As cockroaches take over a gridlocked Manhattan, a UK post-punk band looks to pull off a great escape.
Along upper Manhattan’s rain-soaked sidewalks scurried, and fast, a scraggly artillery of winged American cockroaches — between pairs of trudging feet, beneath stroller carriages, past discarded fast food paraphernalia, atop each other’s bodies. The subway entrances from which they emerged were strictly barricaded, guarded to a halt by tight-lipped officers under governmental order not to answer any questions. An irritated-looking old woman, lanky, with coiffish white hair and goggle-like sunglasses, pestered a policeman at the corner of Lexington and East 78th; he stared blankly at her face, and she began screaming to the crowd that had gathered — all younger, none listening — about her dog that hadn’t eaten, her aching legs, her fear of rodents, her fear of what was happening.
“The only thing we can ascertain at this time is that the suspects were three males and two females, all clad in trench coats, who left towards downtown. They disappeared into dark vehicles and remain at-large.”
Rigor mortis had long set in for the corpse seated several feet beneath the commotion, whose name was Jared. The corpse’s death occurred a half-hour or so past two A.M the previous morning, underneath a roaring 6 train on the uptown side of the 77th Street subway tracks. It might also have happened the day before. Authorities hadn’t decided on an official date or time yet, and while the city’s transit system stood still in wait of a verdict, its sewer-dwelling roaches enjoyed an increasingly-common feast — to the point where, freshly appetized and foaming at the mouths, they roamed, by the dozen, up the subway steps and into the streets in frantic search for more. “The only thing we can ascertain at this time is that the suspects were three males and two females, all clad in trench coats, who left towards downtown,” a disembodied voice echoed repeatedly, city-wide, from a booming intercom no one could see. “They disappeared into dark vehicles and remain at-large.” The crowd — now not only on Lexington, but on every sidewalk, spilling into open roads and sprawling, like the cockroaches, across Manhattan — stood idly by, tapping at cell phones until, in about three hours, they were squished too closely against one another’s bodies to move anymore. Recognizing the flesh they had enjoyed underground, and having no other place to go, the cockroaches crawled up pant legs and bit through socks in search of bare skin. Those lucky enough to be standing near storefronts sought refuge; those without such fortune stood there, awkwardly scratching themselves.
“The more you know about an entity equals the less interesting it becomes; they had become so great at withholding secrets that the search for answers eclipsed the importance of what, if anything, was already true.”
One such storefront was The Mercury Lounge, a modest Lower East Side venue-slash-bar that cemented its niche legend by balancing minimal concert space with make-yourself-at-home ambience. Up to this point, by the number of cockroaches (and people) that had slowly taken over Manhattan’s land, it had long grown apparent that Jared was not the only corpse underground; nor was the 77th Street station the only place where a body like his lay. But inside, as it neared 6 PM, no one seemed to either know, nor care — not enough, at least, to file into one of the few remaining safety retreats willing to open its doors. Slated to perform in an hour was a mythic British post-punk band called Bar Italia, famous primarily by association, and now ostensibly attempting to curate for themselves a more tangible iteration of their long-hazy spirit. Much of that bulked-up image, oddly enough, thrived on the same anonymous qualities that made them both interesting and out-of-reach in the first place: they still rarely posted on social media; their albums still circulated primarily by word-of-mouth; their fans were still, as it appeared, more eager about the music being a best-kept-secret than something worth revisiting in its own right. Perhaps the most fitting emblem of their awkward transitional moment was the artwork for Tracey Denim, the freshly-released LP they were at the Mercury Lounge to perform selections from. Unlike previous releases, which featured meme-able doodles of distressed stick figures and furious blattodea, the new record’s cover art boasted a casual iPhone flick of the group seated outside of a cafe, likely somewhere in London. Or, maybe they figured a quotidian dinner photo was too straightforward. A crude black-and-white edit of it graced the record’s cover; various photoshops of the same image were recycled for press releases and promotional materials.
“A loose array of roaches, like moths in light, hovered above its rim, as if on command. Their wings threw flecks of uncarbonated beer at the haphazard group of people standing nearby; they wiped their faces and licked their hands, yelling “Taste this” to each other behind outstretched index fingers.”
