Review by Angela Denk for mk ultra magazine and photos by Nathan Vestal www.nvusimages.com
“Getting on stage with them, you’re in this—you just go.”
I’m talking with Bruce Lamont (Brain Tentacles, Yakuza) in a glorified closet on the second floor of Thalia Hall, the Pilsen neighborhood theater where Pigface—Martin Atkins’ decades-long industrial music project—is about to perform the last show of their first tour in 14 years. Lamont is one of two horn players joining the band on stage tonight. This unused utility space is probably the quietest spot in the building. An avant-garde metal Somebody (he’s known for his saxophone playing and ambient noise work), Lamont said he jumped at the chance to join the group.
“When Martin asked me if I was interested in doing some Pigface shows, I said absolutely. I kind of didn’t know what I was getting into. I went in with no expectations [to] see what happens … A little chaos with this band is what fuels the fire. It’s madness, but the core band is fucking tight,” he said.
And tight they are. The night’s lineup is formidable and includes Pigface anchors Martin Atkins (PiL, Killing Joke), Curse Mackey (Evil Mothers), Mary Byker (PWEI, Gaye Bykers On Acid), Lesley Rankine (Silverfish, Ruby), En Esch (KMFDM), Charles Levi (My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult), Chris Connelly (Revolting Cocks, Ministry), as well as Andrew Weiss (Ween), Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), Danny Carey (Tool), Bobdog Catlin (Evil Mothers), Bradley Bills (Chant), Orville Kline (Porn and Chicken), Greta Brinkman (Moby, Druglord), Dirk Flanigan (77 Luscious Babes), Leanne Murray, Martin King (Test Dept.) and Lamont.
Before I met up with the saxophone player in a closet, I watched the night’s opening acts: I Ya Toyah—the one-woman industrial dance project created by Ania Tarnowska—and Gaelynn Lea, a classically-trained violinist who won NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Concert series.
I Ya Toyah’s set plays as readily to Pigface fans as it would to an art crowd at the MCA. The presentation—choreographed light, color and movement paired with sequenced beats and Tarnowska’s confident vocals—comes off like futuristic art, a new wave of New Wave with no retro-kitsch cheese. There’s nothing hesitant or unsure in her performance or demeanor. Just joy and determination.
“The one-woman project idea came from the constant disappointment of projects with other people failing. I’m passionate and driven,” Tarnowska said, “and if I cannot have [bandmates] with the same level of passion, I will just do it on my own.”
I ya toyah, she revealed during an October interview, means it’s just me in her native Polish.
Gaelynn Lea offered something quieter. Live-looped string compositions, plaintive vocals and fiddling, no less confident but more haunted. The Duluth musician won over the Chicago crowd with skillful playing and graceful presence. When a piece of equipment fed back, Lea quipped at the audience until it was fixed, then started the song again to applause.
I don’t talk with Lamont for very long. It’s pre-show, and I know he needs to get to the green room. We part ways and I take a seat on one of the hall’s balcony benches.
Below, the floor has filled in. It’s the crowd you expect at a Pigface show: a lot of people who look like they’re in bands and a smattering of BDSM kink scenesters. One documentary trailer, one promoter spiel and one clown later (a la Jim Rose Circus and Sideshow, a barker warming up the crowd and killing time by driving metal spikes into his face and sewing his lips together), the sound collage of Insemination begins. Like a Hell-version of the opening sequence to Disney’s Fantasia (but a good Hell that you like being in), the band stays backlit and screened until the kick and snare of Asphole emerge. Then the screens come down.
Curse Mackey establishes his place as ringmaster on a small proscenium. Throughout the night, his absence and return mark the band’s moves from stylized features—like the European-theatrical War Ich Nicht Immer Ein Guter Junge? from En Esch and the halcyon performance of Chickasaw from Lesley Rankine—back to the full ensemble crashes of songs across the band’s seminal catalog.
Chris Connelly makes his first appearance during Murder Inc., the eponymous track from one of the Scottish singer’s multiple projects in the nineties, and returns most notably to handle lead vocals on Weightless and Point Blank. Dreadlocks and pallor long gone, Connelly looks well-adjusted—like he might practice yoga during the day—but he still channels ghost-boy anguish in his howls and off-in-the-right-way melodies.
One of the highest energy performances comes from Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe during his visceral take on Tapeworm. In place of Nivek Ogre’s gargoyle sounds, Blythe gives the audience deep metal growl, and this version becomes a virtuoso duet between the stadium singer and Bobdog Catlin, wailing with a slide on a signature flying V guitar. (Sidenote: Mr. Blythe, I also believe this track to be baby-making music. Cheers.)
Point Blank comes next—and again. Opener Lea delivered her own version—a somber, sweet rendition Atkins asked her to create for Pigface’s 25th anniversary in 2016—earlier in the night. This time—as on the record—Connelly performs the Gub track, singing a dirge to Lea’s lament.
The dub flow, early punk drive of Alles Ist Mein gives way to the strange swing of En Esch In the Flesh, the heat of Seven Words. The anthemic Hips, Tits, Lips, Power brings Lesley Rankine back to the center. In this and Chickasaw, her vocals come across pure and studio-clean. Her presence telegraphs majesty; she’s a queen, and her bandmates and the audience know it. Midnight starts closing in, and the players are waving checkered flags on the stage—for real. Auto Hag, the next cut, seems to signify something to the band. A shift.
And this is my favorite part.
Blythe has climbed Atkins’ drum cage. Mackey is crawling on top of Byker on the stage floor. Lamont wears a unicorn head while he plays stage right, and this is what we all came for: a bat-shit breakdown to Sabbath-y rhythms rendered only the way a dozen punk-industrial survivors can do it. You can feel the exhaustion and feel the love on the stage. This is why we bought the tickets. With all the prowess and pasts gathered, the players are engaged in something raw and new together.
I can’t imagine any more people fitting on the stage until Suck, the final final song of the night. No Trent Reznor vocals; Blythe takes it again and his intonation—although vastly different from Reznor’s—works.
This is goodbye. We’re watching a tour end. Atkins leaves his throne and brings a drum down to the crowd. He’s letting audience members beat on it in his hands. The stage is wing-to-wing people. When the song ends and the ugly-lights come on, everything is still beautiful.