Going Through Hell for “Astoria”


IMG_2812Backlit with beams of spotlights, lead singer of Marianas Trench Josh Ramsay appeared out of the darkness, his face framed with eyeliner and a mop of bleach blonde hair. Dressed in a top hat and leather jacket, shirtless and with vinyl pants threatening to slip off his thin frame, Ramsay crooned out the first line of “Astoria,” the opener to the band’s latest album of the same name, in a radiant tenor while fans screamed their appreciation. As lead singer, his voice ranges from a gritty whine of low notes to soaring and pure high notes, all the way upwards to a raging falsetto. Astoria, with its allusions to 1980’s pop, has Ramsay incorporating that falsetto into much of his music.

His fellow band members often back up his vocals with well-crafted chords; guitarist Matt Webb in particular accompanies Ramsay with a softer sounding tenor. Webb along, with bassist Mike Ayley and drummer Ian Casselman, though a bit more downplayed in their appearance, joined Ramsay at Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park decked out in eye shadow and scarves, sky-high Mohawks, and curling
sideburns for their “Hey You Guys!” tour, a nod to the allusion to the movie “The Goonies” in their latest album.

Even the band IMG_2827was surprised by the amount of fans at the venue, noting this area was not expected to garner much attention. It would be appropriate then that that the next song played was “Celebrity Status,” from the band’s sophomore album “Masterpiece Theater.” The song critiques the effects of gaining fame with lines that include “I pray at the church of asses in the seats.”

Most musicians have a rags-to-riches story, and Ramsay, who dropped out of high school due to a heroin addiction, i
s no exception. But the rawness of addiction and failure that affected Marianas Trench’s first album, “Fix Me,” had nearly disappeared by their second. Songs like “Celebrity Status” certainly were a nod to their new look, and their third album, the poppy “Ever After,” replaced any remaining grit with a synthesizer and the airy idea of a concept album. “Astoria,” also a concept album, was driven in part by three events that had occurred in Ramsay’s life since “Ever After:” the sickness of his mother, his own illness leaving him in a hospital, and the breakup with his fiancée. “Astoria” seems to be powerful not in the coming-of-age story developed for the concept album, but the emotion stemming from these events in songs like “Forget Me Not” and “Dearly Departed.”

IMG_2819I should note that my review of the band and their concert has a bias. Less than a year ago, I got into a fight with my boyfriend, which led to a regrettable text describing his favorite bands as “shitty teenage girl music.” To make this brief, we made up, but I decided I needed to actually delve into the music I had insulted before making another snap-judgment. I discovered Marianas Trench, a band normally too poppy and sugary for my taste, but with rock-opera-styled pieces and Queen-inspired harmonies, I was hooked. I continued listening to the band with my boyfriend, as it was the one band we could agree on.

My boyfriend and his best friend had discovered the Vancouver-based pop-rock band in high school together, and had been following their
music since then. The three of decided to attend to the upcoming concert together and buy VIP tickets. Though I hate the idea of being a fan-girl, I have become emotionally invested in this band, especially since I have become invested in a person who has been listening to the group since the ninth grade.

Screenshot 2015-12-08 08.11.16The concert was announced with an aggressive email from the band’s company. Filled with both red and bold text, it announced that if we did not arrive at 4p.m. we would miss the sound check and meet-and-greet entitled to VIP ticket holders. Arriving at ten minutes of four, we then waited for forty-five more minutes.

Upstate Concert Hall, formerly known as Northern Lights, is oddly situated in a shopping plaza in Clifton Park and neighbors a tattoo parlor and an Ocean State Job Lot. The tattoo shop, according to passerby, once got upset over a line blocking the shop, which led to the line for our show later that night stretching onto an island that spanned the middle of the plaza’s parking lot. While waiting for the sound-check, we could hear the strum of guitars and the wail of vocal warm ups.

Someone asked a bouncer if we were missing the sound check.

“You don’t want to be there for the actual sound check,” he said, “It’s just them playing something and then turning the volume up and down.”

After being handed various souvenir objects (purple glasses, photos, and plastic VIP passes) we were allowed into the venue. And then we waited some more.

IMG_2850Eventually, the band members approached the edge of the stage, casually situating themselves near the audience.

“So,” said Ramsay as he sat down, “You guys just want to chat, ask some questions?”

The audience of about 50 people was silent; they seemed unsure how to respond to this kind of situation. I was even a surprised that the meet and greet wasn’t just shaking the band members’ hands as they autographed our souvenir photos. As others gathered their bearings, I shot my hand up.

“Josh, do you take your tongue stud out when you record songs?”

There was an uncomfortable pause and I could sense my boyfriend tense up in embarrassment.

“You know, because to the noise it could make?”

It had been a question that had been eating at me even since I had first seen music videos with the lead singer’s tongue glinting in the camera light. I had thought such a piercing would be a bad choice for a singer.

Ramsay replied that he didn’t, but a few takes had been ruined because the mike had picked up a clicking noise.

Later on, I asked a few more sane questions regarding the band’s genre and the production of a concept album.

