Jay H. Gorania’s SXSW 2011 – Part 1

By Jay H. Gorania

The Earth is shaking at its core, unleashing an unforgiving quake, tsunami and flooding upon Japan, threatening a potential nuclear fallout in its wake. Meanwhile, the rising tide of Middle Eastern rebellions have slammed against Libya’s authoritative dam, its leadership violently slaughtering its people. In light of such chaos, a recap of a music conference and fest is trivial at best. But you didn’t go to a humanitarian relief effort website. You went to Hellbound.

At any rate, while the world wept and dreaded over the aforementioned events (feeling guilty yet?), thousands gathered in Austin for South by Southwest. Also a massive interactive and film conference and festival, Hellbound is of course concerned with the annual event’s musical component.

During the day, back room business deals unfold, and industry concerns are mulled over at panel discussions. But no one gave yours truly a flashy pass. Woe is me. I would have felt as important as Borat sitting in a nice chair in a hotel room (“Go do this! Go do this! King of the castle!”).

Access to shows really depends on the popularity of a given band or showcase, and the degree to which door people are anal about what kind of badge, wristband, stamp or pass you have. Indeed, sometimes paying cash isn’t enough, nor is angrily cussing at the bouncers who won’t let you into the St. Vitus/Crowbar show that a colleague described to me as “religious.” At another showcase, a publicist couldn’t even get in to see one of the bands she works with.

On many levels—whether we’re talking about the parades, the swarm of people, the never-ending lines, the girls on stilts—SXSW is one big clusterfuck.

Wednesday, March 16

There are plenty of reasons why shows are missed. Transportation can be a nightmare. There were cops on motorbikes everywhere, practicing the utmost level of discretion as they handed out tickets like Santa handing out candy canes (It must have been that time of the month). If driving was avoided in favor of cabs, the waiting time was seemingly endless. Walking to the various club takes enough time on its own. And with so many shows overlapping, it is inevitable that you will miss countless bands you had intended on watching.

In any event, I found myself at the Sumerian Records showcase at the Habana Bar Backyard, a roomy outdoor venue, perfect for the week’s warm air. The band Structures was utterly unspectacular. There was more focus on unintentionally laughable, choreographed moves than on the music, and the unconvincing melodic vocals were seemingly the only difference they have from the rising crop of Veil of Maya rip-off bands. Veil of Maya themselves are either derivative of or inspired by Meshuggah, but however one spins it, and whether they’re palatable to one’s liking or not, they are brutal and catchy at once, driven by Marc Okubo’s groove-centric riffs. Structures, however, are not even worthy of being called a poor man’s version of Veil of Maya.

Originality and innovation can be a rare thing indeed when it comes to music. But enter Animals as Leaders, who produce addictive instrumental music enjoyable to people who don’t listen to instrumental music. Rather than show-boating as many instrumental or prog bands do nowadays, their prowess is channeled into coherent songwriting that’s accessible but not necessarily commercial. Tosin Abasi clearly leads the charge with mesmerizing, completely atypical virtuosity, yet guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis are no slouches by any means. Tosin’s banter between songs is limited, to say the least, underscoring the fact that the songs stand on their own with no need of gimmicks or choreography.

Yet another band that combines sky-high talent with songwriting, The Faceless followed suit with their take on progressive death metal that instantly brings to mind Opeth and Cynic. Probably due to their contemporary delivery and relative youthfulness, they are an “it” band with “the kids” who ate them up in spite of the poor sound mix. The showcase was rounded out by the run-of-the-mill deathcore bounciness of Ultrageist.

Thursday, March 17

The deathcore trend has stuck around longer than many have expected, and it was clearly ubiquitous at SXSW. At Emo’s Annex, the outdoor tent across the street from the longstanding Emo’s venue, Emmure was welcomed warmly and loudly, frontman Frankie Palmeri taking to the stage like a boxer jumping in the ring, similar was his intentionally cocky attitude. Emmure’s take on the deathcore approach is replete with plenty of the requisite breakdowns and low death grunts, but their overt Korn and nu-metal influence shapes the riffs and songs unmistakably. Palmeri “works the crowd” sufficiently enough, and they collectively eschew excessive brutality in favor of a constant pop-like groove.

They clearly were not a pop band, unlike I See Stars, a generic post-metalcore/pop band for little girls. They have a keyboard-playing growler who backs up a tall, handsome young singer with a soulless melodic voice. Pejorative assessment or not, if the crowd was at all a representative face of their broader audience, this truly is music for little girls. Like Structures, there were more of those all-important choreographed moves (You’ve gotta look good, right?).

Over at Barbarella Patio’s, on the other hand, there were two bands focusing on music. Riding on the buzz of their critically hailed release Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch seemed, if anything, nervous on stage. While certain parts lulled and lacked the magic of an Agalloch listening experience on record, more often than not they channeled the inherent depth and sublime nature of their folk-fused, post-metallic dark metal songs that require patience to appreciate.

In stark contrast to the image obsessed stylings of, again, Structures or I See Stars, the band focused their collective energy on their music, and behaved naturally as individuals. At set’s end, guitarist Don Anderson seemed to be in a state of prayer, raising his guitar to the sky, worshipping the feedback; meanwhile, an exhausted Aesop Dekker was massaging his hands and gathering his drum sticks as if he was finishing up at a rehearsal in a garage. They were just some metal dudes doing their own thing.

Fuck choreography.

Doom demons Yob followed up with more music played and created for music’s sake. If the cataclysmic, earthquaking rumble beneath Japan was felt stateside, it was surely through Yob’s bottom-heavy, Sabbath-via-Cathedral-and-Sleep riffs. Their music and vocals and presence were passionate and ritualistic. Because of the repetitive nature of the riff-driven madness, the songs stay with you long after they’ve finished playing, bouncing around from synapse-to-synapse in your tenderized gray matter.

On my way to find a cab with my cohorts, I encountered The Faceless’ singer Derek Rydquist, inebriated, hunched over with mouth agape, and holding something as if it was the Holy Grail. An aspiring guitarist, Derek was asking Yob’s singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt what kind of pedal to use since he’s a big Yob fan. Because Scheidt and his son both like The Faceless, Derek said Mike Scheidt gave him his own pedal that he used that night. Again, at that moment, it was the Holy Grail for The Faceless’ singer.

Not really one that we asked for, but our pursuit to have a simple cab ride home took a turn for the worse. A big dude was nice enough to let us hop into the van cab he tracked down since we were going the same direction, yet upon reaching our arrival point prior to his, the cabbie wouldn’t let us split the cost of the ride with him. The cabbie was insisting that since we hopped in afterward, he needed to pay the full fare from the starting point to his destination, and we needed to pay the full fare from the starting point to our hotel.

In the midst of our ensuing argument, the cabbie wouldn’t let us get out by our hotel. He started driving off, abducting us, basically, even though we were telling him repeatedly to stop. I suppose my manners helped save the day since he booted all of us when I started screaming at him and calling him a word that starts with “C” and ends with “T” (No, not the word can’t). Luckily our stranger/cab companion wasn’t stranded. A cop took him where he needed to go.

The final installment of this blog will be published tomorrow.