There’s Killing In Me Yet: American Murder Song Hits the Road

At seven-thirty on a Friday evening in Dallas, the sky is ominous with looming clouds as people begin to gather in a nondescript parking lot. They strike an interesting tableau, dressed in semi-formal goth attire, top hats, fur stoles, shimmering chandelier earrings, many of them toting gift bags or small coolers of alcohol. The lightning flashes overhead and there’s nervous laughter, jokes about the oncoming storm as they line up in front of what appears to be an unmarked storage unit. Moments later the sky opens up, a brief but relentless downpour that leaves them soaked; the rain does nothing to ruin their spirits, however, and when the doors open to let them inside a tiny black-box space with less than thirty seats, they are giggling, singing, shaking themselves dry like crows coming in from the storm. Onstage, two dapper men stand in dandy formalwear warmly greeting the incoming patrons. The last time they were here, they were dressed in clothing from another era, dusty and wild; this time they wear ties and jackets despite the warmth of a Texas late summer evening. The crowd lines up with each of them excitedly meeting the men in turn with damp hugs, the scent of wine and wet fabric and perfumes mingling in the small space. These fans have paid a shiny penny to meet these men; some of them have been fans for a decade now, while some are newer to the fold. But all have come together, for tonight this is no mere concert; American Murder Song is hosting its latest social experiment via performance, an incredibly intimate evening called an ‘Anti-Recital’, and none of these diehard fans intended to miss it.

The men are Saar Hendelman and Terrance Zdunich, and their various output over the years has brought to life such cult offerings as Repo! the Genetic Opera, The Devil’s Carnival and its sequel Alleluia!, and now their ballads of yesteryear in which songs centered around murder, tales of woe and heartbreak, and mayhem reign supreme.  American Murder Song released their first album to much underground acclaim and adoration and completed not only a successful US tour but several standalone gigs that cemented them in the hearts of their fans. The music employs a wide range of instruments and guest vocalists, and supplemental promotional videos, photoshoots and campaigns involved subculture icons like Aurelio Voltaire, Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy and Curtis RX of Creature Feature. Featuring the talents of Robot Chicken animator Harry Chaskin, their featurettes and video clips caught the eye of fans who were unfamiliar with older work from the pair and lured in many new fans. The initial album was released as four EPs, each telling stories of ‘the year without a summer’, 1816. Some songs are deceptively delightful, the upbeat tempos and lively vocals of “Mary” or “Sweet Rosalie” for example serving to lure you into singing along gleefully before you realize the morbid darkness of the lyrical content; others, like “Lullaby” and “Pray”, employ heartbreaking troubadour techniques to wrench the listener’s gut, and “Unwed Henry” spins a harrowing tale that leaves the audience hanging on every half-whispered word. Zdunich’s voice is a dark whiskey over ice chips, low and velvety where Hendelman’s soars high and clear; to say that their vocals compliment each other is an understatement, but they blend together perfectly in duets while other songs allow each man his own tune to shine solo and play to his strengths.

The evening begins with an oath not to use cell phones to record or take photos; each city employs a local photographer to capture the evening, but the band wants to craft an immersive experience for the fans, one where they leave the outside world behind and enter into a chamber of melody and escape. Within moments it’s clear why this show is special; it is two men on a small stage with keyboards and microphones, less than six feet away from the front row; even the furthest fan in the room is less than twenty-five feet away. They hardly need the microphones at all. The evening’s set list has been kept private and secret, and for good reason; fans will find many beloved favorites in the mix as well as several surprises, and the Dallas audience was moved to tears not once but twice by some of the selections made by the duo. When the set is finished, there is a sense of community in the room, of belonging. Fans have been sharing wine, holding hands with the neighbor beside them; one offers handmade candy shaped like brains, of which she brought a huge bag to share. The fans have become family in the sense of this hour-long salon, the informality and intimacy of the event bringing together people who in real life may often find themselves square pegs trying to squeeze into round holes. There is a vulnerability about Zdunich and Hendelman which makes them hard to dislike; they are humble, engaged, with constant eye contact and quick with hugs for the fans who want them. They have met most of these fans before and remember them; this crowd is blood-bonded in being the ‘strange and unusual’, the socially-anxious, the unsure. One girl excitedly talks to Zdunich, a very accomplished artist, about how she just got admitted to school for animation. Another hugs Hendelman tightly after he asks how she’s been doing since they last spoke. There is so much connection here, compassion, a breaking down of walls where fanbase and creators meet. Fans share tribute tattoos, discuss poetry, show off the outfits they’ve made. When the band finally has to call it a night, the fans leave with smiles on their faces. This is what the Anti-Recital is about; it isn’t a concert with roadies and opening bands and tables of merchandise and signings. It’s casual and familiar, it’s a cocktail hour at a friend’s house, yet the dress code and lack of technology lends it a bit of finesse, a grace and dignity that calls to mind the feel of exclusivity, of being included in something much more intimate than a crowded show or auditorium screening meet-and-greet.

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American Murder Song’s music calls to mind things like Tom Waits, or Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads era, though only in content and influence; the tone is far different, and its range away from the duo’s musical film projects shows their versatility and experimental creativity. When asked about their process, Zdunich and Hendelman both agreed that they go about creating in an unorthodox, nonlinear way that involves piecing everything together and telling the story in context before they think about the musical composition necessarily. The two take road trips, documented on their social media, for inspiration and innovation; the latest involved them following the route of the doomed Donner Party in preparation for their sophomore album. They surprised fans with the launch of a rather unusual piece of merch; there is an AMS Donner Party board game now, where players can embark on the ill-fated journey and engage in a bit of friendly cannibalism with friends. The game is fun as hell to play and features beautiful artwork, and I don’t know a lot of bands who create a world so immersive that their fanbase wants to join in and play with it. Zdunich also leant his art skills to a Donner Party lunchbox, which is certainly one way to haul your munchies that’s guaranteed to be a conversation piece.

The new album is slated to drop in November, but you can catch the Anti-Recital at select cities near you for the next few weeks. If the concert itself isn’t enough for you, certain stops also offer encounters like breakfast with the band the morning after the gig, or a board game night to play the Donner Party with its creators. Either way, American Murder Song are leaving their bloody fingerprints all over the map once more, and fans best bring an appetite when they attend one of these savory gatherings.