Better Than . . . standing under the flight path of a jumbo jet at LAX.
If Heartless Bastards keep coming to Los Angeles, they're going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws. The previous time the Texas band played the Echoplex, back in 2010, they filled the place, but last night the crowd was so large and packed in so tight, even the club's employees had difficulty making their way through the throng to restock the bar with more cases of beer.
Lead singer and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom seems to have stumbled upon an unusual formula for success. As the group's draw has increased with each visit to town, her blues-tinged hard-rock songs have become longer and slower, culminating in the fulsome intensity of the Bastards' latest album, Arrow. If anything, Wennerstrom's fans prefer that she wallows in her emotions at extended length and volume instead of in the relatively compact songs from her early releases.
In many ways, Heartless Bastards represent the last great hope for guitar rock, and rock & roll in general. They have a powerful, direct sound that relies on Wennerstrom's expansive power chords, and yet they don't fit neatly into various retro-rock genres like grunge, alternative, heavy metal and hard rock. She and co-guitarist Mark Nathan avoid most rock clichés, and even when one of them plays lead, they tend to do so with thick chords and chiming string drones instead of typical string-bend noodling and wankery.
Of course, so much of the Heartless Bastards' sound lies in Wennerstrom's searing vocals, which somehow cut through the stormy chaos her band cooks up, while retaining plenty of beguiling personality. She's a riot grrl without the riot — dressed all in black and coming off as fearless and inspirational without resorting to coquettish flirting or faux-tomboy toughness.
After the early barrage of heavy new songs like “Parted Ways” and “Got to Have Rock & Roll,” Wennerstrom brought out Heidi Johnson, who sang backup intermittently throughout the set. Johnson's angelic harmonies added a sometimes-subtle layer of melody to contrast the bedrock crush of Wennerstrom's and Nathan's pulverizing guitars. The new album's “Simple Feeling” was an early highlight, living up to its title with Wennerstrom's near-rapturous effusion of pent-up vocals and nonstop pummeling guitars.
Other bands play chords, but Heartless Bastards play chords that sustain like doomsday echoes. Even punk and heavy metal bands who achieve similarly thick and distorted tones tend to clutter up their beautiful noise with too much strumming and scratching sounds, but the Bastards love to let their gigantic chords ring out across the valley with endless sustain, the notes taking forever before they decay naturally. With such a big sound, Wennerstrom and gang are smart enough to slow the tempo down to give such chords room to hang momentously in the air. When Jesse Ebaugh switched from bass to pedal steel for a stirring run through the title track of the group's 2009 album The Mountain, he conjured woozy sounds that were spacey and chilling rather than predictably warm or rootsy.
Even the relatively soft ballads from Arrow, which occasionally dragged at epic lengths on record, sounded loud and full in concert. In Wennestrom's songs, her characters are always chasing the sun and looking for some kind of heat. They're drawn to the light even when the sun turns out be “wicked,” as in the five-minute workout “Nothing Seems the Same.” By the last song of the set, the languorously heavy “Down in the Canyon,” her narrator laments that “All of this time we never saw the sun.”
Heartless Bastards returned for a two-song encore, closing with a series of aggressively hammered chords, an apocalyptic fusillade that cleared the senses, convulsed the body and rendered all memory useless.
Overheard in the crowd: It was so loud in there that most speech was physically impossible. It was so loud, I was worried that the ringing in my head could be heard by others.
Random notebook dump: Wennerstrom didn't have much to say beyond the usual “It's great to be back in L.A.” and “How are you all doing tonight?,” which she repeated several times throughout the evening. At one point, she appeared startled by the video projection of her own face on the screen behind her: “I turned around and saw that was myself!”