Friday, May 10, 2019

Beautiful as the Night is Black: The Black Queen at Le Ministère

Having purchased a ticket some weeks ago, regardless of whether I’ll have company or not, the day is upon me: The Black Queen are performing in Montréal, yet I’m without companions for the weekday four hundred kilometre round trip. Adding to the anxiety of the excursion is the use of my beloved and ever-aging Betsy, boasting nearly three hundred and thirty thousand kilometres of love on her odometer, but after fixing a persistent vacuum leak before the onset of winter and installing six brand new Bosch coils, the gauntlet is mine and hers alone to run.

With an unforgotten fracture still sitting a decade fresh in my mind, I reach out to my kindred spirit, Pascale, for a hail Mary shot at some companionship in the March chill of Montréal, and because she is my kindred spirit, she says of course, and so arriving home from work at the onset of the night, I hurriedly change into more concert-friendly black jeans and leather jacket and stuff some food down. Looking at the map on my phone, I notice the venue, La Ministère, is remarkably close to the north end of the McGill campus—the precursor to the fatal fracture. A thought occurs; a detour is added to the itinerary.

Throwing my Nikon in the trunk, I clamber into Betsy and start her up. Although snow still litters the sides of the road, the asphalt is dry and the sun is still shining. It’s not long before I hit the TransCanada Highway, six cylinders gurgling away, a new fuel filter freshly feeding their thirst. With only my music and the occasional other car keeping me company, the rolling hills of Québec on the horizon, my thoughts begin to wander—regress. The sun shines a violent and glorious ochre, and it pours down brilliantly behind me, the car’s silhouette casting a long and shifting shadow up the highway.

By the time I reach the island boundaries, it’s gotten dark and already I can feel an apprehensive frisson crawling down my spine. The streets start to look familiar as I approach my idiotic idea of a detour. “True Love Waits” by Radiohead shuffles on the Harmon-Kardon, the version from their live ‘I Might Be Wrong’ album. Despite the absent chance of being overheard, I mutter under my breath “You’ve got to be kidding me” and take the turn onto Dr. Penfield Avenue, followed by a fatal left onto Rue University and up a long-remembered road—into a dead-end so very dear to me. Despite the no parking signs, I put on my excoriating and echoing white hazard lights, and crawl out of the car.

Popping the trunk, I pull out the Nikon and take in the night air, both familiar and forgotten, the echoed luminance of the LED side markers radiating across the stone and concrete walls, the obscuring glass squares lining the staircase of the Hall. A young lady comes up the dead end entry, and pressing her fob against the door leading into the residence, I see a window, a chance to touch my fingers to that ivory to recreate that moment of learning melody—“Count To Six and Die (The Vacuum of Infinite Space Encompassing)”—but a fear of being confronted, rejected, or worse still—being forced to realize this totem means nothing, preserves nothing, never really existed in the first place (never stopped existing in the first place) sees me with feet frozen to the ground, the door to my dreams and memories quietly and digitally locking shut. I exhale—try to find some solace in this quantum certitude. Find none. The lens of the Nikon aims upwards to where the piano sits, waiting, immortal, inert. The shutter clicks—frames the delusion.

I walk around to the main face of the building, the cross of Mount Royal shining neon and ultraviolet down on my doomed desire, the sliver of a moon echoing this radiance across the city’s night. Another few shutter-snaps crystallize this idiotic instance of backsliding into oblivion—flashing the time, date, and location of my dumbfounded desire into binary digits on a scriptural SD card. Looking at my watch, it’s time to go—Pascale and the show await.


Back in Betsy, I kill the hazards, twist the keys, and shift into reverse. Bidding this phantom farewell for another decade, I curl back down Rue University (remember an Idea telling me I didn’t have to worry about the winter wind tousling and disordering my hair, that long hair does exactly this in the wind—feeling what I imagine to be feeling close and loved, despite the doom unfolding beneath my feet). “Caramel Prisoner” by Air comes on in the shuffle, and a pit that tastes like Tartarus forms in the hollow of my chest, this the one song that can wordlessly and wholly encompass what this farewell felt—feels like.

All the fatalism aside, memories flaking away like the snow slowly suffocating on the street, I shortly arrive on Boulevard St. Laurent and manage to find a spot a block or two from the venue. I text Pascale to let her know I’m here, and pay for the obligatory final hour before the parking becomes free for the night. Walking up to the nearest street corner, I spy a familiar face across the way, a customary lit cigarette clutched between elegant and immaculate nails. Waving her down, I cross the street and give her a hug, remarking that it’s been too long. “Far too long,” she smiles, fragrant perfume and tobacco enrobing her person.

