Surreal Adventures in Modern Music at the Empty Bottle (9/9-13)

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    Will the festival season ever end? Part of me hopes so, but another part hungers for more. And The Wire sponsored Adventures in Modern Music Festival at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this past week pushed that hunger to a limit. I’m now pretty sure that another festival would kill me.

    Now, that’s certainly not to say that I didn’t enjoy my four days at one of Chicago’s best venues; it didn’t help that I was sick, and couldn’t make it out of the house for one of the five shows. But, the array of noise, improv, under-the-radar, generally weird and generally amazing acts covering those five days made my sore throat not feel too bad.

    Wednesday, September 9th

    Anyway, I arrived at the Empty Bottle on Wednesday sure that it would be an interesting night. Of the four acts, I knew two fairly well, had cursory knowledge of another and had never heard of the fourth (which seemed to be a general pattern for every show). After grabbing a beverage, I trudged over to the stage as cursory-knowledge-act and local electronic noise trio Haptic (which means pertaining to the sense of touch) began their set. The trio of Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills, and Adam Sonderberg lived up to their name, producing heavily layered, dense, textured drones that hung heavily throughout the room. Whether it was pairing cymbal washes with low, rumbling thunder-like sounds or an incredibly long snare roll with a staccato bass that sounded like some far-off, unknown rap beat from a car down the street, the trio were intensely connected and inventive.


    As metal statesman Joe Preston took the stage, the many beards and black shirts suddenly seemed about right. Preston’s history seems to call such fashion forward, as he’s a former member of legendary groups including The Melvins, Earth, and High on Fire. (He’s also played with SunnO))) and recorded with Harvey Milk.) With a distinguished gray beard, long black hair surrounding a bald spot, and all black clothes, Preston stood alone with his bass, a laptop sitting on a chair playing all the drum and other parts from his recordings. It was kind of silly to see Preston alone up there, growling and grunting along to pre-recorded instrumentation. And silly, to be sure, isn’t the most desired adjective for metal. Occasionally throwing his vocals through a vocoder, Preston’s impressive chording and shredding sounded and felt a lot like a guitarist but in an ass-kicking low rumble. But, still, the set was definitely weakened by the absence of live drumming. Multiple times the recorded drumming would tear off into an impressive peal of destruction, but it seemed crazy to leave that to a laptop.

    Improv/experimental drummer Chris Corsano graced the stage next. Corsano’s pedigree, which includes collaborations with Jandek, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Jim O’Rourke, Paul Flaherty, and C. Spencer Yeh (who would be performing as Burning Star Core a few days later) among many others, is startling. Even more startling is this year’s Another Dull Dawn, an impressive solo release. Yet more startling was Corsano’s solo set. His use of the drum kit is imaginative and inventive; he used a pair of gongs to hit his cymbals, he scraped rubber mallets over the drum. But the most interesting point of the set came later. Corsano held a melodica in one hand, droning one note as he used a violin bow on the rim of his snare drum, matching the tone. He then added harmonizing notes on the melodica, producing an ethereal, warbling chord.

    After Corsano finished, blacklights started getting plugged in around the stage. The neon orange, yellow and green posters covering the stage quickly illuminated with an eerie glow. I’d never heard of CAROLINER, but apparently the self-proclaimed “tribute band to the singing bull of the 1800s who had the same name” have been around making their noise-pop-bluegrass fusion for over 25 years. But, nothing could have prepared me for what came walking through the crowd to the stage. Clad in day-glo Aztec-from-the-future costumes, the group could best be described as “really f**king creepy.”  Or maybe “surreal” or both.


    One bassist had a helmet that looked like a broken mirror covering a box, while the other looked like a giant insect. The drummer looked like he was wearing a broken lion skull over his head. The synth-player was a giant-headed creepy cowboy and the trumpeteer a strange combination of ram and squid. They looked like Gwar on mushrooms, while the music could best be described as a folksy carnival stuck somewhere between outer space and hell.

    Thursday, September 10th

    After day one, I was ready for anything. But, day two opener Sharon Van Etten‘s set rolled over the Empty Bottle like a breath of fresh air. Her lush, warm voice, serene guitar work and strong song-writing sounded perfect for a melancholy rainy day. The Brooklynite sounded and looked a lot like Dirty Projectors’ member Angel Deradoorian, but her intensely familiar music was much more straight-forward than Deradoorian’s solo material (Mirah or Cat Power might be more comparable, but Van Etten‘s music was too insular for Mirah). Lines like “The moral of the story is don’t lie to me again” and “Dreams that might come true with you” were just dark enough to keep things from being too saccharine. The excellent “I Fold”, about trying to deal with moving back in with your parents in your 20s, was smart and tightly composed.

    Lucky Dragons‘ set was next, and, I have to admit, this was the one I was most looking forward to. After a last-minute decision this winter to drop into the Heaven Gallery for a Lichens/Joe Grimm/Lucky Dragons set, I would have to say my life was changed. Artists Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rara (who was sadly missing in action this evening) produce world music-inspired, glitch-friendly drones on album, but their live shows are transcendental, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Their most notable composition is the sublime Make A Baby, which incorporates instrumentation that had to have sprung from the mind of a genius or two. On this night, it began with Fishbeck at a laptop on the venue‘s floor, manipulating samples into a beautiful, haunting loop. He then grabbed a series of wires with shakers on the end, handing them to audience members. The rattles, when shaken, were put through delay and sounded like rattlesnakes. The echoing shakes paired beautifully with the chiming samples, but Fishbeck’s next two tricks really were the icing on the cake. He began handing rocks to audience members, and showing them how moving them nearer and farther from a strange box he had connected to his laptop would produce fluttering, spacy, changing synth tones. After a while of this, he attached wires to the box, each wrapped in a conductive fabric and ending in a metal prong.


