After dumping a 24-hour Drone fest on our heads (featuring Prurient, Greg Fox, Patrick Higgins and other greats) earlier in the summer, Basilica (not to mention EMPAC in Troy) is practically spoiling a region of upstate NY that has seemed perpetually fledgling in supported subculture. Year after year they’ve brought in the choicest heavy-hitters of experimental/dark music, and I hope they keep it up. A lot of times reading reviews and streaming can suffice, but getting to see a performer â€” particularly one of the more challenging variety â€” is almost always the best way in. Country mice with adventurous tastes have that opportunity thanks to places like this.
Friday (Best Act: Actress)
Now that’s out of the way, I can talk We Won’t Bow Down: a grainy, rough-hewn doc following many different Mardis Gras Indians and their progeny as they meticulously construct their costumes and reflect on their tradition. After having viewed the great, but flawed, Treme, it was cool to immerse in the bizarre (the strutting and standing-off has an outsized, pro wrestling-like quality) and visually dazzling costume displays without any gloss or that Doonesbury goober of a character that Steve Zahn plays. It does repeat itself a bit, but there’s a lot of virtue in its unfussy presentation that makes it feel more completist (showing how stridently aligned the community is in their devotion) than messy. While the idea of starting a fest with a film is intriguing, the clear messages of hard work and self-empowerment in this one were slightly decelerated by the doleful Weyes Blood. It was a poised and stately set, but I had a difficult time switching moods between the film and her music.
Perhaps sitar/tabla duo Indrajit Banerjee & Gourisankar would’ve made a better transition. In addition to directly playing into a tradition, the two displayed a virtuoso series of melodic and rhythmic leaps piqued to make you gasp in awe. Classical Indian music can bring one to a place of great lucidity, despite western ears and our psychedelic context with it. Theirs was one of a handful of sets that I sensed could’ve gone on another hour or so were it not for time constraints. After a nice dinner (pricey but well worth it) at the venue’s impressively run Alimentary Kitchen, I braced myself for some contrapuntal, math rock-Interpol boogie via Viet Cong. Very into this band, despite their nagging familiarity, and after streaming their set at P-fork fest this summer I was ready to be blown away. Unfortunately the sound was kind of a mess. They were well on point, with props particular to drummer Mike Wallace, but it all kinda bled together. Plus, no “Death,” which was easily the best part of their Pitchfork set. So while the dude behind me was hollering “Continental Drift!” and duh-duh-duh-ing the opening riff of that song, I kept praying for crisscrossing guitar chimes and a machine gun martial beat. Not that “Continental Drift” wasn’t great, it’s just that the “How Soon Is Now”-esque guitar moan right before the aforementioned riff was barely audible when it oughta be the thing springin’ those neck hairs to attention. As a side note, I found myself wondering about the band’s T-shirt sales. Can’t imagine anyone would want to get into that conversation for a band they like, however greatly.
Actress was massive. His set was somewhat eclipsed by festival closer Haxan Cloak’s last blasts the following night, but I still remember my mind being blown enough that I wanted to hear the whole thing over again from the beginning immediately after the final thrums. Though they were masterful and had tacit moments of noisey brilliance, HEALTH was a bit of a deceleration. Going in with no expectations and only a passing fancy, Actress threw down such a mind-bending and densely thicketed gauntlet that I am now scrambling to imbibe Ghettoville and R.I.P. The audience around me was either waiting for HEALTH or failing to engage, cause I felt myself moving to alien constructs/deconstructions of rhythm with textures both vast and pinholed, as if possessed by a horde of comp chassis dustmites.
Actress was one of those performances you relish not just because the artist is not easy to see but because it truly takes you to the borderlands instead of that economically essential hedged bet that is the established pop trope â€” which HEALTH excels at more than most. I was easily reminded of the fact they toured with NIN, because they’ve basically taken Reznor’s pulverizing pop industrial formula and improved on it (particularly with regard to lyrics). It was a thrilling set, even if Actress was lightyears ahead in terms of intrigue, and brought a largely solid night of disparate sounds to a brisk yet exhaustive close.
