a slut for good luck: underscores @ the garrison

Photo by Andrew
Photo by Andrew

Fresh off the release of critically-acclaimed album Wallsocket, Swagapino April Grey better known as underscores created quite the splash during her Toronto date on the Hometown tour. To begin introducing underscores’ musical stylings would require an essay to succinctly get across. One part bratty pop, glitchcore, post-punk, ARG (alternate reality game), cinema, and… shit, it’s just too many parts! Wallsocket is a conceptual, unapologetic evolution of  the already infectious hooks and distinctly dysphoric sounds found on previous works Fishmonger and boneyard - never comfortable with complacency, always reaching for parts to grow its sonically diverse domain. 

But first, would you like a slice of pizza?

Being the first person in line, I was quickly handed a pizza box from April and thanked for waiting through the rain! Those in line with me were initially confused and consumed by famine (mild hunger), but eventually, we pieced the box’s contents. Alongside adorable custom illustrations, the box was adorned with a QR code to wallsocketpizza.com - an ARG element of Wallsocket’s rollout. The website, while inevitably prone to becoming lost media, illustrates an unreal consideration for worldbuilding. The fictional, Evangelical city of Wallsocket, Michigan is given life through this box given to 1 person per tour date. Beyond the kindness of free pizza, April goes through insane hoops to engage listeners beyond audio. 

As much as I’m lambasted as “that hyperpop guy”, I rarely deviate from a handful of comfort artists. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the eclectic stylings of opener torr. Donning the stage in mad scientist goggles, a lab coat, and a Switch Joycon, there is an erratic yet lighthearted aura that stormed the stage. The opening song, “the scientific method” was a punchy, emo-tinged anthem with enough chemical references to have Oppenheimer rolling in his grave. Slick 808s and bubbly synths created this chaotic vibe that, without the glitchcore, is indistinguishable from Owl City. In contrast, “Dinosaur, CO” was an unexpectedly intimate introduction to torr’s debut album Molecule. In full Bill Nye fit, torr sang his heart out as neon lights gently careened the stage as any attempt to categorize his music had escaped me. Everything about him was wildly unpredictable: he drank from a lab flask, and his Joycon connected to Ableton as a defacto soundboard - he was the definition of committed to the bit. 

Welcome to Wallsocket, Good Luck!

Before the tour commenced, a liminal teaser with an uncannily disjointed voiceover was released, previewing the visuals, format, and stage layout. This teaser set expectations unfathomably high, especially for a smaller venue like the Garrison - but lord, did she exceed every single one. The projector lit up the screen with the first part of an animated short film by Carlosknowsnot. Reminiscent of the recent revival of PS1-era, uncanny surrealist horror, the fragmented tale shown throughout the show gave us fruitful yet sinister glimpses into the world of Wallsocket. 

underscores tends to have a flair for the dichotomous; fusions of harsh, contrasting sentiments and sounds that miraculously blend into transgressively evocative soundscapes. This chaotic ambivalence was immediately established as April materialized from the smoke and kicked off "Cops and Robbers", a triumphant and distorted rock tune from the perspective of a Wallsocket embezzler on the run. There was an intense jovial glee amongst the crowd as they screamed, "When's the last time you saw someone with a ski mask and a gun?" Defrauding a small Michigan township of everything it's worth never felt so liberating. The sum of the tonally disparate parts created this unhinged, exuberant tension that filled the room with an infectious, electric energy. As April transitioned between singing, playing riffs on her baby blue guitar, and improvising on a harsh synth pad during a breakdown, I was in awe of her zeal.

"Oh Johnny, I Think I Love You!"

