As difficult as it can be to describe the perpetually moving target that is the Residents’ body of work, it’s safe to say that nostalgia largely doesn’t figure into it. Yet the doggedly inscrutable group presaged its Monday show at the Royale with a screening of “Theory of Obscurity,” a band documentary released last year.
In place of a longer and more broadly conceived set or an opening performance by some simpatico artist, it felt off-tone for a band so relentlessly focused on reinvention. Indeed, the agenda on the present tour is “Shadowland,” a song cycle serving as the third in a trilogy concerned, in broad strokes, with death and rebirth.
The group, which performs these days as a trio, has been at it for over 40 years. Its members famously go unidentified, always performing in masks or other disguises. The music takes many forms; it’s frequently dominated by electronic soundscapes pierced by aggressively amelodic vocals that can border on chanting. The Residents’ ongoing art project is born from the gestalt of its visual presentation and stagecraft, music, and general way of being in the world.
Which can make it a band that’s easier to admire than to enjoy. In its current formation, the Residents feature a vocalist (wearing, on Monday, an unsettling old-man mask), a guitarist, and a player on keyboard and electronic effects. The latter two wore costume variations based around skull masks with long, dangling hair.
Though the 70-minute set began and closed with older tunes (“Rabbit Habbit” and “Ship of Fools”), most of the intervening time was devoted to the new stuff. The level of spectacle was minimal, and its effect wore thin. A white sphere upstage served as screen for a series of projections — testimonials, given by people in skull masks, of obscure purpose.
The vocalist busily moved around the stage, performing a strange dance based on the swinging of his forearms. Though the choreographic vocabulary was limited, he projected a demented charisma. The guitarist played whammy-aided cries in the night. The third member cued some big beats and industrial-tinted electronics, complementing these sounds with an abrasively rough touch on keyboard.
Ultimately, I want to live in a world where the Residents are out there, doing what they do. The culture is stronger, weirder, and better for it. I’m just not sure how much of it I need to hear.
At Royale Boston, April 25