I had been curious to ask about the band’s genre. The band has changed its sound significantly over the course of its four albums, and whenever I tried to describe the band in terms of genre to others I drew a blank. Ramsay was quick to say they were not pop punk, and had never been a pop punk band, and added if is was any genre it would lie somewhere between pop and rock. He and Casselman went on to say that they hated the idea of their music being limited to a genre; good music should be able to be played in any genre, it all depended on the production of the song.

Ramsay seemed especially inclined towards the production of a song. While his band mates cited Depeche Mode and Nirvana as favorites, the frontman stated he preferred finding a favorite song rather than an artist, and added a musical idol for him would be the Swedish producer Max Martin. Ramsay himself has produced a handful of songs, including the 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe.” If anything lies in his future, it may be further well-crafted production of pop singles.

IMG_2849Finishing up with questions, the band set up their instruments to perform “Push,” from their first album “Fix Me.” It was the only song from that album they would perform that night, seeming to want to distant themselves from their initial endeavor. Those songs tend to have a darker, whiner feel, and the album lacks the usual structure of either a concept album or operatic pieces. The album also has a reoccurring theme of referencing Ramsay’s past heroin abuse and eating disorders, while later works focus more on his relationships. But the song lyrics often reoccur in many of the operatic pieces in later albums, so it seems odd to distance the band from this album.

With an intro of breathy “ah-ah’s” and Ramsay’s telltale whiny grit as he opens with the first line, “Push” has the desperate feeling of many of the songs in “Fix Me.” Ramsay joined Webb and Ayley with a red electric guitar shaped like the leaf of the Canadian flag.

Leaving the building, we were told we could wait in the VIP line and be the first ones in. The line was filled with either teenage girls or young women dressed like teenage girls: single black lace fingerless gloves mimicking the one worn by Ramsay, dark eyeliner, hair dyed neon colors. The two twenty-three year old men and I stuck out from this crowd of self-described “Trenchers.” We heard at least two girls discussing being at Marianas Trench concerts in the past few months and I had the uncomfortable feeling I was waiting in line with aspiring groupies.

Back inside the venue, we did in fact get to be closer to the stage than the majority of the audience, but as more people entered, the situation grew more claustrophobic. Crushed by the crowd, and with our feet hurting for standing for over three hours, my breaking point occurred when three people who smelled strongly of beer pushed their way in front of us and out of our ideal spot. About an hour had passed since we had entered the venue for the second time.

IMG_2805Eventually the opening band, Brooklyn-based Secret Someones, began the show with a series of upbeat indie rock tunes to set the mood. I liked the group, made up of Bess Rogers, Hannah Winkler, Lelia Broussard on guitar and vocals and Zach Jones on drums. The foursome utilized a keyboard and electric guitars, along with a few acoustic numbers, to create pop shifting into alt-rock, which included a cover of Nirvana’s “Breed.” They made me think of a band you would find performing in the basement at a hipster’s house party. Songs like “Heartbreaker,” and “I Won’t Follow,” enriched with the combined vocals of the three women and filled with themes of female independence, were heartwarming but unfortunately not notable enough that I could see them rising to any sort of fame. I also desperately wanted to ask the lead guitarist where she got those gold-sequined shorts that she had ironically paired off with a worn out t-shirt in the most hipster-like of fashions.

Despite the upbeat tunes, the audience remained unfathomably dead. This was not helped by another half an hour of wait time between sets filled with a collection of 1980’s pop songs: Michael Jackson, Cindy Lauper, and even the soundtrack to “Footloose” were used to kill time.

Finally, finally Marianas Trench appeared in that blinding array of spotlights. Ramsay was nearly drowned out by his screaming fans as he appeared in that skin-tight outfit and belted out the opening lines to the rock-opera piece “Astoria.”

Given my struggle to categorize the band into a genre, and the general public’s lack of knowledge of the band, I often have to describe Marianas Trench by comparing them to Queen. Now, it should be known that when I compare a band to Queen I am paying a bold compliment. It implies that I think the singer might have a fraction of vocal purity and emotion that Freddie Mercury had, that I think a song has created a rock-laden odyssey at least slightly similar to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that the rising energy of the instruments might compare to Queen’s telltale guitar riffs. I’d be dead wrong to even consider saying Marianas Trench is equal to Queen, but “Astoria” is probably one of the best examples of a piece with a similar sound to the band. Ramsay’s voice soars in the introductory lines of “Astoria, I’m warnin’ ya’,” and the seven minute piece switches from heartfelt to frenetic, and even includes a buzzy-sounding chorus in the middle of it proclaiming “On a good day I’m the bad news for the wrong girl with the ripe wounds…”

IMG_2842The lyrics can be confusing. Since their debut album, Marianas Trench’s songs seem to be more and more exclusively for their fans: at least one piece will include or allude to lyrics from a previous album. “Dearly Departed,” a ukulele-accompanied piece about Ramsay’s break up with his fiancée, includes a bridge consisting almost exclusively of titles of songs written about her* (according to fan-based rumors). It sounds like a pop-rock mad lib, but the band has been pulling off recycling their old lyrics for three albums, so it’s clear this niche group of fans’ loyalty is strong.

