Crystal Skulls with Black Mountain at the 360 (326 Queen West), Tuesday (April 5), 9 pm. $9 advance. 416-593-0840. Rating: NNNNN
Listening to the impressive Crystal Skulls' Blocked Numbers (Suicide Squeeze) debut just before heading to Austin for South By Southwest, it sounded to me like the Seattle group were deadlocked in a studio struggle between snappy Zombies-style jams and jazzy Steely Dan-ish adult contemporary pop.
It didn't seem like a battle I'd care to see waged live onstage, but on the advice of Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, who sang the Skulls' praises from across the aisle during my morning flight to Texas, I decided to check out their showcase at Emo's.
Happily, they managed to rein in their darker diddling impulses and, with the addition of keyboardist Mark Richardson, the Rod Argent fans in the group held sway for the 40-minute power pop blast attended by just about every Toronto music journalist at SXSW. The Skulls should consider hiring Drew as a full-time publicist.
"We had a lot of keyboard parts on the album that would've been difficult for us to play live," explains singer/guitarist Christian Wargo, who formed the group with pals from Scientific and Seldom, "so we asked Marky to join us on tour.
"I've actually been playing with him on and off since we were, like, 11 years old, and I remember listening to the Zombies endlessly with him when we were kids. You know, that early stuff where Rod Argent would go buck wild on the keys - I loved that shit.
"I don't know about the Steely Dan comparisons, but we definitely put some effort into our arrangements and considered how the songs fit together on the album to create the proper listening experience. We wanted to make it entertaining."
If nothing else, naming their band after a mysterious ancient quartz crystal artifact carved in the shape of a human skull should draw an entertaining assortment of characters to Crystal Skulls shows.
Many of the people who believe that a super-intelligent race of extraterrestrials designed the pyramids and etched the Nazca lines in Peru are also convinced those very same generous aliens left the crystal skulls with the Mayans and some native American tribes as parting gifts.
"There are many legends associated with the crystal skulls," says Wargo. "One interesting tale deals with 13 skulls thought to be hidden around the world that contain the secret of our existence here on Earth. When humanity develops to the point where we're capable of handling it, the skulls will be found and the secrets of the universe will finally be revealed. But actually, I just thought Crystal Skulls would be a cool band name."
Unlike Wargo's previous employers, Pedro the Lion and the Danielson Famile, there doesn't appear to be any Christian subtext to Crystal Skulls' songs. There's not a single reference to so-called "intelligent design" or any nasty dissing of Darwinism.
Evidently, Wargo left his WWJD wristband at the Jesus People USA compound back in Chicago. He now refers to his four-year stint with the controversial Christian commune as "the darkest period of my life."
"There's no belief system being pushed by the Crystal Skulls," Wargo insists. "Joining Pedro the Lion was my last try at Christianity. But even with (Pedro frontman) Dave Bazan's ideas being as left-leaning as they are, I still didn't see any value in it.
"I'm not a Christian any more. Right now I don't feel like I ever was. I think it's a waste of time." email@example.com