Jay H. Gorania’s SXSW 2012 – Part 1

By Jay H. Gorania

The poster child for the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan/movement, a 60-year-old cross-dresser who once ran for mayor, died a day before this year’s South by Southwest. Sure, SXSW continues to be a grand meeting point for odd-balls in the music world and otherwise, but Leslie’s passing is in some ways a fitting symbolic tombstone for the fact that Corporate America has chewed up and swallowed what was once much more of an underground event.

At one point at this year’s fest, there appeared to be a marching squad of militant protesters, chanting with a menacing tone and adorned with fatigues and berets. And yet they had nothing to do with the Occupy movement or anything of the sort. They were lackeys spreading the word about the upcoming movie John Carter. Marketing at its finest!

Nowadays, SXSW certainly is more Walmart in overall scope rather than a “Ma and Pa” store, but with that said, can underground music aficionados really complain when you have multiple performances from the likes of Pallbearer?

Wednesday, March 14

Since there are literally hundreds of bands playing venues in immediate proximity from one another, it’s normal for shows to be crammed with numerous, curious on-lookers. But when COC performed, there was none of that. Passionate fans celebrated their music whether it was the dude next door or some old, over-dressed industry guy with a fancy SXSW pass.

COC’s current format is Reed Mullin on drums/vocals, Woody Weatherman on guitars, and Mike Dean on bass/vocals, and live, judging by their perma-smiles, they love what they are doing. Whatever the heck may be going on with vocalist/guitarist Pepper Keenan—presumably all things Down—COC’s walk down memory lane is an enjoyable one. Their classics are true to the original form, but there’s definitely a bit more of a Southern flair, and the development they’ve made collectively and individually over the years shines through with performances that just wouldn’t have been the same 20 or 25 years ago.

The weak point: Mike Dean’s vocals are still terrible. He spouts lyrics with rage and with heart, but as far as delivery, it may as well be your uncle up on stage singing ’80s crossover.

Thursday, March 15

The previous evening’s punch and kick to the face, and the subsequent facial stitches, couldn’t keep Hellbound away from the festivities for too long. Emo’s Annex housed a Sumerian Records showcase at which label big cheese Ash Avildsen addressed the crowd with a heart-felt speech about his stance against musical discrimination. The label’s diversity was proven moments after by Australia’s Dead Letter Circus, a talented live band that impressed the crowd, though at the end of the day, they are essentially a more mainstream version of A Perfect Circle.

San Antonio’s Upon A Burning Body followed up with the deathcore style that many associate with Sumerian, an issue somewhat defensively touched upon in the subtext of Ash’s monologue. A key breakdown was accompanied by the words, “Life sucks. And then you fucking die.” It was the kind of interchangeable breakdown that every deathcore band, established or amateur, is known for. It’s almost the exact same thing, with the exception being the specific lyrics. This journalist’s bias against the genre is obvious, but in fairness, it must be noted that the crowd ate it up and sang along. Dressed in vests and ties, the visual differentiation was gimmicky at best, but Upon A Burning Body is very good at what they do, and they are a great, energetic live band that demands some sort of attention.

Hellbound travelled to Club 1808, then, by a cycle ricksha/pedicab, along the way passing by another ricksha steered by a girl with lengthy Pippi Longstocking-like hair. Only in Austin!

Much of SXSW takes place in a main hub, an area on and around 6th Street that’s dotted with bars, clubs, venues, restaurants and tattoo parlors. It has a unique charm, but—especially at such a processed and commercialized event as SXSW—it doesn’t exactly mirror underground music’s grit. So at Club 1808, on the “other side” of the highway, where a crack dealer is literally in sight, the ghetto neighborhood seemed a fitting home for br00tal music.

On the outside stage, which was literally fenced in what appeared to be a large back yard, Brooklyn’s Mutilation Rites (joined that week by new bassist Ryan Jones of Today is the Day and Wetnurse) set things off with song-writing know-how, pure abrasion, and a sometimes suffocating sense of tension. Dripping with evil melodies that were far from being pretty, their caustic rhythms were shaken periodically by Hellhammer/Motorhead-like sections that lent themselves to fist pumping.

Up next: Early Graves. When vocalist Makh Daniels died in a tragic van crash while they were on tour a couple of years ago, no one would have criticized them for throwing in the towel. Yet they’ve soldiered on with a new vocalist and a nasty resonance and style that’s simply undeniable, forwarding a catchy and crusty thrash ’n hardcore approach that is coalescing with some other bands to form a new American metal sound.

Denver grinders Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire (try saying that ten times in a row!) favored powerviolence-like gear shifting between blasting mayhem and slow, sludge-paced grooves, steamrolling violently but with direction and atypical, dreary riffs.

Then, Texas’ own Kill The Client carried grindcore into the end zone with the sonic punch of a brutal death metal band. Vocalist Champ Morgan spent the entire set offstage, taking to the grass, stalking back and forth, sometimes getting physical with those in the front row. The few times Morgan wasn’t singing, guitarist/backing singer Chris Richardson’s solid growl and shriek fit snugly in the driver’s seat.

Back in the main hub downtown, we made our way to Beerland. (No. Really. The bar is called Beerland). But it was unfortunately only in time to catch a couple of Pallbearer songs. Saviours followed up with their retro-metal/proto-metal obsessed tunes that pulled the ’70s kicking and screaming into Texas. Ignoring Austin Barber’s subpar vocals, Saviours is a thoroughly entertaining live band with classic metal riffs glued together by the band’s solid backbone: drummer Scott Batiste.

By the time we arrived at the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge show, Narrows were playing their last few songs to a packed, um, bridge. The sound wasn’t great, but it was surprisingly decent considering the show was on a friggin’ bridge. Their singer’s fierce hardcore vocals were forced into the sky with the kind of intensity and delivery that might lead one to believe he was summoning the devil. Surreal. For realz.

The cops subsequently shut the show down prior to the likes of Darkest Hour taking stage. (By stage, again, I mean bridge.)