At the witching hour on Friday, each of the four artists that performed that night at Basilica Soundscape, a two-year-old festival held at Basilica Hudson, a 19th-century factory-turned-event space, assembled at opposite ends of the room. Julianna Barwick looped her voice into a “chorus of angels” (as one enthralled member of the audience put it) as producer/DJ Evian Christ held down the rhythm section–sharing a smile and a wink with Pharmakon’s Margaret Chardiet opposite him, who rattled a drumstick against a piece of metal and screamed into the microphone–while grindcore Virginians Pig Destroyer added their own throat-shredding wails to the mix from the stage. In the middle of the maelstrom, conductor Jonathan Bepler stood a few heads above the crowd on a concrete block, guiding it all with eye contact and a few waves of his hands.
On paper, it shouldn’t have worked, but neither should have Basilica Soundscape. It reads like a flight of fancy: paid for with credit cards (founders Brandon Stosuy, editor at Pitchfork, former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and Black Lips manager Brian DeRan wanted to keep their “anti-festival” free from corporate sponsorship eyesores) and held at an unheated warehouse space two hours outside of Manhattan, all in the name of music and art, which aren’t exactly the most reliably lucrative fields. But the programmers didn’t let all that stand in the way of their dream lineup, which mashed up the east coast griot of Malian musicians Malang Djobateh (whom you can sometimes see playing in the Columbus Circle train station) with DIIV’s shoegazing post-punk and Genevieve White’s Runaway Bride-style performance art. The result was anti-anything you’ve probably seen before.
Unfortunately for those of us who work until 6 or 7pm in the city, the first performers were scheduled for right after dinnertime on Friday night, something the festival planners might want to rethink next year. I got there just in time for composer and vocalist Julianna Barwick, who was born in Louisiana and raised in Missouri, but doesn’t sound like she’s of this earth. Her music is essentially her voice, which she loops over and over itself in these golden waves of amazing heavenly beauty, augmented with deep ripples from guitarist Scott Bell or backing vocals from Brooklyn duo Prince Rama (who left their glittery face paint at home in favor of more sedate black dresses). Barwick made the Basilica feel like the “industrial church” Auf der Maur was aiming for when she reclaimed the space, even though the same quality that amplified Barwick’s voice did the same for audience conversation.
Then, as the night tended to go, it was onto something completely different. Evian Christ set up his computer and sampler on a table behind flashing lights that, despite their seizure-inducing frequency, didn’t deter people from breaking it down to his syrupy, even bass-heavier rendition of Kanye West’s “I’m In It.” He incorporated snippets of Barwick’s voice (he samples her song “Bode” on a mix from earlier this year) throughout his set–a foreshadowing of the collaborative efforts to come. The edgy urgency of his beats provided an incidentally appropriate soundtrack for Vikings chasing, stabbing, and shooting American-Indians in the art film Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, a film by Auf der Maur’s husband, Tony Stone, that was playing in the next room.
The next night, the Vikings were replaced by Spandex-clad aerobics practitioners from the ’80s on Adult Swim affiliate Derrick Beckles’ Best of TV Carnage or Better, and this time the music didn’t go quite so well with all that floor pelvis-thrusting. The night was supposedly scheduled to imitate the history of music, with Malang Djobateh in the beginning of (and throughout) the night and Teengirl Fantasy’s synthesized pulses and smoke machines at the end. The former arguably proved the hit of the evening, selling more CDs than any other artist and entrancing with their articulate handling of the kora, a 21-string West African harp. They definitely encouraged one of the night’s more unconventional dancers, a girl sitting on her knees in the front and waving her arms in the air.
The acts between those two (if Teengirl Fantasy is the present/future of music, the sparse turnout, that one dude with the purple laser, and all the smoke machines do not bode well–but at least it sounded great), didn’t seem to adhere as strictly to the history of music so much as Pitchfork’s Best New Music. Doom-gaze four-piece No Joy churned a mix of sludgy guitars so punishing it was almost strange to see singer/guitarist Jasmine White-Gluz gently cradling a small dog backstage in those same shred-tastic hands. Pure X followed with decidedly less fuzz, having departed from their hypnotically murky self-titled debut with this year’s Crawling Up the Stairs. I had high expectations that, even though they put on a good show, weren’t met–such clean lines didn’t really resonate on a meaningful level with me, especially with so many other strong personalities on the bill.
A colleague asked me the other day what the big deal is about Cass McCombs–he is, after all, another dude with a guitar (what up, Mac DeMarco, Mikal Cronin, Kurt Vile…)–and the simplest explanation is that, like those guys, he’s a very good songwriter with his own spot in that increasingly crowded niche. He writes quietly funny lyrics (“Hypocrites especially practice the golden rule”), easy Jim James-ian melodies (“County Line”), and has a solidly engaging stage presence. Still, DIIV very nearly if not completely upstaged him on borrowed equipment and just one album to McCombs’ seven (and an eighth on the way)–though in all fairness Smith has a not-so-secret weapon in girlfriend Sky Ferreira, who came onstage to cover Cat Power’s “Nude as the News,” preemptively apologizing for reading the lyrics on her iPhone.
“This morning I was the coldest I’ve ever been, and now I’m the hottest I’ve ever been,” said frontman Z. Cole Smith, hobbit-like in a giant hooded trench coat. “It’s like a Dutch oven in here, and it feels amazing.” For the first time all night people really started moving, doing the indie shuffle to songs like “Air Conditioning” and “How Long Have You Known.” Though people had already started trickling out at that point–it was late, and cold, and the hungover drive back the next day was closer than it had appeared–it was clear that Basilica Soundscape has staying power.