A room loaded with label reps is the secret dream of most bands that play South by Southwest, and on Tuesday that dream came true for Line & Circle, a Los Angeles band with just a single to its name but a steady, whisper-level buzz. Their show came early in the evening, on the festival’s pokey first night, but it delivered the kind of high-wattage promise that stands as a firm rebuke to those who think South by Southwest has been lost forever to crass corporatization and big ticket stunt casting. That their music is decidedly unfashionable only makes the covert industry curiosity that much more intriguing.
The group delivers a gorgeous, crystalline reworking of the kind of unabashedly melodic jangle-pop that characterized the college rock of the mid ’80s. The closest comparison is R.E.M. circa Reckoning. Their songs are suspended in a delicate latticework of Rickenbackers, sharp enough to feel like tiny icicle palaces, elastic enough to contain vocalist Brian Cohen’s rich, weighty baritone. Unlike early R.E.M., they’re more giving with their melodic payoffs: Songs that opened stubbornly, with a tangled braid of guitar, eventually yielded to choruses that were almost heart-stoppingly beautiful, melodies taking flight cautiously but gracefully, eventually working up enough confidence to soar. The group arrived in Austin with professionals’ polish: Their set never lagged or dawdled, just cruised forward on its own easy momentum. For them to become truly popular would require a dramatic shift in indie rock’s prevailing aesthetic; there was nothing proudly haphazard nor overbearingly anthemic about their songs. It was instead eerily gorgeous guitar-pop, defined by a subtle but undeniable sense of wonder.
It stood out on a night that was mostly a mulligan. Tuesday offerings were slim, and most of the more intriguing propositions either reached capacity early — a K-Pop showcase with never-ending lines to get in; a Chance the Rapper show that filled up five hours before the artist took the stage — or were eliminated by other forces, like the night of international hip-hop shut down two hours early by Austin’s fire marshal. The night bridging SXSW’s Interactive and Music portions is always a bit wanting, but this year’s felt more empty than most.
Thank God, then — or, perhaps, his opposite — for Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy bill, which was stacked with some of the most bracing acts in current metal. Chief among these was Christian Mistress, who delivered a volcanic set lit up by the fiery howl of vocalist Christine Davis. The group draws heavily from blues and ’70s FM rock, but they defiantly char their source material, making new songs from the burnt husks. Davis is an endlessly charismatic frontwoman, egging on the crowd and delivering each song with a sinister smirk, as if only she were privy to their deeper, darker meaning. Their greasy batches of drop-tuned riffing were offset by stunning fretboard runs from guitarists Ryan McClain and Oscar Sparbel, who spun out dizzying 16th-note runs like they were frantically unspooling long loops of barbed wire.
Windhand, from Richmond, Virginia, were just as unholy, but at half the speed. The group cribs pages from the book of stoner metal first inscribed by Sleep and Electric Wizard, but where those groups tended to favor melodies that were resolutely heavy-lidded, Windhand’s 400-ton brontosaurus riffs were just the backdrop for Dorthia Cottrell’s stark, commanding melodies. In that way, they were more like Black Sabbath, offsetting chord structures too guttural to scan tuneful with firm, deliberate vocal lines that defiantly yanked them forward. Live, they were looser than their fantastically suffocating recent full-length Soma allows; stripped of the record’s plentiful effects, Cottrell’s voice is searing and siren-like, cutting effortlessly through the group’s exhaust-cloud of guitars. Their set at times felt like a wind tunnel — grim, gut-rumbling frequencies topped by Cottrell’s heartsick banshee howl.
By contrast Youth Code, who closed the evening, were all blunt force. The group revives ’80s synth-driven industrial music, but instills it with hardcore’s sense of recklessness. Vocalist Sara Taylor whipped her body across the stage in a kind of cold panic, blasting out lyrics caked in distortion and sounding, at times, almost entirely inhuman. Like Line & Circle, they’re attempting a tricky feat, taking a still resolutely uncool musical style — when was the last time you heard someone name-drop Nitzer Ebb? — and imprinting it with their own likeness. Their set almost scalded — the synths were blocky and proudly unpretty, the radar-blip drum tracks thudded blankly, and Taylor wailed like a wraith trapped inside an old desktop computer. The music’s nihilism was oddly thrilling, a crackling telegram from a future time when the machines have turned, at last, against us.