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Review Fri Aug 20 2010
We're only one day in, and already, the Neon Marshmallow Festival (Friday through Sunday at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western) is off to a terrific start. Despite the quick pace of set-up and break-down between sets, just about every set last night fit snugly into its spot, with only a tiny handful of acts overlapping others. The rooms were sufficiently isolated from each other that little bleedthrough occurred, save for events with extreme volume differences, like Greg Kelley's ultra-quiet trumpet improvisations were backed by Slither's low-end booms in the next room. This was an exception, though. For all my concerns, it seems like the formula works, for the time being.
Here's everything my mind (currently running on three hours sleep) can remember:
Ohio's Pusdrainer began the night promisingly with some power electronic textures and metal scrapings. Within a few minutes, though, the volume dropped severely, and the set meandered a little too quietly. Couldn't tell if this was intentional or that the sound system wasn't turned up loudly enough.
Chicagoan Aaron Zarzutski produced an understated gem for his set, a series of dynamic-jumping process pieces that seemed designed to run by themselves. Zarzutski would plug one machine into another, and the apparatus would spring to life, ranging from mild hiccuping to chest-punching fuzz-bass tones, before sputting back out. Plug in, ZZZZT, fade. Rinse, repeat. The silences every 30 seconds made the set feel like a suite of etudes was being performed. Theme and variation on a joy buzzer. Top-notch.
Another Chicago act, Battleship delivered the first real home-run of the night with their submerged, forlorn distress signals and fuzzy shortwave sounds. What is experimental music for, if not to make us feel creatively trapped and lonely (what Scott Foust once called "that industrial isolation that's so appealing when viewed from a distance")? While maybe not as subtle as The Hafler Trio circa Kill the King, a similar mood of verbally-compromised confusion was achieved, and as this act is still pretty new, there's still plenty of opportunity to submerge themselves even deeper.
Battleship (Photo by Chris Sienko)
Back in the '90s, a label named Chocolate Monk released a compilation titled Violent Ambient.
St Louis's Sigulda, the solo project of Dustin Newman (owner/operator of Apop Records) Columbia, Missouri's Sigulda, the solo project of one Dominick Dufner, embodied the term, mixing angel frequencies and hellish textures into a tough, physical swirl, even evoking elements of heavy weather near the end, where the tone-less whipping sounds resembled the feeling of having a tornado touching down right above the building you are cowering in.
Rhode Island's Work/Death came to the fest already hotly tipped. A slew of tapes and CDrs across various labels recently culminated in the release of his first proper CD, Tender Comrades, on the Semata Productions label. The project, a one-man affair, can exist in all manner of moods and volume levels, but never forsakes detail and nuance for mere brutality. The set started with far-off bells, the middle featured a narrator discussing a dream in which "I was in a building, an organ was playing a song I recognized, but the building was completely unknown!", and the end contained another voice, nearly unrecognizable, drifting further into dream state. Over this, a multi-layered strata of forlorn (but not overdone) keyboards, porous feedback, and unintelligible lyrics delivered in a despairing wail. It was a powerful, fully-realized set, one I would like the privilege of re-evaluating in recorded form.
Armed with one guitar and many, many pedals and sequencers, New York's Aracnode created something like Robert Fripp's Frippertonics system of guitar looping/composition, but with a more free-form and smudgy air. Little of Fripp's pomp was evidence, but neither were his clean, precise, architecturally-sound lines. Aracnode was decidedly not harsh, but his digitally-generated, slippery guitar squiggles were a nice tonic to the constant kicking our ears had been delivered so far.
By the time the Canadian act Fossils took the stage, I was starting to fade a little. The group, acting as a quartet, threw what sounded like boxes of ill-padded cookware down a fire escape, while one member, armed with an alto sax, wandered through the audience, little tweets and squonks springing up this way and that. Despite the fact that Fossils is generally best heard recorded through a boom-box mic and a muffled cassette, the band managed a similarly murky frequency live. It suited them perfectly.
Unfortunately, a moment spent purchasing a few records at the merch tables caused me to miss CLVIII's short sharp shock of a set. Shit!
