On the last night of the preliminary round, the 2016 Rock And Rumble finally had its first upset… depending on in the room who you asked. Dream-pop trio usLights, who played fourth in the night and represented the 24th and final band to perform during preliminary week, won the approval of the judges and will move on to next week’s semi-finals. UsLights will join Abbie Barrett and Worshipper in the first semi-final night, Friday, April 15 at Once Ballroom. Weakened Friends, Analog Heart, and Salem Wolves will play the second semi-final evening the following evening, and two wild cards (announced Sunday night on Anngelle Wood’s Boston Emissions on WZLX) will round out each lineup.
But before we start thinking semis, there’s some Saturday night action to recap. While many in the room likely thought the punk pizzaz of The Knock Ups or the bluesy biker rock of The Devil’s Twins would move on (opener Courage Cloak offered a solid and forceful brand of post-rock, but post-rock never really wins these sorts of things), it instead was usLights, an electronic-leaning project featuring two former members of Central Massachusetts synth-rock band Herra Terra. With elements of M83 and Neon Indian’s earlier, more chillwave-ish work, usLights were enhanced greatly by the intricate live drumming of Shawn Pelkey and multiple layers of harmony that balanced just over a wash of synths and guitars. They’ll definitely bring a unique element to the semis, and since few thought they’d advance after tonight, they can’t be counted out against classic metal juggernaut Worshipper or guitar-pop sensation Abbie Barrett.
Like we mentioned above, Courage Cloak are the type of band that ever wins these things, but who cares, because they got to show off their skill and there were more than a handful of heads in the crowd who were exposed for the first time to the sweeping grandeur of the band’s heavy, vertical post-rock. Go smoke a joint, turn off all the lights in your home, and let the band’s December LP Praise The Thaw crawl inside your head for a while.
They sang songs about the Charles Manson “sisters”, a hatred for beards*, and the phenomenon of a person at the bar never being as attractive as you first thought once the lights go up and the club gets ready to close. If the Rumble were based on subject matter, the spunky punk-rock trio would waltz into the next round. The Knock Ups also had style, opening their set with a recorded intro of The Crystals’ 1962 soul track “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” before blasting off into bratty guitar rock heaven**; and as they proved on more than one occasion, sometimes three chords are all you need. (*Note 1: we think some of the judges on this night had beards… maybe they were turned off by the Knock Ups’ anti-beard song. **Note 2: Their track “1969” is really, really good.)
We’ll be honest: we thought the Devil’s Twins had this one locked up (nevermind they were playing on Night 666), especially when the crowd started chanting their name once they were finished laying waste to the Once stage. The trio amped it up to three within seconds of starting up, and took the room on a rollercoaster ride of bluesy biker rock and noir-punk. They played to the “fullest” floor in front of the stage, and seemed to command the room. Drummer Ryan Manning was a motherfucking force and sibling duo Nikki Coogan (vocals and tambourine) and Jeremiah Louf (vocals and guitar) showed off their lifelong chemistry. We don’t know this for sure, and, we stress, we are only speculating here, but maybe, maybe… maybe the Devil’s Twins and the Knock Ups cancelled each other out on the judges’ scorecards, because they were the two groups with the most in common and we thought after it was all finished that one of them would win. We don’t know.
Of course, that’s not to take anything away from usLights, who delivered a mechanical-yet-human set of dream-pop and electronic pulse waves. The music was warm and lush, and again, the precision and dance-minded touch of drummer Shawn Pelkey really elevates usLights from a bedroom project to an impressive live band. We’re a sucker for a stage show, and usLights delivered that as well, with vocalist/guitarist Gregg Kusumah-Atmadja asking for the house lights to be dimmed in order for the trio’s lone stage light to shine upwards from a far corner. Sure, it added ambience, but in the end it was usLights’ songs and structures, rhythmic and meandering at the same time (especially the propulsive “God Save The Queen”) that propelled them to the next round. The lesson we learned? Electronic bands can do well in the Rock And Roll Rumble.