Once the home of Vancouver’s hardcore scene, the Cobalt was sold four years ago and re-branded as a modern alternative music venue. Three dollar cans of Dude beer have been replaced by microbrews on tap behind a bar that’s now unpadded. Where once the back wall of the stage was papered from floor to ceiling in flyers from bygone shows, works of modern art now hang. But some things remain: Pacific Pilsner is still sold by the can and the floor is still creatively contoured.
Sex Church’s sound would have fit in nicely with the Cobalt of old: a widening gyre of droning industrial guitar cranked to 11, turning and turning over blood-dimmed vocals. They’ve been referred to as “Death Rock,” and it fits; it’s a kind of gloomy-garage blend of early Sonic Youth noise rock with Kyuss-like stoner metal. They barely paused between songs: each devoured the last as their set moved inexorably forward, creating the illusion of one long uninterrupted beast of a jam.
Two-piece Nerve City followed close behind. After asking to turn down the stage lights and reporting to the crowd he was having a good time, frontman Jason Boyer launched into his set of lo-fi punk-folk with a carefree swagger. Having released seven EPs and an album in a five year stretch, Boyer had no shortage of material. Highlights included “I am Alive,” a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘67 Velvet Underground set and “Living Wage” from his self-titled LP. Boyer entertained requests as well: when one voice rose above the din to demand “play Gone, motherf***er!” Boyer obliged with a shrug and and an “Alright, here you go!” Boyer closed the set with “Sleepwalker,” but he would return in time.
Case Studies took the stage and the room into a dramatically different place as they launched into a set supporting their new album This is Another Life. Where Sex Church and Nerve City dominated the room with aggression and energy, singer-songwriter Jesse Lortz songs pulled the crowd into his head and created a stillness made even more intimate by the contrast.
It’s folk; but defies the current anachronistic genre trend. Case Studies is more a melancholy inversion of Mumford’s “wait for the banjo drop” folk-pop ethos. Lortz writes like current singer-songwriter contemporaries AA Bondy or Elvis Perkins. His are complex ruminations; shadowy soundscapes often but perforated with rays of light. The ominous opening bars of “House of Silk, House of Stone” gave way to a foreboding baritone vocal performance that even had a hint of Johnny Cash; the song seems primed for trailer work.
During the upbeat Americana of “Driving East and Through Her,” collaborator Jon Parker swapped his keyboard for some slide guitar and Boyer returned to provide tambourine support. After the song concluded, Lortz explained that they usually tour with a full band but had “border issues.” Judging by the crowd, he needn’t have worried. Four years ago, the idea of a singer-songwriter holding the Cobalt rapt with just his voice, a guitar, and a keyboard would have been unthinkable. On Sunday night, Case Studies did just that.