Space is the Place: Arn Hao at the UNC v. Duke Battle of the Bands

The two band members mounted the stage with a casual clumsiness—laughing, almost, at the nature of the setting. The singer wore a sparkling silver cape that aimed its reference at Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, or Sun Ra, but more closely recalled a child playing glam superhero. He set up one keyboard for each of his hands, and the t-shirt and jeans guitarist set up his amp—reverb all the way up—behind himself. A sound check proceeded thus, and it flowed directly into the actual set with no announcement. This is Chapel Hill’s ArnHao.

It always seems nice to mention that an audience was caught unawares by a performance, and I feel in this case—this battle of the bands rife with Beatles t-shirts and Christmas present guitars—it really was true. A backing beat began, new wave synths soaring above it, and when the guitarist smacked his instrument for the first time—the sound like a booming echo of shattered glass—I felt a wave of eyebrows flex with surprise and confusion.

The singer’s vocals glided over the music like smooth, soulful frosting. His voice was dynamic. Within each song, he played the tender crooner, the screeching, desirous spaceman, the falsetto 80s dance sexpot, as his fingers skillfully coordinated themselves on the bass and soprano keyboards. The synth voices were cheesy in a way that was coolly ironic. I am not at all deriding them—they were a backbone of the sound. Also supporting this aesthetic were the lyrics, accented by bizarre images—riding bicycles to outer space, meeting women in lairs. The songs are playful, modern love narratives that twist pop and dance music themes of self-indulgence and casual attraction—like an indie rock take on Prince.

Keeping this sound in mind, the most joyfully surprising part of the performance was in fact the harsh electric guitar. Iconoclast of the genre, slashing away at the synth, the guitarist made an experimental critique of his band’s own performance. Indeed, ArnHao’s recordings proclaim a much smoother and streamlined electronic dance sound than does the raucous live set. This duality of the band’s sound is sure to make ArnHao palatable to both cursory and discerning music listeners. It’s this originality that impressed the judges and made ArnHao the ultimate winner of the Battle of the Bands—of course, not without some audience objection.

The Triangle music scene, mired in its share of conventional rock and punk bands, will be greatly enriched by ArnHao’s sound—an easing of experimentation and innovation into accessible dance music.

ArnHao has not yet promoted themselves with a MySpace, but the band plans to release a single and remix soon.


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