Review: Yossarian play Alexander Upstairs

It was a windy, sticky Friday evening – the end of a long week in which the latest revelations of the impending hydropocalypse had given Cape Town a collective punch in the guts. Some kind of pick-me-up was required – something to cut through the anxiety, the confusion, and the pain … This medicine was administered to a select few in Alexander Upstairs by a band named after an expert in survival under the most desperate circumstances: Yossarian, central protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: a paranoid, bon-vivant bombardier whose motivation is to “live forever or die in the attempt”. And that’s precisely what Yossarian delivers.

Tall, thin, pallid, and sweating, frontman Ash Spencer isn’t looking very well, but his incisive, melancholy tenor belies any semblance of infirmity. Succumbing to the rueful, poignant, lyrical attack of this post-rock poet is like developing a peculiar case of Stockholm Syndrome for an android who’s better at being human than the people he observes. Variations on the theme of the possibility of love in an era of algorithms and relentless shopping: the momentary astonishment of achieving self-expression in defiance of the tired, received idea that the self is a negotiable fiction whose climax is endlessly deferred.

This quality of paradox holds true for the music, too, as Yossarian’s other members (four on this tour) galvanize the space with a set of manic, disciplined energies that probe, twist, soar and swoop their way into your brain. One-man rhythm section Sam Wallace drives the show from behind the drums, while guitarists Joaquin Rodriguez San Pedro, Sam Vanderpol and Keir Cooper elicit a staggering array of shapes and sounds from their mushroom colonies of effects pedals while crooning, wailing or shouting in harmony. (They’re quite easy on the eyes, too.) The songs frequently change key, tempo and direction: a lovely, stately melody, all long, lush licks, is abruptly panel-beaten into a percussive frenzy that would be punk if it were not so disciplined; a mournful dirge accelerates and spirals away into a tour-de-force of electronic counterpoint. Never a dull moment.

All in all, Yossarian are smart, sardonic, exhilarating and fun. They’re touring Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban before heading for New Zealand. The Cape Town leg of the tour will see them playing all the songs from the two albums and EP that they’ve released so far, together with a bunch of new songs that they’re recording as they tour. Visit yossarian.com to find out more.

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