Sled Island 2018 in pics & review (Owen Pallett, Grouper, The Body, Shabazz Palaces & more)
Check out photos from every day the 2018 edition of multi-venue Calgary fest Sled Island in the gallery above, but if you're just joining us, read our reviews from WEDNESDAY and THURSDAY before continuing below...
While on my way to meet some other writers for lunch, I heard a crack of thunder that must have been just a block over. It felt like being tapped on the shoulder by god, and soon enough a biblical torrent of rain followed. I soldiered on for lunch (tacos at Native Tongues) but my plans to catch the much ballyhooed Empath at Palomino's outdoor parking lot were washed away. I was able to catch the final moments of their set but immediately retreated to the dry safety of my hotel room. Luckily the rain broke soon after and I was able to enjoy the rest of the day with minimal sogginess.
There's a special kind of confusion that comes with seeing a band you've never heard of before singing in a language you don't understand and playing music that seems like it’s beamed in from the moon. That said, I'm not sure being fluent in French would have helped me make heads or tails of Quebec's Victime, who play a deliriously giddy style of dance punk. At one point singer & bassist Laurence Gauthier-Brown urged the crowd to close in and dance to help heat the tent up. I'm sure the audience would have loved to oblige, but trying to keep up with Victime's breakneck pace sounds like a great way to tear an ACL. Eventually the trio were joined by a saxophonist, which brought the band's latent jazz harmony to the forefront. By the end of the set it felt like anything could happen, more cowbell, more screaming sax, more breakbeats. I still didn't feel like I understood what was happening, but I left with a bewildered smile plastered on my face.
If there's any recurring theme for Day 3 of Sled Island, its seeing bands that create music in ways that I never would have considered possible. After years of listening to the group, I'm still no closer to understanding where the seed of their ideas is planted. Finally seeing them live didn't elucidate where their music comes from, but it did shed some light on how they bring it to life. The answer is almost disturbingly mundane: Guerilla Toss -- who also just finished up a June residency at Brooklyn’s Union Pool -- are stupid good at their instruments. There isn't a rhythm that you could throw at them that they wouldn't be able to chew up and spit back out in six different variations. The result is a nearly indescribable mix of genres and sounds, a pinch of krautrock, some synth pop, funk crossed with punk, like a Saturday morning cartoon forced to pull an all nighter until the frames start to burn at the edges. At the center of it all is singer Kassie Carlson, who's mix of party-starting hype work and hard-eyed affect is key to Guerilla Toss's sensibility. Guerilla Toss's set was an open challenge, not just to listeners, but to bands hoping to get on their level. I spotted the members of Victime up close, dutifully dancing along, and three-fourths of Jock Tears observing from further back. Guerilla Toss's alien seeds are spreading, and I can't wait to see the flowers bloom.
From the moment that Liz Harris entered the stage in the Studio Bell Performance Hall, the crowd entered a state of deathlike silence. Not one word spoken between audience and performer. Any sound (like, say the crinkle of an empty beer can, my bad!) was immediately met with a sharp shushing. The hushed tone and immaculate setting gave Grouper's performance the air of a classical recital, but beneath that stately veneer was an experience far more intimate and deeply personal. By not acknowledging the audience, Harris made it seem as if we were spying on her private studio. Even the stage setup had the feeling of a work desk rather than set dressing. Harris sandwiched herself between a folding table draped with black table cloth and a humming electric piano. The table itself was littered with wires, tape machines, and cups filled with water and tea; the ephemera of the working artist. From my angle, it was impossible to tell when Harris was singing and when her voice was being played back by one of her loop pedals. This gave the entire set an otherworldly quality, as if the music was emerging entirely from Harris's presence. When the set ending, with the roar of a field recording pushed to its absolute limits, Harris stood up and briskly left the room without even looking at the crowd. The silence broke into thunderous applause.
In a just universe, The Body would be the blueprint for how extreme metal should sound. I don't mean that more bands should write songs the way that The Body does, but that they should be taking notes on how The Body make those songs sound. Although I've long since grown out of the phase where whether a band's drummer was using triggers mattered to me, I've always been frustrated by the lack of transparency from bands that use sound-replaced kick drums. Why keep up the charade by lugging two bass drums on stage if you're just going to use a sample? Save some space in the van and use an electronic pad instead. The Body embrace that kind of ergonomic pragmatism, but push it one step further. Instead of imitating the sounds of real kick drums, they bring in gut-rearranging drum sounds that would be at home on a Future record. Combined with the duo's penchant for ugly-as-sin riffing, this sound has the power to turn audiences feral. That was certainly the case for the capacity crowd in Palomino's basement. Canadian politeness soon gave way to an eruption of sweaty moshing. The Body have a rep for being maybe a tad-too-arty for their own good on record, but live they can mean-mug it with the best of them.
