Review: El Ten Eleven at Belly Up Aspen
It never gets old seeing Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty craft the intricate soundscapes of El Ten Eleven in live performance. The band returned to Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday night for their latest of several concerts with a handful of new songs and another awe-inspiring set.
El Ten Eleven’s all-instrumental songs usually begin with a simple guitar or bass note from Dunn and a beat from drummer Fogarty. Dunn adds a melody or more notes, uses a loop pedal to layer them on top of the original sounds, then layers more, then still more — it gets exponentially more intricate as it progresses.
He might play a fretless bass and stick with it throughout the song, as he did on the opener “Point Breeze” from the band’s new album, “Fast Forward.” Or he might grab his signature double-neck guitar and bass, which allows him to play both instruments simultaneously over the loops — he might also make use of a standard old six-string guitar, which he did a few times Tuesday night. Dunn stepped from behind his electronic and acoustic drum kit at one point to tap out a bass line on Dunn’s double-neck.
The tones and styles they explore in the process — it can move into dense headphone rock, danceable bass-heavy stuff (call it artisanal EDM), reflective, fleeting orchestrations, and some fun, bright, throwback dance rock and punk — a cover of Joy Division’s “Disorder” was a highlight of the night.
What is it that’s so mesmerizing about El Ten Eleven’s live shows? It’s beyond the technical mastery. Beyond what some might scoff at as a gimmick. Watching two genius musicians craft songs on-the-spot in the complex way that El Ten Eleven does wouldn’t hold your attention if the songs didn’t communicate something deeper. I get easily bored by jam band guitar and drum solos and can’t take it seriously when a rock guitarist preens on the edge of a stage while endlessly bending a high note and contorting their face in agony. El Ten Eleven’s instrumental show works, I think, because while it’s the most cerebral of bands, it still has heart.
As the loops layer upon themselves, these songs sketch intricate patterns — yet the shapes they make are more pop art than academic geometry. Dunn’s bass and guitar passages often play out in response to another in a musical conversation — time signatures and keys shifting. Or there might be a contrast of tone that elicits a visceral response — like the sludgy doom metal bass and jangly guitar of “Transition,” the 10-minute epic with which the band closed Tuesday’s show.
It’s worth noting that Dunn, while pulling off his musical miracles song after song, has a humble stage presence. He’s not concerned about the crowd understanding the level of difficulty he’s playing at. He thanked the audience for coming out on a school night, made the requisite preforming-at-altitude joke, surveyed about who in the crowd skied and who snowboarded, poked fun at himself when he started a song with a string out of tune and when he accidentally erased a loop mid-song.
“We’re happy to be back at Belly Up, one of our favorite venues in the country,” he told the crowd.
This is not a band that takes themselves too seriously, so there are few of the aforementioned agonized rock star faces to be seen on stage at an El Ten Eleven show. But there were many of jaws dropping in the crowd on Tuesday.
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