When it comes to concert reviews, there’s nothing worse than a writer who spends half the article complaining about the venue. But before I go any further, I have to note that the Basement is easily the worst place in Columbus to see a show. There’s about a 10- by 10-foot area where you need to stand to have an even remotely acceptable sight-line to the stage. You’d think the room’s massive pillars were used to hold up Wembley Stadium, not a glorified dive. The only upside is that there’s rarely a wait at the bar, since you’d be crazy to leave your spot for more than a second to get a drink.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way...
The Brooklyn-based Antlers were first thrust into the spotlight a little over a year ago when NPR published a glowing review of their third album, Hospice, on the “All Songs Considered” blog. Nearly every other music mag followed suit, praising the record for its harrowing story of a young hospice worker caring for a woman dying of bone cancer. Peter Silberman’s songwriting drew favorable comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for both its striking imagery and its horrifying, yet ultimately hopeful, portrayal of death. So does Silberman’s deeply personal lyrical poetry translate well to a faux-dingy bar in Columbus’ Arena District?
The answer is yes and no. After openers Phantogram hit all the right pleasure-centers with their sexy brand of drum-machine shoegaze pop, the Antlers did their best to emulate the emotionally devastating experience of listening to Hospice on record by playing it front-to-back, allowing each song to bleed into the next. This technique worked wonders for the gripping three-song climax of “Two,” “Shiva” and “Wake.” The live version of “Wake,” in particular, nearly trumped its recorded counterpart and featured a 10-minute build-up that rewarded the dutifully polite audience for its patience.
But even the most monastic audience members struggled with the meandering intro and outro of “Atrophy” and the eerie soundscape of “Thirteen.” On record, these ambient forays add to the haunted atmosphere of the album, but in concert there was a sense of unease as listeners stared into their beers or scanned the bar for possible pick-ups as they waited for the next song to start. It also didn’t help matters that “Bear,” the one Antlers song to which you can actually cut a rug, was given a lackadaisical treatment that neutered its normally cathartic chorus.
The worst moment, however, came during “Epilogue,” the final song of the night. The beauty of Hospice is that, despite its weighty themes and obvious musical dynamics, it earns its indulgences because of the integrity of the songwriting. But here, the band played the song’s outro ad nauseam until the powerful and satisfying conclusion was rendered bombastic and empty. There’s nothing wrong with rocking out a little harder and longer in a live setting, but when your music is already on the brink of grandiosity, it can be a slippery slope to climb.
From a coldly technical perspective, the Antlers played perfectly, and Silberman’s wild falsetto was more soulful than shrill. But the band would be better off if they abandoned their futile attempt to replicate Hospice’s ephemeral beauty in a live setting and instead found ways to make individual songs more interesting. By going over-the-top when they should’ve opted for subtlety and holding back on some of their most moving moments, the band rendered their live presence obsolete. Next time I have a craving for the Antlers, I’ll stay home and grab my headphones.