    Audience members were chosen to hold each of the wires, and then shown that direct skin contact between the newly-inducted-performers would produce similar spacy sounds. Anyone could come up, place one hand on one performer’s arm and the other on someone else and make a new connection, a new change to the music. And this was all happening while Fishbeck’s samples continued to trill out in beautiful loops. Fishbeck also handed out some small gongs and mallets, before he finally picked up a reverb’ed kalimba and a wired flute, acting like the pied piper of the future of music. This interactive, entrancing music involved the crowd directly and perfectly. Everyone in the room was making this wonderful music together, without any prior experience necessary, without necessarily knowing any of their bandmates. This truly was one of the best performances I’d ever seen.

    After a quick set by Norwegian eclectic 90’s devotee Hanne Hukkelberg and another by Andy Moor (guitarist of legendary anarcho-punk-jazz group The Ex) and DJ Rupture, night two was also in the books, and I was ready for another night of wonder and amazement.

    Friday, September 11th

    Night three began as I walked into the venue to a dark drone from Ju Suk Reet Meat (from the more than 30-year-tenured Portland-via-California noise group Smegma) and Oblivia (a frequent member/collaborator with Smegma). The duo were making a heck of a racket with a sliding guitar-like instrument and a table of noise-making gadgets.


    The following act, C. Spencer Yeh (tonight performing solo as Burning Star Core) should be a familiar name to anyone who has filtered through the “experimental/noise” section of their local record store. The Cincinnati noise artist and founder of DroneDisco Records (which releases his own material, but also excellent material from the likes of Hototogisu and Hair Police), Yeh’s masterful violin and noise work swept over the small crowd. The music ranged from droning jazz (with Yeh playing the role that Ron Carter’s cello did) to blissful ambient noise experimentation. The final piece of Yeh’s set started with an unusually normal drum ‘n bass loop with an eventual crescendoing wall of violin drone. Once the loop faded away, the glittering wall remained, haunting and chilled.

    After a short, dark and droney set from Montreal experimental metal duo Menace Ruine, the crowd near the stage tripled. No longer was it a place for weird, bearded men and a few ladies; the crowd had suddenly become an exciting, dance-party-ready crowd of well-dressed people. That meant it was time for the eternally serious YACHT to bring their eternally serious party jams. Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans jumped onstage (Bechtolt in a white suit reminiscent of an Evangelical preacher) and immediately commanded the audience’s full attention.

    Their set, complete with a powerpoint presentation about where they come from, was full of interesting twists (including a Google Street View of their apartment). The intense “I’m In Love With A Ripper” found Bechtolt swinging his white microphone cord around and dancing like David Byrne fronting the Black Eyed Peas. During a question-and-answer session, someone asked why he wasn’t in The Blow anymore. Bechtolt responded with a politely scathing remark about former bandmate Mikhaela Yvonne Maricich (“the other person in the band isn’t a good person”). They also led the crowd in a sort of YACHT pledge, which ended with a line about not repeating after others, which the crowd wisely didn’t repeat after Bechtolt.


    “You guys are a lot smarter than Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans” Bechtolt added, referring to the duo’s current tour with Karen O and company. They played a new song that included the line “blow out your brain, do the Kurt Cobain”. The song that concluded the set, though, garnered a full audience sing-along and the dancing shook the floor more than I’d ever seen at the Empty Bottle. “Psychich City (Voodoo City)”s brilliant wordless chorus and Claire Evans’ confident, strong vocals was easily one of the best moments of the week.

    Saturday, September 12th

    Saturday evening was the show that I missed. This meant I missed electro-folk group Mountains, psych-garagesters Ty Segall, the self-proclaimed black metal/swing/classical duo OvO, and world folk duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw, which I’m sure I’ll hear later was easily the best night of the five.

    Sunday, September 13th

    Finally, it was night five. Current “it” band from current “it” label Woodsist, Woods kicked off the night with a generally strong set. The group opened with a long, droney instrumental piece that sounded a lot like a mixture of Tortoise’s tight instrumentation and Pocahaunted’s freak folk aesthetic. The piece had a great, dark forest mysticism to it that carried through most of the set, vocalist/tape and pedal manipulator G. Lucas Crane rocking around on the floor with his trademark headphone-microphone angled over his face. After a while, though, it seemed like they had gotten that piece out of the way so they could get to the songs. Once guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Earl began singing in his falsetto, it sounded more like California psych-rock group Ducktails with a strong Neil Young influence.


    Subarachnoid Space came next, their experi-metal noodling filling the room with some of the loudest drumming I’ve ever heard. Wisconsin-via-Phoenix (weirdest band locator ever) singer-songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, and her gothy, noisy experimental pop played third. By this point, my brain was aching and I needed to go to sleep. I needed to get out of the Empty Bottle and never go back. I needed to go home, take some cold medicine and wrap myself in a blanket. But, as I exited the place, I thanked the lord that the Empty Bottle had stamped my hand with a bunny stamp on the way in. There stood Tortoise member Doug McCombs amongst a group of others eagerly waiting for Zola Jesus’ set to end so they could get a glimpse of Phantom Orchard, the much-admired collaboration between electronic artist Ikue Mori and harpist Zeena Perkins. This convinced me that it was worth another hour. And I’m glad it did; the swirling, beautiful combination of prepared harp (staccato and quick) with Mori’s burbling laptop sounds moved into a lush, stuttering harp movement complete with wonderfully glitch-and-pop electronics.

    Photos by Katie Schuering (except Lucky Dragons photos by Ashish Patel)