We continue up the street in search of a watering hole to catch up in. An amber-lit bar draws my attention—‘Darling’—and despite the usual dearth of drinking establishments near some of these venues, this one is packed for a Tuesday night, countless cute young things circulating and sipping their drinks. Pascale asks how things have been, and despite being uncommonly and uncharacteristically sober, my previous stop, combined with the weight of everything that’s been crushing down on me these past days (weeks, months, years) has me quickly spilling so many of my fears, foibles, and fatalisms—how my art seems to be at something of a standstill, not a single true publication to my name, no cavalry ostensibly incoming to bulwark my music, and how I’ve just come to despise and abhor most everything in existence. I consider relating the reality of the detour to her, but this wound is so personal and particular that even Pascale, whom I would trust with my life, I do not disburden myself to. We speak of our foiled frustrations with life, with the world as it is, falling apart and falling to pieces—and I smile and tell Pascale I’d forgotten how much I’d missed her. “You too!” she exclaims, sipping her whisky sour. “We can’t let this long go by again.”

 We finish our drinks, and I pay the bill. “Thanks for the drink,” Pascale smiles. I tell her it’s my pleasure; I’m eternally grateful for the company in this drab and daunting sepulchre of a city. Heading back out onto the street, we walk the two blocks to the venue and get in without incident. I go to get Pascale a ticket, but she looks uncertain and asks, “What time do you think they’re going on?”, to which I reply, “Probably nine thirty, ten…I don’t imagine they’ll be playing much past eleven.” Pascale asks if it’s ok if she doesn’t stick around for the show, and I tell her of course, it was great just to see her. We hug, and she disappears into the late winter night in a fragrant cloud of tobacco.

Exhaling, I descend the stairs to the basement for the dickpunch of a mandatory coat check, and head back upstairs to the auditorium. It’ s smaller than I’d expected, and there are fewer people than I expected—maybe fifty all together—although it is a Tuesday night, I remind myself. Having missed the openers, I don’t have to wait too long before the band starts setting up, Steve Ryan (a.k.a. Asian Steve to Dillinger Escape Plan fans) bringing guitars out and checking tunings. Greg Puciato is nowhere to be seen, presumably waiting backstage before the start of the show. A copy of ANTEDILUVIAN sits wedged in my back pocket, and I wonder if I should try to hand it to Steve now, before they get going, but the musician in me says no, he’s busy right now, so maybe after the show is better, and I’ll find a chance to go slip it to him or maybe even Puciato himself.

The lights finally dim, a video starting on the screen behind the stage, hydrologic imagery flickering with the band’s logo interspersed between shots. Puciato hops on stage, grabbing the mic as the band launches into “Thrown Into The Dark”, from their new album, Infinite Games, electronic percussion reverberating across the room from Josh Eustice’s electronic contraptions across the stage. Greg’s voice is raw and lush; despite the PA, the size of the room, and the proximity of the stage, his voice’s acoustics are audible on top of what’s amplified, and his pitch is enchanting and on-point—something different than one might expect of someone who sang “Prancer” and “Hero of the Soviet Union”.

The band segues into “No Accusations”, also off Infinite Games, the crowd applauding readily after this melodious opener. The slow, irregular rhythm of the percussion drones as Puciato whispers the opening lines, and although the execution is immaculate, the newer material differs from the chilled-out sangfroid of their first album, instead more downtempo and introspective. “Ice to Never” from Fever Daydream is next, the choir pads and crescendos of the opening descending into the arctic trills from Eustice, Puciato’s voice mellifluous as on the record, despite the absence of vocal backing tracks doubling his voice. The crowd joins in for the chorus, the mood beautiful and buoyant, myself lost somewhere in the mix.


 “Maybe We Should/Non-Consent” is next, the slow chatter of some unknown percussive instrument followed by low sub-bass synth notes, climaxing in the glorious chorus. “Distanced” is next, the sub-bass continuing with a low Christopher Nolan ooomm, the jazzy but downtempo drums keeping the rhythm as Puciato whispers and breathes into his mic like a lover’s ear. The crowd continues to applaud as the lights flicker and pulse with the beat, bleaching the stage with a low red and violet glow. “Your Move” from Infinite Games is next, more tranquil than the previous numbers, but ethereal and haunting like a pop k-hole nonetheless.

