SXSW Music 2014
We cover the music portion of this year’s conference through reviews, art, and streams
[Tiny Mix Tapes sent three writers to cover SXSW Music 2014. Page 1 features Mukqs’ experience, Page 2 showcases SXSW-inspired artwork by Carolina Purdum, Page 3 comes courtesy of resident SXSW expert Grant ‘Gumshoe’ Purdum, and Page 4 features six full-set streams that comprise the entirety of the Ba Da Bing/Northern Spy showcase.]
SXSW holds surprises at all levels of expectation. Go into it with the mental image of endless lines, eight dollar beers, and suffocating corporational tie-ins, and you’ll get exactly what you imagine — yet all of your suffering will occur in the middle of lovely Austin, TX instead of a fenced-in field prison of mud and teens. Even in the line hell SXSW scenario, when you’re tethered to a series of hot showcases for hours a pop, you’re still a three-minute walk from a solid taco zone, ten minutes from non-festival real life, and you’re probably about to see Young Thug (which I, to my eternal chagrin, never managed).
Approach the festival as an opportunity to encounter unknown strains of the underground, transplanted from across the world into a sudden omni-scene and given free reign of a huge roster of venues, homes, and public spaces, and you will have a really great time. Scan the show list, find some band or label you’ve maybe kind of heard of, and get there: there will be no line, cheap (sometimes free) beer and/or food, and you’ll be standing two human-widths away from a performance space that will, half the time, host something spectacular. The other half of the time it’ll host two steampunk-lookin’ gentlemen, gripping banjo and guitar respectively, plucking on some Mumford bullshit. Breeze ‘em out, killer. Breeze ‘em out.
The sun came out for La Luz’s set aboard the Panache Booking booze cruise, and their warm tones poured from the PA in perfect synchros with the riverfront environment: bone-dry bass chug, guitar twang, bouncy snare work, and the sustain of Nord Electro organ chords. The Seattle-based quartet sandwiched neo-surf melodies, complete with vibrato trails and faux-Eastern harmonies, between gang-vocal doo-wop spassages led by guitarist Shana Cleveland. Whenever the boat passed under a bridge, the live mix amplified into 30-second patches of natural reverb that pushed the band’s already sopping wet sound deeper into the waterfall grotto of slapback echo. Their beach jams sidestepped the pitfall of nostalgia (“Remember surf rock, guys??” “…Naw.”) in favor of a confidently executed revamp, with a few generations of fine-tuning and demythologizing to separate forefathers from present-day daughters. When I commended Cleveland’s “Link Wray vibe” after the show, she told me, quite simply, “He’s my favorite.”
Based on hearsay and Google Image Search, I wondered if Tempe, AZ-based extreme music omnivores and Ascetic House founders Marshstepper would enact a noise ritual before our eyes. Would clothes be shed? Bondage gear utilized? Chalices? Masks? No such luck this time, but despite the lack of occult artifacts, a noise ritual it was. The duo, composed of multi-instrumentalists N. Nappa and JS Aurelius (both also members of Destruction Unit), tore through a relentless blitz of blood-curdling screams, martial electronic beats, and piercing feedback, goading the PA and our eardrums past the tipping point into ecstatic oblivion. Aurelius hunched over in half, cupped his hands over his microphone, and intoned demonic vocalizations through a system of effects to construct a wall of abstracted tones reminiscent of the Double Leopards school of vocal manipulation. Nappa thrashed over his rig of synths and pedals in sweeping gestures and tilted back to howl with abandon, as the crowd seesawed with him in mutual delirium. Y e a h.
