BY DAVE ALLEN We’ll start with the names. “Buke”: say it the way it looks. “Gass” rhymes with “face,” not “ass.” They’re the names of the instruments that Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez play; in an avant-garde tradition that stretches back to Ben Franklin and his glass armonica and through Californian avant-garde visionaries like Harry Partch and Lou Harrison, Dyer and Sanchez have built custom instruments perfectly suited to the type of music they want to create. Dyer plays an electric baritone ukulele — a buke; Sanchez wields a six-string equipped with three strings from a bass guitar and three from a regular electric — a gass. Buke & Gass is a duo, but you wouldn’t know it from their recordings, which combine tricky polyrhythms and torqued-up, distorted timbres with a headstrong, riff-heavy undercurrent.
How was this all concocted? Sanchez was into classical and modern classical music from an early age, including minimalist composers like Arvo Part and Steve Reich; Dyer grew up with classic rock, like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson, as well as more sonically barnstorming acts like Shellac, who came to her town in Minnesota “and just killed everybody,” she says. Even the group’s most jostling, rhythmically flexible tunes have a heavy, chunky undercurrent, with riffs that lurch like Iron Man – not the song, but the Man, the one who rose from the grave to kill the people he once saved.
Rather than emphasizing their two-ness by producing something stripped-down and primitive, like the White Stripes, Sanchez and Dyer do as much as possible: each is a one-man band, like ones you might see on a street corner or in a subway station, with impressive amplification. This means sonic innovation, courtesy of self-designed instruments that go beyond the range of notes that typical ukuleles and guitar can produce, paired with deft footwork on their effect boards and on foot-powered percussion instruments (a bass drum with a snare stuck inside, ankle bells, and more). The entrancing patterns and atmospherics don’t come from electronic loops; the band produces all of its sounds live. Their high-volume, complex sound set them apart even from a lineup of performers who were also dishing out loud, scrabbling pieces at the Bang on a Can Marathon, a yearly festival of modern music in New York City. “I think we were the loudest thing that happened,” Dyer says. A bold statement, but the New York Times critic who reviewed the show agrees: Buke & Gass more than held their own against batteries of percussion and a cacophonous pairing of guitars and Indonesian gamelan. They left Johnny Brenda’s standing on a previous visit to Philadelphia back in September, but can Kung Fu Necktie, a smaller club, contain them? You should go, just to make sure.