By Paul Robicheau
So, after three original albums (plus a re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s Blue) that fell short of wide acclaim, perhaps it was only a matter of time for them to think big.
It’s often tough for talented rock artists from Boston (or Providence or wherever) to set themselves apart and raise their profiles in ways that get noticed. Oberon, the American Repertory Theatre’s black-box theater in Harvard Square, has been opening such possibilities for bands to take ambitious, theatrically oriented risks. And the long-underappreciated Providence art-pop trio Arc Iris stretched its wings in intriguing directions at Saturday’s debut of its new sci-fi project iTMRW.
The milestone for prog-minded bands through rock history (think Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush) has been the concept album, so why not for Arc Iris? Singer/multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams (formerly with very different indie-folk combo the Low Anthem) forges synth-pop that leans toward the avant-garde with keyboardist Zach Tenorio and drummer Ray Belli. So, after three original albums (plus a reimagining of Joni Mitchell’s Blue) that fell short of wide acclaim, perhaps it was only a matter of time for them to think big.
iTMRW (short for I Tomorrow, the name of a pitchy corporate conglomerate) isn’t the first sci-fi concept album to come to life on the Oberon stage. In 2017, Boston prog-rock outfit Schooltree notably fleshed out its rock opera Heterotopia as a dystopian fantasy about a character who loses her body in a shadowy parallel world called Otherspace. But iTMRW blows up our own world to 2080, where a climate apocalypse leaves New York floating atop garbage (the Statue of Liberty’s torch poked above a milky sea in one video — not quite sure how those water levels match up) and blank-masked female “companion bots” serve men.
Those themes of global warming and misogyny were driven home Saturday by a third futuristic warning: runaway capitalism/commercialism, fed into the ears and eyes of the packed Oberon audience by loud, bright video ads by a purple-haired iTMRW pitchman. The multidisciplinary show also expanded to three dimensions through several members of Providence’s HDC Dance Ensemble (choreographed by Danielle Davidson), who roamed the stage and theater levels as both bots and primary characters. And if the plot and the movement of the dancers seemed a bit obtuse or distracting at times, perhaps it fit the chaotic world of iTMRW.
Tech-drugged protagonist Robert (Jacob Regan) rejected a parade of circling bots until he could press his glowing handheld orb to purchase improved model Jenny (Stephanie Turner), who was suitably stiff as they first touched. Her movement later loosened with her mask removed for a brisk dance. In an empowered soliloquy, her floating voice intoned that she deserved “respect and dignity.”
Arc Iris leader Adams added some cross-action narrations through both speech and singing, augmented by her deft switching between a digital echo for ethereal vocals and a pitch shifter for more demonic, automated voices. When bot creator Dr. Pillman (Orlando Hernandez, who doubled as the handsome model David) donned platform shoes for an impressive tap dance, he had to tap faster to keep pace with Adams, who poured out her lines like a robot rapper on overdrive. (For his part, Dr. Pillman’s oath to “the betterment of society” came down to the admission that he represented four things: technology, power, capitalism, and “the problem.”
The band remained central to the production (and well lit), even while relinquishing center stage and runway to the dancers and overhead video screen. Tenorio manned keyboards on one stage wing while Adams and drummer Belli commanded the other side. And they spaced the 14 songs of iTMRW (some test-driven in past live sets but slated for album release later this year) as the bones for the 80-minute show, which repeated at Oberon on Sunday.
In keeping with Arc Iris’s futuristic music, Belli carved his first rhythms on “Virtual Rations” on electronic sample pads, and Tenorio (who has toured with Yes’s Jon Anderson) injected an old-fashioned Moog freakout, while Adams and the dancers lapsed into a spastic thrash. Adams added her own squiggly synthesizer melodies and offered sparse electric guitar to “Piggies Pt. II,” embodying its loop-like pulse with an alternating stare forward and glance right with a step of her boot. And in “Autonomous Cars,” her voice glided down a video highway over the lurching syncopation of just a bass drum and two keyboards.
Belli primarily played an acoustic drum kit, lending snare-side clacks and rimshots to “Wish You Didn’t Have to Slip,” while his beefy beats buoyed even the dreamy hooks of “Don’t Touch” — a premise Robert and Jenny ignored. Yet a number of songs were ballads that revealed the siren-like crooner in Adams, including “Joyful, Joyful,” where the band cleanly stopped and started to accommodate commercial interruptions (one ad boasted a music collection of 200-plus hits and mixed goofy artist names with Bill Clinton, Jared Kushner, and Celine Dion).
Adams eventually left her side-stage post to enter the action herself — and appeared more human in the process. She wandered among a center-stage row of blank-eyed clappers in “Vaginal Mirrors.” She climbed atop a mezzanine table in the audience to sing “Am I a Dreamer of Dreams?” with only an acoustic guitar. And Adams came eye-to-eye with fans as she stalked the runway for the closing “Children of Your History,” singing “You are the product of the life you lead.”
In turn, iTMRW announced to David that it was discontinuing both the Reflect — a soul-sucking mirror that captivated him and Robert — and the consumer himself. David embraced that freedom to flee his technological binds. And audience members shared his smile.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.