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Portland's the Variants make dynamic, unpredictable queer rock with a vivid sense of drama

The Variants deftly explore universal topics like love and loss, and more specific topics like gender identity. Photo credit: Facebook

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Somewhere along the way, humanity saddled itself with stifling, abundantly inconvenient, and calamitously damaging notions of gender, sexual orientation, and the respective roles of women and men in society. For a life so filled to the brim with nuance, it seems a bunch of people got together and drafted a rigid outlook of the way people should be allowed to live. In a climate that's now, at long last, beginning to rally around the LGBT community and women in general, some strides are being made, but there's still so far to go. The arts world, though, for as many problems as it still possesses, has been doing its part to chip away at a society that can seem bloody-minded in its aim to maintain the pointedly dull and toxic status quo.

Icons like David Bowie, Prince, k.d. lang, and Boy George often get brought up when discussing artists that challenged the perceptions of the middlebrow, blandly bigoted populace, but a tradition of defying the norms and celebrating different points of views runs deep in the waters of all sorts of art forms. Gorgeous George became the biggest wrestling star of his day, and inspired the works of Muhammed Ali and James Brown, by weaponizing an ambiguous sexuality to rile up a conservative wrestling audience. John Waters' films paint a world where being classified as "normal" is the worst thing that can happen to a person. The sitcom Roseanne, for all Roseanne Barr's troubles, did its part in normalizing LGBT people for an audience who had only signed up to watch a family show set in the Midwest. Recently, Ezra Furman is making some of the most viscerally thrilling, beautifully evocative music out there, from a trans perspective.

And, of course, we've had a few generations of great queer bands emerge over the past decades -- too many to name, in fact, and tons of them proudly hailing from the Pacific Northwest. To throw another one on the list, I'd hip you to the Variants, from Portland. Musically, the Variants are difficult to categorize, which they cheekily address by referring to themselves as "genre-fluid." On their most recent LP, Hey There, Voyeur!, they largely concern themselves with a bouncy indie rock that sometimes folds in a melodramatic complexity that recalls Jeff Buckley. An ever-present violin is also on hand to add texture and give the songs a more folk-driven feel than if they were just a guitar-based group. On "Sink Hole," a song that seems to be an indictment of Portland's continued growth into a metropolitan juggernaut, the Variants slip into an apocalyptic prog-rock mode.

Led by trans woman Quinn Bleiler, and filled out by Sky Sarpa, Roark Turner, Rodya Hutwagner and Ardon Lee, the Variants balance their songs with universal relatability, and more personal odes to identity, and the shedding of concern for strangers' expectations. Hey There, Voyeur! opens with the one-two punch of "Same Bones:New Body" and "For Who I Am," both of which explore the before and after of coming to terms with gender identity, and the process of transitioning, with the former first containing the lyrics, "I was a woman made man," then following it up with, "I am a man-made woman."

The lyrical intent of the Variants would be admirable, but would largely go unheard if the music weren't strong enough to match it. Thankfully, the Variants are a tight, unpredictable five-piece, capable of injecting new, dramatic life into even standard songs of love lost, like "Miss Me." Bleiler's voice, not showy, but slyly dynamic, anchors music that may do their part in turning the heads of those who still grumble about pronouns.

THE VARIANTS, w/ Mouth, SiLM, Molten Salt, 9 p.m., Saturday, March 24, $5, Le Voyeur, 404 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.943.5710,

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