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Closure in Moscow by Tony R Photography

Closure in Moscow/Harts/Toehider Review
Thursday, May 30th @ Max Watt’s, Melbourne
Review: Joshua Batten. Photos: Tony R Photography

In an era of big pop festivals being cancelled, it seems that the multi-bill, single-night, niche lineup is the way to go. Tonight at Max Watts, Melbourne-based Alternative Prog-Rock band Closure in Moscow proved that theory, kicking off the Australian leg of their Soft Hell tour playing to a packed house with a triple bill of underground Aussie talent on a rainy Thursday night.

Toehider by Tony R Photography

For me and a handful of others in attendance, the primary attraction is not actually Closure, but Mike Mills’ Progressive Metal project Toehider, who tonight are celebrating the 10th anniversary of his internationally acclaimed album What Kind Of Creature Am I? by playing the album in its entirety for the first time. Arriving on stage in his signature beanie and a long duster coat,  Mike casually introduces the set in a Talking Heads style manner (“The Name of this band is Toehider”) before launching straight into album opener “You And I Both Lose (But 5 Wins)”.

From there, the setlist follows the album verbatim, as bassist/backing vocalist Nick Delaney and drummer Arron Light keep up with Mills’ massive vocal range, virtuosic yet melodic guitar playing, and tasteful backing tracks used to incorporate the keyboards that were integral to many of the songs on the album. Delaney in particular is a great performer, delving several power stances and comical facial expressions while effortlessly playing the album’s intricate bass lines.

As the set progresses, several crowd members who have followed Mike on his musical journey for years can be seen enthusiastically singing along to songs they have clearly waited just as long as I have to hear in a live setting. Highlights include concert staple “Whatever Makes You Feel Superior” (a mix of Lionel Ritchie-style R&B and Devin Townsend style Power Metal), the structured chaos of the title track, and both “The Thing With Me” and “Whoa!” combining existential lyrics with catchy melodies.

As the set reaches the 45-minute mark, things are only about to get more intense, as the band launches into “Meet The Sloth”, an 11 minute folk-prog epic with shades of Genesis and Jethro Tull. Despite stumbling over some of the lyrics (understandable given their density), to hear this piece played all the way through without interruption is a Toehider fan’s dream come true, and the audience erupts with applause following its conclusion. Finally, the set closes out with “Geese Lycan”, a 2-minute humorous Math/Death Metal romp, and Toehider leave the stage just as casually as they entered. The audience of both old fans and newcomers are enthralled by Mike Mills’ musical mastery and head straight for the merch stand to support his vision buy stocking up on tees, records, socks (for hiding toes, of course), and 3-D Printed mini-ray gun keychains (inspired a device from one of Toehider’s story-based songs). Here’s hoping it’s not another five years before he plays another hometown gig!

Bluesy Funk virtuoso Darren Hart (AKA Harts) is already facing an uphill battle as a last-minute replacement for American cult rockers The Dear Hunter, but as if that wasn’t enough, tonight is also Hart’s first time performing his original music in public since 2018. He’s spent the last few years focusing on his “Harts Plays Hendrix” show, studio-based session work, side projects, artist mentoring and becoming a dad.

Despite his acclaim in the music industry, 95% of the crowd tonight have never seen or heard him before. Fortunately, Harts has had plenty of experience winning over crowds both big and small and brings the required energy as a performer to warm up the crowd. Accompanied by his longtime rhythm section of drummer Craig Luebker and bassist/backing vocalist Abel Mazo, Harts picks up right where his last tour left off, opening with “Smoke” going into “Fear in Me” off his second album Smoke Fire Hope Desire, and continuing with arguably his signature song “Lovers In Bloom”. Their late addition to the bill clearly hasn’t given the band enough time to change up their performance arc or set structure, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Hart, Luebker and Mazo are just as in sync as when they last shared the stage together.

Like Toehider, there are plenty of digital sounds complimenting the power trio throughout the set, but Harts appears to take more of an active role in setting this up, playing keyboards and triggering samples through the set, all plugged together in a DJ-Desk style setup, making him look at times almost like Rush’s Geddy Lee or Muse’s Matt Bellamy. But make no mistake, Harts is a guitar player first and foremost, and uses his 2015 song “Breakthrough” as the set’s centrepiece, wailing away on his custom painted Squier Strat with a wah-wah pedal before dropping to his knees to channel his inner Hendrix.

By the set’s end,  Harts has (for the most part) won over the crowd, and their successful comeback after an extended hiatus is a true testament to the spirit of persistence in the modern musical landscape.

Closure in Moscow
At first, the members of Closure in Moscow all look like they belong to different bands, with guitarist Michael Barrett in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, guitarist-vocalist guitarist Mansur Zennelli in a new wave style getup with gelled up hair and pinstriped blazer, bassist Duncan Millar in full super Mario getup with cap & overalls, and lead vocalist Christopher de Cinque complimenting his tiny track shorts and singlet with a bright yellow raincoat. But rather than clashing, all this is representative of their attitude towards creating fun, high intensity Alternative Rock music with catchy choruses, effects-heavy guitar riffs, and Prog inspired mood shifts within the songs.

Their setlist tonight, which has remained consistent from their recent US and European jaunts, is focused on their latest album Soft Hell (their first in nine years) with a roughly 50/50 mix of tunes from their debut First Temple, and their conceptually ambitious sophomore Pink Lemonade. Indeed, it is these older songs that get the biggest response from longtime fans, but the new songs are just as catchy and immersive – show opener “Jager Bomb” sets the bar high, starting with a quiet intro before hitting like, well, a bomb, with its alternating half-time choruses and groovy verses sounding like Powderfinger on Red Bull.

Christopher de Cinque revels in his eccentricity as frontman, effortlessly switching from chest voice to falsetto in the space of a single song, striking several Elvis-esque poses for the camera, addressing the crowd with a wry sense of humour (His opening line is “We are Frank Walker & The National Tiles”), and utilising a vocal effects processor on several songs, especially tunes like “Primal Sinister” and “Better Way”, where de Cinque’s voice is either pitch shifted or harmonised, bringing electronic vocal processing into a rock setting. de Cinque also trades lead vocals with Zennelli throughout the night (a la Bono & Edge or You Am I’s Rodgers & Lane), the most significant being “Keeper of the Lake”, a standout from the Soft Hell album.

To add to the intensity and varying dynamics of the music, Closure have a sophisticated light show, with racks of neon tubes in front of the amp cabinets used to create patterns to complement each individual song, as well as beam lights travelling in all directions as they flicker on and off.

Catchy fan favourites “Kissing Cousins” and “Sweet#hart” from First Temple both get a run in the first half of the set, while the back half contains romps from Pink Lemonade, specifically “Neoprene Byzantine”, which contains an extended jam interpolating the call and response of James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin”, the six-and-a-half minute title track and “The Church Of The Technochrist”, which has longtime fans standing as far back as the bar singing along to its refrain of “Everybody plug your mind in”.

The show closes with the appropriately titled “Happy Days”, a rollicking romp that ends with a massive singalong as balloons drop from the ceiling.

Despite running the risk of being upstaged by their support acts, Closure In Moscow put on a show that greatly appeased their longtime fans who have been incredibly patient in waiting for their new music. In doing so, they proved once again that Australia (and Melbourne in particular) has produced some immensely talented musicians with the power to gain dedicated followings worldwide, even if they are continuously ignored by the mainstream. Still, for those who seek out music like this, tonight was a triumph for underground homegrown heroes.

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