Wandering Through Dissonance with A Happy Death

Vortex Music Magazine

A Happy Death is the only Portland band who I’m not sure if they’re kidding when they say they’re going to sacrifice an animal on stage—words that were uttered on Friday night at their Firkin Tavern tape release show with Mister Tang and Cambrian Explosion.

I snaked around the bar of The Firkin Tavern, crisscrossing between human pillars and stumbling drunks. The narrow alley between the bar and the entrance to the music area was blocked further by people desperately trying to siphon water from a nearly empty cooler, looking up at me with terrified eyes as I passed by. I found a seat and waited for the chaos to ensue.

Cambrian Explosion opened the evening and seemed to be fully aware of the fact that they needed to bring out their weapons and threaten the crowd. A band I once thought to be docile and reserved began pumping waves of dissonance into the layers of beer-clenching viewers. I stood back and listened to reverb and twang echoing in the small room. An image decorating the wall of a woman with her hands pushed forward seemed to reach out and grab at the crowd. The lights dimmed and brightened, forcing a woman’s leopard-print coat to feather and contract with the shadows.

People snaked back out of the bar for cigarettes between the Cambrian Explosion set and the beginning of Mister Tang. A homeless man outside observed the crowd and yelled that he had drove himself “bonkers.”

Mister Tang’s set was possibly the most harrowing, with erratic guitar flows and the drum sequences of someone who recently took a thick line of cocaine to his marrow. The set was high energy and seemed to throw the crowd into a frenzy—unsure whether to stomp their feet or fight each other. One song seemed to bleed into the next, and the whole experience felt like a loud jam session that would have been exhausting for most musicians to keep up with. Long, distorted guitar sequences seemed to attack the crowd without letting up.

A Happy Death ended the evening—it being their tape release show. Bright strobes began to light up the room and fog machines were prepped and ready to smoke people out. I watched them from beside the pool table, which was set up far too close to the performance area, and I nearly broke a pool cue on a man’s head who didn’t seem to realize that he was interfering with something far more important than impressing his girlfriend with a bar game.

Lead singer Ryan Lella took the stage with uncharacteristically bleach-blond hair. He was surrounded by keyboardist Jaclyn Hardin, Mathieu Lewis-Rolland on drums, and a man sitting in the corner playing bass unenthusiastically (likely because he recently suffered a case of bronchitis). Ryan was certainly enthusiastic, often pushing the crowd and throwing empty beer cans that came his way.

A Happy Death played their loud, angry, pulsing punk-rock-psychedelia—and that one pop song they do that kind of sounds like a drunk love song. Lella’s face contorted in accordance with the strange noises that often came from his mouth, resembling a demonic being delivering a war cry. A Happy Death was most successful at getting the crowd into a pushing/falling match, like it should be at a punk rock show, and young people that seemed to be dressed like old men and women fought and fell over each other in the chaos. There were also the requisite punk kids that lined the crowd and seemed to keep everything in order.

Songs like “Rabbit Hole” really pushed the crowd into madness and displayed why people like A Happy Death. Lella’s incoherent but memorable chatter peeked out over the loud instruments. He didn’t hold back with the energetic theatrics and Hardin seemed to splay her arms across the keyboard, rocking her head back in forth in a forceful way. I’ve seen A Happy Death play all over town, but I almost never see them commit to a performance like they did this one.

You can get the new cassette, Introducing: A Happy Death, or a digital download of it via Bandcamp. To get a feel for the album before you buy, I highly recommend “Rabbit Hole” and “Firewalk.”

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