Outside the venue, squished together and with cockroach fangs sunken into the fleshy meat of their ankles, a haphazard group of cultured 20-somethings gathered, wondering amongst themselves whether the band was worth seeing. It was difficult to distinguish — as it often was, whenever crippling corpse-induced gridlock struck downtown — where the modest line for the concert fizzled out, and the city-spanning melange began. As a security guard struggled to carry a velvet stanchion out from behind a heavy door, members of Bar Italia squeezed their ways in one by one; they were dressed along a loose spectrum that ranged from business casual to semi-sleazy evening attire. The group looked like anyone else trapped in the bustling mass, cockroaches at their feet, murder somewhere on their minds, home farther away than usual. Yet, even despite their banal sameness, they were, ever so oddly, exempt: exempt from the squish that glued New York City skin-to-skin, exempt from the rules (stand still and wait for it to be over), exempt from the judgment that came with breaking them.
Similar exemption was a core facet of their moderate success. Their mysterious ethos and Goldilocks UK-scene positionality made it difficult to admit to oneself, let alone to other people, that their music may not have always lived up to its larger-than-life mystique. Perhaps it’s why they always preferred to hide themselves. The more you know about an entity equals the less interesting it becomes; they had become so great at withholding secrets that the search for answers eclipsed the importance of what, if anything, was already true. As Jared, and likely many others, lay dead underneath the city’s aching legs, the same things that bewitched its residents bewitched Bar Italia’s devoted followers: confusion, but just the right amount of it to feel more healthily suspenseful than convulsively maddening. This did not change the fact that, at the end of the day — and it was drawing near — there was still nothing concrete to be clung to. From what anyone could tell, it could have been convulsively maddening after all. The people were only standing still because they were stuck that way.
“So does the bar italia album get good? Or is it just mid art school rock the whole way through?”
A loose conglomerate of security guards, all visibly bored, began ushering revelers inside a few minutes after 6 PM. The venue was dimly-lit, fading sunlight eking through a tiny doorway, casting an eerie glow upon a narrow hall, and stopping at a pitch-black ballroom space littered with empty beer cans and indiscernible liquids. Stationed across from one another in the hallway were a cheery bartender who sold questionable beer, and a set of fold-up tables ornamented with for-sale Bar Italia ephemera: Tracey Denim test pressings; white T-shirts featuring hazy stick-figure doodles. The hallway, like the city, was too small to host the growing horde of confused revelers that had been whisked into its depths. One-sided small-talk echoed off the walls as hasty transactions occurred on both of its sides, everyone being helplessly stuck, but no one appearing willing to admit it. A quiet PA system shifted between raucous punk rock tracks and jarring interruptions by the city-wide radio communications system — The only thing we can ascertain at this time is that the suspects were three males and two females, all clad in trench coats, who left towards downtown. They disappeared into dark vehicles and remain at-large — as the band maneuvered silently through the melee, exchanging grins and blending, as always, perfectly in.
When the initial wave of transactions simmered down, the crowd began to spill into the pitch-black ballroom, some holding plastic cups and others proudly donning new T-shirts. “Taste this,” one reveler standing near the stage said, beer cup in his outstretched hand. The offer was declined; he said it tasted funny, then politely set it down in a nearby garbage can. A loose array of roaches, like moths in light, hovered above its rim, as if on command. Their wings threw flecks of uncarbonated beer at the haphazard group of people standing nearby; they wiped their faces and licked their hands, yelling “Taste this” to each other behind outstretched index fingers.
No more than five minutes into this process, a hooded man with unkempt hair and a trumpet emerged from the crowd and walked on-stage. He plugged the trumpet into an MPC-looking device with blinking red lights, staring at a Macbook Air stationed in front of him, shaking his head in disapproval every few seconds. A bass-heavy pre-recording was queued up, gargantuan low-end notes quivering the legs — bloodthirsty cockroaches attached and hanging on by the fangs — of the revelers, who, much like their counterparts outside, stood there not knowing much of what was going on. Feet away, at the front entrance to the Mercury Lounge, security guards fought tooth-and-nail against the doomed people stuck outside, who had finally begun to lose their sanity in desperation. The heavy doors slammed shut, cockroach-bitten fingers stuck within their hinges. Down the security guards collapsed: sweaty, half-dead, not as bored anymore. Half-paying attention, the loose assemblage stationed before the trumpeter seemed either too bored, or too transfixed, to know how lucky they were to be there. “That’s it,” the man said with a sly grin, shutting his Macbook and hopping off the stage. The throng stood there idly, cockroaches—a few of them now bunched-up against crimson strobe lights—casting grim shadows against the walls.
