Smile Politely

“Where are the goddamn horses?”

“On three, everyone say your name,” asked Darwin Keup, on bass with Hank. before beginning their set at Mike ‘N Molly’s. After a garbled murmur from a crowd of about sixty, Keup responded with a quiet and modest “Hi.”

With incense burning stage front, it wasn’t hard to sense how the local math-punk act could perform with such ease and affability, especially at a hometown show. Even though most attendees seemed to be made up of long-time devoted fans, fresh ears would easily be drawn to their mathy, controlled chaos by soundcheck (which was a punk/metal cover of the theme song for Mike Judge’s King of the Hill show). Playing a setlist based entirely off their debut album Pinched. (minus “London,” a Third Eye Blind cover), the hardcore nerdy insanity hit full speed by their second song, “Judging Giraffe Always Looks Down,” with Keup laying down soothing blues bass scales under harmonic, heavy, psychedelic noise led by guitarist Teddy Lerch. It’s a jam that might get you to dance or mosh, but you wouldn’t know which one you’re doing.

For their next song, “Jedidiah,” Keup brought his mad-scientist-esque insanity to the vocals, as Hank. was joined a tiny brass and string section made up of Alleya Weibel on violin (from An Evening With Your Mother), Emma Hall on cello, and Ian Simmons Simon on trumpet, who also read out a short piece of spoken word poetry. Referring to an anecdote of how the band formed, he read aloud one line, “We have not seen the sun for five days,” and was met by shouts of “Doom” from the crowd after ending another line with the same ominous word. There were a few other pieces of feedback that the audience wailed back, most notably, “Where are the goddamn horses?!” a phrase coined by a random fan with an origin unknown to most.

In between syncopated guitar melodies, wild howls, and gazy low-end breakdowns, Hank. has truly developed a live music experience completely unique to — yet perfectly suited for — the C-U scene. Keup’s vocal and rhythmic coordination in “That’s a Fact” demonstrated a profoundly legendary level of professionalism unmatched by any other local rock bassists, and when combined with Lerch’s knowledge of melody, tone, and distortion on guitar, they could warp peace into chaos and cycle right back again in just a single measure. Through the entire show, Nelson Cowan diced up zesty beats with such finesse, consistency, and precision that he could successfully thrash his way through heart surgery if he had to. With the additional layer of brass and strings, there was a definite post-rock feel to the slower parts of the music, yet it was no step backwards. Rather, it seemed to be a startling pinch forwards, proving how one could find peace and calmness in the midst of total chaos.

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Overall, the live experience Hank. has to offer is a complex mixture of Western mockery, emo lyrics, and perhaps the most insane math rock I’ll ever have the chance to hear in person. By the third to last song, when light moshing broke out momentarily, I realized the horses were not on stage, in the crowd, or even in our heads. They were in the music, chasing a setting sun, illuminating everything beyond the vexing curvature of the Earth.

Hank. will resume their tour on August 1 in Springfield, MA, and will return to C-U at the end of September for Pygmalion.

All photos courtesy of Sean O’Connor.

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