For the better part of 2013, the seditiously enigmatic producer and singer-songwriter duo Rhye riveted music fans with their salacious and sophisticated debut, Woman. In support of the album, Rhye performed last Friday at Webster Hall to an engrossed crowd of motionless, enthralled onlookers.
The evening began with a brief opening set by the emerging, blusterous synth-pop act Ricky Eat Acid, fronted by Sam Ray and accompanied by a second supplementary musician. The material from Ricky Eat Acid’s debut, Three Love Songs, is a disheveled conglomeration of eerie dysphoria, large snippets of spoken word recordings, sparsely immersed with more languid, dance-oriented rhythms. The performance abated from this conglomerated approach. Instead, their set was decidedly singular, reflecting similar sentiments of turbulent melancholy.
Tracks like “I Can Hear The Heart Breaking as One” and “In Rural Virginia; Watching Glowing Lights Crawl From The Dark,” showcased extended, seemingly improvisational breakdowns, looped and distorted tapes of ambient noise and disturbingly inundating waves of calamitous guitar feedback. Halfway through their set, Ray reaches behind his table of programming equipment and cassette players, wielding a square-shaped object that distorts the reverberating melodies. Syncopated with the song’s close, Ray clicks off the small bedroom lamp that faintly lights up the stage. Whether this is a reverent nod to the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, or just another subtle affection of this band’s inherent oddity remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it works. When the bedroom light is doused, the music takes on a more articulated sense of urgency. Static-induced ambiance roils and swells to incredulous volumes. In its delirious penchant for vacuous, emotionally addled white noise, though, Ricky Eat Acid’s performance was spiritually reifying.
Rhye appeared promptly at 9pm, silent and austere. Obvious complications arise when replicating the dense, full-figured sound embodied throughout Woman by producer Robin Hannibal. The instrumentation varies from disembodied steel drums, poignant clarinet descants, and provocative harp arrangements. The congruent six-piece ensemble, however, was more than capable of evoking opaque soul-pop constructions with a limited but still impressive range of voices: electric violin, bass guitar, upright piano, drum set, trombone, violin, and a spare snare drum for singer-songwriter-bandleader Mike Milosh to intermittently embellish the rhythmic flow on songs like “Hunger” and “Last Dance.”
Rhye is notorious for assuming a low-profile visual presence in the media (to include his debut TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where a single, intensely luminous spotlight shielded his appearance as a hazy silhouette), so it was no surprise that the night’s show strictly prohibited photography and excessive talking. The initially bothersome restriction was quickly disregarded in lieu of the enthralling spectacle. Save for the intermittent flash bulbs directed from the balcony, most of the audience corresponded with the artist’s request. Milosh did not appear particularly shy or introverted. The stage lights remained dimmed a liquid hue of blue, enough to vaguely illuminate the faces of the impeccable band and its intrinsic vocal fulcrum. Front-and-center, Milosh seemed tentative to assume the role of lead vocalist. The majority of his efforts were directed towards conducting the band, expertly trained to their movements and languidly conducting their sonic progressions. As a classically trained cellist, it seemed all Milosh could do to refrain from delving into an instrument and abandoning his mic stand. He was most comfortable assuming the role during a performance of “The City,” a track written by Milosh eight years prior for his sophomore solo album Meme. Despite this aversion to eminence, he was no less amicable and endearing than his voice lends fans to believe, especially after forgetting the lyrics and vocally improving to one of his more widely received songs “Open.”
This Webster Hall performance interpreted Woman as a sparse, extended conception of distraught romanticism. The more ostentatiously syncopated grooves, like “Last Stand,” lacked the bombastic flare of brass instrumentation. To remedy this dysfunction, the song was lagged, triggered with an intoxicating sensation of soulful latency, while still retaining a prevailing air of funk. Certain ostensible liberties were taken with this performance, arrangements modified, diminished, mutated. The sole female member of Rhye’s touring band delivered a bewitching trombone solo on the latter half of “Hunger,” the irrefutable apotheosis of their bombastic set that sent the crowd into a unanimous uproar.
There were moments when Rhye’s performance felt inexplicably tender and exposed, more so to the observers than the players. Amidst amorous strings, alternating major-minor piano chords and submerging, groove-savvy basslines, the music would confront substantially vacuous moments of silent brevity— the dissenting eye of the storm. It was this feeling Milosh hoped to matriculate during the last of a dauntingly stunted set list, to include no encores. He ushered the crowd to an enraptured kind of communal silence for his closing song, as cathartic as it was surreal.