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The Swiss Army / A Whisper in the Noise (Saturday, August 27th, Varsity Theater, Minneapolis)
The Swiss Army at the Varsity Theater - Photo by Jennifer C. Whigham (click for full set)


By Jennifer C. Whigham

Steve Yasgar, drummer for The Swiss Army, was tired on Saturday night. I stood outside the buzzing Varsity Theater with him, waiting in a considerable line. Yasgar, who lives on a farm 40 miles outside of the Cities and commutes each week to practice, had been lugging gear all over Minneapolis and wasn’t sure he’d have the energy for the show that night. As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about.

I’m biased: I love the Varsity. I think it’s the best thing to happen to the Minneapolis scene and I jump at any chance to see a show there. There are several elements at play, but I can’t quite nail down what makes the Varsity so appealing. It’s not the ornate, bronzed lobby that makes you feel like a time-traveler at the Versailles. It’s not the huge, breezy mainroom or the red satin airbeds (perfect for the lazy showgoer like me). It’s the attitude of everyone there, from staff to audience. Todd, the perpetually cheery and dramatic box office manager, has a wink for everyone. Erik, the lumbering “man on the mezzanine,” has an enthusiastic handshake for visitors to his booth. Owner Jason McClean is leaning against the back bar each weekend, eyeing patrons with an almost fatherly smile.

I’d seen The Swiss Army before at a small hole-in-the-wall art gallery, but only caught a few songs. I’d heard their stage show was much different from their 2004 album, Private Ambulance, a well-produced, pleasant record that works as party background music, but leaves the listener wanting. The band took the stage around 10 PM, casually dressed in the hoodies and black-framed glasses of hipster couture. The first song, “In Need of Sleep,” was an insomniac’s nightmare. The drums kicked in with a ‘90s grunge rage, a surprise as I was expecting the lullaby-feel of the album. The set was consistent in this tone throughout – a clean, drum-heavy style with surly crowd calls (in one song, guitarist Josh Syx yelled repeatedly, “Why do we love! Why do we love!”) The Swiss Army has an interesting mystique, which may or may not work against them. Very rarely did they engage they audience. With the exception of drummer Yasgar, who was so pumped by the end of the set that he ended the last song standing up and then broke a stick with the force of his hit, the band played like 50-year-old rock veterans who were on the last show of a tour. The music itself, which is technically good but not breaking any molds, sounded sharp and CD-quality, but the band appeared internally angry and jaded. At one point, bassist Kai Benson shouted, “This may be A Whisper in the Noise show, but we’re The Swiss Army, damn it!” The band ended on a strong note, leaving the stage pulsing with guitar effects.

Despite a complicated set-up involving a video control panel for projections and several pianos, A Whisper in the Noise was quick to the stage. I’d seen them a few times before and find them the most innovative musicians on the Cities scene. If you’ve never heard them, let me describe: lead singer West Thordson’s compositions fluctuate between the creepy darkness of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead to the aura of a French cabaret. Thordson himself is the fantasy child of the Phantom of the Opera and Freddie Mercury, and on this particular night, fifty people were seated on the gold carpet in front of the stage, staring quietly in awe.

For this night’s show, A Whisper in the Noise played two 45-minute sets, accompanied by video projections pieced together and controlled live by Thordson. When the bass hit, a bloody heart pumped in time on the screen. During quiet moments, a full moon or falling snow glowed behind the band. I’m not normally a fan of projections during shows, but this one was tasteful and stunning. The band played old favorites such as the tinkly, cabaret-sounding “The Tale of Two Doves,” and the Reznor-ish, “Tango.” Thordson, all in black (what else?), mentioned several songs were being played for the first time live. Sonja Larson was gorgeous and captivating on the violin, as was Nicholas Conner’s percussive style, which is akin to marching band meets orchestra conductor. The escapist quality was so complete that I was almost shocked to see Conner’s Levi label on his jeans when he dropped his sticks to play a song by hand. The second set went until 1:30 AM, but most of the 140 people who bought tickets remained, yelling and stomping for an encore when the band left the stage.

The Swiss Army is currently in the studio, recording a follow-up album for release in the fall. A Whisper in the Noise also has a new album, but isn’t available to the public yet for reasons unknown. On stage, Thordson said he was eager for the album to be released, but it wasn’t “ready just yet.”

Jennifer C. Whigham is at jwhigham[at]gmail.com

Related links:

The Swiss Army: http://myspace.com/theswissarmy
A Whisper in the Noise: http://www.awitn.com
Photos: http://flickr.com/photos/zosiablue/sets/836732/


SWISS ARMY SET LIST

In Need of Sleep
John
Incline Station
Lorem Ipsum
Memorial Day
Electric Hearts
Capitals
We Ride
Sax Solos

A WHISPER IN THE NOISE SET LIST

SET ONE
Intro – Times
Doves
Havoc
Autums Song
Silence
Bridal
So You’ve Heard
Sands
Traffic
Tango
Child
Science

SET TWO
Carpenter’s Coalmen
Anymore
Sounding Line
Last Night
Hard Rain
Hell’s Half Acre
Into You
Song You Hate

Encore: In the Dark