Xeno and Oaklander, Guardian Alien, Black Jeans, Uumans
You Are Here at Secret Project Robot
Friday, July 27
Better than: A shvitz.
There are probably better times than mid-summer to build a massive maze installation in an un-airconditioned DIY venue. Nothing disproves this theory on a throbbingly humid Friday in Bushwick at the cheekily titled You Are Here, a month-long happening in the boxy multi-use confines of Secret Project Robot. Nearly as soon as omnipresent psych-jammers Guardian Alien start, one can feel the humidity begin to gather. The band members are spread out throughout the room and—though the plywood-frame-strung-with-taut-ribbon maze walls are see-through—the mood turns claustrophobic almost instantly.
The previous act had been Russell Butler (a.k.a. Black Jeans), a San Francisco-based solo synth dude with a basso voice and dreadlocks. It had been oppressively hot in the room then, too, Butler’s undulating bleep-beats seemingly pinned down by the air. But Guardian Alien, led by drummer Greg Fox, are five strong, and each body exerts itself and destabilizes the heat-balance even further—all the more so when Fox wraps up his gong invocation and crashes the band through a double-kick-pedal-driven noise-wall. Metaphoric, of course. It’s almost impossible not to feel trapped. Guardian Alien’s pummeled drones don’t provide the release they do under other circumstances, but they’re not supposed to. Escape isn’t an option. A thermometer near the venue’s front door reads well into the 90s. All five musicians lean into their instruments at full force, singer Alex Drewchin contributing with a guitar of her own and an array of pedals and noisemakers.
Their first proper album—See the World Given to a One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey)—is out this month, and the Maze is kind of the effortlessly transcendent space Guardian Alien have grown accustomed, the memories of which will likely have to carry with them when they depart Brooklyn for a national tour. In the Maze, they fit right in. Shirtless and mustachioed, Fox resembles a lost Allman Brother. What seems like an impenetrable mess of drums and noise soon resolves as a fairly nuanced mess of drums and noise, Fox and bassist Eli Winograd finding ways to swing and move from idea to idea without surrendering the momentum. Drewchin puts down the guitar and climbs around her portion of the Maze, contorting herself, climbing on amps, and—like many singers engaging in theatrics—pretending she’s trapped in a maze. Unlike many singers, though, she’s actually inside a maze.
Previously installed at Death By Audio in 2009, the new Maze’s endless sight-lines first suggest far fewer surprises. At one point, a girl flummoxed by the arrangement of passageways simply pushes the ribbons aside and slips through them. But, as the band’s set progresses, navigation among the narrow faux-halls proves difficult. At one dead end near Fox is a small Plexiglas box with science-museum-like holes for hands and, inside, an array of 10 buttons. Each controls a set of lights over the Maze, and the evening rarely lacks for a light show as various attendees discover it. Abstract video games by the Babycastles collective dot other cul-de-sacs. Down still another turn, one discovers that what at first seemed like a dude sitting on amp and watching the group actually turns out to be a band member playing some kind of lap guitar and adding to the oncoming panic. Indeed, as Fox drives the band over each new crest, there comes a weird rising buzz at the back of the head that suggests it’s likewise very possible to pass out inside this Maze and remembers that, in fact, the last time the art duo Trouble—Sam Hillmer and Laura Paris—built the Maze, a friend of mine not usually prone to passing out in public did exactly that.
Fox and the band run through a peak and then down into a long spacious valley. Drewchin hurries over from where she’s been climbing on an amp to add pedal layers. The quintet doesn’t leave much room between their top volume races and the zooming space-outs, filling each deftly with color, but not often finding much to do with the middle ground. Inside the Maze, though, they don’t have to, their surroundings (as well as video projections on the wall, extending the Maze to infinity) doing their share of the lifting. For the 30-odd acts playing at the You Are Here Time Based Music Festival—and those who will participate when the Maze decamps for Berlin in August—the setting provides a keen new venue, the kind that might force listeners outside of comfort zones into some kind of new interaction with the music.
But while the miserable heat heightens some parts of the installation’s effects, it mutes others—most specifically the desire to be anywhere inside it. Secret Project Robot’s nearly perfect garden (with ample seating, convivial vibes, and a tiki-style bar serving $5 guava punches) provides a handy respite from the perilous Maze, and a fine place to wonder exactly what kind of cold-air-blasting device it would take to create a localized snowstorm inside.
Critical bias: Could have been better hydrated.
Overheard: “When we played in Bloomington, we got our picture taken with a cat that’s famous on the internet.”
Random notebook dump: My preteen video-game obsessed cousins would probably relate more to the Babycastles installations than Guardian Alien.