The boat got back to land before Cleveland’s prodigal shredder took to the deck with his solo rig of guitar, pedals, and sampler/drum machine. McGuire interwove pre-programmed synths and rhythms with clarion six-string leads, conflating the glistening new New Age textures that defined this year’s Along The Way 2xLP with the 80s-skate-and-surf-inspired riffage more characteristic of his Inner Tube project with Spencer Clark. Peals of hi-fi distortion, recursive bursts of live-looped input, and layering of drone elements elevated McGuire performance of new material into a physical experience to complement the more meditative nature of his recordings. He transitioned smoothly between tracks by draping guitar tones across each swath of cross-fading synth, to unite his compositions into a master take conducive to the day-tripping agenda. The delay could’ve been reasonably described as “giga.” The zones: cosmic. The energy: posi. We drained our cups and got off the boat, as a giant posse queued up on shore for the Coachwhips set taking place on the next river trip.
In the studio, JR Robinson assembles large ensembles to bring his Wrekmeister Harmonies compositions to life, uniting his collaborators’ synthesis, doom/sludge stomp, and classical string arrangements into electro-acoustic drone metal opuses charged with the chaos and unexpected concordance of disparate disciplines. Recent shows, however, find Robinson onstage solo, armed with a guitar and a backdrop of strings and synths as his pre-recorded electronic accompaniment. He settled into a slow-burning session of structured improv, accelerating from rubato arpeggio passages into upper-register comping and tremolo-picked leads to trace a dark narrative across the fretboard with the low E string (tuned, probably, much lower than E) resounding with each sustaining lick. The set’s most riveting moments showcased his vocals, which alternated between moaned paeans to an absent loved one (“Have you gone too far away from me?”) and the screams of a cast away driven insane by isolation (“IT’S A SHIP!/ I CAN FUCKING SEE IT!!!”). At the climax, Robinson opened his mouth wide for a few croaked black metal ululations, as if to illustrate that for all of his choice collaborations, he alone constitutes the nightmarish nucleus of his project.
Austin-by-way-of-L.A. drum machine warrior SSLEEPERHOLD (José Cota) embodied the aesthetics of hometown heroes Holodeck Records with his strident industrial rhythms, horror-score synths, and brain-scrambling squalls of noise. His confident live beatdown sent every head in the zone bobbing and brought repeat offenders, including myself, back for more than one show over the course of the week. He steered his arsenal of intricately connected hardware through a series of intensifying sequences and triumphant structural resolutions, and channeled touchstones from Pretty Hate Machine to Gatekeeper’s Giza to the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange into his own vision of maximal solo performance — equal parts warehouse rave cave and pitch-black highway. Cota’s bass drum patterns, clattering closer to the mid-range than the low-end, dominate his live mix for a reason: they’re some of the most hypnotizing rhythms in the drone underground, with enough variation and forward momentum to propel his compositions into your brain’s long-term memory banks.
The playback of murmured piano takes and synth washes from a cassette deck meshed with Natalie Mering’s acoustic guitar to transform the Mexican Summer showcase into a 30-minute oasis of welcome introspection. Mering’s solo performance under her Weyes Blood moniker tiptoed past the audience’s defenses by way of austere torch songs and tape hiss, distilling a thematic palette of loss, hope, and solitude into swells of effect-pedal abstraction and operatic vocal grandeur. She paced the stage with mic in hand, sketched out her internal landscape, and elevated her tracks to new emotional plateaux with stomps on her loop pedal that layered her voice into cascading harmonies. Mering capped off the gig with an angelic rendition of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking,” draped in a tape’s sustaining arpeggios and paced at a languid crawl that elegantly reinscribed the overfamiliar source material. We swayed, close to swooning, and glimpsed new facets in that line, “Only the echoes of my mind.”
Montreal-based dark ambient/electronic explorer Marie Davidson surpassed the high watermark of her recent studio recordings with a disarming live set at the Holodeck Records showcase. Her command of a table-sized rig of sequencers and synths, each airing its own bleeps and beats within her layered technoid arrangements, would’ve been enough to captivate the crowd on its own, but Davidson’s sonic multitasking expanded beyond the reverb-frosted tones of her gear into the realm of dramatic vocal performance. While one hand adjusted levels and triggered new synth patches, the other held the microphone at close range to receive her entrancing stream of whispers, detached monologues, boasts, direct questions, promises (“I’m not trying to fool you/ Just give my heart to you”), and mantras, delivered in a mixture of French and English. The combination of her unpredictable vocals and the baroque interplay of her analog backdrops evoked a pan-international incarnation of MCing or dancehall toasting after the apocalypse, animated by verbal bravado and matched by technical expertise on a web of cyborg gear.
