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Chain and the Gang get minimized

Stark rock

Chain and the Gang will give a "performance" at Northern, Jan. 9. Photo courtesy of

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Once bands became available to legitimate journalism - when writers were truly available to artists to find out what they were truly thinking - questions began to arise about the sincerity of the artists we knew and loved. Were the Beatles really inseparable friends? Was Prince this mystifying sex god? Were Kiss a legion of parent-terrifying demons?

Of course, the answers were largely "no." Artists were artists, and they manufactured their personas like anyone would in high school, except they stretched them out to monumental proportions. One person took this concept to new and fantastical levels: Ian Svenonius, who has spent his entire career appropriating and reinterpreting music to fit his own message. Still, a question keeps getting raised whenever I hear the work of Svenonius, and it can't helped but be raised again with his newest band, Chain and the Gang: How much is real and how much is tongue-in-cheek satire?

After more than 20 years of taking the punk ethos and bending it to the will of a clothes horse and a stylistic maverick, Svenonius has arrived at Chain and the Gang, which similarly takes elements of early soul music and abstracts them to conform to a 2015 attitude. When I first saw Chain and the Gang, Svenonius commanded the stage with a punk version of James Brown, giving high kicks and melodramatic kneels that belied the minimalistic instrumentation that accompanied it.

I didn't have a chance to interview Ian Svenonius, but I have more than 20 years of music to draw from. The D.C. artist just released an album called Minimum Rock N Roll, which brings their punk/'50s rock to a stark minimalism. Some songs, like "Devitalize," have a political anger that drives them. Others, like "I'm a Choice (Not a Child)," take the formula of '50s romantic songs and strip them to their bones. "Choice" takes the classic stance of a boy that wants to convince his love that he's worthy of consideration of a romantic option, not the little boy he used to be. For anybody that's been the little brother in a sea of older girls, it's a sentiment that will surely echo.

Minimum Rock N Roll is minimalistic to the extreme, with a four-piece almost perversely staying separate of one another, embracing the silence between notes. "Stuck in a Box," with its meditation on the complications of opinions on ice cream flavors, almost creates a mission statement for Svenonius' music: does everything need to be inside the box? For a career that has careened from punk to dance to subversive political statements to fashion-forward rock? Why does everything need to be stuck in a box?

There's a term that I learned from reading other music criticism: the mad preacher. Usually, this term applies to vocally deranged singers such as Isaac Brock and Tom Waits, but it particularly applies to Ian Svenonius, who has frequently acknowledged his attempts to turn his bands into cults. Granted, Svenonius is tongue-in-cheek to a drastic extent, but it's not hard to imagine his music converting some believers into a lifestyle that could include bringing fire to the oligarchy or to the sounds of Parliament Funkadelic and the Clash.

What's the proper response to a show being put on by Ian Svenonius? Well, in this case, the show is Chain and the Gang, which requires that you shake your s--- to the sounds of bringing down the man in charge. Minimal rock leaves plenty of room for kicks and elbows. What then? There's 20 years of Svenonius to explore, with Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up being notably raucous entries. Everything left to be found is in those stark moments of silence when the guitar takes a break from pummeling your mind.

CHAIN AND THE GANG, w/Rocknho, Vexx, 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 9, Northern, 113 N. Columbia St., $6, Olympia,

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