March 2- 8, 2006
In the cave with Philly's rock extremists.
"When we play I try to make ghosts come out of our amplifiers," says Justin Duerr. Conjuring spirits is nothing new for Justin and Northern Liberties, the trio he sings and writes for. Ghosts are a musical part of the "biorhythms and environmental factors" that Justin Duerr claims pushes their metallic sound. Ghosts haunt the lyrics he calls "silent love-wars"improvisations filled with flowers, bees, hibernating birds, dreaming deer and soft-antlered mud worms.
Their recordslike their brand new Secret Revolutionare gorgeously extreme, effects-laden maelstroms punctuated by pick-driven bass and voices that caterwaul and mumble. Not the xtreme of Killswitch Engage, snowboarding and X Games. In a universe where obviousness rules, making music that's extreme yet doesn't yield to stupidity is an anomaly.
The shaggy trio from Overbrook and South PhillyJustin Duerr, Marc Duerr, Kevin Rileymake their music almost covertly. Theirs is a more underground ideal than most, despite its joyful primordial roar. Chromelodeon and Robotrake look like Christina and Britney in comparison.
"We're the only band doing what we do," says Riley. Dick-size posturing? There's a prideful resignation in his tone. You'll sense Joy Division, Syd Barrett and the spiritually imbued Ruin in NoLib's minimalist sound and lyrical abstractions. But there's a hidden code to what they do, something obtuse and beautiful.
Before 2000, Northern Liberties' members were in Eulogy and Firetruck of Beer. They lived in squats, recorded hours of music no one would ever hear and played often at the infamous Catbox practice house in West Philly. "Liberties was born at the Catbox," says Justin, who moved out of the Box in 2003.
There's no connection between this heaving metal trio and the poncy Philly neighborhood of the same name. Their moniker refers to the old meaning; "northern liberties" were sections of cities like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia where no one tied down their animals. They didn't have to. These neighborhoods were considered wild, outlying regions.
"We saw ourselves as a musical equivalenta band choosing a path of untethered freedom on the outskirts," says Justin. "Northern Liberties is pretty poncy. But it was back in 2000 when we named ourselves."
That renegade vibe describes Riley's Worldeater label, home to Northern Liberties and at least 15 other bands. We're talking CDs and vinyl from hybrid metal/punk acts like Hellblock 6, Kiss Kiss Kill or World Famous Crawlspace Brothers. The acts were chosen because, like NoLibs, they're on the edges of their respective genres.
That's where the comparison between band and label ends. The minimalist dynamics of Northern Liberties sound like nothing else on the label. Ask them to explain those dynamics and weird magic kicks in. "Pigeons weren't meant to live in holesthey're cliff dwellers. So I'm not so into pigeonholing things," says Justin. "We are trying to discover a sound that's beyond us, beyond ourselves as individuals, beyond direct frames of reference." He says Northern Liberties likes to step aside and let the songs out with as little interference from the band as possible.
Talking about what he calls a "feedback loop" philosophy of writing songs "through electrochemical, electroharmonic vibrations," Justin says he believes that the band creates music while reacting to it. "That is why we are "rocked' by our own music."
Having witnessed their performances, electric and acoustic, I can attest to the trance that envelops all comers. "We're not just playing the songs. We're hearing it as it unfoldsas audience members," says Justin. Through screeching psychedelic volume or quietude, there's holiness at work. Not religion, exactlyalthough Justin is a minister in an order of his devising, Church Of Divine Energybut rather a force field of ghost electricity and all attendant powers.
"Music is a spiritual pursuit," according to Justin. If you're moved by Secret Revolution, it's because you are that music. It's your quietude, your holiness. It's a place, like they speak of in "Mainframe," where a song can endow a person with supernatural powers. Amen.
Northern Liberties will play Thu., March 2, 9 p.m., $8, with Radio Eris, Kandy Whales and ShellShag, The Khyber, 56 S. Second St., 215-238-5888, www.worldeaterrecords, www.justinduerr.com.