If the Nintendo-derived melodies, pop-punk power chords, and hyperactive drumbeats of Anamanaguchi sound like a sugar rush clusterfuck on paper, the Brooklyn-based quartet’s live show reveals a remarkable degree of control and professionalism within the chiptune rock aesthetic they’ve popularized over the last five years. They struck a tight balance between the technicolor playback of a hacked NES and the hands-on-fretboard shred of their post-Weezer chord progressions, executing each feint, breakdown, and climax as one Mother Brain in tandem with their electronics. Given the space to breathe on the outdoor stage, the guitars crushed, the bass cut through the mix, and the drums drove each jam up into fierce energy levels (arguably over 9000). The urge to mosh, headbang, and stage-dive gripped the rabid crowd and sparked the band’s spiritual godfather Peelander Yellow into inspired freestyle crowd-surfing. Although thematically light-hearted, candy-coated with Contra blips and samples of cat meows, Anamanaguchi pounded out heavy music with widescreen impact.
Turn around during a Ryley Walker gig and scope out the grins on all those faces. The Chicago-based singer/songwriter dialed into the audience’s sweet spot with his mixture of ornate fingerstyle melodies and assured folk balladry, planting himself into a lineage that includes the likes of Bert Jansch, Jack Rose, and Johns both Fahey and Martyn. Walker flitted between warp-speed chordal arpeggios, raga-style upper-register soloing, and passages of hammer-on riffing that extended into transcendent repetitions of individual figures. He backed up his disciplined fretwork with atypical chord voicings and unpredictable harmonic progressions, without straying from the consonance that kept the crowd rapt. His throaty vocals, doled out over busy guitar work in languorous couplets or smeared into improvised wails during freewheeling interludes, attested to surprising depths of experience for his 24 years of age. When his set ended, a half-dozen listeners crowded the stage to get a word in, offer a beer or a cigarette, and hear his future plans. He had left his impression.
While Cian Nugent’s studio recordings can find room for full-band accompaniment, lush string arrangements, and the occasional brass fanfare, the Irish guitarist commanded his audience’s attention at End of an Ear records with his guitar and his voice alone. Nugent sparked comparisons to his tour mate Ryley Walker, by way of their shared affinity for the American Primitive school of fingerstyle playing. If Walker landed closer to the “progressive” side of the spectrum, Nugent’s looser set culled licks and vibes more from the classic/southern rock arsenal, and stretched into longer sessions inlayed with bright harmonies and woozy stretches of six-(or five-)string meditation. He approached the guitar with a stolid confidence and a tight grip, and dipped into stories between takes that attest to a similar unflappability of character. He played on unphased when his third string snapped, and the gap in his fretboard highlighted the two discrete modalities woven into his solo performances: the consistent bass line backdrop of root notes in the lower open strings and the nuanced melodic voices of the higher register.
Jay Gambit’s prolific Crowhurst project spans everything from stripped-down solo sessions to collages compiled of the output of various collaborators, but one facet remains steady across his catalog: static-blasted death. Stationed with two tape decks at the helm of an ensemble of two shred-happy guitarists and a live drummer, he finished off the first night of the unofficial noise showcase Sux By Suxwest with ~20 minutes of blackened improv that crested into A/V mayhem with the utilization of a neon pyramid totem and the expectoration of fake blood all over the floor of the Romani Gallery. The quartet brought the sounds to match the spectacle with their surges of feedback, intertwined tremolo picking, and blastbeats. The resultant wall of aggression varied in tonal quality from decaying four-track noise experiments, to the clipped fuzz of one-man black metal, to walls of detailed distortion. Gambit issued a series of gnarly screams before the end that stood out in the center of his chaos, his chest heaving with the euphoria of the cataclysm.