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Seismic Show Review: Gibraltar at The Comet Tavern. June 7th, 2012

June 14, 2012
With a blistering set of seven songs, Aaron Starkey’s new music project Gibraltar opened a four band bill on Thursday night at the Comet. Known as one of the four founding members of longtime indie darlings Spanish for 100, Starkey’s latest project strays a little further from that group’s roots/punk/guitar noise. While Starkey’s shredding skills are on full display in this new setting, he deftly shares the sonic space with (former Visqueen Cellist) bassist Barb Hunter, drummer Jeff Gall and wait for it…pianist Mike Jochum. While Gibraltar mines some of the terrain that Spanish for 100 has staked a claim to, its Jochum’s piano and Starkey’s vocals that really set the material apart from Starkey’s other band.
The interplay between piano, Starkey’s high tenor (think a more muscular James Mercer), and Gall’s Brufordish pounding is really, really compelling. Jochum plays a vintage Yamaha analog electric piano and his playing is fluid, graceful and melodic. It was on full display in set opener “Coil” and was a sublime underscore to Starkey’s psychedelic stretches on “People Crash.” Jochum’s choice to eschew synthesized piano emulators is no small feat. His rig is heavy, probably hard to maintain and takes up some serious space on a small stage. But the commitment to “that” sound exemplifies why Gibraltar should be listened to more carefully than other bands.
Gibraltar marks the first time that Starkey has taken all of the vocal duties. I had a chance to see an earlier three–piece lineup of the band this spring (without Hunter) at the Josephine and Starkey fully admitted that he was nervous about handling all of the vocals. On a bigger stage and with a better sound system, Starkey nailed it. His vocals were powerful, soulful and at times ethereal. I’m a huge fan of the high tenor in rock vocals (Elton, Thom Yorke, Carl Wilson) and Starkey has the potential to reach for some of that if he continues to work on his form and trust the PA. It’s a physically tough space for a dude to sing in and many a great singer has blown their voices out by pushing it too far up there.
Hunter fully admits that bass is new to her (she is an accomplished cellist with an amazing resume of performing and composing) but her bass playing on Thursday was a little tentative. Her impeccable musicianship allowed her to anchor the complex songs adequately and that is important. Gibraltar’s earlier lineup was guitar, drums and piano. That lineup was dynamic but a little anemic. Starkey’s songs are sometimes complex and need a solid bass to hold the arrangements together. In time, Hunter will ably move from following the tonic to adding some needed grace notes and counterpoint to Starkey’s aggressive guitar. She nailed a couple of powerful ascending sequences in “Death Rays”and has a solid feel for the instrument. She will get better, and better in time and she has a great battery mate in Gall.
Gall was flawless. He is one of those drummers who can play around with approaches to even the simplest of beats artfully and playfully. He also does it subtly and unobtrusively. He doesn’t draw attention to his skill or prowess, instead he forces you to hear the spaces in a song that we usually ignore. Gall more than compensated for any shortcomings that Hunter (temporarily) lacks. His intro into “Death Rays” was hypnotic and his drumming  drove the song “Ostinanto.”
Gibraltar’s songs are deceptively complex. Casual listening to Starkey’s songs is a rewarding experience on its own but listen into the songs a little bit and you will see that there are some complexities at work here that beg investigation. This is particularly true on songs like “Crazy Piper” and “Everything’s Going to Be Different.” Over-arranging songs can also be tricky. I’ve heard too many bands not trust their material enough to let their songs progress and grow naturally. Some writers insist on adding parts to songs that are unnecessary and jarring. This is usually an attempt to give the song a unpredictableness that makes the listening more captivating. It doesn’t always work, and for the most part Gibraltar avoids those mistakes, but at times they might be accused of “over–arranging.” The song “The Time” started off as a nice brooding dirge and then inexplicably goes into a double-time gear that was just too jarring. Just as I was getting into the song, it took this overdrive left turn That lost me. Thankfully, these moments were few on Thursday night.
These musicians really care about the sounds they are producing. Starkey has always been one of my favorite seattle guitarists. His playing in Spanish for 100 has been stellar and athletic but I always suspected that there was a little more of a tone nerd lurking behind his frenetic thrashing. Starkey’s playing in Gibraltar is sweeter with a little more intent and polish. While his sound is definitely aggressive and punchy, his attention to tone and feel allows his solos to soar in and out of the mix more fluidly than I have seen in Spanish for 100. The closing song “Death Rays” was a great showcase for Starkey. He weaved around the lengthy song deftly – easily moving from anthemic soloing through power pop chording to punk riffing. Guitarists pay attention.
The band is just putting the finishing touches on a full length that they recorded at Electrokitty studios over the last few months. Look for a limited vinyl release toward the end of July and more shows to follow. Its  hard to predict how far a band will go, but my money is on Gibraltar. Go see them before you can’t. You will thank me for the recommendation.

D.T.

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