Skull Defekts at the Empty Bottle

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“We’re keeping it unreal,” one of the Skull Defekts declared during the Swedish rock band’s concert Tuesday night (April 30) at the Empty Bottle. Something was a little askew about everything these Swedes said onstage — and the music was askew and unreal, too. The last time I saw Skull Defekts (2011 at the Hideout), they had their fifth quasi-member along with them: Daniel Higgs, a Baltimore singer best known as the frontman of Lungfish. The combination of Higgs’ vocals and Skull Defekts’ music was powerful.

Higgs and Skull Defekts are still working together — a press release describes him as “the group’s spiritual ringleader,” and he sings on the group’s latest album, the compelling Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown. But he wasn’t with the band for its most recent Chicago show. Not to worry, though — even without Higgs, this was a band of phenomenal force and creativity. At times, the jagged, clanging and weirdly interlocking guitar riffs reminded me of early Sonic Youth. And with two drummers, the band had an almost tribal rhythm going through much of its set. The band seems to like playing with bright white lights shining and casting shadows, and the effect only seemed to heighten the intensity that these Swedes brought to the Empty Bottle stage.

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Best concerts of 2011

These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.

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2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.

5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)

7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)

8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)

10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)

Honorable mentions:
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)

Skull Defekts at the Hideout


The Skull Defekts, a hard-edged band from Sweden, rocked the Hideout Thursday night (March 31), with some key assistance from Daniel Higgs, a veteran vocalist better known for his work with the band Lungfish. Higgs sings on the new Skull Defekts album, Peer Amid, which came out in February on Thrill Jockey. He looks and sounds like a full-fledged member of the band — a frontman, in fact. With his gray beard, Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs. At one point, Higgs asked the audience, “Do any of you have skull defects?” When someone replied, “Yes,” a member of the band said, “Excellent.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.)

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The evening started out with a couple of other Thrill Jockey bands, playing drone music — an interesting contrast to the Skull Defekts. Mountains created a beautiful, shimmering wall of sound. Zomes’ simple chords on a dinky ’80s-era keyboard seemed too simple, however.

Mountains

Zomes