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Rockus Battle of the Bands victors win recording deal

Berklee's Sex! takes gold at last Tuesday's competition

Published: Thursday, April 23, 2009

Updated: Thursday, April 23, 2009 07:04

The band called Sex! won last Tuesday's Rockus Battle of the Bands final round, held at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Sex! represented the Berklee College of Music in this intercollegiate competition, which also featured bands from Boston College, Boston University, Emerson College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts. The Rockus competition

Rockus semi-final rounds to select each school's champion were held throughout February at Tommy Doyle's Pub in Cambridge, Mass. These semi-finals selected one band as champion of each school: Hollow Sound from Emerson, Gerard Mellen from Boston College, The Pears from M.I.T., Kids With Kites from Boston University, the Ben Kultgen Band from Harvard and FunkSoulLove from Tufts, in addition to Sex!

Each band was chosen in part because it offered listeners a distinctive style of music, as was evident at the final battle last Tuesday night. Hollow Sound opened the evening with a punk-rock energy that ultimately failed to get the initially sparse crowd moving. Poorly mixed vocals and musical homogeneity plagued the band's set, which was followed by the four-piece band Gerard Mellen.

Members of Gerard Mellen at first seemed unsure of themselves on stage, but their vaguely Strokes-esque sound pumped up the audience with strident rhythms and well-coordinated breakdowns. The band lost momentum, however, with fairly long pauses between songs that ultimately detracted from its performance.

After the introduction, the MIT soul-pop band, The Pears, hit the stage. They put on a tight, jazz-infused, funky set, and also talked up their debut album "Flavors," which is scheduled for release next month. Their set was technically-impressive, and drummer Balaji Mani made more than a few jaws drop. Despite such instrumental skill, the band's stage presence was lacking, and the crowd was not particularly engaged with the band.

Kids With Kites similarly failed to connect with the audience, but this appeared to be in accordance with the band's self-described genre of Indie/Shoegaze/Surf, according to their page, which might signify an intentional effort not to engage the mostly confused audience. In a battle-of-the-bands setting, this inaccessible act created an audience hungering for excitement, a hunger to which the band Sex! responded in both name and style. A satisfying finish

This five-piece band hammered into its set with a bluesy and soulful, yet blistering and rocked-out ballad. In an act that matched instrumental skill with an energetic and engaging stage presence, guitarist Skye Handler -- a Berklee alum -- danced towards the crowd on top of a bank of speakers mid-guitar solo, while vocalist Michael Burri won cheers of approval with his antics, tossing condoms out into the audience between verses and even winning the accompaniment of the spectators for a few choruses. Bounding confidently through a hard-hitting yet seductive set, Sex! left the stage sweating and with half of their members shirtless, a fitting testament to their efforts.

By comparison, the Ben Kultgen Band did not leave much of an impression. With a style musically and lyrically reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional, vocalist and guitarist Benjamin Kultgen's crooning and acoustic guitar couldn't seem to energize the crowd, and at times, even Kultgen's backing band seemed bored. In a move that could not have sat well with the judges, the group finished with a rock cover of Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time" that, ironically, engaged the crowd more than any of its original songs had.

Finally, Tufts' own FunkSoulLove took the stage to face an audience that was thunderously chanting its name. As junior drummer Zachary Camara commented beforehand, "Twenty minutes of a live show ... is short if it's a full band's show. So it's more of [a big deal]. You have to design it, you have to make it good, put some surprises in there." Accordingly, emcee and lyricist David Dormon, a sophomore, did his best to work the crowd into a frenzy with a stage presence that complimented his unrelenting flow of rhymes. Indeed, every member of the band strove to perform to his or her fullest -- not just for the audience, but also for the privately contracted camera crew filming the performance from several angles. FunkSoulLove played through their songs with verve and energy, and left the crowd chanting for more. Sex! takes gold

Midway through the show, WMFO staffers, who were serving as emcees, introduced the three judges who would pick the night's winner: A and M/Octone Records' Executive Vice President and Head of Promotion Ben Berkman who signed Maroon 5 as Octone's first act; DJ Mike Hsu of WAAF 97.7/107.3, a rock station that broadcasts simultaneously in Worcester and Boston and former Men's Journal and current Rolling Stone publisher Will Schenk.

After about 10 minutes of deliberation, the judges declared Sex! the winner of the contest. The first place prize includes a trip to New York City for a free 12 hours of recording time at Electric Lady Studios, a CD release party at Boston's Hard Rock Café, $1,000 in merchandise, a featured link on the home-page of Rolling Stone's Web site and a cash prize, the amount of which was not disclosed. A Sex!y take on Rockus

Going into the show, Sex! focused on keeping an optimistic attitude: "As far as the live show goes, whatever stage [we're] playing on [we] just try to play better each night than the night before," Sex! drummer John Adams said.

"I also don't think it's like a make-it-or-break-it show," guitarist Skye Handler added.

"Well, maybe make it, but not break it," Adams said with a laugh.

In the future, Sex! intends to continue to emphasize its live performances as an integral part of its musical repertoire. "You've got to just play the next show, keep going ... [and] get more fans," Handler said. "Paradise Bar ... you add that to the resume," Adams said.

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