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Basilica Soundscape brought experimentation & intimacy to Hudson NY (pics, review)

The colors change in Hudson, NY, a small town about 120 miles north of New York City, this time of year. It’s not just that the trees in the quaint streets, dotted with Victorian and Queen Anne-style houses, begin to turn a pleasant shade of burnt yellow. With the onset of Basilica Soundscape, an annual music and arts festival held in an abandoned factory, the town’s uniform shifts undoubtedly to a more gothic hue: black, leather, and maybe (if you’re really bold) black leather.

As a de-facto bookend to “festival season” (and happening concurrently with the massive Riot Fest), Soundscape has prided itself since its 2012 maiden voyage on being the antithesis of the American festival experience: Basilica Hudson’s co-founder Melissa Auf der Maur instead describes it as an “immersive pilgrimage to the Hudson Valley.” And indeed, with only two (and a half, if you count a stage tucked into the rafters) venues and no simultaneous music performances, the weekend’s schedule begets an emphasis on deep and careful listening and invites musicians who aren’t afraid of a bit of intimacy.

This was borne out in the 2019 iteration of Soundscape. From the slow-building minimalism of Jerusalem in My Heart to the Bard Conservatory’s hour-long performance of the late composer Johann Johannsson’s ambient masterwork Virðulegu Forsetar, patrons were just as content to sit or even lay down to experience the wash of sound reverberating throughout the cavernous industrial space.

And perhaps because they know they have the attention of the audience, Basilica seems to consistently promote a unique kind of trust and experimentation from its artists: As Haley Fohr, who performs as Circuit Des Yeux, took to a seat for her performance, she beckoned the crowd to join her: “I’d like to invite all of you to the stage,” she said. “Let’s make this a fire hazard!” Playing her majestic 12-string guitar dressed in a spritely red-on-red outfit, she performed hypnotic new compositions brushed with her captivatingly deep voice, always remarkable in its range and weight.

But after the almost liturgic hum that defined the night’s earlier performances, Toronto’s Dilly Dally provided a welcome shake-up. With Katie Monks’ shredded vocals, which tend to switch to a disarmingly girly squeak for extra emphasis on the high notes, the group felt straight out of a 70’s glam rock documentary. Dilly Dally have cemented themselves as sensualists, screaming about lust and desire, and their performance fit the bill: mullets, ripped stockings, short skirts, gleaming white electric guitars. In a night of slow, atmospheric performances, it was a jolt of energy and an enthusiastic counterpart.

Despite a host of technical difficulties, multi-instrumentalist and former Liturgy percussionist (among many other projects) Greg Fox remained as note-perfect as ever. The difficulties unfortunately seemed tied to what has become his trademark: using synthesized drum loops triggered by his live performances to build an entire composition, kind of a modern one-man band. But even with the slow start, it was still remarkable to see Fox 30 feet up in the air, performing from a small window in the rafters.

It also served as a worthy lead-in to the headliners (and by far most high-profile act of the weekend), legendary slowcore rockers Low. Guitarist Alan Sparhawk, who somehow has only grown more effortlessly cool with a head of wavy grey hair, seemed to also be taking in the quirks of the festival, as he watched Dilly Dally’s set from the back of the hall.

But on stage, they seemed like the epitome of a Basilica set: dressed in all black, serious as a heart attack, flanked by custom lighting that appeared to mimic a flickering flame, they launched into an onslaught of slow, brooding rock. Culling their setlist largely from their 2018 release Double Negative, drummer and vocalist Mimi Parker carried the band’s melodies, as Sparhawk and bassist Steve Garrington shredded at the front of the stage. It was the perfect closer for a night that put emphasis on the power of female vocals.

Whereas night one concluded with an obvious crescendo in Low’s dense, no-holds-barred wall of sound, Saturday night followed a more circuitous route to performances that were no less intense. And Basilica proved again to not only be a space for avant-garde experimentation, but also a unique chance for punk bands that might be booked early in the day at larger fests to get a massive turnout, manifested most clearly when Toronto punk quartet Bad Waitress performed a noisy onslaught of a set to a crowd that was packed to the gills, surrounded on all sides with small children looking on from the windows.

In a small break from the noise, doom, and gloom that so often defines Basilica, Zsela’s warm, rounded vocals served as an emotional palette cleanser. Dressed in all white, she seemed almost bashful as she introduced new music, before opening her mouth to reveal her velvety and deep voice, given the space to shine with only an electric piano accompaniment.

Before this weekend, I often described Basilica Soundscape to friends as a “goth fest,” a facile, though reductive, explanation. But this surprisingly bore fruit, as multimedia artist, composer, and musician M. Lamar took to the main stage and brought to light his unique twist on typical gothic visuals. His artistic output examines the intersection between satanism and the darkness that has always traced the lineage of slavery and racism against African Americans. It’s a heady concept, but he delivered it with stunning conviction, putting his operatic muscles to work as he sang in impossibly high octaves, with images of upside-down crosses and black bodies in coffins in the background. It was an arresting performance, one that invited multiple readings; the most immediate reaction I had, though, was that his haunting vocals and ghostly projections used the dark, cavernous venue to its fullest potential.

But despite M. Lamar’s striking theatrics, the most dramatic set of the night came from Lingua Ignota, the musical project of Kristin Hayter. The crowd waited in the side room for an hour before her set, packing into the side of the stage and peering in through the windows and doors. Hayter’s story isn’t easy or convenient; she was signed to extreme metal powerhouse Profound Lore after releasing a couple of LPs detailing female anger and domestic violence. Her set mirrored her latest album, Caligula, in its combination of despondent piano and acrid, unforgiving vocals. After posing for selfies with a line of fans wearing her tee shirts, she launched into a relentless and captivating performance. “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep,” she sang, and then screamed. As she walked around the stage, and then the audience, with a lantern flung around her limbs and her neck, she made the oft-ignored pleas of battered women patently undeniable. By the time she returned to the piano, some audience members were openly weeping.

After such intensity from M. Lamar and Lingua Ignota, Waxahatchee’s charming folk rock felt somewhat out of place, like a hippie had found herself in the middle of a metal bar by accident, a sheep among lions. And closers SQÜRL, the duo consisting of film composer Carter Logan and famed director Jim Jarmusch, felt like an almost absurdist ending to a festival that had no shortage of shocking vignettes. “We’re the backing artists for Man Ray,” they said, and asked that the audience refrain from video recording as they began a set of ominous, droning piano and guitar over a series of Man Ray films. In a weekend that felt so close to celebrating the fringes of music—the women and people of color that keep experimental music fresh and enthralling—the set felt a bit like a film bro’s harebrained senior thesis. But for Jarmusch, the baroque themes of the festival seemed like an appropriate place to perform.

Soundscape has grown larger and somehow more experimental (and in the case of SQÜRL and Man Ray, literally Rive Gauche), but there is a sense that as a result, it needs to perform more of a balancing act—does it want to promote the softer sounds of neo-soul and folk, or is it going to double down on black metal and post-punk? But if it can continue to build the trust of its audience and highlight the unique beauty of its location, Soundscape may not have to choose.

Check out pictures from the 2019 edition of Basilica Soundscape in the gallery above.

photos by Samantha Marble/The Creative Independent

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