September 27, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau
Their arty noise rock aggression was partly made up of wide-open spaces, distorted riffs, and sheets of cutting cymbals. They also had a sound that employed some of the grandest aspects of power pop, enhanced with two-part harmonies and crammed into a succession of rapid-fire, three-minute songs. Starfish, guitarist Jason Morales, bassist Ronna Era, and drummer Scott Marcus, were masters of pleasant hammerings.
It makes sense, then, their debut album, Stellar Sonic Solutions from 1995, was produced by one of the pioneering hardcore melodic crusaders, Bob Mould, who in the 1980’s with his band Hüsker Dü completely destroyed the boundary lines previously separating melody and noise. Two years later, Starfish’s second record, Frustrated, extended that idea, but with a fresh freewheeling aspect that utilized different studio techniques and instruments. The first two tracks take up a whopping 12 minutes, both instrumentals and both harnessing the band’s power and patience. “Canada” is an eight-minute didgeridoo/feedback ooze, (which served in as the band’s set opener sans the didgeridoo), followed by the slow, stomping “Local 506.” Mercifully, Era’s voice is finally heard on the dreamy “100 Degrees” (with her taking on a Brian Wilson-styled approach to songwriting by crafting the mundane aspects of a day’s events into a song). After this, all subtly is tossed aside. No longer depending on their gift for spatial, the band drops us into a series of noise rock collisions with Morales and Era trading lead vocal duties, enhancing the other with harmonies amidst the fury.
The rest of the album’s tone is kicked off with “Two Words,” a clunking, bratty, falling-off-the-rails basher which, in turn, rear ends the title track. The resulting impact brings forth an interesting facet of this band’s charm — all but one of these tracks was recorded in studios where the room sound enhances the band’s overall whomp. “Frustrated” (the song), though, was recorded on a four-track machine, a portable recording device using a cassette tape instead of quarter or half-inch reel-to-reel tape. It’s very portability makes it easy for musicians to construct demos at home and, as with most four-tracks, the resulting sound is thinner, compressed, brighter, and in your face. Starfish’s wide-open sound greatly benefits from a full studio where each note and thump fills every corner of the studio. But for this minute-and-a-half charger, all of the elements compete for space on the smaller ribbon of cassette tape, and the resulting din buries the words, allowing only the harmonies to squeeze to the top of the sound heap. It’s quite a contrast from the rest of the material — think of “Frustrated” as a crumpled-up piece of paper while the rest of the songs are more on the level of a Thomas Stell mural. Luckily, both are successful.
The most glaring issue of “Frustrated,” though, is the absence of drummer Scott Marcus who is replaced here by a drum machine. Marcus’ role in the band is critical to their overall success — either on stage or in the studio his style lends towards heavy, slightly off-kilter, behind-the-beat rhythms. Add to that his usage of large cymbals, which glaze every song with a high end — it’s an important ingredient in the normally guitar-dominated genre of noise rock. The drum machine replaces his warmth and ingenuity with a tense precision illustrating what this band would’ve sounded like with a no-nonsense drummer behind the kit, which is to say, they sound great. “Frustrated” is a testament to the band’s adaptability as well as their versatile songwriting prowess. More importantly, the title track proves Starfish’s end result is far more appealing and mysterious with Marcus’ talents. To drive this point home, the mercurial “Over You” opens with Marcus’ Gatling Gun snare and reestablishes the band’s signature joyous rush.
If you’re listening to this on an LP, “Over You” ends the side and you’re awarded the benefit of a better, warmer Starfish sound as the vinyl makes up for their sound’s lack of a serious bottom end. The break also offers a respite from the band’s glorious surge. If you’re spending time with the CD or streaming version, Starfish’s trebly assault is accentuated (whether you like it or not), and there is no break from the action. The would-be hits just keep coming. Sure, both options are successful but the nonstop blitz of their sound via the CD or streaming format is an awful lot of fun. As “Over You” blazes out, there’s a blink of silence and then an opening thread of already-in-progress feedback as the band slams into what may be their greatest achievement with “MTV,” an incredibly seductive head-bobber. The most alluring aspect here is the songs tempo, a step slower than the previous three tracks, making the irresistible main riff and huge sound stand out all the more. Whether this is a result of crafty sequencing or just happenstance isn’t the issue because this, right here, is the album’s peak.
