night and the semifinals was Collin vs. Adam, now a trio, after the tragic death of bassist Mason Mauldin in January.
The founding duo of Adam Hogg and Collin Buchanan clearly have a vision, with their hybrid of hypnotic post-punk and synth-pop. Drummer Mike Motley is practically a human metronome. No fewer than three other people used that exact term to describe him while watching the band's set. That rhythmic precision proved to be a critical component.
Shelton wrote, "Great vocals, great sound," while CT wrote "Mike Motley is a goddamn metronome. This band rules! Amazing song quality, tough-as-nails guitar riffs."
Whitmore noted, "High energy, but need to reduce the transition time between songs," while McBryde wrote, "Adam Hogg is one of the most unassuming rock stars I've ever seen. These songs are so good — they take you somewhere."
Here's what the judges had to say about Round 5 winner The Sound of the Mountain:
Guest judge Eugene Whitmore: "I like the intro, well-rehearsed, very spontaneous."
Mandy McBryde: "Their music evokes such emotion. It's like watching a masterpiece fly through the room in soundwaves, or that scene in a really great movie when you go 'Oh shit. This is what's really happening.' "
CT: "Total pros. They have their shit together. Sweet tones and awesome transitions. This needs to be the musical score to my life."
Grayson Shelton: "I'm a sucker for a great drummer. They're the heartbeat and energy of your show. I can imagine it's tough to keep a completely instrumental set moving and engaging. They did a great job with dynamics to keep it fresh and keep my attention."
Damn Arkansan: This Fayetteville outfit won over the judges with its Pavement-covering-Little-Feat hybrid of country-rock and folk. Expect great songs and a high-energy performance, especially from frontman Drew Walls.
The Stephen Neeper Band: Scorched-earth, Southern-fried, boogie-your-ass-off-all-night blues rock is gonna be what these guys serve up — a big ol' heaping helping of it.
The Revolutioners: Relentless rock 'n' roll riffage is the name of the game, and The Revolutioners are playing in the big leagues. Frontman Phil Houston is a livewire and the band has it down from ragers to ballads.
Terminus: This Fayetteville prog-metal behemoth is made up of three dudes who are not only unbelievably proficient but also capable of writing complex arrangements with raging riffs. Absolutely killer.
The Sound of the Mountain: Hailing out of Russellville, this instrumental quintet has mastered the sort of sweeping, cinematic post-rock that's just begging to be used in the end-of-the-world sequence in some yet-to-be-made blockbuster.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.