Ice Balloons LIVE at Empty Bottle Chicago 03/10/2014

By Kirstin Osgood
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Confession: I don’t read liner notes, I rarely look up set-lists before live shows, I am not great at memorizing the first or last names of the musicians comprising bands, unless, of course, I enjoy regular fantasies of some alone time with one them (e.g. Daniel Kessler of Interpol). When a friend of mine asked if I was interested in seeing Kyp Malone play at the Empty Bottle, embarrassingly I asked, “Who?”  And yes, I consider myself an early TV on the Radio fan. I was lucky enough to witness Malone when a trio of acts blessed the stage at Chicago’s beloved Empty Bottle on a recent Monday in March.

In case you haven’t heard, Monday Nights at the Empty Bottle have been free to the public. Thank you, Empty Bottle owner, Bruce Finkelman. This Monday was particularly crowded as TV on the Radio’s in-the-know fans filled the venue. The line-up consisted of Coins, a Chicago female duo with a compellingly haunting drone, a solo performance from Malone, and a first-ever Chicago appearance from Ice Balloons, of which Malone is also a member.

Kyp Malone’s solo performance was quite the departure from the trance-inducing noise of Coins. Playing on a National Resolectriguitar, his songs were twang-tinged and in moments, rather sentimental in feel. A few of the tunes showcased his expertly controlled, folky, Greg Brown-style vibrato. I found it to be an unexpected solo sound, and a performance strangely sandwiched by ill-matching styles from the other bands. Yet, somehow, all this nonsense made sense. The audience was attentive and enthusiastic throughout.

Kyp Malone retired his dark folk tunes and unique guitar for the night and re-emerged on stage with six other bandmates. Baring no sonic resemblance to that of TV on the Radio, the Brooklyn-based Ice Balloons created an insane, punk rock, brain-drowning experience that left my ears ringing well into the next day.

Ice Balloons are an energetic trio of bass, drums and vocals, surrounded by a constellation of four other musicians providing a messy knot of ambient noise that I’m still trying to unravel. The drummer had an incredibly enticing and dark presence. The band’s lead singer hid behind a bug-eyed Martian mask but exposed his lean body by going shirtless under his light blue mariachi suit. Not your usual band attire. I’ve seen Martian space rock singers disguised in masks but never quite like this. After soaking in this strange scene, I found myself happily lost in an onslaught of nonstop noise, tight rhythms and screaming punk-rock vocals. I was in the middle of a frenetic thunderstorm of complete freak-out. And where was Kyp Malone? He was bent over a chair, calmly turning knobs.

I was surprised to find little information about the band online.  I think it’s worth mentioning how unusual it is to encounter a band whose passion for music brings them out on tour without the marketing accoutrements. I found this obvious lack of self-indulgence refreshing and fascinating, albeit a tricky business for someone tasked with writing a review.

I moved toward the merch table in the middle of the last song hoping to beat the crowd and get some details on the band. I was astonished to find the mysterious and dark-eyed drummer standing there. “Hey, how did you do that? The music is still…, ” I awkwardly blurted out. He smiled and generously answered a few questions while the last four minutes of noise from the remaining members of the band blared behind us. Between the drummer and the bass player, I learned that front fly man, while on a trip to Colorado, conceived of the band, the sound and his costume.

Given the opportunity, I recommend experiencing Ice Balloons. I won’t pretend to understand how all that ambient fun emanates from those boards, boxes and things. Although I’m pretty sure that when the keytar player set down her funny-looking guitar in favor of a laptop, she was checking email. “Hey, mom, guess what? I’m in Chicago playing the #EmptyBottle with# KypMalone. How cool is that!”

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