A night of contrast: William Ingrid vs. The Tempers

30 July 2013, from Reviews and criticism

In which the powerfully delicate melodic labyrinth of William Ingrid play against the dark, thundering steam engine of The Tempers (29 July 2013, at the Portland’s Hebesha Lounge)

William Ingrid are old favorites of mine. Their first (and, so far, only) album, 2009’s Where Are You?, is a regular soundtrack to my road trips and airplane journeys. Somehow it is perfect at speed, in transition. Yet this sense of transition is perhaps paradoxical, as William Ingrid is the nom de plume (and middle names) of wedded duo Derek & Kristen Larson.

Where Are You? is, essentially, an outward-facing manifestation of their inner relationship. Kristen’s voice (the dominant narrator) shimmers along the fine edge of the line where two people interact: their doubts, foibles, worries, affections, and simple happiness. (One of my favorite songs is ‘Sleep Here Forever,’ whose one-minute length is only this: ‘I like the feeling when we wake up / the sun is shining on the two of us / blankets around us forming our cave / we want to sleep and we want to stay all day / we want to sleep here forever.’)

Musically, William Ingrid captures a similar fine line. Theirs is a kind of melodious minimalism: notes that are just barely a waveform, spread carefully across the space of each song, with plenty of space left between. Kristen’s powerful voice is a rich and mellifluous sauce over Derek’s complex, bitty, glitchy synth work: eight-bit digitization overlaid with analog soul.

Live, Derek & Kristen weave a tantalizing fabric of delightful electro-pop out of a sizable array of keyboards and effects (plus a guitar & harmonica). Costumed respectively in a tuxedo and a hoop dress of illuminated, sound-triggered electro-luminescent wire, they somehow rise above the usual bland triggered electronica. Instead, they weave these devices with their emotions — human mixed with digital — and out comes love.

But it is over far too early. This is my biggest frustration with William Ingrid: they stop before they’re truly done. If there is a band out there who wins the lack-of-self-confidence award, it is William Ingrid. The world is waiting for you, guys: get out there and connect.

The Tempers reject their native Seattle’s unfinished fascination with grunge, rock, and folk, and instead wear their synth-glam influences proudly and explicitly. (For further insight, see Mute Magazine’s interview with the band.) To me, as someone who lived in that city, it’s a logical outgrowth: since its discovery by the rest of the world in the late 1990s, the leading edge of its culture has been trying hard to create a new identity, one far removed from the middle-aged Seattle, whose aesthetic was inspired more by dying logging towns and a skeletal Boeing than the current modern, shiny, Amazonian city on the hill.

Even as a fairly young trio, The Tempers broadcast an inky and inexorable passion and power. Chalia Bakker brings forth a constant, roiling boil of sound pressure from her drums. Her sister Corina masticates her warbly lyrics into the microphone, often processing her vocals through a vocoder or other electronification. With a small rack of keyboards, their brother James somehow glues all this into something close to a melody.

But calling the songs ‘melodies’ is misleading. As I listen to them in the tiny Hebesha Lounge, The Tempers scare the fuck out me. Out of their dirge comes a sense of invasion, a terrible gutting of the soul. There is nothing delicate here, nor does the band leave room for such trifles. They claim their songs are about love, and I’m sure that’s true: but this is not the slow, weepy, needful love, nor the crowing of successful love. Instead, we hear a writhing, reedy, pounding moan. Yet The Tempers is no noise band; oddly, it reminds me more of a jam between Kraftwerk and Nico. Modern Seattle meets pre-wall Berlin?

But ultimately their passion turns to tedium. I suspect their long-term songwriting effort is largely in the lyrics — heard live, the incessant and unvarying drums, the growling vocoder processing, and the muddy sound of the synths leave little meat on the bones. It’s an obvious danger of being inspired by the repetitious-by-design electronica/EDM. Their dark-sequin-glam look feels forced, overly theatrical, almost fashionable, as if inspired by a modern Malcolm McLaren. Simply, they seem like they are trying too hard. Indeed, there is something wriggling out there in the dark, but The Tempers have not yet grabbed ahold of it.

(Note: I was unable to stay for the third and final set by Daniel Rafn, whose inscrutable show notes claim that ‘his humble bling are pop agates.’)