Sunday, July 13, 2014

Currente calamo: NXNE 2014 (Saturday)

NXNE 2014 (Saturday, June 21, 2014)

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

From the department of I'm-getting-too-old-for-this-shit, I made a conscious decision to shift my NXNE plans to more of a start early/end early schedule. There were a couple appealing daytime Saturday options, but this Buzz Records day party was an easy pick for me. Buzz Records is getting some, er, buzz for the way their bands mix sweet pop hooks and abrasive noise, but this show served to remind that their interest in the latter isn't merely superficial. This was foregrounded by making the day a two-stage affair, with "rock" bands on the Great Hall's main stage alternating with noisier fare in the Conversation Room.

12:45 p.m.: New Positions @ The Great Hall (Conversation Room)

I arrived in time to catch New Positions — or at least theoretically I did, save for the fact that the security guards on duty were enforcing (with somewhat unnecessary zeal) a no external food policy, so me and my breakfast poutine had to pause in our sloppy embrace before I could duck in to catch Neil Rankin (also of Gay) and C. Jude (also of HSY) chugging out some sludge-noise. A very thin crowd at this point consisted mostly of people from other bands — but fortunately they were spared the sight of poutine.

1:10 p.m.: Mexican Slang @ The Great Hall (main stage)

Moving into the main hall, Mexican Slang played to a handful of folks now straggling in. Despite struggling with the NXNE backline — singer Annabelle Lee was unhappy with the tone of the rented amp and a kickdrum pedal died a couple songs in — the band was in fine form, showing off their tasty concentrated grunge-rock tunes. [Inside the Velvet Castle, the first full-band effort after Lee's initial salvo of solo EP's, is now imminently available.]

1:40 p.m.: Ancient Ocean @ The Great Hall (Conversation Room)

Back outside the Conversation Room, a small crowd gathered to chat as an undifferentiated drone seeped out from inside. Once it changed enough that I realized someone was playing, I wandered in to find one man with a guitar, playing as his analog synth burbled in the background. This was Brooklyn's John Bohannon, who plays as Ancient Ocean, and was the day's biggest discovery. As unrushed as his project name would indicate, Bohannon let his pieces unfurl in the musical equivalent of geological time. Many of the people that were willing to attune themselves to this were soon sitting on the floor, soaking it in. There were shades here of our own local Khôra, although this was somewhat less rigorously structured. Really lovely stuff.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

2:10 p.m.: Weaves @ The Great Hall (main stage)

There was a healthy crowd now on hand to check out Weaves, fresh off opening at Massey Hall and getting a lot of attention at the festival. Showing off their flexibility, they started with a languorous take on "Crumble" before they, too, experienced some technical difficulties in the form of a broken bass string. Once they were revved up, however, they demonstrated both their musical nimbleness and the sense of off-kilter joy they generate playing live. There was even a brand new song ("Birds and Bees") with some nice crunchy bite to it. As vocalist Jasmyn Burke shouted "fire it up!" to lead off closing song "Motorcycle", it felt like this was, indeed a powerful machine.

2:50 p.m.: STÜKA @ The Great Hall (back of main hall)

While that set was proceeding, there was some action behind the crowd as the second "stage" was shifted from the Conversation Room to the back of the Main Hall. Given there was a fairly minimal setup (plus the fact that as an all-ages event the bar was closed) made this work, and it served to put the "pop" and "noise" even closer together. Electronic noise duo STÜKA made things in the room less comfortable with some hard shards of distorted synthbursts, unintelligible vocals and feedback. (The latter was provided, at one point, by mic-ing what looked like an old milk can.) Deliberately non-tuneful, this was like a shot of espresso in the middle of the day's proceedings — wake the fuck up and pay attention! [You can sample some of the band's sounds on their bandcamp.]

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

3:20 p.m.: HSY @ The Great Hall (main stage)

Vocalist/guitarists C. Jude and Anna Mayberry would both be playing the smaller stage with their other projects on this day, but they had a respectable crowd on hand as their main project HSY took the main stage. The sound was a bit off as they started — all thudding drumpad and static-y vox — but once that was reined in the band's proper dissonance took centre stage. Not unwilling to let song structure slide into a sludgy pit, the band can also reel off a catchy number (like the singalong-worthy "Slimeball") when they want. Given the random festival gear/backline variance this wasn't the band at their sonic best, but performance-wise, it was quite right.

