Dirty Beaches @ Church 9.5.13

by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published September 10th 2013

photos by Ben Stas

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September finds Dirty Beaches, a.k.a. vocalist/songwriter Alex Zhang Hungtai and guitarist/synth-smith Shub Roy, on their first headlining U.S. tour in support of 2013’s stellar double LP Drifters/Love is the Devil. The duo’s Boston date brought them to Church, an upscale restaurant in the Fenway neighborhood with a charmingly tiny rock club attached. Sisu, the shoegaze side-project of Dum Dum Girls drummer Sandra Vu, opened the show.

Describing the prolific output of Dirty Beaches in a sentence or two is a bit of a challenge. Hungtai has been releasing music under the moniker since 2007, spanning numerous EPs, LPs, cassettes and 7”s which are all helpfully organized and stream-able at his Bandcamp page. Part of the brilliance of the new double record is how it distills the numerous directions of these releases into a single cohesive experience. The skeletal electronics and melodic tendencies of Drifters pick up where more accessible records like Badlands left off, while part two, Love is the Devil, offers droning, heartbroken instrumental pieces that recall Hungtai’s early work. With the help of longtime collaborator Roy, Hungtai put on a set that fused these two sides of his music just as effectively as the new record does.

Lit by multicolor LEDs that were fittingly reminiscent of Drifters’ nighttime neon vibes, Hungtai and Roy wove new songs together with noisy interludes in a set that felt seamless. Hungtai began the show by sawing at a piece of bent metal affixed with a contact microphone using a drumstick, casting sheets of amorphous metallic noise from the speakers as Roy further manipulated the atmosphere behind his podium of gadgets. A minimalist loop of a drum track gradually emerged from the tumult, gliding into one of Drifters’ nocturnal excursions; danceable, in a way, but with a sinister edge.

That edge comes courtesy of Hungtai’s distinctive vocals, which carry over the heavy grit and distortion of his records to the stage. His words were largely masked by processing, but his performance was no less passionate and emotive for it. Such harsh effects served to amplify the emotional bite of each lyric. Hungtai is not shy about admitting that his heart and soul are poured into these songs, and to watch him on stage is to become even more aware of that fact. He radiates an intensity that makes his investment in this music readily evident, even during the wordless Love is the Devil selections.

Throughout the night, Hungtai and Roy demonstrated a mastery of the challenging work that is translating music seemingly bound to its lo-fi production to a live show. Synths, keys and guitars sounded crisper, lifting a bit of the haze that floats over most every Dirty Beaches recording, but the songs never lost their distinctive character. It was a good night all around for Hungtai’s challenging and intriguing project.

Openers Sisu also made a positive impression with their intoxicating brand of shoegaze. Shades of My Bloody Valentine and a few decades’ worth of dream-pop were reference points in the quintet’s swirling, enveloping sound, and with the red glow of the stage lights, the sizeable pedal boards and Vu’s sparkling purple guitar, the mood was easy to get lost in.

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