SXSW 2011: Day 2 Report

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.18.11 in Spotlights

The Grime and The Glow

Chelsea Wolfe

By the time they took the stage at Emo's Thursday afternoon, the members of the New Hampshire band Trap Them had driven 14 hours, most of it in heavy traffic. Needless to say, they were more than a little agitated. "We're Trap Them, and this is a shitshow," said vocalist Ryan McKenney. "So let's get shitty." And then, with a howl, he led his band through a blistering 40-minute set, full of split-second metal songs that arrived with fangs bared and claws sharpened. The bulk of their set at Emo's was comprised of material from their upcoming Darker Handcraft, and it found the band leavening their tornado-style grindcore with slower, doomier passages. With his wild, menacing stare and rigid, confrontational posture — he spent much of the set on an amp, glaring at the crowd — McKenney embodies the group's songs. He took the stage in a T-shirt and a ripped pair of astonishingly small jean shorts, as if daring someone to tell him he looked silly. Unsurprisingly, no one did.

If you were looking for it, darkness was in great supply on Wednesday. Trap Them were playing a party called Full Metal Texas which also featured the Brooklyn band Hull, who are just now beginning to write stunning, complex songs full of intricate, interlocking movements. Just two doors down, the New York label Sacred Bones was exploring a different kind of darkness. The bands on their roster, in decades past, would be dubbed "goth," and it is not unkind to refer to them as such today. The afternoon's best acts operated on two opposite ends of the spectrum: Veronica Falls, from the UK, played pretty, impeccable pop songs that they made seem more rudimentary by shellacking with reverb. It was an effective trick, as was the counterpunch between their high, sweet female vocals, and the dour, doomy male ones. Blunter and fiercer and also completely riveting were Slug Guts, from Brisbane, a band that seems to have learned much from fellow countrymen the Birthday Party. Their songs are full of grunting guitars and bass that throbbed sickeningly, like a boa swallowing a housecat. Periodically, a strangled saxophone added an extra layer of malice and intensity. Chelsea Wolfe, on loan from another New York label, Pendu, played her entire set with a lace veil across her face, adding an extra layer of mystery to her tense post-punk. Her excellent debut, The Grime and the Glow favors haze, but live her music is severe, iron-wire guitars forming hard angles while Wolfe coos and croons over top of them. It was both deeply unsettling and disarmingly beautiful.

As was the spectacular Portland band Agalloch, who played near midnight just a few doors down at Barbarella. Agalloch have uncovered a strange middle ground between shoegaze and black metal, and their songs — most of them from last year's Marrow of the Spirit seemed even more imposing and accomplished in person. Their best songs follow a similar pattern: a tidal wave of double-time guitars that stop short suddenly leaving just empty air and a repeated, plucked guitar figure, which serves to introduce the next musical theme. Agalloch's vocalist, John Haughm, alternates between subterranean growl and witchlike croon, but his voice never actually leads the songs, it just serves as another sonic element. The group's hammering guitars bled slowly into one another to create long bands of sound that pitched and rolled in unison. It was the kind of darkness that comes above an angry sea, just before a storm sets in.

After so much blackness, the arrival of Zola Jesus at the end of the night — technically, early Friday morning — felt like a benediction. Zola Jesus — or, as she is known to her parents, Nika Roza Danilova — is not exactly inspirational music. Her songs are constructed mostly from icy blue synths and centered around her imposing, operatic alto. Yet where many of Thursday's bands reveled in asking questions, Zola Jesus seemed to also offer resolution. Past performances have been, at best, unpredictable, but she seemed to be enjoying herself on Thursday, abandoning the stage early and often to sing surrounded by adoring onlookers. She pinched and sanded her voice, removing some of its more velvety contours and replacing it with grit. But the message remained: "It's not easy to fall in love — but if you're lucky, you might find someone." That she recently dyed her hair from jet-black to sunshine blonde is perhaps not coincidental.