Dark & Harsh (But Hopeful)

April 20, 2017 11:30 AM

Miss Kel sings during a March 24 show at the Oalkand Opera House, during which her band had been scheduled to open for Modern English. Despite Modern English’s cancellation, Esses performed to hundreds of ticketgoers who chose to stay rather than take a refund.

By Shane Frink
Tower Staff Writer

Esses is gaining fans and making a name for itself in the local Oakland music scene. (The band’s moniker is pronounced the same way that the letter S is pronounced in its plural form.)

Their first record came out in November 2016 and is called “No Light in This Fire.”

Oakland record store Econojams put the album into their Best Records of the Year bin. Another Oakland record store,1-2-3-4 Go, reports that the record is played daily by the employees.

The nine songs on this Esses release have a unique sound. The mood of the music is often harsh and dark but hopeful. Bright keyboard melodies clash against distorted guitar chords and feedback while beautiful singing rides atop.

The drum rolls are deep low in tone but always accent the chops of the songs with precision.

The two guitarists are Dawn Hillis and Michael Mersereau. The bass player is Sohon Clem, and Miss Kel plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Kevin Brown plays drums.

“[Miss Kel’s] singing is frantic and impassioned with a razor sharp voice that cuts to the bone”

–Davey Jones

Hillis told me their sound is influenced by Bauhaus, Sonic Youth,and  Swans, and that everyone in the band listens to lots of  bands from the 80’s.
Their most recent gig took place on March 24 at the Oakland Opera House, where the audience of the gig was made up ofyoung death rockers and older new wavers.

Esses certainly has elements of both, two contrasting genres that can fit together quite well if done correctly.
This Oakland band does just that.

Night at the Opera
Esses was excited and nervous about opening for Modern English at the March 24 Oakland Opera House show.

But Modern English cancelled that day because their guitar player broke his ribs and had to be operated on.

Ticket holders could get their money refunded, but 500 people still went inside the show to see the opening bands play. Esses was the second band onstage and the audience welcomed them with loud cheering.

“The performance of Esses made up for my disappointment [at] the last minute cancellation of Modern English,” said Davey Jones, the DJ/promoter of Oakland’s monthly 80’s dance club Hanging Garden. “Esses’s musicianship is solid, and singer Kelly Brown’s charisma puts them over the top!”

Jones called Esses one of the best Bay Area acts to see live.

Esses drummer Kevin Brown keeps the beat going strong throughout the crowd-pleasing set.

“[Miss Kel’s] singing is frantic and impassioned with a razor sharp voice that cuts to the bone,” he said. “Esses’ set was amazing!”

The show brought out a diverse mix of people of all ages. There were a few families that brought their kids to the Opera House. The delighted children danced around with the adults.

During Esses’s set, the front of the stage was taken up by many of the goth and punk looking people. But the colors of the swirling dancing audience were not all black; there was tie-dye and lots of pink. It was an analogue to the music Esses made from the stage.

Past and Present
The members of Esses had all moved to Oakland by 2006, but had come from a flourishing music scene with its base in San Francisco.

Dawn Hillis’s band at the time was called Holy Kiss. Miss Kel and Kevin Brown were in a band called Black Ice. Both bands put out records and had a loyal fan base that kept their audiences hungry for more.

The bands were part of a new resurgence of independent goth/death rock bands based out of the Bay Area. The Phantom Limbs and Vanishing, two other popular bands in the genre, along with Black Ice and Holy Kiss, all were an integral part of that independent scene.

But timing, San Francisco’s status as a transient city, skyrocketing rent prices, and gentrification all led to the death of that scene.

Bands broke up and just about everyone moved. Many moved to Oakland or other areas of the East Bay.

Esses’s death rock roots come through in their music, yet their sound has a unique quality that makes it sound original and new.

Miss Kel, Brown and Hillis all came to Oakland. They started playing music together and decided to start a new band because they believed in the material they were creating when they would “jam.”

Esses’s guitarists, Mersereau and Clem, became friends during their time as part of the San Francisco music scene, and when asked to join up they readily agreed. When the record label Atakra heard that musicians from Black Ice and Holy Kiss had started a new band, they contacted them and said they would put a record out as soon as the band had enough songs.

Esses recorded their debut album, No Light in This Fire, soon after.

Future Sounds
Esses says they hope to record some songs by the end of 2017, but probably not an entire album.

However, the four new songs at the Opera House show already sounded polished.

The thirty minute set had the audience screaming for more when the band went off stage.

This is an Oakland band that’s off to a very good start. Their past experience shows. They express a wide range of styles in the nine songs on “No Light in This Fire,” as with their live performance.

Esses’s death rock roots come through in their music, yet their sound has a unique quality that makes it sound original and new.

Check it out for yourself.

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