Heavy Breathing’s show Thursday night at the Black Cat Backstage, the lesser of the venue’s two performance spaces, was arena-rock writ small. LEDs blinked and changed color behind the D.C. band, and green laser beams spun through the smoke that emanated from the stage. At the center, drummer Jeff Schmid pounded indomitable rock and funk beats. Flanking him, guitarist Erick Jackson played riffs that combined heavy metal’s crunch with surf music’s sprightliness, while Amanda Kleinman’s two-tiered keyboards both propelled and embroidered the music.
Anything missing? Oh yeah, the strutting lead singer.
The members of Heavy Breathing played together for a decade or so as the Apes, a band that cycled through three vocalists. After deciding to stop looking for a David Lee Roth it could call its own, the core trio changed its name and began using vocal samples as substitutes for singing.
This technique is demonstrated on the band’s second album, “Airtight,” which was released in November. In theory, what the group does is akin to house music, which uses brief, looped vocal phrases to punctuate its electronic thump and throb. But where house-music producers usually borrow hooks from divas and belters, Heavy Breathing takes vocalese that may not have been musical at all, and then tweaks and tunes it into the chants featured in tracks such as “Getting Down,” which opened the Black Cat show.
Like most arena-rock bands, Heavy Breathing left less room for vocals on stage than in its recordings. Although some “Airtight” samples were audible, others vanished or were submerged in the aural swells. At times, the group sounded like a less chilly version of the D.C.-rooted Trans Am, a purely instrumental combo. But where Trans Am alternated between rock stompers and spacey, synth-heavy numbers, Heavy Breathing integrates the two. With its electro accents and cyclical grooves, the trio also recalled the Chemical Brothers, whose dance music has a hard-rock swagger.
Heavy Breathing is enough of a rock band to end with a (pre-recorded) outburst of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers,” a line from one of the grimiest songs by the generally well-scrubbed Beatles. But Kleinman’s versatile keyboards and effects provided more than one-third of the total sound, and the rhythms were as roundabout as straight-ahead. The trio may never play arenas, but it would probably be welcome in dance clubs.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.