If you want another example of this niche following, consider three songs into the concert as Ramsay began the song “All To Myself,” only to pause and listen to the audience sing the second half of the first line on their own. The song then became a back and forth between the band and the audience; at one point, the final chorus was carried completely by the audience, nudged along by Ramsay putting his hand up to his ear to listen in a cartoonish manner.

An emo kid grown up to a glam rocker, Ramsay mingled with the audience in a manner that ranged from quirk to cattiness. Once an audience member threw not one but four tiny plush dinosaurs up onto the stage for the frontman to catch.

“Well I guess it could be a ménage à trois,” he quipped as the third dinosaur was tossed, and then, as the fourth one sailed in the air, “Well, now it’s just a gang-bang.”

At one point he was skimming the crowd and spotted someone holding up sheet music for him to sign.

“This really isn’t the time to do that,” he said, but continued to ask the young man about how he had written the piece, how he kept the rhythm, and if he sang in it.

“I do,” said the kid, at which point several audience members started cheering.

“Well, don’t think you’re going to come up here to sing it, because this is my fucking show,” Ramsay taunted.

Sometime later an audience member threw a stick of gum on stage.

“Why would you do that?” asked Ramsay “You’re just drawing attention to yourself for doing something stupid.” Some sort of exchange seemed to be happening as Ramsay threatened, “Don’t you dare throw that pack up here. I will rip you a new asshole.”

The pack of gum landed on stage, and the lead singer proceeded to make remarks about the offender never finishing high school and being inbred, while much of the audience laughed. Later, after the band had finished their following song, Ramsay picked up the piece of gum, unwrapped it, and popped it in his mouth as a sort of a nod the exchange. The incident sat a little uneasily with me, as it seemed tacky to pick on someone with the indication they were too dumb to finish high school if you yourself never had.IMG_2851

The band also paused to tell a story about opening a concert to the Mortal Kombat theme dressed as ninjas, only to find themselves frozen in their ninja poses for “the longest five minutes of [their] lives” as the tech crew struggled to get the set ready.

“I don’t have any cute stories from this,” said Ramsay, “Just horror.”

Pop-laden numbers played included “Burning Up,” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” both from “Astoria” and based off pop music of the 1980’s. “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” inspired by the Jackson 5, is even concluded with the line “Don’t sound like Mike did, no, but it’s alright for a white kid.” Songs like these have led to some critics accusing the band of merely riffing off popular ‘80’s songs, but the riffs-while taking away some depth of the songs-kept the music fun and dance-worthy for the night.

The band also employed pop pieces from “Ever After,” including “Haven’t Had Enough” and “Stutter,” which had Ramsay actually stuttering and shaking his head wildly to the chorus as he sang “Did I, did I, d-di-did I…stutter, stutter, stutter?” while his white-blonde head became a blur.

One of the most requested songs of the night, at least judged by what the crowd kept screaming, was the band’s single “Pop 101.” Ramsay wrote the song as a retort to Internet murmurings that it wasn’t that hard to write a pop song like “Call Me Maybe,” which he had co-written and produced with Carly Rae Jepsen.

“Oh yeah, where’s your pop song?” Ramsay jeered, before launching into the number.

I was surprised the song was performed at all, mainly because the song was produced to incorporate varying sounds ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to Imogen Heap to Mumford and Sons in order to poke fun at a variety of successful singles. The song involves morphing Ramsay and the other band members’ voices and features pop rapper Anami Vice. Despite none of these features being accessible, the band performed the song and simply had fun with it, designating the rap bit to drummer Ian Casselman, who botched most of the words. But it was refreshing to just have fun with the song rather than worry about the technicalities of pop and production that the song pokes fun at.

The night was calmed down by an acoustic performance of “Good To You,” a song of support in romance. The final piece, also the closer to “Astoria,” “End of an Era,” was just as bombastic and fantastic as the opener, although Ramsay’s voice seemed to be straining after a night of vocal acrobatics. As strobe lights flashed and the crowd screamed, the band makes sang their final chord of “Astoria must end,” and so it did as the lights went out and everything was black for a few seconds.IMG_2845

I stayed awake on the way home by riding a wave of euphoria. This had technically been my first real concert (I don’t count a sock-hop styled band at the Egg I saw in high school or an unfortunate experience accompanying someone to an Ariana Grande concert), and I had finally experienced the crushing impact of a beer-tinged crowd, a gaggle of groupies, and an awe-inspiring though petulant taunting frontman. I suppose I never before had followed a modern band so closely that I had felt the need to attend a concert, preferring to idolize the classic performers of pop, punk, and rock who were either ancient or long dead. Now, I had screamed at, sang along with, and asked awkward questions to a band that was very much alive. Hell, I even had a picture posing with them. With that in mind, after sleeping late into the next day, I put on the overpriced souvenir t-shirt I had gotten the night before, turned on a favorite Marianas Trench song of mine, and began to write.










*This link isn’t a verifiable source, just a confirmation that the rumor of this exists.


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