The rain returned on Saturday morning, throwing off the schedules of some of the outdoor acts. The damped mood gave me an excuse to stay in and get writing down while forcing myself to learn about soccer (Germany seem like they are underachieving). Once the weather cleared up, I endeavoured to get a wider view of the city instead of just orbiting Palomino. This trip through block parties and classical concert halls led me to up and coming acts as well as three of the day's biggest names. The day had a distinct "end of summer camp" melancholy, a sure sign that the festival had done its job.
Samantha Savage Smith
Nearly every city I've been to has an artist like Samantha Savage Smith in it, the difference is that almost none of them are as competent as Smith is. Smith, along with her brand-spanking-new backing band, plays an accessible brand of guitar based indie pop that doesn't challenge expectations, but certainly exceeds them in terms of quality. What sets Smith apart from her contemporaries is a mastery of tone and arranging. The band ran into several technical difficulties at the start of their set, but they dealt with each bump in the road with professional resolve. The set itself was well worth the wait, each instrument working in tandem to elevate and highlight Smith's writing. If this is indicative of the rest of Calgary's local talent, the city is in a good place.
While most of Sled Island took place in Calgary's downtown, the final day featured a block party located in the eastward neighborhood of Inglewood. While the morning's inclimate weather likely scared off the casual festival goer, there was still a smattering of folks in attendance for Strangerfamiliar's quick set, notably, and adorably, two young kids who danced along to the side of the stage. Ilichana Morasky, Strangerfamiliar's solo member, even gave the kids a shoutout in between triggering drum samples, looping a ukulele, and manipulating her voice using some sort of choral pedal. The sheer number of plates that Morasky keeps spinning is impressive in its own right, but the way their rotations fit together is what makes Strangerfamiliar interesting. The timbres of ukulele and booming subbass aren't ones that should mix well on paper, but Morasky makes all of the disparate elements work by keeping her voice and lyrics front and center. Wish I had caught the set under better attended circumstances.
Owen Pallett with the Calgary Philharmonic
Next I found myself at the Calgary Philharmonic, where young hipsters brushed shoulders with older patrons of the Philharmonic’s more traditional programming. This made perfect sense for an Owen Pallett concert, even without the Philharmonic backing him up. Pallett is an artist that is difficult to tie down to any one tradition. He is an arranger for hire, a part time music critic, and a songwriter informed by both indie rock and the conservatory. His performance at Sled Island felt like a perfect mixture of these two schools of thought. Pallett worked to bridge the gap between the two generations, urging the older folks to think of the noiser sections of his set as "like being on the beach" and teaching the indie kids to withhold their applause until the end ("it's tantric"). You can understand why the crowd felt the need to share their approval. Performing songs from 2014's In Conflict as well as a select few from his upcoming album Island, Pallett's set was a display of his composing, arranging, singing, and instrumental skill. Ever the perfectionist, Pallett even took over conducting duties during a particularly difficult number. When it finally came time for the audience to applaud, they did so with such emphatic force that Pallett was forced to come out for two encores that drew from his older Final Fantasy material. By the end it didn't matter which subculture brought you here, the music was astounding all the same.
Seeing a band can clarify what's really happening in the music, underneath affectation and production. If I had known that Dirty Projectors were basically Hall & Oates for art school grads, I could have saved myself many confused conversations over the last few years. Finally knowing what to listen for I was able to enjoy their immense technical facility. They remain an outstanding vocal group, even more impressive in person. The Palace Theatre wasn't too kind to their knottier instrumental passages, but the underlying groove was rock solid. Singer and guitarist Dave Longstreth also makes a much more compelling stage presence than I anticipated; herky-jerky but in complete ease with his instrument.
Even without Tendai Maraire, Shabazz Palaces made for a terrific nightcap to the festival. For most duos, being down to 50% percent could be a death sentence, but Palaceer Lazaro had no trouble keeping things lively. In some ways, the stripped down setup helped make Shabazz Palaces' "galaxy-brain" level beats translate onto the dance floor. The halls of the Legion helped tighten the cosmic filigree of their sound into direct body blows. Lazaro, sure in his connection with the audience, engaged in some international diplomacy by starting a brief "fuck 'em" chant directed at Donald Trump. The last few weeks have seen a deluge of middling new content from rap's old guard and troubling news from it's rising stars. It was refreshing to see a hip-hop act that felt distinct from both; a veteran rapper still hard at work on making challenging, idiosyncratic music without losing a live crowd along the way.
Check out photos from the whole week in the gallery at the top of this post (taken by the fine people listed below), and see you next year Sled Island!