Random acts

In memoriam

Westville Pub music booker Gerry Livers will be honored by the venue with a memorial show on Sunday, Nov. 23, from 6-8 p.m.; Gerry passed away unexpectedly last month. His singer/songwriter friends will play songs the local-music advocate loved, and Westville’s stage will be officially dedicated to him. 225-9782.

Of note

A debut, darkly: Asheville dark-symphonic-rock-ers That Outre Hammer have announced plans to record a seven-song demo debut before the end of the year (working title: Black Square). Watch for it in the first few months of 2004.

Front-row reviews

Who: Off Centre with Fantastic Life
Where: Stella Blue
When: Thursday, Nov. 6

It wasn’t till the very end of their set that I started to enjoy Fantastic Life. Their highly dated sound — which seems culled directly from alt-rock-radio hits of the mid-’90s — found me playing an impromptu game of “guess the musical influence,” rather than seriously listening.

At almost every turn, a snatch of some familiar song — a Collective Soul-styled hook, a vocal refrain borrowed from Live or Stone Temple Pilots — reared its moldy head.

Meanwhile, the sparse Stella Blue crowd seemed only passively interested in the sonic happenings onstage, hanging around the fringes of the club, and trying to talk over the band.

That is, until about the end of the set.

It’s hard to explain what, exactly, changed during Fantastic Life’s last few songs. All at once, they went from being decent musicians playing passable (if passe) music to performers utterly consumed by their calling, their final songs flaring up like that last round of sparks from a Roman candle that — only moments before — you’d given up for spent.

With heavier works like “Sun Ra” and the powerful closer “Cigarette,” Fantastic Life dropped all outdated, alt-rock pretense, offering something new and unexpected. Though it wasn’t quite enough to compensate for their show’s predictable start, it did cause the crowd to finally pay attention.

Toward the very end of the set, people even danced a little.

Headliners Off Centre are the spokesband for a whole seemingly ignored set of local, heavy-rock musicians. Voted “Best Local Band” by Asheville Citizen-Times readers last year, Off Centre has nonetheless struggled to find venues where they can effectively establish themselves — as have other Asheville-area bands like Unscathed, Red Penny Arsenal and Throwing Myself. Stella Blue, with its eye seemingly turned toward booking more local acts, could end up being these groups’ new proving grounds.

Off Centre’s live show has changed greatly since the days when the band was composed solely of dual acoustic-guitarists/vocalists Joey Wilton and Brandon Lowery. Though the group still emphasizes their distorted strumming and weighty vocals, the addition of drummer Grant Henry and bassist Koli has brought new depth and richness.

Songs like “Misplaced Streets” and “One Day Forever” — both unexpectedly traditional rockers — hint that the band is starting to find its own path. And, of all things, Off Centre’s powerful (and remarkably faithful) cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” confirmed it.

Under the radar

Cannibal Unicorn, Cannibal Unicorn (2003)

The last time I heard Brian Flik sing his regret-laden “Everybody Dies,” he was playing an acoustic guitar and wearing a cowboy hat. These days, however, the twangy tones of Flik’s lamenting country anthem have been crushed down into a snarling, relentlessly driving hard-rock tune.

It’s the same song, of course — just now a lot angrier.

The transformation comes by way of Flik’s collaboration with drummer Justin Whitlow (Reductio Ad Absurdum), their duo unfortunately dubbed Cannibal Unicorn. While the name may be awkward, their music is a fascinating combination of aggressive punk and modern garage — plus the occasional holdover howling vocal from Flik’s acoustic-country experiments.

Recorded in a single afternoon in the basement of local heavy-rock icon Grant Henry (Off Centre, MiniVoid), the duo’s demo is universally dark, with individual tunes united by Flik’s bellowing vocals.

True, his singing owes a great debt to Danzig-era Misfits, as do Cannibal Unicorn’s overall song structures — and that’s particularly true on tracks like “Echo & The Bunnymen” and “A.C.D.C.” (neither song, oddly enough, seems inspired by its namesake band).

Some tracks are certainly more polished than others. And at least one, “Blackmetal Futon,” seems tacked on as a joke.

On the whole, though, Cannibal Unicorn’s debut has just enough edge to keep you listening — and just enough meaning to give you a reason to listen again.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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