New Sounds on the Rise: Threefifty’s “Collapses” debuts at SubCulture

SubCulture-logoThreefifty’s first record, released in 2006, is a testament to the duo’s pedigree and finesse as classical musicians. Yet, despite being self-titled, contains more works from Scarlatti, Handel, and Super Mario than members Brett Parnell and Geremy Schulick themselves. 2009’s Circles, their second offering, is full of entirely original music but doesn’t stray from the acoustic duo configuration that has always been Threefifty’s bread and butter. Their newest offering, Collapses, leaps forward into unmarked territory, a genre bending triumph infused with the strength of their technique, the broadness of their palettes, and their appeal as composers. Having received its debut in concert at SubCulture on September 13, Collapses opens pathways leading to a thousand new sounds that immediately become vital to Threefifty’s identity and storytelling.

Threefifty Duo - Photo by Jordan Matter

Threefifty Duo – Photo by Jordan Matter

Threefifty’s seasoning has been nothing if not thorough. Parnell and Schulick’s early infatuations with guitar heroes the likes of George Harrison, Chet Atkins, Randy Rhoads, and Julian Bream eventually led them to the Yale School of Music, where Threefifty was founded. Since then they have embarked on an extensive touring schedule reaching as far as the U.K. and Bosnia, cut three albums, and landed gigs at TED Talks, BAM’s most recent Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival and NPR’s Soundcheck. The two have spent years practicing, playing, producing, and learning the rules so that they might now begin to gloriously break them.

They’ve been called a post-rock band before, but that seems too plain –labelling the eclecticism of Threefifty’s sound requires something that gets more obnoxiously specific – perhaps post-baroque-folk-rock. As Spinal Tap as that amalgam may sound, the effusive, impassioned, terraced quality of post-rock acts like Explosions in the Sky and Braveyoung has a lot in common with our 16th and 17th century idols. Parnell and Schulick, musicians who made their hay playing duo arrangements from The Well Tempered Clavier, have now gotten their hands on that more modern heart-on-your-sleeve genre and created something that rings authentic in spite of the fact that it’s never really been heard before.

Taking the stage in the audience-friendly confines of SubCulture, Threefifty sat surrounded by technology in the form of amps, pedals, and a Macbook, the area behind them adorned with numerous stringed instruments and a drum kit. The fix was in with the first piece – “Home Somewhere” opened with Schulick playing a reserved upward-reaching arpeggio, a beautifully austere greeting that suggested all of the no-frills intimacy of the classical guitar genre – and that maybe all of the other extraneous musical curios on the stage were just for show. After some six measures a few brushes of Parnell’s steel-string shifted anticipation back to the new, so that when then came a delay pedal, and then pre-recorded sound effects (provided by Jennifer Stock), expectations no longer mattered in the face of a vivid aural picture. In the case of “Home Somewhere,” that picture was inspired by, as Schulick recounted, Schulick and his wife attempting to find a reasonably priced apartment in Brooklyn – surely a wellspring of sepulchral feelings for many.

Threefifty Duo - Photograph by Jennifer Cabral

Threefifty Duo – Photograph by Jennifer Cabral

“Home Somewhere” made for a brilliant opener, the silky sounds of nylon meeting with the vital clarity of steel, guitar effects shaping the mood, and Stock’s recordings emerging like inanimate footsteps. Its familiarly unified much of what the rest of the performance of Collapses would contain, and led to “Drive,” a piece written by Parnell and inspired by his adoration for the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn film of the same name (and not, he promised, by a massive man-crush on Ryan Gosling). The attractively coarse jangles of a steel-stringed power-chord progression generated a brain-clinging riff doubling as a versatile harmonic base. “Drive” stacked and flushed and then stacked again, a reverb-fueled electric guitar giving the impression of an ethereal church organ and heaping a gorgeous, heroic, legato line above. During Threefifty’s visit to Soundcheck, John Schaefer cited “Drive” and its surging dynamic landscape in an attempt to capture the essence of “post-rock” for his audience. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a hit – a cinematic, catchy, thoroughly awesome piece of music.

Other tunes included “29,” an effervescent nylon and steel duo written by Schulick to commemorate his wife’s birthday. Its buoyant, incessant flurries and attractive melody are McCartney-esque and in it Threefifty’s passionate and energetic playing was far more appealing than the robotic precision classical guitar junkies usually strive for. Parnell’s “Summit,” dedicated to his closest friends, felt like a warm smile and a series of sonic high-fives. With a growing blush of nylon and steel (and in the recording, banjo) it employed some of the key elements of post-rock eruption without a moody looming specter – a refreshing take on a genre that generally fixates on the dark side.

Threefifty’s inclusion of other instrumentalists on Collapses represents another step in their development as composers. “Alone With People” is a three-piece that included Threefifty alongside percussionist Evan Mitchell (Runaway Dorothy, Ghastly City Sleep, Los Encantados) and is built on a downright meaty riff evocative of some of Elliott Smith’s turbulent rockers. “You Make Me Not Want to Leave” featured Mitchell, violinist Andie Springer (Redhooker, Hotel Elefant), as well as a mandolin part by guitarist and composer Jon Diaz – the sound of each, über-qualified musician turned into something unpretentiously ecstatic, foot-stomping, and fun. Airy vocal parts from David Parnell (Runaway Dorothy) and Joanie Leon Guerrero (Darlin Darlin) stitched seamlessly into the tapestry of “Odd Numbers Lead You West,” an optimistic tune that pressed forward on the strength of its beautiful guitar parts, and “Roofbeam” the lullaby that serves as the ultimate track on the record.

The word “collapse” has become adrenalized and fear-inducing, used in awe-inspiring headlines and epitaphs to things gone, destroyed, changed for the worse. As Collapses’ emotional climax, “The Way Day Collapses” contains an encouraging sense of beauty through erosion – its coy theme splinters and weaves throughout, a memento one can smile at however initially bleak sounding. Threefifty, in adding new instruments, new noise, and new friends to their act, have shattered their sound and built something original and striking out of the rubble. It’s doubtful that they’ll ever lose enthusiasm for their chosen instruments – but with Collapses, Threefifty has gone from letting their guitars do all the talking to letting their music speak for itself.