Thursday, June 20, 2013

Currente calamo: NXNE 2013 (Thursday)

NXNE 2013 (Thursday, June 14, 2013)

While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. In the fullness of time there will be a more complete accounting of the night that'll include even more details and recordings.

8 p.m.: Dream Affair @ BLK BOX

I was feeling more inclined to settle in at one spot rather than worry about shuffling around too much, especially on a cool and greyish evening that didn't look conducive to getting around. So I decided to go with this showcase, put together by Pretty Pretty, the dance night-cum-music label run by Cam Findlay and Elliott Jones. The fact that they'd both be playing later on in the evening was a draw, but I also liked the idea of sizing up the undercard and see if anything stuck with me. The venue's sound would be an issue for most of the night, even though in theory this patchcord-heavy kind of lineup should be perfect for the room's new PA system, mostly designed electronic music in mind.

PP's stock-in-trade is dark and synth-y, served with an extra helping of dark, which made the BLK BOX (the current incarnation of the Great Hall's basement) an appropriately-named venue. It is indeed a rather dank/dark space, not unlike a subterranean cavern. As Dream Affair took the stage, it felt all the more broodingly cavernous for having an audience of about fifteen on hand. The Brooklyn-via-other-places trio have an EP out on Artificial records, which makes them labelmates to the likes of Doom Squad. DA's sound is a bit more straight-up dark-edged synth-rock — vocalist/guitarist Hayden Payne looked like he might have been equally at home in a skate-punk band, but he sang with the requisite moody sensibility. If you imagine the background characters in a highschool in a John Hughes movie — the ones hanging out by the smoking doors — this is probably what they'd have on their walkmans. Not entirely distinctive yet, but enjoyable stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: Black Marble @ BLK BOX

Coming after that, Black Marble felt a little, ah, more of the same. Also from Brooklyn, this duo (Chris Stewart and Ty Kube) brought the synths well enough, but didn't put across very much personality at all. Perhaps most telling was how vocalist Stewart set up his keyboards facing away from the audience, leaving even less of a focus on stage when he turned around to play them. The boom-y sound in the room did the band no favours, however, and a lot of their set sounded like listening to someone in the next bunker over cracking up the Depeche Mode, muffled through a thick concrete wall.

10 p.m.: Cellphone @ BLK BOX

Standing astride the "synth band" and "rock band" segments of the night, locals Cellphone definitely brought something more distinct. The band was originally named Skitso Convo, and there is definitely hints of a split personality here — the sonic balance changes a bit from song to song (just as much as the players shift around from instrument to instrument) but the net result is off-kilter metallo-punk with synth elements. It's something you can't quite dance to and can't quite get comfortable with — like an annoying itch that you sort of start to enjoy after a while.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

11 p.m.: Ell V Gore @ BLK BOX

Moving into the headliner part of the night, the crowd (that had been slowly increasing) finally hit the tipping point of the room feeling more full than empty. Pretty Pretty mainman Elliott Jones was using this night to celebrate Sex Static, the first release from Ell V Gore (as well as the first release from Ben Cook's Bad Actors imprint). Even through some lineup changes, the band has been increasingly strong as a live unit and while some of the sonic details were lost in the PA, each song felt driven, like a ferocious beast tearing raw chunks of flesh from its fallen prey. EP opener "Her Vicious" was especially tasty and the band built up to a roar that even the sound system couldn't muffle. I'd catch them again a couple days later on a better-sounding stage and get a bit more out of that, but anyone coming across their slashing goth-punk here for the first time would have walked away impressed.

Midnite: No Joy @ BLK BOX

By midnite, the room was quite full for No Joy. Although I've seen the band a few times before, I was curious to see if there would be any changes in their live presentation, given the huge forward strides they'd taken on their massive-sounding new Wait to Pleasure album. The answer was "not really". Having established their live incarnation as quite-literal shoegazers, ignoring the audience while ferociously playing doubled over their guitars, Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd don't seem to be inclined to mess with the formula too much. There is a bit more swagger to it now, as if they're doing this by choice instead of out of necessity. (This was borne out in a slightly more streamlined on-stage presence — gone were the segues of prerecorded movie dialogue, used to cover up long stretches of tuning, for example.) The first two-thirds of the set were devoted to the new album before mixing in a couple from debut Ghost Blonde, and even if this didn't give me cause to readjust my preconceptions of the band, it was still a good time.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 a.m.: Tonstartssbandht @ BLK BOX

As could be expected, about 75% of the crowd headed for the exits after that, though I was definitely sticking around, as I was intrigued by some of the high praise I'd been hearing for Montréal-via-Florida brother duo Tonstartssbandht, even if I hadn't investigated them too closely. Taking the stage after the night's quickest changeover, the pair launched into a near-continuous stream of twitchy avant-Americana music — imagine hearing a three-hour Grateful Dead set played in thirty minutes and you're on the right track. A lot of the remaining crowd were intensely into this, from the women sitting on the sides of the stage to the dancers on the floor, but I have to confess it somehow didn't click with me at all. Maybe it was fatigue setting in or something, but I didn't get much out of it — though after the set a local musician with impeccable taste commented to me that it was the best set he'd seen in five years.

2 a.m.: Kontravoid @ BLK BOX

As the hour grew late, the crowd thinned out even more, though a few night owls could be seen coming down into the room. They were probably folks who knew that Kontravoid is the sort of band you want to be listening to at the end of the night, when you needed something that could articulate all the stresses building up in your system. Cam Findlay is still playing without his facemask, but that doesn't reduce the menacing air that he brings to his dark synth concoctions. In blackness save for the strobelight at his feet, Findlay's music has the cold austerity of a leather glove slapping against constrained flesh — and there's a certain subset of the population that are willing to shell out to experience just that.

Listen to a track from this set here.

On the whole, a good night, but not an exceptional one. Although the Pretty Pretty aesthetic should be right at home in a dark cavern, the space just didn't quite jibe with the show, and the sound was never as good as the music deserved.

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