Sensory Overload: With more experimentation, Muscle Puzzle could level us all

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From the May 30, 2013 edition

Muscle Puzzle used to be a rock band in a more conventional sense, but given the multiple lineups and configurations the band has taken, this is obviously the kind of puzzle that can be assembled in many ways. It’s no surprise, then, Ricky Thompson’s noise-rock project emerged as a duo Monday at Tree Bar after four years of dormancy.

Thompson manned the drum kit and some number of electronic devices while barking indecipherable vocals through layers of distortion. His Barely Eagle bandmate (and CD102.5 DJ) Tom Butler — the second Independent Playground host to participate in Muscle Puzzle following his former co-host Rudy Gerdeman’s tenure some years back — alternating between sitting down to twiddle an array of effects pedals and standing to wring dark power chords from a lap steel.

They’re taking a different route than Muscle Puzzle used to back in their double-drummer days, but the destination is the same: Stark, thudding, repetitive music that doles out its aggression slowly and methodically.

Speaking of Columbus duos where one guy plays drums and the other uses an array of noisemaking devices, those brutish intellectuals Sword Heaven came to mind — and yes I realize Sword Heaven was only a duo for part of its run, just like Muscle Puzzle. But given the ghoulish processing on Thompson’s somewhat drawling vocals (he also fronted the country-rock band Deerhead), I also couldn’t help thinking of Rob Zombie, for better or worse. (OK, worse.)

The goal seems to be conjuring and controlling a kind of elemental soul-pummeling power, and while Monday showed them moving toward that objective, it wasn’t unusual or over-the-top enough to stand out. Certainly it played as a breath of fresh air, though, after two experimental opening acts demonstrated there-too-long and barely-there, respectively.

That might just be a matter of voltage — or muscle, as the case may be. I imagine that given a sound system more powerful than the Tree Bar P.A., Muscle Puzzle might be able to level us all. But this also felt like the beginning stages of something, as if the duo is still figuring out how to handle these weapons. Keep experimenting and they’re bound to stumble upon some explosions.