Explosions in the Sky
Full disclosure: I think many music festivals could be improved by a generous helping of extreme heavy metal. But here’s why that change made this year’s Basilica Soundscape, always a unique and engaging event, one of the best in its five-year run.
At first, you might not notice the shift in this year’s line-up, which gave Angel Olsen and Explosions in the Sky prime spots on Friday and Saturday’s respective schedules. These celebrated indie-rockers were clearly the main draw for the Brooklyn demographic who understandably represents the economic bread and butter of Basilica Hudson, an art venue located a two-hour train ride upstate in tiny Hudson, New York, and they met expectations with rapturously received sets. Closer to the event’s artistic ambitions, Soundscape fills the weekend with experimental musicians, sonic terrorists, spoken word, and visual arts. A compelling improvisational performance by the Utter Nots set the tone: the trio conducted becalmed musique concrète that blended into audience chatter, building clatter, and a gorgeous sunset, before summoning attention with clarion, droning tones that evolved into heady dissonance.
The Utter Nots
These high-art aspirations, so uncommon among the summer music festival circuit, are a key reason why Basilica Soundscape is by now the preeminent anti-festival (scare quotes no longer needed) of the U.S. Northeast, with elder artists and art-goers mingling among the hipsters. The other reason is the venue itself, a 19th-century factory that positively reverberates with the region’s industrial past. Having frequented Basilica Hudson since its 2012 launch, I’ve never grown tired of this structure, which surprises and haunts with each wall and crevice. Artists and audience alike recognize how this building frames a singular experience, which sets the basis for the site-specific ethos by which I judge Soundscape each year. It’s not enough to simply set improvisational art in a cool building; if the two don’t inform each other, the event can devolve into a sterile, esoteric scene akin to a pretentious art opening — a tedium that last year’s event was vulnerable to.
Basilica Hudson; sculpture by Cal Lane
Thus the crucial contribution of this year’s metal brigade, who provided a valuable kick in the ass while simultaneously acknowledging Basilica’s locational vibrations. With their occult forest imagery and lung-choking clouds of burning sage, black metal legends Wolves in the Throne Room came to avenge the industrial repression of nature. Closer to the building’s origins, Bell Witch evoked William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” with wrenching, elegiac doom metal. Even the most conventional (and delightfully so!) of the extreme metal groups, Cobalt, demonstrated they came to do work in and on this building, with deafening volumes literally shaking the rafters and cinderblocks. For those audience members unwilling to throw the horns for these metal groups, Uniform and Youth Code, two groups indebted to the EBM (electronic body music) sub-genre, indicated a more aesthetically direct link between industrial noise and deindustrialized milieu.
L-R: Wolves in the Throne Room, Bell Witch
Other performers showed how to connect to place, and at far more comfortable volumes. Harpist Mary Lattimore employed electronic loops that wrinkled and occasionally destabiilized her delicate compositions, as if to mark the seduction of pastoral nostalgia with a 21st-century timestamp. Angel Deradoorian suffused meditative mysticism with the sounds of what we used to call “space rock,” offering a different but no less transformative experience to the rousing musical travelogues of Xylouris White’s Cretan lute and drums. And of course, architectural and environmental narratives and translations are at the heart of the musical rationale of Explosions in the Sky.
Even Angel Olsen, the belle of the ball at Soundscape, got into the spirit with her winning performance. Drawing upon 50s twang and 60s pop, her indie-rock conveys the youthful restlessness of small-town Americana that certainly includes life in upstate New York. At Basilica, she brought a five-piece band in matching suits that, alongside her fetching vocals, suggested how Audrey Horne might front the Black Lodge house band in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” Therein lies the rub of Basilica Soundscape: the placeness that this year’s artists so consistently conveyed is ultimately mythical, an outsider’s reimagining of this Hudson River region’s industrial past and on-going economic and social struggles. To seek sociology from art may ultimately be too much to ask of Soundscape. That the artists this year got so close to the promise of place encapsulated in Basilica Hudson simply underscores Soundscape’s exciting accomplishment in 2016.
[Photos by Leonard Nevarez; right of attribution reserved.]