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So Many Metal? Peelander-Z at Austin’s Mohawk

Peelander Yellow at Mohawk in Austin.
Peelander Yellow at Mohawk in Austin.

There is a threatening blanket of gray clouds hanging over Austin, TX. But no one at the Mohawk, a multi-tiered music venue smack dab in the middle of downtown, seems to care. Fans are crouched on the pavement in front of the main stage, circled up like kindergarteners at recess with a few in the middle banging on drums. Leading this pack of adults-turned-maniacs and insisting that they see just how quiet they can be is Peelander Yellow (AKA Kengo Hioki), lead-singer and chief producer of madness for the self-proclaimed “action-comic-punk band” Peelander-Z.

And then, perhaps overcome with raw frivolity, someone makes a noise. Peelander Yellow erupts in mock-angry shushes, spasming as though the very presence of sound pains his ears. He wants silence. And then he wants a crescendo. Slowly, at Yellow’s command, the drums get louder. The people stand up. The drums are deafening. The band hops on stage and Yellow climbs to the top of the amps just to launch himself off again. The pit is alive, lifting up bodies and transforming them into crowd surfers. The stage manager looks like he’s about to shit a brick.

And with good reason! Peelander Yellow once jumped off a building and broke his ankle during a show. One time I watched him emerge atop a parked van to play out a song yards from the stage and the rest of the band. This is all in addition to on and off stage antics like getting the entire audience to limbo or engaging in a rollicking game of human bowling. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Pins and everything.

At a recent Peelander-Z show in Austin, Peelander Red (through sheer force of will or perhaps the power of his mighty bass) conjured supporting arms and hands from the crowd. He stepped onto these and walked above the heads of his fans until he was near a beam supporting the roof over Red 7’s outdoor stage. He swung a length of rope over the rafters and pulled himself up. Once the line was secure, he dropped, letting the rope carry his full strength as he swung like a piƱata, playing out his solo upside down. His sweat dripped on the throng below.

Peelander-Z forms a drum circle at Austin's Mohawk.

A little bit softer now…

It’s the spectacle and the experience that make Peelander-Z much more than just a band in the musical sense. They’re the kind of group other bands go to see because standing in front of Peelander-Z you can remember that all this music business is supposed to be a shit ton of fun. The kind of fun that makes you smile like you’re getting away with something.

All of which is to say that if you show up at a Peelander-Z show expecting to be challenged musically, you’re likely to be disappointed. As a soundtrack for hundreds of people to limbo and bang pots and pans to, Peelander-Z staples like “Mad Tiger” and “So Many Mike” are punk rock gold. But radio ready? Not as such.

So when Peelander-Z reached beyond their raw, punk roots to launch a slickly-executed, new wave-inspired album called Space Vacation last year, the sudden uptick in musical quality of the new tunes caught folks by surprise. At its core, the zaniness of Peelander-Z remained intact, but surrounding it were synthesizers and drum machines, orchestral strings and acoustic guitars. In short, it was a complete transformation of Peelander-Z’s sound and a beautiful one at that. Where other bands might try something new and end up alienating fans, Space Vacation merely added “new wave” to Peelander-Z’s bag of tricks.

Better add “metal” to that gleaming bag of musical madness as well. Metalander-Z, released in early September, is pretty much what it sounds like: Peelander-Z’s mighty stab at heavy metal glory. There are nods to Judas Priest on tracks like “High Five Boy” and “I Got Fired” in which the lyrics actually state “Fire is fire is so hot/Melting your face!” Easily accessible to fans of Space Vacation, the album’s first single, “Ride On the Shooting Star,” is straight out of the ’80s with synths over the guitars and a breakdown featuring robotic female vocals pleading that you “don’t be shy.”

If the transformation from dirty punk to new wave was miraculous, the move from new wave to metal was orchestrated by the metal gods themselves. Metalander-Z is a great metal album from a band no one suspected would release a metal album. The Peelander-Z I love with a completely new sound!

So, waiting for it to rain and queued up at Mohawk to get my ticket for the show, I was stoked at the very idea that with a sonic transformation we might see something new from the stage show as well. Or at least here some of the new tracks in a live setting.

Peelander-Z did hit the stage, with animal-esque helmets firmly in place on their heads, to the same track that dramatically begins Metalander-Z, “Heavy Snake.” And they allowed the iPod playing their intro music to segue into the next song on the album “High Five Boy,” at which point they held their mighty axes above their heads like tributes to the metal gods. But that was pretty much it. The rest of the show relied firmly on standby tracks like “S.T.E.A.K.” and “Ninja High School.”

What gives? A couple of things.

For starters, Peelander Green, (AKA Akihiko Naruse) the band’s drummer, was not at the show. A quick chat with Chicken Ranch Records’ (Peelander-Z’s Austin-based label) Michael Dickinson revealed that Green had a bit of trouble snagging a visa to come tour from Japan and the label is currently embroiled in working out the bureaucracy. Instead, Metalander-Z producer and award-winning facial hair grower Bryan Nelson donned Green’s threads and took to drumming like a mad man. Peelander-Z couldn’t have asked for a better back-up. But maybe being down a member of the regular crew was enough to make Peelander-Z to stick to the classics. Nelson filled in for two weeks according to his Facebook page.

Peelander Pink at Austin's Mohawk.

Peelander Pink. Even her tongue matches her outfit!

But Green wasn’t the only one missing. Metalander-Z and Space Vacation both feature session musicians who helped push Peelander-Z’s musicality to new heights on those albums. Electric Eel Shock guitarist and frontman Aki Moriomoto lent his axe to Metalander-Z and he wasn’t the only one. On tour behind Space Vacation, Peelander-Z made the live show work by summoning up backing tracks on an iPod while the band played over them. They also enlisted the assistance of the mysterious Peelander Black on lead guitar. He was absent from the Mohawk show (and perhaps this tour if what I can gather from the all-mighty internet is correct).

At the Mohawk, on this one particular night, Peelander-Z the live show didn’t live up to Peelander-Z the album. But the greater truth is that the hundreds of other people free to enjoy the show without having to write a review about it later didn’t seem to care at all.

Least concerned were Texas boys Residual Kid, a band made up of two 12 year olds and a 14-year-old lead singer who played the second set of the evening and killed a cover of Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings.” Peelander-Z welcomed them on stage to bang on drums and get thrown to the crowd. Standing on that stage with color-coded heroes from the Planet Peelander, their rock god patinas faded away leaving them a trio of goofy, smiling kids. And standing a few feet away from the stage as Peelander-Z revved up “Mad Tiger,” I found I’d turned into a goofy, smiling kid as well. Ear to ear.

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