Red Masque Interview

October 9, 2003
Chesnut Hill Local

Free Concert in Mt. Airy by Offbeat Local Rockers

By Ramsay Pennypacker

It's constantly changing - from a brooding enigma to a floating dream to a freeform fury. It challenges all boundaries. And it has taken its name from a story by Edgar Allen Poe. Is it some apparition, haunting the region from Halloween?

Hardly. It's The Red Masque, Germantown's most progressive rock band and a cult favorite with cutting edge fans around the world. Led by singer/percussionist Lynnette Shelley and bassist Brandon Ross, this quartet -- which also includes guitarist Kiarash Emami and drummer Brian (Vonorn) Van Korn -- has been charting a profoundly original course on the experimental scene since 2001. They've worked with some of the leading names in the genre like The Muffins and Chris Cutler, they've toured consistently on the East Coast, and they've released two independent albums that have garnered noncommercial airplay as far abroad as Mexico and Siberia. Now recording a third disc for Big Balloon, a label based in Washington State, The Red Masque seems poised to make a decisive jump to that all important next level. And while this may all look like a bit of shrewd career guidance, it's really just a natural outgrowth of the group's unusually pure self-expression.

"We're kind of weird, eccentric individuals," Shelley said recently. "So the music comes out weird and eccentric. This band is our life. I have to do this music."

The Red Masque, who'll be playing a free show on Saturday, October 11, 4 to 6 p.m., at the Mt. Airy Train Station, is certainly true to its vision. But it's hardly operating in a vacuum. According to Shelley, all the members are heavily influenced by the extreme European art rock that flourished during the '70s. Acts like King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, Henry Cow and even Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd played a roll in shaping the group's complex, often challenging sound. Like those earlier artists, The Red Masque favors long, expansive epics, wiith numerous shifts in style and tone that draw their greatest strengths from the unexpected twist or the starling juxtaposition. A heavy metal riff can suddenly melt into a shimmering electronic mist and then, just as suddenly, explode into a passage of jazz-rock improvisation. Enhancing the heady, kaleidoscopic effect are Shelley's operatic vocals and such unconventional instrumentation as flute and a Celtic harp, any of which can break through the music's turbulent surface at a moment's notice. It might sound like a free-for-all but according to Shelley, there's a design -- and more importantly, a depth of feeling -- to everything the band plays.

"We like stuff that transcends a specific genre," she explains. "I'm more interested in the emotional context as opposed to 'Let's do something because it's really complicated.' I personally have to feel the piece in order to like it."

Shelley says the songs begin as "sketches," which she writes with Ross and then brings to the rest of the band for their considerable input. As the material evolves, passages are built in for onstage improvisation and segues are developed to create a seamless flow. A key component in this process is the group's love of horror stories like Poe's "A Masque of the Red Death." Shelley believes that the atmospheric soundtracks to monster movies have inspired the players to bring a sense of drama and dynamics to their compositions.

The band's two albums, 2001's Death of the Red Masque [EP], and 2002's Victoria and the Haruspex, offer a fine display of this singular sound. Of course, it's hardly the kind of music that gets stocked at Wal-Mart but the Internet, with its ability to link isolated listeners into a coherent fan base, has proven far more receptive. The group's Web site, at www.theredmasque.com, provides an excellent -- if somewhat creepy -- entry point to their world, complete with background material, current news and merchandise links. Exploring the site is a weirdly enjoyable experience and Shelley says it's been essential in building a following, particularly abroad.

A live concert, where the music can surge and billow to its own inner logic, is still the best place to discover The Red Masque, however. And while they've recently been out of action due to recording sessions for that third album, the Mt. Airy gig should give them a perfect opportunity to cut loose, explore some new material and, according to Shelley, give their older songs some radical rearrangements. These fresh shifts are only to be expected, of course. Because, after all, this is one Halloween Masque that's always changing. For more information about the October 11 concert, call 215-242-0854

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