Every song oozed vivacious and indisputable confidence you wouldn’t expect from an artist on their first headlining tour. Songs that carry an unsettling juvenile fervour like “Johnny Johnny Johnny” were enhanced by April effortlessly strutting across the stage. As the crowd chanted Johnny Whoop word-for-word, it almost disguised the explicit theme of online grooming. Assaults on the ear like “Spoiled little brat” had a barrage of lights and flashing lyrics that complemented the glitched-out, overdriven chorus. April pranced around without a care in the world, gracefully shifting between the mic and waving her arms to direct the sheer unrelenting energy from the crowd. Every moment, step, and gesture felt simultaneously meticulous and whimsical, planned so precisely to produce the most affectively overwhelming outcome. 

The existential anxiety anthem, “Heck” was a fever dream to see live. It’s the insane mix of angsty All-American Rejects-esque vocals and playfully submissive lyrics about being Death’s girlfriend that I think we all needed. The chorus leverages layered death metal screams with April’s effervescently screaming “I’m a slut for you, a slut for you” in a gutturally disorienting tapestry. The audience, for lack of a better term, went fucking bonkers as most lost all inhibition, howling the titular chorus and headbanging 'till their heads almost fell off. As someone usually averse to such activities, I compulsively banged my head to the point I, as of 10/14/23, still have residual neck pain - worth it!

"This is Cinema!" - Me, probably

The sequencing of the setlist and the audiovisuals went above and beyond. There was never any downtime as, despite only having one guitar at their disposal, April placed animations and fun interactive bits between songs to keep the crowd’s ADHD-riddled brains constantly engaged while she tuned - talk about being resourceful! One such bit was the “Audio Calibration Test”, which vigorously assessed each side’s musical capabilities with clapped rhythms that the lame left side definitely failed.  

The animated short film unraveled throughout the night, following two Wallsocket teens stalked by an obscured figure. The disjointed movement and low-poly style established a deeply unsettling vibe intensified by the foreboding ambient music. However, as impressive as the animation was, there was a noticeable tonal dissonance from the other visual content. The eerie vibes clashed with visuals like the K-pop/J-pop Stepmania map during “Girls and Boys”, or money flying in front of affluent_looking_white_people.mp4 during “Old Money Bitch.” While the inconsistency may have been intentional, it was a bit jarring.

A perfect night needs its fairytale ending, and April did not disappoint with her euphoric encore “Locals (Girls like us).” The screen lit up one last time to a string of seemingly unrelated objects narrated by a monotone voice; the crowd perked up, attempting to keep up with the rapid pace of listed items. Eventually, the room filled with gleeful chants of “arms, body, legs, flesh, skin, bone, sinew, good luck!”, a viscerally memorable refrain that never lost its hypnotic rhythm. However, nothing could’ve ever prepared for the massacre that was the chorus. As a sample of “Touch Me” by Alisha Warren echoed the venue walls, the screen convulsed and asked, no, demanded that the pit open as wide as possible. With the pit spread from wall to wall, the chorus built to its cathartic release and the crowd collapsed into a hot, sweaty frenzy of clashing bodies. Piercingly bright synths and a pounding kick-snare rhythm drive the track as every word of the infectiously defiant “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before/girls like us are rotten to the core” was not just sung, but celebrated within this glorious culmination of underscores’ sound. 

To say the stars aligned for this show to be as flawlessly executed as it was would be to undermine April’s genius. The intense passion for her craft radiated through the venue as the air of palpable excitement failed to waver. In this small venue in the middle of nowhere (sorry to all 5 Ossington & Dundas fans), April pulled out every stop to make it feel like a stadium tour. There was a beautifully unshakable bond within the crowd of diverse misfits and outcasts; despite going alone, I ended up with a handful of new friends because of the shared willingness to embrace April's absurdist soundscapes and carefully constructed world.

To have me, a sputtering smartass who never shuts up, reeling for words in sheer amazement, should be a testament to the one-woman force that underscores is. I endlessly struggled to isolate specific performances and grappled with my word choice because ultimately, no written medium could ever convey the audiovisual spectacle I witnessed. She transcends what it means to be a self-made pop star, and we’re all so unbelievably lucky to have her.