Saturday (Best Act: The Haxan Cloak)
Full disclosure: I’ve failed y’all a bit here. Missed out on Bunnybrains’ fest within the fest. Missed both after parties (one featuring a DJ set by The Haxan Cloak). Only just discovered that, at the off-site campgrounds, there was someone administering sound therapy in the wee hours on Saturday. I would love tell all about Circuit des Yeux and Holly Anderson/Chris Brokaw, but I assumed they’d start late and got there after they’d finished. I even screwed up on Jenny Hval (pictured), which I’ll get into, but first â€” some thoughts on Sannhet’s performance. Being firmly in both the post-hardcore and black metal camps, they are an irresistible confection for those who are similarly aesthetically oriented. And with no vocals, one gets the sense they are able to make more immaculate workouts to lose oneself in. The trio brought that same bravura that Banerjee & Gourisankar did the day before. But I can’t deny that when you set aside the high-flying rhythmic feats, Sannhet does not resonate all that deeply. It’s the same scorched-earth vainglory song Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky were playing, and countless cinematic RPG trailers have rendered these once-undeniable minor chord progressions a little tepid.
Jenny Hval, like Meg Remy before her (on 8/5 @ Half Moon up the street), thoroughly blessed Hudson with her distempered torch singer presence, sounding out with startling, staring-at-the-sun level star power. I was caught in the rain peering into Basilica’s overstuffed screening room for her set, and felt like a peeper at a music video shoot. Had I known she was playing in there I might’ve stolen a seat, but what I did see/hear was compelling enough (replete with human centipede dancers in blonde wigs) that it’d be well worth taking another shot at seeing her properly. Back in from the wet, Chris Corsano, Otto Hauser, and Ryan Sawyer’s Triangle Trio drummed to a surrounding circle of 100 or so intent listeners on the venue floor. A dense outer ring of babbling, laughing, yelling, and plastic cup-scrunching pressed in. If you let it mesh, the interplay was quite uncanny, kinda like being waylaid at the world’s coolest train station. Lots of surprising, spine-tingly textures from Corsano and his cohorts (from Espers and Tall Firs, respectively), with next to no audible snarky drummer jokes from the crowd. It was a solidly enveloping, if soggy, set, despite (or maybe even because of) its lack of melody.
The best sound at most shows (and certainly for Basilica) is toward the back of the room. Unfortunately, that’s also where people like to converse about what they’re hearing (or whatever). So you move up front even though the sound gets a bit blaring and inarticulate, and there often ain’t much to look at when you get there. Not so for Wolf Eyes (pictured), who have a magnificent visual sweep that rivals Hval’s prim absurdist tableau. Front and center, they are that band. Star Wars has their Cantina band (original, non-cg version please!), Naked Lunch (the director’s cut from the outer-dimensional planet Tryglon) has Wolf Eyes. Especially in this current brokedick blues/Interzone jazz-like phase of theirs; of all the road-tested, veteran rock n’ roll warriors out there, Wolf Eyes make it look the most fun. And their nihilistic, RTX-level abandon is well contagious. New album should be a skin peeler for sure. “So this is noise?” I overheard somebody say behind me. Really wanted to say, “No Ma’am. This is Wolf Eyes.” but only if it could’ve been punctuated by a rancid peal from Olson’s belt modulator.
Perfume Genius did a rare (almost) solo set with impeccably crisp, resonant synth ribbons and that heartrendingly gorgeous voice. It peaked a bit early, with a flawed but still shattering take on “Song To The Siren,” and he intimated he was a bit freaked out being bandless (though you wouldn’t guess it when he was singing). Intimacy was really the sticking point here. He didn’t have much melodic variation from song to song, but if you focused on his voice there was a lot of emotion to get lost in. I know I wasn’t the only sad song addict out there getting misty. As much as I may’ve preferred a full band set, it was certainly a privilege to hear him doing his thing unadorned.
Thanks to the event’s expediency I rarely got into that awkward, guy-alone-at-a-music-festival aimless roomba darting for very long. Having had my heart neatly perfoed by Perfume Genius, I was ready for some end-timey, fissure splorge zombience courtesy of England’s The Haxan Cloak. While it has its moments of overwhelm, Excavation did nothing to prepare me for the room-decimating magnitude of his live act. With the strobes and smoke machines on full bore (not sure if lavender was an appropriate scent, but that’s for the smoke machine people to figure out) Haxan made like an aural a-bomb and left nothing but a fine powder.
Despite the gloriously bludgeoning nature of much of the offering, there were moments of great subtlety and intrigue. Before he’d started, I found myself getting groggy and more than a little tired of milling. By the time Haxan’s set had settled into its sneakily jolting (that bass nearly knocked my teeth out) dynamic narrative, I was so adroitly riveted it was as if all that billowing incense was freebased white pony. I haven’t been on a really intense coaster or anything like that in years, so it was especially delightful to have my poor skull split by one of the towering figures of post-2k edm/industrial music.
When the lights came up I had an epic stretch and yawn, tried to find my friend, then went to my car to decompress a bit before taking the hour drive home. The rain never let up.
[Photos: Patrick Stephenson]