Editors’ Choice: Festival Season
Last June at Northwest Terror Fest in Seattle, I ran into a man suffering from a classic case of FOMO. Like most music festivals, Northwest Terror Fest had their acts playing with slightly overlapped schedules. If you wanted to see every single band, you'd inevitably miss chunks of each performance, and given the time it would take to get from one stage to the other, your time might have been better spent sitting a set out. My acquaintance, a "completist," was having a hard time with that reality. Having dealt with more music festivals than I'd like, I decided to give him a piece of unsolicited advice: instead of treating the festival as a series of concerts, think of it as an experience. This way, you won't feel shame for having paid for a set that you didn't watch, because you'll have made up for it by enjoying yourself in other ways. A music festival isn't really a concert at all; it's just a vacation that revolves around live music.
Apparently, this was enough to ease his option paralysis. He thanked me and went back inside to listen to more music and, presumably, enjoy himself. In his wake though, I felt icky -- in part because who the fuck was I (with my press pass) to be telling people how to feel about their ticket purchases? Also, I couldn't help but feel the advice I gave would have been music to the ears of the corporate festivals that charge inflated prices so people can stand around doing drugs in open fields while wearing appropriated headwear. Selling an "experience" is exactly what leads to Fyre Festival. Moreover, it pushes the bands to the margins of our attention. Why did I sound so much like the people I hate?
For the music industry, summer is festival season. Regardless of whichever genre you prefer, or where you call home, you've likely run amuck of at least one music festival within the last few months. If you haven't visited one in person, you've probably read about one or scrolled past social media updates from attendees. Music festivals determine the shape of tours across the country. They influence release schedules for new albums. The music media organize their calendar around coverage of festivals. Just as streaming has dominated recorded music, festivals have eaten live music whole.
I don't draw that comparison arbitrarily. That streaming and festivals have become such a prominent part of the music industry does not seem coincidental. While the two function differently, both appeal to audiences by offering them buffet-style music consumption. For one price, you are given free reign to choose what you want to listen to and how long you want to hear. If you don't like what's happening at one stage, you can wander over to a different one. If you're not feeling an album recommended to you by your streaming service of choice, you can dive back into the library to find another one. Core to both streaming and festivals is a change in the position of power: the audience is given control, and the artist is relegated to the background. Now unable to connect directly with an audience that came for them, the performance loses all social context and instead becomes pure content in service of a corporately curated "experience."
Festivals achieve this shift in power through their economic model. Instead of paying to see each performer at individual concerts, the audience pays a flat fee for access to a "library" of performances, similar to how listeners subscribe to streaming services. They can then pick and choose which artist they'd like to see, and are in theory saving money compared to the cost of seeing each of these acts on scattered weeknights through the rest of the year. This is the same bargain that any streaming service offers, instead of paying for each individual record, you pay for access to all of them.
This kind of consumption naturally takes power away from the artist performing. When the audience is encouraged to choose their own adventure over the course of the festival, the artist loses their agency over how their set is observed. Instead of being the center of attention, the music fades into the background. The audience never has to commit their full interest into what is happening because other options are always available. The same is true of streaming services like Spotify that prioritize playlists over albums. Songs have their meanings flattened by the absence of context; how a piece of music (or a segment of a performance) relates to the pieces before and after it is diminished in place of what it means as an atomized spectacle.
What's frustrating about this model of listening is that it works really well on the consumer's end. Having the power to walk away in the middle of someone's cathartic chorus feels really good, as does chopping up an bloated record into bite-size, morning-commute-ready chunks. When you get down to it, this current streaming/festie paradigm is only an extension of the power that audiences have always wielded. We've always been able to leave a concert we didn't like or stop a record that wasn't hitting the spot. The difference is that we now consume music in a way that encourages us to use that power more frequently.
I'm not here to tell anyone how to enjoy music. If you want to dilly-dally from stage to stage while dudes in tank tops try to sell you fake acid, be my guest. I've certainly had my fair share of fun at music festivals, and I'm an avid playlist maker in my spare time. But I do think it's worth being wary of the circumstances of that enjoyment, and to endeavour to use our power in a responsible way.
I'm not the only person thinking along these lines. In an op-ed for Pitchfork, Galaxie 500 singer Damon Kurkowski argues that one way to combat the decontextualization of music is to catalog the information that streaming services leave out. While this is a worthwhile goal, I don't think it's the be-all-end-all of responsible consumption. Information is meaningless unless it is being shared. In order to share information, you need to build community.
Music festivals rely on their ability to amass huge numbers of relatively like-minded people in one space. Whether they intend to or not, festivals do create a petri dish for community even if their function is primarily commercial. It is easier to see this in action at smaller festivals. An event like this month's Mathcore Index Festival can't help but foster a community because it is focused around such a niche genre that anyone attending is likely to have a great deal in common. Mid-sized festivals like NWTF or Calgary's Sled Island (which I attended earlier this year for BrooklynVegan) build community by centering their booking around artists from the nearby area, in turn connecting the musicians and attendees to a specific place and thus to each other. There's also value in the way that Sled Island or Roadburn Festival in Tilburg pick one of their performers to curate parts of the festival. This practice instills a sense of connection between the acts of the festival, and also ensures a more personalized experience for the audience.
We can apply this same focus on personalized curation to the streaming world. Instead of relying on pre-made playlists funded by big label money, make playlists for your friends and community. Instead of attending massive music destination festivals, find ones that highlight your local music scene.
