SXSW 2014, Day 4: Sergio Mendoza y La Orkestra, Ex-Cult, Against Me!, Future

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.15.14 in News

There was a point roughly midway through their set when I realized that all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was listen to Sergio Mendoza y La Orkestra. The group plays a manic variant of classic cumbia — they maintain the constantly rolling drums, the bright blasts of brass and the needlepoint guitar lines, but they accelerate them to blinding speed. There was a point at which attempting to take notes on them felt a bit like trying to paint a picture of a tornado while it was happening. They roared through their songs, incorporating small fragments of other musical styles — softly glowing R&B organs, wobbly wah-wah guitars, even, occasionally, the wide-swinging rhythms of ’30s jazz. The whole thing was so jubilant and euphoric it resisted instant processing, joyous, physical music that required an equally physical response. It was, as of this writing, the best thing I’ve seen all week.

Moments before, I had seen a band that could be loosely defined as the Orkestra’s polar opposite, the brutal, hammering Memphis band Ex-Cult. Their guitars landed like hunks of scrap metal, gnarled and punishing, and the songs seemed to grind forward as if powered by a combination of nihilism and spite. Part of this is due to the voice and general demeanor of frontman Chris Shaw. Gaunt and imposing, looking vaguely like an angry Ian Curtis, he delivered lyrics as if barking out orders. It was the same prose-as-poetry approach that defined bands like The Fall and, more recently, Ikara Colt, but it felt more threatening backed by the band’s black typhoon of sound. Midway through the set, Shaw disappeared into the audience, where he was promptly hoisted aloft. He spent the next several minutes hollering out his lyrics from above, eyes flashing, lips curled.

The band the NOTS, who played immediately after Ex-Cult, were just as sonically unforgiving. Their sound was as loud and greasy as an old motorbike, roaring and swerving from one chord change to the next. They favor volume over precision — the songs felt loose and brutal, and the vocals were yelped and hollered, each of them landing like angry admonishments. So much blunt force can grow wearying over time, but there was a deliberateness and an insistence about the NOTS that made their music feel urgent rather than obvious or repetitive. They occasionally recalled the same exhilarating fury of bands like Bikini Kill, but their music was thicker and soupier and nodded more to garage than post-punk.

Cloud Nothings

Cloud Nothings

Cloud Nothings and Against Me! also play loud, snarling music rooted in punk rock, but both bands temper it with a keen ear for melody. Playing their entire new record from start-to-finish during their performance at a showcase sponsored by SPIN, Cloud Nothings demonstrated the virtues of deafening volume underpinned by taut musicianship. Their songs borrow increasingly from the rock of the early ’90s — the razor-blade riffing, the howled choruses, the rocketing percussion — but frontman Dylan Baldi shows a sly knack for songcraft. Each of the new songs began as a kicking fit, but eventually arrived at a clean, gliding chorus, where open tones, major-key chord changes and sustained, ringing notes hinted at optimism.

Against Me!

Against Me!

Against Me!’s songs are cleaner — though not by much — and their choruses play like a biker gang’s idea of power pop, sweet and clear but undeniably bare-knuckled. Though on most nights they’re one of the best live rock bands in the business, their set Friday afternoon felt slacker than usual, and slightly ham-fisted. Frontwoman Laura Jane Grace is endlessly charismatic, and the songs from their latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues are some of the best they’ve yet written. But their set never fully cohered, robbing the music of some of its wonder and force.

The Saharan blues band Imarhan Timbukti achieved a similar power through subtlety. Their songs didn’t roar so much as lap gently; twin guitar lines ambled along winding melodic paths, occasionally catching on a single phrase and repeating it a few times before banking a hard turn and heading off in another direction entirely. Occasionally, they met up with a similarly twisting vocal line, and the two sounds would operate in tandem for several measures, the sonic mirroring creating an almost hypnotic effect. The music was gorgeous and unforced, and the focus remained on those casual, ambling guitars, the calmness of which suggested they were en route to some distant paradise, but the wandering said they were content to take their time getting there.

And then there was Future, the Atlanta rapper who laces his songs with often delirious singing. His set was a delightful shambles — he frequently dropped out of verses to allow the audience to fill in the lyrical blanks; often, they did not. But the few glimpses of his forthcoming record Honest were enervating. He debuted the album’s first song, a wiry number propelled by a stuttering, angry electric guitar hook and a huge melodic chant that recalled the gang chorus at the back of Kanye West’s “Power.” The crowd may not have been entirely with him, but that was OK; Future seemed content occupying his own, erratic universe.