Blake Judd and Nachtmystium: "What's that fucking noise?"
If you’ve never been to Austin’s South By Southwest Festival, as I had not before yesterday, it might be hard to fully conceive of how fully this city is-- how shall we say? Retro-fitted-- to serve the needs of the SXSW behemoth. Sure, you expect vacant lots, bars and main drags to be blocked off and re-imagined as pits of revelry and unremitting noise. But as I made my way to the festival, past front yards in residential neighborhoods fashioned into fast food shacks and ad hoc performance stages, with food trucks and portable ATMs dotting what is probably, 50 weeks a year, a sleepy and idyllic land of modest homes and quietly led family lives, I thought “This town really does go all out to make this whole city over into a full-on festival free-for-all.”
Of course, that ad hoc nature does have its price, especially if you come to the sprawling chaos of SXSW expecting to see the level of pro music presentation that you find at your Lollapaloozas and All Tomorrow’s Parties and whatnot. So I guess what I’m saying in a roundabout way is that, throughout my first night of sampling the musical wares of this insane undertaking, I saw a lot more sound checks and heard a lot more feedback of the unintentional variety than I did actual rocking.
It started when I stood in a crowded and anxious room awaiting the entrance of SLEEP ∞ OVER, the now-solo project of local Austinite Stefanie Franciotti, whose music on record is typified by its lush and streamy romanticism, as exemplified on band hit “Romantic Streams” (and part of the reason why we picked her last year as our top Texas act in our 2011 50 States feature). But lush and dreamy wasn’t what we were going to get last night, as the crackling sound system and non-functioning PA, exacerbated by a ridiculous lineup schedule that clearly kept both artist and sound engineer frazzled, conspired to keep us from hearing a functional note from Ms. Franciotti. When she finally begun after about a zillion false starts and fizzles, the results were almost as chaotic as the soundcheck-- a little short on the dream pop and heavy on the waking nightmare.
Of course, one would think, going to a NACHTMYSTIUM show should be the salve for that frustrating experience, since these black metal titans deal in waking nightmares the way a pizza shop deals in cheese and dough. But alas, the gremlins that doomed Ms. Franciotti’s set were at work as well on the set up for Blake Judd and his crew. Every mistake in the book seemed to be made, as engineers leapt up onto the stage to figure out where the buzzing was coming from like a re-enactment of the Stormtroopers of Death classic “What’s That Noise”, in between mic-ing the wrong instruments and comically responding to the band’s onstage request for monitors with either sound to the wrong monitor or shutting off the monitors instead. In a sense, it was kind of deflating: Nachtmystium have, to some, an image as being mysterious black metal overlords, and there’s something about seeing them desperately pleading for more guitar in the drum wedges or for the soundguy to turn off the overbearing reverb in the vocals that just kind of ruined the effect.
Luckily, the bad spell was broken once they finally kicked into gear, over an hour after their scheduled start time, going for broke with the hate-filled-metal-mixed-with-new-wave-synth sound that has turned heads with the release of their last two incredible records. At times, they sounded like a more pissed version of Ministry, as fists raised in unison and frantic beatwork turned their metal riffage into motorik fury. But there’s also a sense of straight-up rock and roll in their occasional lapses into full-tilt boogie, a refreshing sign that, as the band is set to release their next album, they are keeping with the open-minded assault that has marked all of their work in the last five years or so.
Farming hair, full-tilt: Oakland's Saviours mid-boogie
Another metal band that isn’t afraid to mix rock, boogie, pure riffage and sheer shred is Oakland, California’s SAVIOURS, who have managed an awesome transition from so-so stoner-doom newbs into full-boar rock and roll motherfuckers in the span of three releases. Their latest, last year’s Death’s Procession, was definitely one of the highlights of an already strong metal year, and seeing them plow through that material with such biker bar abandon was a gut reaction rock and roll delight.
After the majesty that was Saviour’s set, I was all pumped to go get my face ripped off by the audio terrorism of TEARIST, who have made a name for themselves with their almost artless mix of synth-pop tunesmithery and sheer bloody pedals-sprawled-all-over-the-floor-throwing-a-hissing-fit fury. Sadly, after having to be vetted in an endless “Can I see your badge”-a-thon followed by literally an hour of being tortured by the sound check and then full set by openers DEAD SARA, I decided that seeing the deadly duo of Tearist literally hours after their allotted set wasn’t worth the wait -- and good thing I wasn’t going to stick it out for the brassy electro-kicks of MNDR, who was scheduled to go on after Tearist but got bumped apparently when the show ran past curfew.
A figure in white: Nika Danilova and Zola Jesus
Luckily since this is SXSW both Tearist and MNDR are playing approximately two zillion other sets here over the next few days, so it was definitely a wise choice that I jetted and elbowed my way into the already-in-progress set by smoky goth chanteuse ZOLA JESUS, who didn’t really need the insane smoke machine antics to enchant the packed Austin house. Nika Danilova no longer needs to prosletize the ZJ gospel, since by this point people finally “get” her and her dark-yet-beguiling act, which mixes heavy metal drum plod, electro synth stabbing, and a mournful vocal attack that manages to not be as dour as it sounds. Ms. Danilova wore all white while her band stood bedecked in black, and it worked to drive home that her siren songs are meant to uplift and inspire. As she closed out with a fist-in-the-air rendition of her classic “Night”, a quick scan of the crowd seemed to almost visually affirm a demonstrative lightening of spirits in concert with Danilova’s pumped-up euphoria.
I decided to close my night out by getting my noggin sawed off by the soothing lullabies of the mighty HIGH ON FIRE, who absolutely tore the roof off with tunes from their upcoming De Vermis Mysteriis; the album drops next month, and luckily the band treated us to righteous jams from it like lead single “Fertile Green”. Like Nachtmystium’s Blake Judd, HoF’s Matt Pike is a bare-chested long-haired bandleader who is able to attract women and men to his band alike (a rarity) not just through raw sexual charisma but with High On Fire’s seductive musical blend of raw brutality and ingenious songcraft. Their relentless pounding fury always turns every stage they grace, even a humble outdoor patio like the one they played last night, into an altar of the most majestic metal sacrifice.