Strange times are best scored with a bizarre and darkly complex soundtrack. We are clearly in such times, and thanks to the Black Cat’s eclectic schedule, including the occasional Canadian band, DC area fans were recently given a healthy dose of avant-garde rock, only a couple days before local venues started canceling shows.
Led by acclaimed vocalist and songwriter Dan Bejar (also of The New Pornographers), Vancouver-based Destroyer visited town the night of March 9 just as things started to get hairy for touring artists. The indescribable band has built on Dan’s otherworldly lyrics and a cauldron of melodies to create a disparate score that pans nearly 25 years.
Destroyer has released 13 full-length albums over the course of Bejar’s career, consistently putting one out every few years. Dan met John Collins (The New Pornographers, The Evaporators) in the late ‘90s and collaborated with him to create the critically acclaimed City of Daughters, Dan’s second offering.
Much like his first album, City of Daughters largely featured acoustic guitar and DIY sounds. But by the next go in the studio, Destroyer was beginning to progress into a much richer, more complex production, adding other instruments to advance a sound with industrious and dreamy synthpop textures, unpredictable jazz accents and a progressive rock decorate.
Stream City of Daughters by Destroyer on Spotify:
Riding the flexibility of Dan’s vocals, Destroyer as a live band can pull the audience into a fairytale world born within his peculiar mind. A minstrel who seems from another time — it could be the past or the future — Dan has a supernatural ability to cast his voice with remarkable clarity, whether through hallucinatory whispers or startling shrieks much like metal or hair bands of the ‘80s.
His lyrics spill out of a stream of consciousness with a tone that conjures Ian Anderson, John Lennon, and maybe more obviously David Bowie. Dan’s on-stage mannerisms and behavior at Black Cat were just abstruse enough to remain endearing — gawking off into space or locking onto some unsuspecting patron in the front row, sipping from two different cans of Stella Artois and tiny bar cup with some clear spirit, melted ice, and lemons.
Bejar has been quoted as saying he loves to be “swept away” by his band, and at times during the show he appeared just that — mesmerized, like the audience, by the group helping him achieve his mystical vision. It was clear from the start at Black Cat that this group — polished, in sync, humming with a voluptuous voltage — is a magnificent engine to behold in its own right.
The current version of the band is professional in its delivery, stylish in façade, able to produce sounds both tender and stinging across a catalogue that Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan appropriately captioned as “epic” last week on social media.
The lineup at Black Cat saw instrumentalist/producer David Carswell (The Smugglers) owning a back-corner fort comprising of synthesizer, an electric guitar and acoustic guitar, Ted Bois (Devon Williams) at the keys, Nicholas Bragg (Joseph Shabason) on electric guitar, JP Carter (Dan Mangan) blowing the trumpet and turning effects dials, Joshua Wells (Black Mountain, Lightning Dust) flying on the drums and controlling other “gadgets,” and Colin Cowan (Dan Mangan) tickling and thumping the bass.
The bold, gargantuan force of Destroyer’s songs, including several of the newest tracks, command an intense focus from a group that, while snazzy in dress and intermittently playful in expression, was for the most part stoic throughout an extraordinary performance demonstrating the range of their individual abilities and the spectrum of the band’s sounds.
Stream Have We Met by Destroyer on Spotify:
Opening with the first release off of Have We Met, “Crimson Tide” marched with a beautifully crisp piano progression that ripped in waves before being layered with a sinister bass slap. The heavy notes follow one of Dan’s introspective monologues that, as natural as it might seem, is perfectly form-fitted into an overwhelming amalgamation of noises and vibrations.
One of the band’s definitive tracks, and arguably one the best indie songs of the late ‘10s, “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” strutted with remarkable swagger in live form, letting each instrument gain prominence, riding the unmistakably cutting-edge bass line into a rhythm that blends ethereal jazz with nightclub beats.
“Kinda Dark,” with its strikingly possessive noir piano intro, eventually gave way to an ungodly duo between David’s Gibson electric and Nicholas’ Fender. The culmination became a daunting, howling projection that drove home Dan’s bewildering repeated words: “kind of dark in here, she said.”
“Kaputt,” a therapeutic escape from reality amplified with stunningly observant lyrics and astute social observations, is Destroyer blending smooth jazz sounds with dramatic barroom perspective, a crystal ball gazing into the minds of those on the endless pursuit. — here we get a taste of the cultural criticism embedded in Dan’s views.
Playing out like a long drive during the darkest trip, “Just Doesn’t Happen to Anyone” is a smashing track off Have We Met that captured all the most beloved defining characteristics Destroyer songs — it’s creepy, hypnotic, it ascends to a colossal and colorful Voltron assemblage of instruments that absolutely hammered on the small Black Cat stage.
The set’s closer, “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” moved from a slow synth and piano lead to a gorgeous melody that bobs with rewarding groove and sway before Dan came in over the top to narrate like the trailblazing poet he is. The track mutated into a ballroom dance, with an exotic blend of brass and electricity and storytelling.
The chorus was hot when it came out and has marinated well over a few years — “Now that you’ve got it all wrong, now that you’ve got it all backwards, girl, enter through the exit, and exit through the entrance.” The song reveals a penchant for acid jazz and, at Black Cat, blared into a jam that reaches marvelous heights thanks to JP’s seemingly infinite wind.
Though the tour would be canceled just a few days later, Destroyer unquestionably made a lasting impact on devoted fans and newcomers alike with their most recent visit to The District.
An outfit juicing infinite passion into pioneering harmonies and songs that blossom into ageless sagas, Destroyer might be best appreciated by way of the now rare and essentially outlawed live performance. But no matter where the listener enjoys it, Destroyer’s music and all its benefits are ultimately a celebration of Bejar, his uncommon perspective and his miraculous weirdness.
In The Morning
Tinseltown Swimming in Blood
It Just Doesn’t Happen
Suicide Demo for Kara Walker
The Man in Black’s Blues
Here are photos of Destroyer performing at Black Cat in Washington, DC, on March 9, 2020. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.