The group’s affinity for instrumentals is underscored with the angry “Say O Nara,” the album’s third voiceless track. From there, Frustrated races to a sliding finish as they dig into their trick bag of melodic pop hooks with Era’s “Burden,” a richly layered vocal showcase. Those hooks are muddied and then completely shredded with “P Rock” (“P” for power pop or “P” for punk rock?), and “Doo Doo” reaches a fantastic height via Morales’ genius for snarling riffs. The latter all but cartwheels into the more methodical, “Last Call” (a song that makes it clear Era could’ve easily moonlighted in The Breeders if there were ever time in between Starfish responsibilities). End of record.
Starfish benefitted from having been signed to one of the better independent U.S. imprints, Trance Syndicate, which helped put records into stores as well as much-needed promotion, even if the label worked from an extremely limited budget. Yet it wasn’t through the usual promotional channels that brought this reporter to their shows. Instead, it was a colleague’s band, Gnomes of Zurich, who had crossed Starfish’s path while on tour and returned home with news of this three-piece from Austin, TX we should all see. When it comes to a band’s continued success, word of mouth is second only to label backing and can be just as useful as a well-recorded demo. When the trio pulled into town soon thereafter, we were treated to some entertaining visuals to go along with their whomp. If not leaning heavily onto his wha-wha pedal for a tooth-grinding flurry of bending notes, Morales was normally careering about the stage as if violently adrift upon the high seas, his strumming hand-chopping away at his hollow-body Gretsch that appeared on the verge of falling apart with a few strategically placed strips of duct tape holding in the cord. When not stepping up to the microphone, Era remained mostly grounded in one spot on the stage, keeping tabs on the other two, or eyes closed in concentration while nodding her head with the downbeats. Marcus sat behind his four-piece kit, arms busily pushing forth a confusing pattern of rhythms.
My memory is having seen them three times in a single year, which is excessive for an indie band. Sure, it’s great for anyone wanting to hear them, but it’s also extremely taxing for the musicians themselves as incessant touring can drive one to ruin, especially if it’s on the self-funded indie circuit. One had the sense these three were an experienced bunch and appeared at ease being constantly away from home.
At some point, my own little rock ‘n’ roll combo made it to Starfish’s neck of the woods and we played two shows together in San Antonio and Austin, the former taking place at a restaurant by day/venue by night called Taco Land. We were on tour with our friends, Freedom Fighters, and the six-hour trek east from Lubbock had squelched any plans for arriving on time. Once our caravan pulled into the club’s loose gravel parking lot, we had to immediately pull our gear out of the van and push it into the front door and through the already gathered crowd. Starfish brought their amazingly well-mannered dog who casually wandered around taking advantage of the multiple pats from everyone in attendance. It was crowded and late-July Texas hot, even in the setting sun — bands set up on the floor inches from the audience, kids in the front, and bemused, predominantly male laborers sitting at the back bar relaxing after a day of work. I don’t remember much of the night aside from a prevailing sense of camaraderie between musicians and one drunken lovers’ spat afterwards in the parking lot as we were loading out. All the while, the dog continued to happily make the petting rounds only to casually gallop into Starfish’s van for the ride back home as day jobs beckoned.
As for us out-of-towners, we didn’t make it any farther than the city limits, too exhausted to make the hour and a half lurch north to Austin. We pulled off the road and slept uneasily by some decommissioned railroad tracks, the van’s doors opened in hopes of circulation in the thick-aired, cricket night. Our two bands met up with Starfish later the next afternoon for what turned out to be a dismally attended show at the original Emo’s on Red River Street. Didn’t matter. When the rest of the world takes no interest in your creative endeavors, playing to the other groups on the bill and a few paying customers turns the night into a private party.
Morales, Era, and Marcus were ambassadors, purveyors of the Down Home Texas Ease — sweet, funny, and generous people. As a collection of musicians, their band made top-notch, noisy rock ‘n’ roll for those of us in need of such things.
As an example, here’s a video clip shot (where else?) during one of their frequent tours. Fittingly, they’re shown here cutting through a choice version of “MTV,” a hymn to the life of an independent touring band. Morales deftly breaks down how unglamorous life can be on the road with a few concise sentences: “…I think I’m really tired / Of sleeping on the floor / I think I’m really tired / I need some money.” The words betray their onstage cool while, at the same time, reveals how much strife musicians will go through for that one hour of stage time. Also highlighted here are the aforementioned talents of Scott Marcus as he delivers a subtle but no less baffling kick-drum pattern that messes with the listener’s sense of a downbeat. If it weren’t for the super riff Morales and Era hammer out, there wouldn’t be anything to bind it all together. A joy to watch, a pleasure to hear.
Listen to Frustrated in full