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Basilica Soundscape 2018 in review (Nick Zinner/Haxan Cloak, Grouper, Prurient, Usnea, more)

Nick Zinner Haxan Cloak Basilica Soundscape
Nick Zinner + The Haxan Cloak at Basilica Soundscape 2018 (photo via Nick Zinner Instagram)

Often referred to as an “anti-festival,” Basilica Soundscape offers a weekend chock-full of experimental art at a warehouse in scenic Hudson, NY. Soundscape is certainly unlike most festivals, emphasizing strong live sound, broad genre representation, and a legitimately diverse lineup; there just aren’t many other settings where an unusual post-punk/electronic band like Boy Harsher can capture a sizable audience at a headlining time. By asking audiences to pay close attention to heady, drawn-out, sometimes abrasive performances, Soundscape challenges the notion that festivals exist more for partying or networking than serious artistic experiences. The festival, originally co-founded by Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and now presented in collaboration with Brandon Stosuy of The Creative Independent, celebrated its 8th annual incarnation this year. Here were some of the highlights…

USNEA – One of the only strictly metal bands to play Soundscape this year, Usnea stood out as an early highlight. Booked at 7:15 in a small side room, a heavy band like Usnea could’ve been a difficult sell for many attendees who were just arriving, but the band transfixed a solid audience with their potent mixture of funeral doom and post-metal. They forged an oppressive atmosphere through enormous volume, dual harsh vocalists, and monolithically repetitive riffs. But through the inclusion of less exclusively “metal” elements, like emotional chord progressions and thoughtful dynamics, Usnea also made space for non-metalheads at Basilica — assumably a large percentage of attendees, given who this year’s top-booked acts were — to explore a niche style of music they otherwise might not have been exposed to.

EFRIM MANUEL MENUCK – Efrim Manuel Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion played a powerful, if occasionally melodramatic, set midway through Friday night’s festivities. His performance consisted of vocals that spanned the divide between pitched chant and spoken-word poetry, all set over loud, swelling ambience. While this combination did at times feel effective — especially when the lyrics became noticeably charged politically — other parts just baffled, such as when Menuck would yell incomprehensibly at the audience between songs without a microphone.

STEPHEN O’MALLEY’S UN VIDE DANS LA CIEL (performed by THE ORCHESTRA NOW) – Though mostly known for his participation in monstrously heavy bands like SunnO))), Khanate, and Goatsnake, Southern Lord Records co-founder Stephen O’Malley also composes contemporary classical music. Soundscape’s main hall was an interesting choice of location for the US premiere of his dissonant, droney, 35-minute orchestral composition Un Vide Dans La Ciel by The Orchestra Now. While listeners appeared open to the piece’s disturbing harmonies and occasional smashes of percussive force, a great deal of attendees also talked loudly and walked around the hall during the performance, distracting from the piece. So, while the Basilica makes sense as a setting for O’Malley’s composition in that many attendees appreciate his pedigree in the experimental music world, it would have been an even better decision to premiere the piece in a side room with more effective sonic infrastructure.

GROUPER – Like O’Malley’s before hers, Grouper’s relatively quiet set wasn’t the best match for a headlining slot in the main hall. However, for those fans who were able to dissociate Grouper’s music from the sounds of the festival around them, the performance hit harder emotionally than just about anything else all weekend. Grouper played a number of gentle yet crushing cuts from her newest record, Grid of Points, as well as piano and guitar tracks from older releases, all interspersed with mysterious field recordings and splashes of staticky noise. In one sense, her set came off as deeply personal, like reading a friend’s secret diary. On the other hand, it also felt broadly relatable, full of mournful chords to tug at the heartstrings of anyone listening closely enough to catch them.

INSECT ARK – Kicking off the Saturday portion of the festival, Insect Ark’s desert rock-influenced sound perfectly suited the golden, late afternoon light that framed them throughout their set. Like Usnea’s, Insect Ark’s performance functioned within the canon of doom and sludge metal, full of plodding tempos, bluesy riffs, and even some double-kick drumming. However, Insect Ark seemed more suited to Soundscape in general: frontwoman Dana Schecter plays lap steel, bass, and electronics rather than guitar in a traditionally guitar-dominated genre, demonstrating the forward-thinking, experimental ethic that defined so many of Soundscape’s best acts.

PRURIENT – Prurient, the long-standing harsh noise project of prolific experimental musician Dominick Fernow, played a short yet devastating set. Characterized by extremely high-pitched feedback, aggressive vocals, and shocking volume, Prurient’s performance was easily one of the weekend’s most intense. Fernow created the impression that the set was a painful one for himself in addition to audience members; he engaged in a performative battle with his equipment on stage, twisting himself around cables and at one point screaming into three microphones at once. But Prurient wasn’t all brutality — the final cut revolved around a surprisingly clean piano sample, forming an eerie atmosphere that contrasted the rest of the set beautifully. Prurient raised the bar for noise at Soundscape, and heavier acts throughout the rest of the night had to reckon with this passionate performance.

LIGHTNING BOLT – Lightning Bolt’s headlining set Saturday night began with one of the most vital-sounding collaborations of the festival. YOKUBARI (of Black Dice and Kill Alters) had been blasting through a dancey set with an electronically manipulated drum kit high up in the warehouse, facing outward to the audience on the floor; suddenly, Lightning Bolt began to jam along with him from the main stage, resulting in a cacophonous, hardcore-influenced explosion of noise. Lightning Bolt’s set remained surprising and fun from this point onward, spanning from dissonant free jazz to blisteringly fast art rock. They seemed somewhat plagued by equipment issues throughout their performance, but even this felt like a perfect addition to their chaotic aesthetic.

THE HAXAN CLOAK + NICK ZINNER – Dark ambient producer The Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played one of the loudest, most sonically rich sets of the weekend late Saturday night. Though the set mostly stuck within the thick, droney, minor-key formula The Haxan Cloak has become known for, moments of industrial/electronic percussion and Zinner’s soaring, shoegazey guitar leads helped the set stand out. In a sense, the pair’s performance functioned as a microcosm for the Soundscape ethos as a whole: collaborative, experimental, and truly, truly heavy.

Check out a few more videos/pictures from Basilica Soundscape below…

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bucket list: see prurient live ✅ #bss18

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LIGHTNING BOLT #basilicasoundscape

A post shared by Ben O'Brien (@fakemountains) on

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