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Trading in agitation

Olympia duo Teach Me Equals makes minimalist music brimming with dread

Anxiety and generalized terror suffuse Fix History, the latest from Teach Me Equals. Photo credit: Priscilla Wyatt

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As I write this, we've just come out the other side of what felt like a never-ending heat wave. Yes, I know there are other places that have it far worse, and a week of 90-degree days isn't the apocalypse I sincerely want to paint it to be, but come on: we live in the Pacific Northwest. We're allowed to scream to the heavens if the sidewalks get even a little close to egg-frying capabilities. Heat waves drive people to madness, and they personally drove me to bars, more often than not, where I was blasted with air conditioning.

These drinking excursions were usually soundtracked with upbeat, bouncy music -- the kind that's designed to be enjoyed in the summer, to keep spirits up and help everyone pretend that the sun isn't a petty heat engine that won't stop until we're all dead. In these moments, I did not want to listen to summer music. I wanted to listen to something that feeds into my cranky, addled disposition. I wanted to listen to something like Teach Me Equals, the Olympia-based duo that specializes in minimalist, starkly ominous music that lean hard on anxiety (with just enough lingering beauty to keep you from going off the deep end).

Greg Bortnichak and Erin Murphy make up Teach Me Equals, with the two trading off vocal duties. Bortnichak plays cello and handles sequencing, while Murphy plays guitar and violin. While their base is rooted in classical instrumentation, the sounds have been mutated into an industrial form, all cold edges and a steely implacability. Teach Me Equals display a superhuman level of patience with their compositions, sacrificing easy hooks in exchange for an all-encompassing sense of mood. That's not to say that there's nothing catchy about their songs; "Bobbing For Apples," from the recently released Fix History, finds the best balance of magnetism and atmosphere, building up for two minutes before a lockstep electronic beat takes over, which is then again overtaken by a wash of doom-y haze. It's not uncommon to find yourself bobbing your head to a Teach Me Equals song, even as your stomach is being tied in knots.

Fix History, at just eight songs, nonetheless carries with it an identifiable point of view and a thematic consistency. Inspired by the terror and dread that have made homes in the nation's minds over the past couple of years, the album is intense even for a band that frequently trades in intensity. When respite comes, it's in the form of a song like "Judas Goat," which has just enough brightness and rhythmic interest to momentarily pull the listener out of the deep waters of fear and loathing -- and even that song takes detours into destabilizing noise. Teach Me Equals have toured almost compulsively over the past few years, so they've become intimately familiar with the vast, untethered land that makes up our conflicted country. This experience can be felt, if abstractly, in the wandering, agitated Fix History.

Teach Me Equals, continuing on their perpetual tour, will be having two performances this Saturday: one in Tacoma at Rocket Records, and one back in Olympia at McCoy's Tavern. While the heat wave seems to have subsided, and many people might be back in the mood for songs of the summer, Teach Me Equals will still serve as an effective bit of counter-programming for the abundant sunshine. It's helpful to have a band to turn to when you need to be kept on edge, and on your toes, which is something that this band is uncannily adept at doing.

TEACH ME EQUALS, all ages, w/ Broken Shell, 3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 4, Rocket Records, 3823 6th Ave., Tacoma, no cover, 253.756.5186

TEACH ME EQUALS, w/ bands TBA, 9 p.m., McCoy's Tavern, 418 4th Ave. E., Olympia, cover TBA, 360.350.8451

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