Ninja Academy at the Silver Lake Lounge 05.01.06-05.29.06

Ninja Academy is Indo-Ninja and Outdo-Ninja, electric bass and drum kit respectively.  Like any good ninjas, they hide tricks up their sleeves like stealthy tanto blades, and can change their identities on a single snare drum hit.  I hadn't seen them in a several months, so I made sure to catch the last three shows of their residency at the Silverlake Lounge to see what's up.

First, a summary for those unfamiliar with them or their sound:  in terms of genre labels, they could be thrashy post-rock with a heavy doses of prog and jazz-rock fusion.  Their music is churning, idful and unpretentious enough that it's very much rock 'n' roll as well.  They can create maelstroms of distorted noise and feedback, thrashing and pummeling their instruments to make more than a match for arty noise artists, but only when a tune calls for it.  They also have prodigious chops to match any wanky air-guitar-inspiring hard rock hero but they're not wanky -- no extended prima donna solos, thank you.  Even if they don't play their version of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" ("Blue Rondo a la Ninja," of course), it's obvious that they have jazz backgrounds.  Indo's chord voicings and Outdo's deft touch with polyrhythms are dead giveaways.  But then they also often wrap their tunes in soft-loud-soft/verse-chorus-verse pop song forms with pop chord progressions, keeping things accessible, packaging it all into bursts of riffage and hooks, riding that happy medium between predictability and surprise.  It adds a bit of the Pixies to the equation of Lightning Bolt plus Tortoise plus Mogwai plus Weather Report.  Their vocals are limited to some triggered samples and an occasional exclamatory remark by Indo to punctuate a tune ("Excuse me!?  Your kung-fu sucks!").  Finally, they dress like ninjas -- how could they not?

Enough about their sound.  How were the shows?

The first night was very much like I'd seen them before.  Their version of a go-go dancer, kimono-wrapped Gongis Khan, started off the show with the ceremonial ringing of her gong.  They proceeded through charged versions of their songs, always better than the recordings.  One of the captivating things about their live show is watching Indo play the melody line -- the music is very melodic -- and the accompanying chords all together and throughout the residency they had an assortment of  colleagues sit in to add even more voices to the pieces, and about mid-way through tonight's set Pau-Pau came in on double bass.  He was continuing his role of the villain, begun in a series of short online videos by the band in which he had kidnapped Gongis.  As their nemesis, he was there to foil them and best them in a night of musical duels.  He did some trash talking and it set up a promising mix-up between his arco bass and Indo's electric.  And they did in fact perform some furious trading of solos on "Blue Rondo," but the event was marred by having Pau-Pau's sound way too low in the mix.  From the way his fingers and bow were flying it looked like he was going toe-to-toe with Indo, but it was hard to hear it.  In all, the Academy sounded great as usual, but poor Pau-Pau didn't get his due.  I decided that I should come back next week and show them off to a friend.

So the next Monday I was back with my friend Lance, Pau-Pau had returned as well and they had fixed the sound problem.  The low end of the double bass was impressive; some pedal notes were bone rattling.  For this set, although they seemed to play fewer of them, they extended the songs to enable more dialogue between the front line.  The end of the set also had a classical-guitar-playing, cowboy-hat-wearing guest ninja.  Not your normal classical guitar, mind you, but amplified, distorted and played with a pick.  This was a great showcase for everyone's great chops and ability for interplay, but I'm more impressed with their songcraft and how well they can glide through a variety of styles.  This night we were denied Ninja Academy's simple genius in exploiting how a bass guitar and drum kit alone can create numerous sonic palettes.  Since both Indo and Outdo are often playing multiple parts anyway, I would have hoped for the extra players to add something different to the mix, not just show that they can match one another note for note, or to offer stylistic, tonal or textural contrast.  In all, however, there was more energy and action this evening than the last (Pau-Pau even crashed into Outdo's drums at one point), but even after an impressive set of duelling solos, tight unison runs and riffs I missed the simple droney-ness of song like "Robot Falls in Love with Computer."  Most impressive of all this night was Donkey Punch, who rocked the house with his nunchaku action on a couple of songs.  Don't get too close to the stage when he's around.

The last night of their residency made up for the lack of texture of the previous show.  First they debuted their new video for "Your Kung Fu Sucks."  Hilarious.  Gongis gets kidnapped, Ninja Academy to the rescue, Donkey Punch whoops ass.  When the music started they were joined this time by long-time collaborator Kendo-Ninja on triggers and samples and then halfway through the set by the guitarist in Protoculture.  Of course it goes without saying that Kendo has always had the right instincts and sounds for playing with Ninja Academy, but the surprise was how the guitarist added just the right counterpoint in both tone and texture.  What I heard coming from him was a sound straight out of mid-80's Siouxsie & the Banshees:  trebly, screechy, reverby and drenched in delay.  He didn't play along with them, trying to match them in tempo or technique.  It was a perfect complement to the Ninja Academy sound, especially with Indo's aggressive bass.  Donkey Punch was back with the nunchucks, and on the last number they hit him with a strobe light for an awesome finale that sent everyone home with their jaws hanging open.

-Mark GEE