Review: Six Finger Satellite at Great Scott

VIDEO: Six Finger Satllite live at Great Scott. Video by Matt Parish

If there was one thing I didn’t expect to see displayed on stage this windy Saturday, it was big smiles. Spastic dances? Yes. Twitchy guitar palpitations? Check. Darkly intoned exhortations over a punishing rhythm section? Sure. But when you think Six Finger Satellite, musicians grinning ear-to-ear in musical exultation is not an image that comes to mind.

Of course, you could argue over the degree to which this outfit actually was Six Finger Satellite. The nuances among the band’s storied eras and line-ups aside, there’s a definitive schism in the their time line. In 1999, they were supporting their then-latest studio release, Law of Ruins (Sub Pop), an ominous, prescient turn of phrase that, as it happened, presaged the demise of the group’s most stable line-up. The 6FS franchise may belong to lanky and sardonic frontman Jeremiah “J.” Ryan, but for most fans of the brand, just hearing “Six Finger” conjures the crackly caterwauling guitar of John (now “The Juan”) MacLean and the airtight and spastic lockstep rhythm of bassist James Apt and drummer Rick Pelletier. The band of that era was, especially in a live setting, fearless and intimidating, exuding an aura of brute force, sardonic wit, and casual malevolence that was largely the product of bitter, barely concealed intra-band tensions.

So it isn’t entirely a negative thing to see a reactivated Six Finger operating in a healthier engagement with their own music. The turn-on-a-dime dynamics and precise-yet-carelessly-caustic riffage that have always been 6FS’s calling card were on display during opener “Thrown Out,” which also happens to be the first track on the band’s “new” long-player from Load Records, Half Control. (“New” because the album was recorded nearly eight years ago by a slightly different line-up, and the band have finished touches on a subsequent as-yet-untitled LP that’s due later this year.)

The current 6FS configuration looks odd on paper, especially with Pelletier now playing guitar. But it sort of works. That’s partly because for the most part Pelletier is able to duplicate the shattered-glass ricochet of the classic 6FS guitar sound, but mostly because the bass is now being manned by Providence legend Dan St. Jacques, a notorious noise-rock mainstay who’s been the chaotic center of Von Ryan’s Express, Landed, Thee Hydrogen Terrors, and numerous others. Although his thick distorted attack tilts the band’s sound into more of a standard “rock” stratosphere, the brute force of the air pumped out of his cab’s speakers is enough to propel each tune into the pinned-to-the-red territory that is 6FS’s hallmark.

For the reunion gig of a band who haven’t played Boston in almost a decade, 6FS were miserly with the classics, offering only two songs from the pre-2001 line-up. When they finally barged into Law of Ruins’ “Surveillance House,” it was a moment of pure joy — mostly because the song’s heavy reliance on Ryan’s keyboard prowess was a liberation from the more guitar-heavy sound of the newer material that had hogged the set. “Surveillance House” was also a great example of the repetitive simplicity of classic 6FS: much of the menace was generated not by crazy stage moves but by their coupling of repetition with insistence. The bass line was static and bullying; everybody else slowly ratcheted up the tension and paranoia until, by the end, the frenzied feeling was crackling from the amplifiers.

Half Control’s title track, the set closer, felt like an unexpected Molotov cocktail tossed out by an innocuous-looking group of rock dudes. As the song’s crunch dug deeper and deeper, a glimpse into the band’s younger and slightly more evil ideal was visible, and it was marvelous. Explained the grins, too.

Daniel Brockman

“Thrown Out”
“Half Life”
“Hearts and Rocks"
“Roam from Home”
“Don’t Let Me”
“Surveillance House”
“Hot Food”
“Wilson P”
“The Greatest Hit”
“Half Control”

See also: "Slideshow: Six Finger Satellite at Great Scott" by Christopher Huang.

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