Watching Wax Fingers set up shop is a little like watching a seasoned specialist diffuse a bomb. The trio does it with ease these days, having several years of collective experience under its belt. There is no manual, no sticky notes nor color-coded diagram for their sea-like mess of cords and pedals. Just a time-earned wherewithal.
Savvy like this comes from twice weekly practice, all the time. That kind commitment explains Wax Fingers' sound as well, which grows significantly richer, cleaner and more self-assured every time I see them. It appears this stalwart nature leads to caution as well, as the Portland psych-rockers haven't released anything for close to two years.
I've always imagined a Wax Fingers track to take months to create. "Sticky Bees," for example, changes so much over its five-minutes-plus course that one can't help but relate it to a ceramics. The track, which WF opened with during their hour long set at the Doug Fir, spins and races while it forms, each wavy guitar effect and off-beat drum note reshaping the entirety of the song. Wax Fingers remains one of few Portland bands whose sound you can just about see - in the form of jittering and pulsating electrical waves - as well as hear.
Thursday night, the band played from both its 2010 self-titled as well as a forthcoming EP, due out sometime this Spring. Still sans bassist (drummer Tommy Franzen tells me the search continues), Wax Fingers crafted a plenty big sound, working around computer samples and loads of delay that filled all gaps. The trio's typically math-y approach was lush, albeit a little more improvisational. The languid and Yes-inspired "20/20," dependent on swelling walls, scratchy cutouts, and unceasing percussion came through just about perfectly.
Same went for "Skeleton Key," a marching track that sounds a bit like the dial-up internet tone of old, full of fuzz and computerized noodling. Present throughout, however, is a tidy and Classic Rock inspired guitar riff that gives the whole thing blood and bones. In many ways, this is a metaphor for most of the new material Wax Fingers sported Thursday night. Old in that it incorporated the band's longstanding love of complex structures and stratified sound structures and new in that it seemed to have a musical physique.
Which is to say Wax Fingers is prog-rick. Pardon the cliche, but prog rock is progressive, ever-evolving, and ever-challenging. And even if it takes years to ultimately spit out, one understands why when they finally hear/see it.