I’ve never been quite sure how to characterize CHON‘s music. Is it instrumental metal with jazz and classical tendencies? Is it lounge music played on electric guitars, backed by ferocious drumming? My typical listening environment for the four-piece band from San Diego is my dining room, where they often provide my writing soundtrack because their music is (for the most part) wordless and gets me into a groove. I was completely uncertain how they’d be live, since they rely on virtuosic technical riffing and they’re such equal parts chill and headbang—depending upon the environment, I suppose. As it turns out, last night at Bottom Lounge, the headbang won out by a mile. This was one of the crazier shows I’ve attended.
I walked in about five minutes into Strawberry Girls‘ set, which, in hindsight, set the stage for what I was going to experience for the rest of the evening. Guitarist Zachary Garren and bassist Ian Edwards Jennings, dressed in all black, were in lockstep for their entire performance, a crucial characteristic for a progressive rock trio. Jennings thrashed everywhere, his body paying no attention to the beat while his fingers maintained a steady course. His internal metronome must be crazily powerful. Meanwhile, Garren found a pretty guitar tone somewhere between the trebly tastiness of Satriani and the heavy thud of Megadeth. The only negative I took away from the performance was that drummer Benjamin Rosett sometimes seemed to be pushing the speed a little bit, like an excitable dog yanking its owner forward upon the leash.
Polyphia played next, and the quartet from Dallas brought a new term to mind: dance metal. Guitarist Tim Henson (who looks like a bleached-blond version of the protagonist of Big Hero 6) plays with a funky, syncopated energy, incorporating a lot of percussive mutes that were occasionally jarring but, for the most part, were reminiscent of what progressive metal might sound like in Snarky Puppy’s hands. Henson and Polyphia’s other guitarist, Scott LePage, balanced each other nicely, the latter adopting a heavier but smoother tone to complement the former’s jumpy playing. Meanwhile, bassist Clay Gober, who addressed the crowd in between songs, provided much of the physical energy, tossing his long hair and headbanging with enough gusto to make up for the relative still of Henson and LePage on stage. The three combined for some magical moments throughout the set: “Euphoria” wasn’t euphoric in a sunny day sense, emitting more of a riding-atop-a-thunderstorm-at-night vibe; “James Franco” had one of the catchiest riffs of the evening, combining intricate sweeps with the set’s grooviest beat; “Finale” had the feel of a boss fight in a video game, which, given the name of this tour (Super Chon Bros.), was fitting. By the end of Polyphia’s performance, a mosh pit had formed and the crowd was clapping thunderously to the beat, both signs of what was to come.
After a break in which a huge inflatable “O” was brought on stage to join the huge inflatable “C,” “H,” and “N” that were already on there, CHON walked out to a tremendous roar. They led off their set with four songs from their earliest days as a band, songs that drummer Nathan Camarena said he hadn’t played “since he was, like, 12 years old.” (He’s 19 now…the guy was a child prodigy on the skins). This earlier material was imbued with far more djent influence than CHON’s more recent material, which has settled into the jazz metal range, but apparently the band’s obsession with 7th intervals has always been a defining characteristic of their music. In the way that Steely Dan had a signature chord, CHON may have staked a namesake claim to the 7th within the arena of progressive rock and metal, and they use it to great effect—it’s the most ready source of heaviness within their oeuvre, rooting the music firmly in the category of “things to which you can mosh” even as the riffing atop the rhythms grows lighter and more technical.
And the crowd most certainly agreed that CHON’s music was made for moshing. This was perhaps the most energetic audience of which I’ve ever been a part; after guitarist Mario Camarena suggested after the second song of the set that moshing would please the band, the crowd obliged them nonstop for an entire hour. It was a fascinating juxtaposition to see the mostly stoic, immobile members of the band onstage—guitarist Erick Hansel hardly moves as he plays, and without a lead singer, there’s no real “hype man” to boost the room—with the 700 or so people going absolutely bonkers the whole time. Guitarist Mario Camarena wore an easy, toothless smile for most of the set, doubtless taking in the scene before him and letting it fuel the insanely difficult, sweeping riffs on songs like “Knot” and “Story,” both standouts from the band’s 2015 debut LP Grow.
The most incredible aspect of the show, though, was watching the way CHON directed the audience with mere musical motifs. Nathan Camarena was, for the most part, the engine that drove this. With an intense, crash-heavy beat, he could whip the crowd into a Dionysian frenzy, bodies and elbows flying around the pit; with more complex polyrhythms, he could bring things to a standstill, everyone in the room awed by the sheer intellectual beauty of the music. The emotional height of the set came at the very end of the encore, when the band performed “Perfect Pillow” and the crowd, leaping to the beat, filled in the artful gaps in the song with shouts of “HEY!” It was, essentially, a progressive metal stadium anthem.
Cast the members of CHON as a jazz quartet with a minimalist drum kit, upright bass, saxophone and piano, and it would be easy to imagine hipsters in tweed jackets nodding slightly to the music. But as it is, their prowess inspired a much more visceral energy last night. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write while listening to their music again.