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Midnight Masses in live performance at Three Links. Photo by the author.

Midnight Masses Power Through Their Own Personal Darkness

Last Wednesday at Three Links, Midnight Masses’ reputation for bad luck preceded them. They ran late on already pushed start-time, and the bar was nearly empty by the time they went on. While Frauen’s shoegaze-influenced opener started a slow build, The Chloes played a lively and danceable set to an almost packed room that dwindled down to less than twenty after they finished. Even still, it had to have been less disconcerting than the night before, when Midnight Masses’ touring drummer Sarah Baldwin had to rush to her father’s side upon the news of his heart attack, on the eve of their tour kick-off. In a crunch, drummer Jason Evans would meet the band in Dallas and save the day.

Midnight Masses might actually be cursed. Frontman Autry Fulbright himself was sure of it at one point, and refused for five years to produce a full length follow up to the band’s 2009 EP, Rapture, Ready, I Gazed At The Body. His rationale is understandable, however, when you look at the tremendous amount of death and grief he suffered in his project’s wake. The losses of his father, Rapture producer and musical mentor, TV On the Radio’s Gerard Smith, and even an engineer who worked on the EP shook Fulbright’s very world. Now, with Midnight Masses’ debut album, Departures, he eulogizes his fallen loved ones, and works through the loss of them.

Although dark in subject matter, the album is warm and fuzzy around the edges, with almost gentle-sounding melodies layered over soft psychedelic harmonics, sometimes evoking elements of sad 70’s soul music meant for evenings spent drinking alone. The live show however, brings a confrontational edge to the material. It’s loud, booming, and anything but serene. On stage, Departures really takes off into the passion and the fury of the ennui it’s so deeply rooted in.

“The album is just a snapshot, these songs are alive. They’re always evolving.” says Fulbright, breaking down after the show, “I feel like these songs gave closure to a period of time that I lived and I documented, and in performing them, I’m not consistently eulogizing in remembrance. It’s more like a continuation and moving forward … I believe in art that’s alive, and if you wanted to hear the recorded version, you could go home and enjoy them in the comfort on an air-conditioned room with some Ben & Jerry’s,” Fulbright said. “But if you want to experience something that is more communal and more alive in the moment, I think it’s important for the sake of art to do something live that’s different.”

Fans of And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead…, the Austin based band Fulbright’s been playing bass in since 2011, may not be immediately taken with the direction of Midnight Masses. It’s melancholic and desolate. Departures is the kind of album you take on a long, rock-bottom drive through the desert—a comedown record with moments of lightness tempered with anxiety. While Fulbright’s known for his wild stage presence with Trail Of Dead, thrashing about and back-bending on the bass— his duality as a performer is clearly exhibited as a front man. With Midnight Masses, Fulbright is painfully expressive with every timid howl into the microphone, and relatively stationary as he gets lost in the music.

“For me, [Midnight Masses] is something a little more introspective, and a lot more personal. So it is something that has a little more of a focus. With Trail of Dead, I joined four albums ago, so maybe only a third of the songs I play with them are songs I actually wrote. So there’s a certain level of abandon that I can have there, and there’s a certain level of intimacy that I can have with this. To get up on stage and do the same thing I do with Trail of Dead, to me would be like typecasting myself, like Steve Urkel or Sylvester Stallone or something,” says Fulbright. “If you’re dynamic in your performance as an artist, you want to yield to wherever the art takes you.”

An upswell of fuzz-distorted riffs stormed through the open garage front door of the Three Links and crashed out on to Elm Street, at levels that rivaled Trees’ free party christening the venue’s new PA system across the street. Cheers from the fifteen people or so who stayed to watch them were dampened out by the wave of sound.

One thing Trail of Dead and Midnight Masses have in common is their use of improvisation. Even with the last minute lineup change, the four piece never faltered. As Midnight Masses wrap up this national run, they’ll head out for an overseas tour with Trail of Dead, for a long European stint of their particular brand of musical chairs. Collaborative variations of either group’s lineup could reach up to fourteen musicians on stage at once, and one can only imagine the kind of legs that Departures will sprout in a performance setting like that.

As a perfect companion to the finale of Trail of Dead’s set at this summer’s Homegrown Festival, which interpolated lyrics from Patti Smith’s “Gloria” into their fan favorite, “A Perfect Teenhood”— Fulbright paid homage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” during Midnight Masses’ the closing number, “Golden Age,” in a long and powerfully impromptu outro.

“That’s one of my karaoke songs.” admits Fulbright, “In Midnight Masses, a lot of the songs talk about darkness, and the idea of dancing in the dark is so metaphorical and so touching to me … It’s dancing without worrying who’s watching in complete ignorance of your own surroundings, totally immersed in the moment– which I think a lot of performance really is,” Fulbright continues. “Dancing in the dark is also like grasping for something that you can’t find. Maybe you’re looking for a partner or you’re looking for a way to not trip up or stumble, and that’s what life is all about too.”

Cursed or not, Midnight Masses are dancing through their own darkness on that stage. In doing so, they illustrate the resiliency of the human spirit, and the beauty in one’s own pain that’s only really visible in the rear-view mirror. Living with grief is a never ending process. It becomes a part of you, and it will evolve over time, but only if you allow yourself to speak to it.