How much art can you take?

by Nathan Hall

Maybe it was the cheap Phantom of the Opera masks covered with red magic marker. Or perhaps it was driving a shovel through their old, crappy amps and setting them ablaze. For whatever strange reason, I would argue that The Hidden Chord’s performance during the Whole Music Club’s closing ceremonies in November of 1999 marked a defining turning point in the band’s career.

The two-day pre-demolition fest, in which what seemed like close to one hundred bands paid tribute to the venue with one fifteen-minute set after another, was, even for a dedicated local music lover such as myself, akin to visiting the Louvre for the first time. Saturation lead to distraction and, eventually, overload and exhaustion. But one band stuck out in my mind long after the wrecking ball fell: The Hidden Chord.

At that juncture, the band had three seven inches under their belt. After their violent and angry set at Coffman Union, The Hidden Chord abandoned the costumed shtick and set out to record their truly great debut full-length, Eight Blue Eyes, for local record label Heart Of A Champion. Despite their reverting back to jeans and T-shirts, Eight Blue Eyes was still well-received by the indie rock community. They followed that CD with the Abigail Vongetti EP in 2001, released on another local label, The Blood of the Young.

The band name itself is more than a tad pretentious, bringing forth terrifying images of egg-headed art majors dedicating each concert to a single chord progression or something inane along those same lines. But the band’s sound, much like their abstract Web site, is more than a tad difficult to pin down. Granted, they are lanky and wear Velcro sneakers, but the stereotypes seem to end there.

It has been said that the Velvet Underground only sold a few thousand records, but every one of those purchases inspired ten bands. The Hidden Chord’s overt 70’s art rock influence probably falls under that category, but more diverse images spring to mind as well. Picture the Blue Meanies from the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine film battling Dr. Seuss in the midst of the Vietnam War and you’re halfway there.

Their new CD, The Hidden Chord as the Captain and his Entourage, is perhaps the clearest articulation yet of their artistic vision. The EP is full of silly, obscure one-liners about fashion magazines intermixed comfortably with screaming proclamations about gunplay and jungle drums. The album is being released by New York-based label Level Plane Records, but the band-like every one else around here-is ultimately on a hunt for bigger commercial distribution.

“I’m fine that our friends have put out our other records, but I’d like to travel overseas too,” explained vocalist Knol Tate in a recent phone interview. The recording was entirely digital this time-a first for them.

“It was nice, mainly because we were broke,” Tate said, “but I think next time we’ll do a mixture of digital and analog.”

Tate unabashedly admits the new album is conceptual-a rare event for someone who used to be in a hardcore band (Tate was once a member of Killsadie.)

“The new one and Abigail were roughly based on a story we wrote that revolved around a character called the Captain, who’s essentially Andy Warhol meets Paul Simon,” Tate explained. “He’s an artist, but then he becomes immersed in African drums, which are considered to be his greatest discovery ever by his followers… his impressionable entourage if you will”

“I think it’s more interesting and challenging to be thematic,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear about politics or how your girlfriend broke up with you. I want to hear stories like Phillip Dick used to write. That’s more relevant to me than Ralph Nader’s new book. I want to get lost rather than depressed. I want to have to piece it together, I’m more a fan of art like Lifter Puller that fits everything together like a puzzle.”

The Hidden Chord as the Captain and his Entourage CD release party is Friday at the Turf Club (1601 University Ave., St. Paul. 651-647-0486). Song of Zarathustra and Arson Welles open. 9 p.m. 21+. The Hidden Chord also plays Saturday at the Babylon Café (1628 E. Lake St., Mpls.). 7 p.m. All-Ages.