A Dystopian Diner & Math Rock with Emotion: A Night @ Alphaville, Brooklyn

Across all of Bushwick and Williamsburg, through the warehouses and scrapyards, elevated rails and dusty industrial districts, Alphaville is probably my favorite music venue for solidly underground acts.

Given that there are so many places to see music in Williamsburg and Bushwick, that might sound a bold and reckless proclamation. But there are three things about Alphaville: first, I’ve ever been to a bad show or seen any bad bands there. That’s kind of a big deal, especially when it comes to indie music. Second, the sound quality is second-to-none. And third… actually, I guess those are the only two. Well, third, it’s cheap. Always.

When you walk into Alphaville, you’re not sure what you’re going to get. Before the bar, you’ll pass a strange used-to-be-a-patio section that’s been flattened into unsittable concrete.

Source: Emanuela Offidani

From there, you’ll walk along the bar, which has ample seating that’s almost always full during big shows . The drink specials are cheap, especially the beer-and-shot combo that seems to be the go-to self-destruction drink of Bushwick hipsters. There’s still the same special on the board every time I go: if you can prove you’re on a Tinder date, you get a free shot.

There are booths stuck in the corner and the bathroom is down a perilous staircase that takes you into what can only be described as a breeding ground for band stickers and, possibly, termites.

My favorite room in Alphaville is the corner to the left, which really evokes a post-apocalyptic diner. Wires hang from the ceiling. The wall is gouged with holes. There’s plaster, concrete, brick, you name it. And, with booths so high that they essentially block the sound from the venue, this gives you a private place to hang out and drink or have some of Alphaville’s deceptively good food.

The dystopian vibe is real. The name “Alphaville”, for all I can tell, is derived from a 1965 movie directed by known 88-year-old hipster Jean Luc-Goddard (unless it’s from the band Alphaville, but they were also named for the film).

From Wikipedia’s educated rambling (and a Netflix trailer showing grainy black-and-white footage of a guy driving a car), I can tell you that “Alphaville” the film was about a dystopian alien planet controlled by a computer. Wikipedia classifies it as sci fi, noir, and satire. And I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to describe Alphaville’s aesthetic.

The music space, which is accessed through another set doors, is occasionally populated by stools and high-tops that were mysteriously missing for this show. It also reveals where all of Alphaville’s budget went: the soundsystem. Because this is a venue that has the finest dimensional sound that I’ve encountered this side of $20.

Everything is clear, from vocals to guitar and bass. No instrument overpowers another. I can’t overemphasize how surprising the clarity of the PA is – usually, at other venues, there always seems to be mud stuck in at least the microphone or bass amp. The sound, at its very best, sounds like studio-quality live recordings.

I specifically went to see two of my favorite Brooklyn bands: A Deer A Horse and Haybaby, who is releasing an album next week. I also caught Shark?, a band that was apparently having an anniversary show.

1. Shark?

Shark? is a band that has strong Brooklyn roots. At least from what I can interpret through the mysterious Facebook posts from a mostly defunct Facebook Page.

The anthropological dig through a dormant band’s digital properties is always a morbidly fascinating journey, but, at least with Shark?, I was treated to some really distinctive, impressive music – and the fun factoid that “California Grrls” appeared in Grand Theft Auto V.

Upon entering Alphaville’s cemented, windowless music space, I was immediately caught by the tornado of Shark? energy. The place was packed. With swelling, powerful vocals that easily came through the microphone, I could make out every booming word of the songs. With a Killers-esque, punk rock sound, every song had a hook and awesome breakdowns.

Who knew a chorus of “I hate California girls” could be made into a hook?

2. A Deer A Horse

Since I started seeing A Deer A Horse way back when The Rock Shop actually played music (and ohmygod it’s closed now), I’ve watched the trio get harder and tighter. From an alt rock sound with a hint of metal, the band’s new material has evolved into a really fresh take on sludge metal, with a strong blend of Alice In Chains and rhythm-driven noise rock.

The dual vocals of guitarist Rebecca Satellite and bassist Angela Phillips add an unforgettable dynamic to every song. And, with most songs based in concepts or told from different perspectives (from serial killers to Kurt Vonnegut), live performances always have memorable theatrical elements. You can get lost in this music and the characters that are performed on stage. With superb lyrics and incredibly tight band dynamics, A Deer A Horse is one of my favorite Brooklyn bands on the scene. And they’re only getting better.

3. Haybaby

The first time I saw Haybaby, they were opening for New Myths at Rough Trade. I was blown away. The bass-drum interplay is a persistent, heavy, funky throb as the instruments trade blows. Vocalist Leslie Hong’s guitar flits between them and occasionally joins them in satisfying thrusts of sound, roaring to crescendos before flitting back away. Combine this with her distinctive, smoky, growling, smiling voice and you have a force that cannot be stopped.

While the original sound of Haybaby seemed a lot more focused on math rock with a tang of metal, I’ve watched the band transform that sound into a much more polished blend of the two. With the EP “Blood Harvest“, you have a great sampler of all Haybaby’s sounds in a compact outfit, from heavy metal takes like “Pig” to the darkly emotional “Joke/Rope.”

This set was all about previewing what’s in their upcoming album, “They Get There” (due to be released next week). From the two singles, “Total Bore” and “Get Down”, it seems that the balance has been achieved: there’s heaviness, there’s emotion, and there’s the telltale math rock jams that make Haybaby so unique.

Math + Emotion = Metally Math Rock with Feel

The punk edges of Bushwick and Williamsburg tend to find their identity these days in rhythm-driven outfits. There’s a distinct movement among these bands where the bass and drums play just as pronounced a role as the guitarist. With Shark?, A Deer A Horse, and Haybaby, it’s clear that there’s a core of that movement that gets channeled into alt rock, but without the bragging guitar that usually dominates a lot of the acts usually associated with the genre.

I’m always impressed by the limits that are pushed when it comes to blending heavy metal with more poppy choruses, especially with A Deer A Horse and Haybaby. When I went to H0L0 and saw bands like Realworld and Citris, I was thinking about what “nineties revival” means in the context of today.

These sounds are different. Haybaby and A Deer A Horse seem to be an evolution of Nirvana and Alice In Chains, an offshoot of grunge and sludge and math rock and alt metal all stewed together but bubbling with a new awareness and emotion. For me, emotion is what makes these kinds of groups so contemporary, too: there is true vulnerability in the lyrics and the delivery of both A Deer A Horse and Haybaby, but there’s also power and hope.

In a way, Alphaville is a great embodiment of that, too. It’s not easy to be an underground act in an era of streaming. But on Monday night, the place was packed, everyone was laughing and having a good time, and, if this really was a dystopia, it didn’t seem so bad.

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