4 p.m.: Huren @ The Great Hall (back of main hall)

At the back of the room, yellow police tape was strung from the PA monitors to the mic stand, but even without that, the crowd instinctively gave Huren some room. Huren is the longstanding solo electronic project of Toronto-via-Hamilton's David Foster, and is noteworthy as being the musical antipode of the more famous pop-kitsch producer/Mitt Romney fundraiser of the same name.

Foster performed with the sense of someone that is one hundred per cent committed to what they're doing, which is somewhat disarming in these times. In that regard, the performer that he brought most to mind was Corpusse — so full-on into it that at first it seems over the top, but then you realize that the performer is not fucking around. Topically, with his madhouse outbursts and polymorphous perversity, Man Made Hill also came to mind.

Foster was so into what he was doing that he almost pulled the plug after a couple songs, convinced that the sound system wasn't loud enough — although in the end he pressed on. I thought this was totally fantastic, even though much of the crowd seemed unsure how to react. When Foster pulled something out if his bag and rolled it down the floor, the audience peeled away as if it were a bomb. At the song's end I leaned in, only to discover it was a can of cat food. This was one of the high points of the day.

Listen to a song from this set here.

4:40 p.m.: Perfect Pussy @ The Great Hall (main stage)

As that finished, the room suddenly filled up, nearly to capacity. Ah, here was festival buzz in action, as the crowds were out to check out the much-discussed Perfect Pussy in person. The band had something of a rep — including a divisive Horseshoe gig the night before — for being something of an on-stage disaster, better known for the spectacle unfolding in their wake than their music.

With that in mind, this set was remarkable for (if perhaps all the less distinguishable for) it basic technical competence. There would be no instrument-breaking sulk-offs here, just a brisk set of quick punk/noise ditties. Though fairly vital, that made the band less distinct from whichever noisy grrlcore band you might want to name — that's not to say they're uninteresting so much as to note their fairly meteoric rise might overstate where they are in developing their own sound. There were some interesting textures from synth player Shaun Sutkus and vocalist Meredith Graves (in an incongruously sunny brightly-striped summer dress) was a charismatic frontwoman, often doubled over and looking like an olympic swimmer quivering and ready to dive into the pool to attempt to break a speed record. The set ended with most of the band breaking down their gear and departing while Sutkus pumped out noise drones and Graves sat on the stage floor to put her shoes back on.

5:10 p.m.: ANAMAI @ The Great Hall (back of main hall)

That instant full house melted away almost as quickly as it had showed up, which was a real shame as they missed another of the day's best sets with HSY's Anna Mayberry returning with her ANAMAI project at the back of the room. Playing electric guitar and backed by synth player David Psutka (who recorded her excellent EP), I should have realized something was up beforehand when I saw him passing a cable up to the main stage's sound tech on the balcony. When I heard a synth tone behind me, I momentarily thought it was the next band soundchecking before I realized that Pstutka had fed his gear through the room's main PA, giving the set a wonderfully weird and immersive quadraphonic sound.

The crowd that did stick around was quiet (and, in quick order, mostly sitting on the floor) as Mayberry unfurled her folksongs, including a few of her best ("50% Pizza", "Dirt") that are as-yet-unreleased in recorded form. An excellent set and there's clearly more wonderful things on the horizon for this project.

Listen to a song from this set here.

5:45 p.m.: Frankie Cosmos @ The Great Hall (main stage)

I had no idea who was up next on the main stage, as Frankie Cosmos were a late addition to the bill. On asking around, one factoid that I gleaned was that the band was fronted by Greta Kline, daughter of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. That admittedly set the bar low, as I was expecting something of a celebutante vanity project. The band quickly deflated any such preconceptions by knocking off a series of jaunty naive-pop songs. (On further investigation, the band is definitely no casual project, with a huge amount of music up on their bandcamp.) Light and breezy, this is the sort of stuff that can be easily rendered joyless and sterile if pushed toward popchart perfection — but as a slightly-shambly group leaping through two-minute bursts on stage, it was quite satisfying.

6:05 p.m.: Black Walls @ The Great Hall (back of main hall)

Black Walls works in exactly the opposite fashion, at its best when given patient time to unfurl under Ken Reaume's careful musical ministrations. Given a shortened set-time with the showcase winding down, Reaume looked a bit less than satisfied at having to trim down his setlist, but still managed to preserve the graceful architecture of his compositions — drawing equally from metal, folk and ambient spheres. After a full day's listening, I was quite satisfied to lay back on the floor and look up at the ceiling and just let his music unfold. A good comedown for a well-programmed day.

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