SONIC REDUCER I've lived in the Bay Area for more years than I ever imagined I would back in my nomadic grad student days and devoured my share of quintessentially San Francisco experiences, like parking on the faux median on Valencia and falling drunkenly off an It's Tops fountain stool round about 3 a.m. after tucking into a few too many down the street at Zeitgeist. But the one must-see post-punk happening I've always missed — never at the wrong place at the right time — was Survival Research Laboratories in full-effect performance mode. No wonder — weary of being shut down by the local fuzz and fire officials, founder Mark Pauline told me three years ago that SRL had decided to lavish their monstrous, robotic attentions on tolerant, fire-retardant overseas audiences in Europe and Japan instead — that is, until Aug. 11, when the longtime Potrero Hill area crew unfurled a new three-ring destructo-circus titled Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration at the Zero One festival in San Jose.
I hightailed it down to downtown San Jose to catch the seldom-sighted SRL flash their permits, then proceed to burn it all down. Late for the last media seating, I was told it was all good because SRL were moving very slowly (as slowly and deadly as their ’bots, I presumed) and to please have a survival kit in a brown paper sack: peanut butter crackers, Chips Ahoy!, a moist towelette, a bottle of water, and a pair of earplugs. In the back of the hall, the jumpsuited and helmeted SRL crew strolled merrily around, throwing bottles of water playfully at each other, testing flamethrowers, as we studied the grounds for signs of action. It felt like fishing or bird-watching — only the critters were big hunks of metal and the gods were knowing wiseacres who wear lots of black.
With an ominous turbine wail or two later it began — as a giant inverted foiled cross spun in place like a sacrilegious music box, a giant gold figure with a massive red phallus dropped Styrofoam balls, and a doghouse sheltering Cerebus shuddered. Purple lighting shot out of a towering Tesla coil and a woman beside me started screaming, "Omigod, that's so cool!" Sorry, we all weren't that dweebish — although almost everyone in earshot tended to laugh nervously in both fear and amazement as fire poured out of several flamethrowers in our corner and blew toasty gusts against our faces.
If you, er, burn at Black Rock, I guess you could consider this a preview of sorts. At one point, about five machines, including a short, squat teapotlike ’bot, were firing on all cylinders, blaze-wise, and that's not even counting the V-1, a fire-farting flamethrower-shockwave canon that resembles the butt of a jet fighter. And of course fire without smoke loses a bit of the drama, so roving smoke machines were placed behind large rectangular photo screens depicting a gas station on fire, gap-mouthed kids, etc. And of course the flames started to spread, eating up the gold idols and turning the Lord of Balls into an impressive column of heat. Sparks flew into the sky, robots like the crabby, clutching Inchworm tussled in the center of it all, and the ungodly din of popping, whirring, and grinding sounded for all the world like a construction crew armed with Boeing engines run amok and set to detonate. What other mob would pride itself on creating "the loudest flamethrower in history"?
Me, I had to duck when the loudest machine of all, the shockwave canon, started lobbing rings of air left and right of our heads, taking the leaves off the surrounding trees. In the process of putting together a robot army, SRL created their own scary symphony, their own atonal, noise-drenched Ride of the Valkyries to go along with their future-war enactments. And by the end, even the hausfrauen in the bleachers raved about how they couldn't tear their eyes away from the smoke- and noise-belching spectacle.