These aren't solutions to changing the paradigm we live, but they should help make that living easier. And in that spirit, here are some curated recommendations just for you, dear reader.
"We All Die Laughing"
The Angelic Process - Weighing Souls With Sand
There is something so musically striking about despondent music which sounds like rays of sunlight. I look back on when this was released, now over ten years ago, and wonder what drew me to it in the first place. I was into such dark, horrific music back then, but The Angelic Process was this beam of glory which obliterated a lot of that obscurity. Of course, it too was sad, and so I would sit on the bus and walk the halls, listening to it alone. This song is The Angelic Process's crowning achievement.
"Marie Pisses Upon The Count"
Bosse-de-Nage - Bosse-de-Nage
Listening to the single from their new album Further Still, I am taken back to the first time I heard this album. Now, this was before The Flenser put it out. For some context, Aesop Dekker ran a blog in that golden age of download blogs called Cosmic Hearse (the archive is still up if you feel like checking it out) and shared this album on it. Of course, Bosse-de-Nage had worked with him before on his Funeral Agency label for their two demos, but left this full-length recording to fester after finishing in 2007, ultimately letting Dekker share his CD-R rip on his archival blog (and wonderful outsider black metal discovery tool).
From what I understand, The Flenser ended up discovering them from this wayward little blog post... and here we are. Early Bosse-de-Nage was a different kind of monster. Sure, there were the small echoes of St. Louis post-rock which defined III and All Fours shining through, but this self-titled record was first and foremost a black metal record. I hear a lot of the French and Polish scenes in this -- all darkness, all melody, all mood, all the time. This style comes back, but properly aged and practiced, on their new album. Prepare.
Heavy As Fucking Fuck Edition
Car Bomb - Meta
I have no issue being totally honest all (most) of the time: I had heard about Car Bomb before, but immediately relegated the band to my bottomless bin of "things to check out later" for whatever reason. It happens. But shit, was I ever wrong as fuck to do that -- partly because I love bands which can actually write (vs. merely generate) breakdowns, but also because Car Bomb does so, so much more than that. Probably the most distinctive band still obviously inspired by Meshuggah (djent can't touch this, but not all djent is bad), they wrangle listeners' minds into their esoteric musical mathematics and then annihilate them with blunt aggression. Ian also vouches for this band, saying, "Car Bomb remain one of the most criminally underrated bands in heavy music." When he's right, he's right.
"The Casket You Sleep In"
Beneath The Massacre - Maree Noire EP
It's been six years since the last Beneath The Massacre album, Incongruous -- preceding that, though, the band released this totally monstrous EP featuring all the insane sweep picking, high-speed growling, and hilariously heavy riffing the band had theretofore earned. Somewhat polished compared to their other albums (in a good way), the Maree Noire EP still lacks any semblance of subtlety, especially this sub-three-minute ripper "The Casket You Sleep In." As far as technical death metal goes, Beneath the Massacre were never really "tech-death" as the tag reads, but they always satisfied that same itch -- and as far as sheer energy and raw power go, they had unlimited.
Monoliths - Monoliths
This song drips molasses. This album thunders like a god. This band… takes their time. Just the right amount of slow fuels this doom metal, but it's not just speed (or lack thereof) which matters. It's pacing, coming down to extended sections and how they bleed into one another via transitions. Sounds more like songwriting, actually; Monoliths skillfully maintains solid basslines and beats while gradually varying the guitars and atmospheric details. Monoliths exudes an ever-fading feeling, a persistent monochromacy which adds significant contrast to the mood, amplifying the doom factor. Here, you'll find nothing overly complicated (but nothing overcooked) and nothing remaining (except your decimated remains).
Del Judas - Deity
Last summer during the “pinch me I can’t believe this is happening” run of Twin Peaks: The Return, I made myself a playlist called “Club Silencio House Mix” where I gathered music that referenced or evoked the surreal world of David Lynch’s films. While Twin Peaks has come and gone, Del Judas’s debut album could slide right into that playlist. The record’s title track doesn’t show off any of singer/songwriter Charlie Schmid’s melodic chops, but it is a perfect distillation of the album’s ominous vibe. “Deity” is a wide open and nocturnal mood piece that sets Schmid’s spoken lyrics against a ringing guitar. This is the kind of song that makes you want to dance with the wrong person in the wrong bar. What year is it?
Night Verses - From The Gallery Of Sleep
Any metal band that can remind me of the bubbling rhythms of West African guitar music is gold in my book. What separates this Night Verses track from its competition in the “instrumetal” game is their focus is less on building an atmosphere or shocking displays of technical skill than building a certified groove. While bands like Here Lies Man are integrating afrobeat rhythms into metal more overtly, it is nice to hear that same lively syncopation popping up in less predictable places.
Eluvium - Shuffle Drones
This one is less of an album than an artistic statement about the nature of streaming. Eluvium’s soothing brand of ambient music is ready made for the countless “chill” spotify curated playlists, so it’s encouraging to see him pushing back on the format in his work. Shuffle Drones is intended to be heard on a continuous, shuffled loop so that it never truly takes form or ends. The music is pretty, but listening to it in this manner is subtly disquieting. More of the isolated tracks than you’d expect are built on uncomfortable dissonances that, by the nature of the album’s form, never resolve in a satisfying way. It isn’t the kind of record you’d put on often, but as a piece of commentary it is more effective than you’d expect.