It’s not that often that you see something really new. I’m not just talking about the sweet tang of chronological freshness here, mind you. I’m talking about a different feeling, something deeper and more substantial. What I’m after here is the leftward mind-rotation that only happens when you feast your eyes on something that forces you to gleefully add another bullet point to your list of musical possibilities. Now I don’t meant to be a Bragging Betty here, but I got that feeling the other night. I saw The Sticks play live.
Innovative, moody and enthralling, Sydney three-pice The Sticks go beyond the realm of a standard electronic band. Their live show alone is a revelation.
At this point, some background is necessary. The Sticks are a three-piece Sydney-based band consisting of Daniel Pliner, Josh Ahearn, and Alon Ilsar. They make what can only be called –rather reductively – electronic music. As you’ve no doubt twigged, this is not a helpful description. The Sticks make music that trades in thick synthetic textures that ripple and swell over a slowly-evolving bed of digital percussion and pitch shifted bass guitar. Their tunes are dense and nonlinear, and yet they contain deceptively few moving parts.
Their latest release is a self-titled album that ably demonstrates the deep-kick and heavenly industrial side to their sound over a batch of ten compositions, and it’s well worth your ears’ time. But the live set is where the real action is. Here we can go no further without addressing the ‘AirSticks’. When you see The Sticks live, the first thing that stands out before a note is played is this strange minimalist contraption wielded by Alon Ilsar.
This consists of two motion controllers festooned with buttons, a midi pad-controller operated barefoot, and what looks like a Kinect camera that’s been subject to some heavy tampering. The result is the world’s strangest midi controller, one that acts almost like an industrial-grade Theremin.
With the AirSticks, Ilsar is able to play live while hopping seamlessly from more conventional sampled drum sounds to great swoops of noisy motion-controlled sample-manipulation – and anywhere in between – within the space of a few beats. It’s visually striking and aurally gripping, and in a world where the word ‘revolutionary’ is so ubiquitous as to be drab and meaningless, I struggle to think of an adequate term to describe the seamlessness of its blend between the intrinsic benefits of the human and digital performer.
But this band is not a one-trick-pony. The AirSticks would be nothing but a gimmick if they were not employed in the service of great musicians. Josh Ahearn’s bass playing is nimble and textured, setting up complex lines that both anchor the groove and act as strong melodic counterpoints by virtue of their running through what sounds like an octave-doubling effect that places them more audibly in melodic spectrum. The synth tones of Daniel Pliner are similarly essential.
Alternately providing smooth, moody spaces-capes, and harsh stabs of chunky noise, they are crucial to the seamless transition between tunes that characterises The Sticks’ live performances. Throw in Alon Ilsar’s complex beat making on the inimitable AirSticks, and you’ve got yourself a winning trio that’s about as truly modern sounding as it gets these days. Don’t stop at the records though – you owe it to yourself to see them live.