Switzerland's Dave Phillips worked extensively with the sound people to get his levels right (and, I suspect, to beg them to turn it UP! If there was any small quibble, it was that for much of the first half of the show, I didn't even consider reaching for my earplugs). It cut into his time a little (and may have caused overlap with the act in the next room), but the time spent was worth it. In near-complete darkness, Phillips cued recording after recording of insect sounds; swarms, individual buzzings, far-off flora and fauna combined into a hypnotic veil of chirping drones. In performances past, Phillips has hammered his points home in more visceral form, showing videos of animal testing and vivisection interspersed with phrases like "THE GOLDEN AGE OF DENIAL AND AVOIDANCE" and "HOW MANY MORE MUST DIE FOR CHEAP PETROL?" Here, Phillips emphasized not the death of creatures, but the living, throbbing vitality of insects and other animal life on the planet. It was a powerful, violently beautiful symphony of nature, curtain-called by Phillips walking the room, handing out a small piece of paper detailing the part insects play in the ecosystem. That Phillips has two more opportunities to play this weekend only emphasizes the excitement of the nights to come. Already a contender for top 5 performances of the festival.
Dave Phillips (Photo by Syd Ortega)
Chicago's Shattered Hymen delivered a problematic set, seemingly lost in a series of machine failures and break-downs, drifting through a series of false starts and meandering passages. After so many incapacitating performances through the years, it was a little sad that this set, played in front of so many out-of-towners, was the one where the machines chose to act up.
The person who moves electronic music into its next stage of evolution will either be
- A person with an encyclopedic knowledge of all forms and possibilities that have come before, from the electronic music studios in universities the world over ('40s through '60s) to well-funded recluses like Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze, to home-dwelling recluses like Steve Birchall and J.D. Emmauel ('80s) to the current resurgence of home recorded vintage synth destruction; someone who can synthesize everything from Tod Dockstader to Asmus Tietchens to Emeralds and create something new from the fragments, or
- Some weird loner who fell from the sky with DNA made out of bendy straws.
Miami Beach's howling noise, TV and video projection combo was cordoned off from the audience by a long, silky piece of fabric that spanned the stage. One of the members was spray-painting symbols onto. The yelling, the superimposed images, and, most especially, the paint fumes, made me dizzy.
Caboladies used to be from Lexington, but they're Chicagoans for the time being. Their blocky chunks of cinematic, evocative motion, were a lovely bookend to Keith Whitman's electronic alchemy. So much so, that the groups merged for a high-energy collaboration.
Caboladies (Photo by Syd Ortega)
Unfortunately. I missed some of Michigan's Slither so as not to miss a second of Boston's Greg Kelley. With just one trumpet, a few mouthpieces, a mute, two thin plates of metal, and one disciplined embouchure, Kelly did what he does best, concoct a series of quiet minutes on his horn, utilizing simple modifications like unscrewing a valve to provide pinched half-tones, playing without a moutpiece, blowing carefully controlled air through the horn, moving the bell in circles around the mic, and reverberating the tones with the pieces of metal. Kelley's been doing this for at least a decade and a half, and no matter how many times he comes through, it seems like his techniques are stronger, more fully realized, and more precise. It's a canard by now, but a great noise show can be just as easily realized with a few pots and pans (and SOUL) over a table of effects pedals. The best sets of the night (insects, horns) were achieved with heavy focus and expert use of the tools at hand. Damn near perfect.
Greg Kelley (Photo by Syd Ortega)
Ohio's Nyodene D damn near knocked me out of my bleacher seat with his roaringly loud power electronic blast. It was tough and knotty, with bite and snarl in abundance. If power electronics is your thing, D's your man.
An augmented Ryan Jewell/Ben Billington (drums/drums) duo was beefed up to a quintet, adding Greg Kelley on trumpet, Jon Lorenz on tenor sax, and Andrew Young (bass) to the stew. Far from an all-out Brotzmann-esque burst, the set simmered ferociously, allowing lots of front-line interaction while the rhythm section roiled and tumbled.
New York's Cowards just played here a month ago (at Enemy), but this was a welcome return. One of the most moody and inwardly-drawn groups in the Far Rockaway "Red Light District" scene, Cowards evoke deep-water isolation, their thunderous synth swells and thunder-like attacks encasing your ears in thousands of gallons of sea water, as indifferent water predators swim by you, unfazed. A peace that's never far from being ruptured.
By the time the all-star pairup of Government Alpha (Japan), Jason Soliday (Chicago), and Skin Graft (Ohio) got going, a lot of folks (okay, me) were damn near dead on our feet. After what seemed like a long, difficult soundcheck, it seemed like different members of the group were being amped at wildly different levels. You could see hands moving, knobs twirling, but the changes didn't always assert themselves in the mix. It was the good, obliterative blowout one would hope for the end of the evening, but it didn't feel like a world-changing event. All three participant have a chance to have their individual presences felt this weekend, with Skin Graft playing tonight, and Soliday and Government Alpha winding up Sunday night.
Skin Graft, Jason Soliday, Government Alpha collaboration (Photo by Syd Ortega)
More to come!