“You feel like leaving when no one’s looking / But you will make it to the other side / You know it’s just another night.”
Bar Italia’s first two full-length albums were released in 2020 and 2021 via World Music, a mystery-shrouded UK record label founded by the reclusive avant-pop musician Dean Blunt. Musically speaking, the projects both lived and died on a trademark blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sensibility. They clocked in respectively at 14 and 21 minutes long, challenging listeners to extract something concrete from their brevity, but making it maddeningly difficult to do so: the content itself didn’t sound particularly jarring or novel; in most cases, even if someone was willing to listen until they were convinced, far too small a sample size existed to leave much of a mark. The dilemma spawned a tightrope-thin divide within both World Music’s legion of niche diehards, and the broader musical community that had been learning of them for the first time — if you understood it, you understood it vehemently; if you didn’t, you were annoyed at (1) the band, and (2) the many who claimed to have a spiritual connection to their output. “So does the bar italia album get good[?],” a tweet asked, a week or so after the new LP’s release. “or is it just mid art school rock the whole way through?”
The Catch-22 of Tracey Denim, and the moment it signified for its creators writ large, was that although it had been their least fleeting work to date — 15 tracks, 43 minutes — it failed to eliminate the need for similar questions, let alone answer them. Much like the other tough-to-trace names on World Music’s sprawling rolodex — the confusing hip-hop trio Babyfather, the experimental pop provocateur Mica Levi, the elusive indie rock trio The Crying Nudes — Bar Italia’s output thrived on letting listeners decide whether or not to take it seriously. With their once-label-mates, that was the point: one spent as much time enjoying the music, perhaps, as intellectualizing it. Tracey Denim operated to similar ends, but was simultaneously too complex and too simple to either be fully taken seriously, or fully taken as an artistic statement. There were real, raw emotions behind tracks like “harpee” and “yes i have eaten so many lemons yes i am so bitte,” where the band’s three vocalists traded lovestruck lyrics over chorus-pedaled guitar arpeggiations and easygoing backbeats. But lurking not far from those emotions, at all times, was a certain unshakable sense of lax. Their vocals, at points, felt comically detached; their arrangements were simplistic enough to learn by ear; for all the lyrical emotion they were able to muster, the music sounded, after a while, like white noise. By Tracey Denim’s final track, one wondered whether they had meant any of it at all.
“Outside, a rabid combination of police officers, squished-together civilians, and exhausted cockroaches—all willing to kill if it meant ending the monotony they had suffered—clawed, bit, gnawed, and banged at the door, spasmodically and with primal bursts of energy.”
The most convincing facet of Bar Italia’s self-reinvention, perhaps, was that they had departed World Music for Matador Records, the longstanding indie label that hosted powerhouse rock factions like Boygenius and Yo La Tengo. It seemed like a gesture, for the band, towards growing into an entity of their own, no longer appendages of the murky UK underground that birthed them. Interestingly enough, much like the new album, this alone was convincing to few beyond those already convinced. By the time they trudged on-stage from somewhere off in a dark corner, matching trench coats scattered across the floor by their feet, the PA system was still blaring through a playlist of semi-corny guitar songs. Both in real-life and on wax, Bar Italia’s greatest weakness had been speaking up for themselves: the mystique did the talking, and when that failed, their fans usually spoke in its stead. And so, for a few uncomfortable seconds, the group awkwardly plucked at their guitars and tapped microphones as if to shout We are here, shooting murderous glances at whoever in the back they figured was responsible for the unwanted noise. “You can cut the music now, thanks,” a long-haired guitarist finally said with a scoff, eyes searing through goggle-like frames. It took a few seconds.
