Photo by Alexandra Valenti

It was bands vs. venue last night at Terminal 5. Three groups of considerable literary aspirations—the mercurial romantics of Future Islands, the Whitman-biting punks of Titus Andronicus and the self-reflective aesthetes of Okkervil River—faced off against a less intimate, airplane hangar-sized stage. And, yet, like the heroic protagonists in their songs, the bands found a way to rise to the occasion, creating moments of narrative propulsion, poetic ecstasy and, oh yeah, some rock ‘n’ roll in the cavernous space. If only they could’ve battled the clock a little better too.

Future Islands opened the show for the just-arriving crowd, but instead of treating the set like a warmup round, the group seized the stage like a headliner that just happened to be playing before the sun went down. The Baltimore-based band consists of a keyboardist, a bass player and a lead singer, the enigmatic Sam Herring. Punching his face, flailing his arms and crouching down in a snarling Gollum pose, Herring is undoubtedly the star of the show, and his fellow band members seem to recognize this, standing like pillars around him. The music they conjure is built around two simple components: deep plunks of bass and throbbing, feedback-kissed synth textures.

Herring lords over the music like Morrissey undergoing an exorcism, transitioning from baritone crooning to Tom Waits meets Fat Albert gargling. It’s an acquired taste, but if you can go with it, Herring’s yearning lyrics and idiosyncratic vocal delivery can be sublime. Playing “Tin Man” from last year’s stellar In Evening Air, Herring sang, “You couldn’t possibly know how much you mean to me.” By the end of the set, the feeling was mutual.

The trio has a reputation for engaging live shows, often in small art spaces and clubs, and at times you could see Herring bristling against the distance created by the stage—“You’re so far away,” he said to the audience—but for brief moments the group transformed the giant space into a mini basement horror show, with Herring as the main attraction.

New Jersey’s own Titus Andronicus was next, tearing into the stand-outs from its pretty-much-all-stand-out’s album The Monitor, a bristling punk epic packed with lyrical and musical allusions to Bruce Springsteen, the Misfits, the Pogues and the Civil War. Instead of collapsing under the weight of all of this history, the record crystallizes these reference points into a sweaty monolith of alienation, aggression and awesome guitar solos.

I’ve seen the band quite a few times before The Monitor and many times since the release of the album, and with each passing show Titus gets tighter and tighter, turning these sprawling songs into impeccably orchestrated blasts of dissonance and self-loathing, courtesy of bearded frontman Patrick Stickles. Opening with “No Future Part III: Escape From No Future” and closing with the rousing sing-along “Four Score And Seven,” Stickles and company treated the venue like a military battleground, leaving sweaty bodies dazed at the front of the stage.

Titus Andronicus is a tough act to follow, especially for a more restrained group like Austin’s Okkervil River, which is touring behind its dense, heavily-orchestrated album I Am Very Far. Looking like Jarvis Cocker at a Joyce Symposium, Okkervil frontman Will Sheff opened with that album’s “White Shadow Waltz,” at one point singing, “The world is a black shadow bled and what is this tune in my head?” That sense of heightened interiority—this is very much a “head album”—meant that many of the new songs lacked the blunt emotional quality of the group’s earlier work and the playful hall-of-mirrors atmosphere of its last few albums. The new material is defiantly complicated, which means even seemingly straight-forward bangers like “The Valley” get layered through with sonic bursts of dissonance and processed vocal yelps.

Sheff’s headspace is a violent and dark place to be—lots of crashing boats and lots of throat-slitting—so there was an audible sense of relief as the band transitioned into slightly more upbeat material as the show neared its end, if you can call a mournful song like “Lost Coastlines” upbeat. However, just as the band finally began to work the crowd into a hand-clapping frenzy, the show came to a close; apparently the band couldn’t go past 11. The guys ran out of time. “This fucking sucks,” noted Sheff before launching into “Unless It Kicks.” “What gives this mess some grace unless it kicks, man?” he sang. The question echoed through the giant venue as the crowd filed out of Terminal 5 and into the warm summer air.