Isaac Brock’s ever-evolving Washington State act Modest Mouse met with mixed reviews earlier this year when they released long-awaited sixth studio album ‘Strangers to Ourselves’. Gone were the borderline sea-punk shanty dynamics of corners of ‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’, replaced with crisp production values atop driving rhythms, and even a light dousing of hip-hop.
The elephant in the room tonight, though, is not so much the band as the environment that greets them. It’s fair to say The Helix is a few rungs down the ladder of preferred Dublin gig venues – if not for ‘Once’ in the Olympia Theatre, this gig would almost certainly be happening in the city – and today is a good demonstration of why.
Ludicrously extended bar queues and a late out-of-town finish time are minor inconveniences all things considered, but sound quality could scarcely be more important. With nine musicians on stage and a traditionally murky style, Modest Mouse’s sound balance can’t be the easiest to set up, but imbalanced to this extent – close to the point of incomprehensible from all of the several different locations we test, and often punctuated with squealing feedback – simply isn’t good enough.
Inevitably such shambolic aural entertainment does little for the overall feel, but Brock and co do their best to muddle through, and still produce some worthy highlights, an achievement under circumstances that we suspect prompted a number of walk outs.
@mcd_productions just walked out of modest mouse in the helix. Genuinely the worst sound at any gig I’ve ever been to. About my refund?
— Trevor Doyle (@trvr2689) July 10, 2015
The thumping desolation of newcomer ‘Shit In Your Cut’ is an early highlight, giving the dual drummers a chance to trade blows as Brock commands the stage at centre left. ‘Dashboard’ also hits the mark, shattering rhythms fading through the speakers as the lightest of pogoing moves start to kick off down the front.
Sound issues reach their peak with the punky anger of a couple of mid-set tracks, not least in the wonderfully weird blues snarl of ‘The Devil’s Workday’, which holds the charming accolade of actually sounding better performed in a way that screams messy night out.
Things peak with the enthralling, stuttering shouts of ‘Tiny City Made of Ashes’ followed by defining anthem ‘Float On’, which flow gently into each other, pairing up as a tale of head-spinning darkness merging into one of eternal and hooky hope. Placing the pair back to back is a moment that requires the diversity Modest Mouse have built over the years, and offers a glance at what tonight could have been: sharp, emotional and thumpingly intense.
The frustration amongst the crowd, though, is palpable, and it seems the highs just aren’t meant to be sustained.
Real pity about Modest Mouse gig at the Helix last night. Band were excellent but sound was absolutely awful.
— Steve Cummins (@Steve_Cummins) July 11, 2015
By the time a delayed and extended encore comes around, there’s a sense that the band are as put off by the sound balance as their audience. They power through four more tracks, three of which are lighter melodies all but annihilated by the sound issues. ‘The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’ is almost enough to make up for all three, its climatic melodies and shimmering breakdowns temporarily lifting the place.
Experience tells us Modest Mouse are a sensational live band, capable of the kind of shifting dynamics, profound lyrics and abrupt chords that truly connect in person. Tonight, it’s hard to give a true review to band rather than venue. Having been to the better part of a thousand gigs over the last decade and a half, I can only think of a couple of shoddy festival performances that suffered for their location quite as badly as the indie icons did tonight.
Given their role in setting up the sound, Modest Mouse are not entirely blameless. After such a shambles, The Helix’s continued use as a viable venue for anything remotely approaching heavy music, however, has to come under serious scrutiny.