The fourth day of SXSW was characterized by a particular sense of intensity. Maybe it was the prospect of a soon-coming weekend that revitalized attendees, but every show I went to, the audience members were completely engaged with the music in front of them.
The first stop was Hole in the Wall, a nondescript venue close to the University of Texas’s west campus. The lineup was curated by the Boston label Exploding in Sound Records, and it featured bands that bore evidence of the label’s eclectic taste. I arrived during Bleeding Rainbow‘s last few numbers. The Philadelphia band, featuring A Place to Bury Strangers veteran drummer Rob Gonzalez, practices no-fuss shredding, interlacing guitar lines with sweet dual harmonies. Their performance, albeit short, was shimmering and the set left a sweet taste.
Australia’s DZ Deathrays took the stage immediately after, delivering their gripping hardcore to a rapt audience. Containing just two members, the Deathrays crafted a bold sound that resonates in a big way; they seemed to be begging for the big stages.
New York City avant-garde collective Cloud Becomes Your Hand brought their cockeyed sense of storytelling to the room, delivering a fascinating, conceptual set. The quintet recalled early Animal Collective, except their focus was on monastic mantras, with a violin prominently keeping time. The songs unfolded in ways that were both methodical and beautiful, full of triggered samples, stray guitar slashes and lyrics about oddball subjects, like dogs in sombreros.
No-wavers Guerilla Toss invited crowd members onstage to participate in their anti-grooves, making for a kind of demented musical circus. With unexpected guitar shakedowns and singer Kassie Carlson belting spine-chilling squeals and wheezes, the collective brought plenty of weird to the party.
Next up, Bay Area standout Tony Molina played an especially radiant set. A friend one described Tony Molina to me as “Weezer without the guilt,” but something there’s still something uncomfortable about both his songs and his performance. Pairing a pop sensibility with fuzzbucket guitars, Molina’s songs were both concise and powerful.
Big Ups‘ commanding set delivered on multiple levels. Singer Joe Galarraga is a consummate showman; he wrapped himself in the mic cord and grabbed dusty hats from the wooden shelves on the wall of the bar; their arrangements recall both the Melvins’ sludge and Double Dagger’s pile-driving bass.
On record, Austin’s Ringo Deathstarr is characterized by a kind of lovestruck shoegaze, but live the band seems to ache with something heavier. The three-piece barely looked up at the audience, concentrated entirely on bleeding the songs into one another, demonstrating a masterful control of white noise, space and dynamics.
I meandered downtown. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, and finding myself with an unexpected hour and a half of free time, I scanned the streets for anything interesting. Beerland, a local venue known for booking bands that favor the loud and chaotic, had set up an outdoor stage more or less in the middle of a busy street, the perfect setting for California thrashers Trash Talk. The group’s sets are notorious, and for good reason; the second charismatic frontman Lee Spielmen started singing, the audience erupted into a constant mosh pit. Some of the more adventurous audience members clambered up the columns on Beerland and dove into the crowd. Inevitably, the cops arrived, ending the band’s brief reign of anarchy.
Around the corner at Swan Dive was the showcase for the New York label Mexican Summer. The Calgary, Alberta, band Viet Cong, comprised of several ex-Women members, forged post-punk music that’s less arty than Women, traversing more expansive sonic territory. The songs recalled the immediacy we of vintage Television, but with more prominent, cosmic-sounding harmonies.
Weyes Blood‘s spooky folk enchanted. The project of Natalie Mering, formerly of Jackie-O Motherfucker and Axolotl, threads abstract vocal loops through bare, resonating twelve-string guitars. Mering’s vocals were clear and deeply affecting.
But it was the Beaumont, Texas, rock band Purple that impressed most. Singer Hanna Brewer, who also plays drums, howls in a way that recalls Courtney Love. The group played punk-informed rock music with bluesy undertones and unhinged howls that, at times, recalled the Pixies.
Quilt knit a tapestry of ambient keyboards and guitars awash in psychedelic reverb. The quartet just released the stellar Held in Splendor, a work that weaves together their best qualities: harmonies that nod toward the Mamas & the Papas from vocalist Anna Fox Rochinski and Shane Butler, with guitars swerving gently behind them.
Next, I ventured to Red 7 for doomy desert-rockers Destruction Unit. The Arizona band crackles with tension and is propelled by otherworldly. A trio of guitars and surreal wails lends their songs a weird, woozy edge.
And then, several hours after midnight, a covert, unofficial show took place on the pedestrian bridge leading into the south side of Austin. At around 3:30 am Coachwhips (whom I’ve seen a number of times this week) blasted through a blistering 20-minute set of their ragged, spastic punk. The party was small; you got the sense the show was designed to create a special kind of shared experience, one that ignored petty needs like sleep or hunger. At the end of Coachwhips set, John Dwyer approached me, lit cigarette in one hand, firework in the other; he heaved the latter into the night sky, and all 90 of us looked up to watch the sparks crackling. Rain misted across the bridge, hanging over the glittering city just beyond the water.