For the better part of 2013, the enigmatic producer and singer/songwriter duo, Rhye, riveted music fans with their salacious and sophisticated debut, Woman. In support of the album, Rhye performed last Friday at Webster Hall to an engrossed crowd of near-motionless, enthralled onlookers.
The evening began with a brief opening set by the emerging, blusterous synth-pop act Ricky Eat Acid, fronted by Sam Ray and accompanied by a second supplementary musician. Ricky Eat Acid’s debut, Three Love Songs, is a disheveled assembly of eerie dysphoria, sizable snippets of spoken word recordings and sparsely immersed with more languid, dance-oriented rhythms. The performance abated from that conglomerated approach, though. Instead, their set was singular and fastidiously gloomy, reflecting sentiments of turbulent melancholy. Tracks like I Can Hear The Heart Breaking As One and In Rural Virginia; Watching Glowing Lights Crawl From The Dark showcased extended, seemingly improvisational breakdowns, looped and distorted tapes of ambient noise and disturbing, inundating waves of calamitous guitar feedback.
Halfway through their set, Ray reached behind his table of programming equipment and cassette players, wielding some square-shaped object that distorted the reverberating melodies. Syncopated with the song’s close, Ray clicks off the small bedroom lamp that faintly lights the stage. Whether this is a reverent nod to the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, or just another subtle affectation of this band’s inherent oddity was unclear. Nevertheless, it worked. When the bedroom light was doused, the music took on a more articulated sense of urgency. Static-induced ambiance roiled and swelled to incredulous volumes. In its delirious penchant for vacuous, emotionally addled white noise, though, Ricky Eat Acid’s performance was spiritually reifying.
Rhye appeared promptly at 9 p.m., silent and austere. Obvious complications arise when trying to replicate the dense, full-figured sound embodied throughout Woman by producer Robin Hannibal. The instrumentation varies from disembodied steel drums, poignant clarinet descants and provocative harp arrangements. The congruent six-piece ensemble on stage here, however, was more than capable of evoking opaque soul-pop constructions with a limited but still impressive range of voices: electric violin, bass guitar, drum set, trombone, violin, upright piano (for producer Hannibal) and a spare snare drum for singer/songwriter Mike Milosh to intermittently embellish the rhythmic swagger on songs like Hunger and Last Dance.
Rhye is notorious for assuming a low-profile visual presence in the media (to wit, their debut TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where a single, intense spotlight shielded Milosh’s appearance as a hazy silhouette). So it was no surprise that this evening’s show strictly prohibited photography and excessive talking. That particular initially bothersome restriction was quickly disregarded for the enthralling spectacle, and, save for sporadic flash bulbs directed from the balcony, most of the audience conceded to the artist’s request. Surprisingly, Milosh did not appear particularly shy or introverted. The stage lights remained dimmed to a liquid hue of blue, enough to vaguely illuminate the faces of the impeccable band and its intrinsic vocal fulcrum. Front-and-center, Milosh seemed tentative to adopt the role of lead vocalist. The majority of his efforts were directed towards conducting the band. As a classically trained cellist, it seemed all Milosh could do to refrain from grabbing an instrument and abandoning his mic stand. He was most comfortable assuming the position during a performance of The City, a track written by Milosh eight years prior for his sophomore solo album, Meme. Despite this aversion to eminence, he was no less amicable and endearing than his voice lends fans to believe, especially after forgetting the lyrics and shifting to one of his more widely received songs, Open.
This Webster Hall performance interpreted Woman as a sparse, extended conception of distraught romanticism. The more ostensible dance grooves, like during Last Stand, lacked the expressive spark of the recorded brass instrumentation. To remedy this dysfunction, the song lagged, triggered with an intoxicating sensation of soulful latency, while still retaining a prevailing air of funk. Certain liberties were taken with this performance—arrangements modified, diminished and mutated as sensuously lethargic. The sole female member of Rhye’s touring band delivered a bewitching trombone solo on the latter half of Hunger, the irrefutable apotheosis of their bombastic set that sent the crowd into a unanimous uproar.
There were moments when Rhye’s performance felt inexplicably tender and exposed, more so to the observers than the players. Amidst amorous strings, alternating major-minor piano chords and submerging, groove-savvy basslines, the music would confront substantially thin moments of silent brevity—the dissenting eye of a tempestuous R&B sex storm. It was this feeling Milosh hoped to matriculate into the end of a dauntingly stunted set list that offered no encores. He ushered the crowd to an enraptured kind of communal silence for his closing song. For the concluding thirty seconds, the six members of Rhye retracted from their instruments and convened in an exalting a capella chorus. As cathartic as it was surreal, their abbreviated voices billowed through the temporarily stagnant space until the performance ended.