(Photo: Greg Hindsley)

Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

For as long as I’ve known about Black Moth Super Rainbow, it’s been difficult to remember that it’s a band made of human beings. Over the years they’ve cultivated a warped mystique, seeming more like fungus-based creatures from a deep forest than people; the band’s label once described their music as an “organic aural concoction.” With names like Tobacco, The Seven Fields of Aphelion and Iffernaut (not to mention Power Pill Fist, no longer with the band)—alongside frontman Tobacco’s persistent vocoder vocals, used to completely replace the sound of an actual human voice—you can lose sight of the fact that these people are really called things like Tom, Ken or Maureen.

The live incarnation of BMSR feels like an attempt to further the alienation of the members. They perform in darkness, lit almost exclusively by the glow of their projectors, which project all manner of weird sights behind them and on the veil in front of them. If you’re standing far enough back that you can just watch the falling leaves and creeping vines in the foreground, it’s possible to turn your brain off just enough to forget that normal, everyday humans, admittedly weird ones, are on the stage, playing normal, human-made instruments. If you’re going to see the band play, this is possibly the best way to do it: from the middle of the room, where you can reduce the members to dark, inhuman silhouettes.

From the front of the room, though, the appeal of the band began to wear off as the evening progressed. Because the focus is meant to be everything but the band, it can grow tiresome if you’re in a position where you can mostly only see the band. By design, then, the members have less stage presence than most bands I’ve seen in my life. While this is to be expected, it makes it easy to wonder how engaged a sizable chunk of the audience were as a result, unable to really take advantage of the full spectacle. In short, it breaks the fourth wall, allowing you to see the mechanisms that make BMSR work, in a way that it feels like you shouldn’t see up close.

The music, though, sounded great, though it never strayed too far from the recorded material itself. Leaning most heavily on this year’s Panic Blooms and 2009’s Eating Us, with a heavy dose of their 2007 breakthrough Dandelion Gum, their hour-and-change set was tight, but, at times, felt too calculated, with every song sticking pretty closely to the recorded versions. Still, though, it was nice hearing classics like “Forever Heavy” and “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Shine,” as well as deeper cuts like Start a People’s “1 2 3 of Me” and “Spiracle” from their collaboration with the Octopus Project. The evening could have used a few of the more rock-inflected songs from Cobra Juicy to really get the crowd going—where, for instance, were “Windshield Smasher,” or “Hairspray Heart”—but outside of this gripe, their sequencing was impeccable.

While the experience is uneven in places, it’s still worth it to check out a Black Moth Super Rainbow show, even if you may need to check your image of the band at the door. If you don’t mind seeing how the sausage gets made, though, they are undoubtedly one of the better, weirder nights of music you could ask for.

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