The lead singer of Bar Italia was a wiry, soft-spoken woman who made solo music under the pseudonym NINA. In a single she silently released in collaboration with Dean Blunt the previous winter, she deadpanned wistful poetry — somewhat like a higher-pitched Nico — over a simplistic guitar riff that could have been computer-generated. “It’s just as good as it gets,” she crooned, matter-of-factly, in its chorus. “Something’s got to give.” As loudly as they played, and as into it as the audience sometimes seemed, the mantra hung eerily over the band’s set. Like Tracey Denim, it came to a point where the songs began to spill into one another, consistent in their passionate ethos, but indefinitely held back by their refusal to do anything remotely new.
Whether by contagion or circumstance, the sentiment eked through the narrow hallway, past the slumped security guards, beyond the heavy door, and into the streets, where the manic swarm — desperate for something new — grew increasingly untamed. Back on the corner of Lexington and East 78th, the lanky old woman peeled cockroaches from her lips, yelling between winces at the officers, who continued to stand there stoically, arms rested on their guns. Somewhere tucked away in a squad car, crouched beneath leather seats with tinted windows rolled all the way up, the New York City Mayor — a cowardly, eggish-looking bald man who doubled as the police chief — made frantic phone calls to his second-in-command. The problem, he said in a trembling whisper, couldn’t possibly be income inequality, a housing crisis, widespread poverty, nor a crippling lack of resources. It never was. When things like this happened, they could only have been a direct result of three common culprits: music, public libraries, or rats. An order was given out, and within minutes, NYPD Ford Explorers roared down the streets with their sirens blaring, mowing down pedestrians in search of anything remotely entertaining. “The only thing we can ascertain at this time is that the suspects were three males and two females, all clad in trench coats, who left towards downtown,” the city-wide intercom echoed, barely audible over the carnage. “They disappeared into dark vehicles and remain at-large.”
By the time red and blue lights flickered beneath the Mercury Lounge’s front door, Bar Italia were about midway through “Nurse!”, one of three low-key singles silently put out prior to Tracey Denim’s release. In its opening moments, a serpentine guitar riff snaked its way through suspenseful arpeggiations, slightly distorted and somewhat uncanny-valley-esque. “Your chest wide open, your heart is hurting,” Nina narrated, deadpan and all-seeing. “You feel like leaving when no one’s looking / But you will make it to the other side / You know it’s just another night.” Down the hall, a raucous thumping against the heavy door jolted the security guards awake. Too exhausted to defend themselves anymore, they stood there wearily, arms pressed against the hatch in futile hopes that maybe their prayers would be enough. Outside, a rabid combination of police officers, squished-together civilians, and exhausted cockroaches — all willing to kill if it meant ending the monotony they had suffered — clawed, bit, gnawed, and banged at the door, spasmodically and with primal bursts of energy.
It was a battering ram that finally sent the door crashing down, killing the security guards and sending a billowing dust cloud into the ballroom. Revelers, coughing through confused glances, about-faced to see a zombified litany steadily advancing towards them through the shadows. The lights went out on-stage; Bar Italia played on in the dark, over the confused chatter, over the distant flutter of American cockroach wings, over the sirens that blared from outside. “Come here, join me in the silence,” Nina’s disembodied voice belted. “We need undoing to set us free.” Through the fog and shadows, spectral police searchlights — growing larger by the second — shone in ghastly patterns, all stopping one by one to converge at the stage. On it stood the band, illuminated: three males and two females, trench coats cast aside, unfazed in the body-littered bowels of downtown.
The cops knew that there was something they were supposed to do, but couldn’t remember exactly what. They had been here before — suspects in eyeshot, clear instructions to follow, vulnerable people to protect — but never really done much other than turn a blind eye, whip out their cell phones, or erroneously kill someone. After a few silent seconds, they turned away and trudged sullenly back the way they arrived, deciding amongst themselves who would make the call to the mayor, and what they would say. Shortly after their departure, a new message blared over the city-wide intercom: “The New York City Police Department would like to remind you that it is not responsible for the well-being of your family members,” it said. “If you saw something, you should have said something.”
As the shadowy, half-zombie crowd continued its menacing march towards the ballroom, Bar Italia stood there, saying nothing. “And happily ever after,” Nina half-whispered. They walked off-stage and into the dark, leaving the audience to fend for themselves.