“Taman Shud” from Fever Daydream is next, lush drums crashing across the crowd, Puciato still pitch-perfect, Ryan adding his guitar flourishes, but his tone is all but drowned out in the mix—if I wasn’t watching him, I don’t know that I could say there was a guitar. “That Death Cannot Touch” is next, another infectious number from Fever Daydream, the percussion classic 80s 808 snares barking out the beat from Eustice’s rig, the crowd once again joining in the chorus. “Secret Scream” from the eponymous EP is next, clubby and catchy—a true joy to hear live. “The End Where We Start” from Fever Daydream follows, round bass notes bouncing from Eustice, organ-like synths singing. The chorus is, as are so many others, infectiously beautiful, and I find myself thinking of my earlier detour, Puciato’s lyrics romantic and personal as any great pop artist, but without all the commercial contamination that comes with big labels and big money.

“Now When I’m This” is next, the opening number from Fever Daydream, culminating into “One Edge of Two” from Infinite Games, the album closer, the modular synth percussion riding a steady kick and snare one-two combo, Ryan’s clean, heavily modulated guitar ringing out in the chorus, a delectable drop from Eustice’s bass synth a calling card as clear as any other. At the song’s end, Puciato starts to sing a line from Dillinger Escape Plan—“She moves abstract just/like a shadow dancing on the edge/like a storm cloud passing overhead/effortless and free…”, and although my hopes are high for an electronic Dillinger Escape Plan cover, the band progresses to “Strange Quark” from Fever Daydream, delay-saturated strings ringing out—whether from Eustice or Ryan, I can’t tell—the low rumble of the bass dimly roaring amongst the sudden snare hits, beautiful and poignant as any kind of apocalypse, segueing appropriately into “Apocalypse Morning” from Fever Daydream. The downtempo beats drum across the crowd, Puciato incanting what appears to be the finale.

However, without warning, the track stops and restarts, and Puciato looks over at Eustice and asks point-blank into the mic, “What just happened?” Eustice looks sheepish behind his glasses, and so Puciato says, “All right, I guess we’re playing it again!”, and with that, begin again, courtesy of the joys and pitfalls of electronic backing tracks. As the song progresses, Puciato picks up a guitar to join Ryan as the growing guitar crescendo that characterizes the album’s ending begins, a growing, glowing series of searing guitar licks executed with artistic impulse and abandon. With Aaron North-like intensity, both Ryan and Puciato hold their axes up to the cabinets to initiate solo-worthy feedback, building and building until abandoning the guitar, leaned up against the amplifier and ringing out, Ryan handing picks to those close enough to grab them (of which, I am one). The musicians all leave the stage, and at the end of it all, I’m regrettably unable to find an opportune moment to hand Ryan or Puciato the ANTEDILUVIAN promo quietly burning a hole in my back pocket.

A girl next to me purloins the setlist Ryan had been using—I curse her Britomartish boldness, but only because I’ve acted with so much indecision this evening. Looking at my watch, I realize I have two hours of driving still ahead of me, and so instead of holding out near the stage or the tour bus out front, I opt to place the promo on top of Ryan’s FX board, hoping he’ll take a chance on it when he comes back to load out. I return to the basement coat check, grab my jacket, and walk back to Betsy, who’s patiently waiting where I left her.

Igniting the engine one final time for the day, I turn on the seat heater, my GPS, and head to the highway. When I’m finally on the wide-open stretch of asphalt, the city shrinking behind me, I begin to relax, barely feeling the tires on the road beneath me as I accelerate to a hundred, one-ten, one-twenty, one-thirty, one-forty, the tachymeter slowly creeping upwards, the cars falling behind me as I try to outrun the memories, the night, “The Speed of Pain” by Marilyn Manson appearing on the shuffle as I continue to rock down the highway, into the darkness, into a dilation of spacetime itself, but no matter how hard I push the throttle, I fail to escape these memories—fail to escape myself.

The darkness is all-encompassing, and I remind myself that the memories in all likelihood live in my mind alone, a tree falling in the woods, a black hole devouring a star. It’s a nice story, I tell myself, but who would believe you—and more importantly, who cares? In this, as in so many other respects, I am alone. I give the gas everything I’ve got—push it to the limit.

When I finally arrive home, I’ve shaved fifteen minutes off my original ETA. I collapse in my bed, and wonder where it all went wrong—as if any such singular instant could ever be traced—could ever exist. Puciato’s voice and melancholy echoing from ear to ear, I remember with sharp, bitter stinging what it was like to feel that thunderbolt of obsession, all those long-lost years ago, and worse—better still—to still feel its echoes, these ten-odd years later, so much unchanged, so better deluded and dumbfounded by dim recollections, prismatic idealisms, and a raging, desperate desire to remember only the best and most blasphemous beauty as best I can.