In this age of corporate-sponsored, all-over illusion, the seemingly personal and private have not only gone public, they’ve been commoditized. Through a perpetuity of narrowcasts from blogs to pods, we’re replacing ourselves with para-personas of our own likenesses and inhabiting ever blander reverse Sim Cities. But on a sun-drenched, grassy highland hovering under a perma-blue sky, the ample mindworld of Jay Babcock and Laris Kreslins jumped into the third dimension (and beyond), integrity intact.
Over nearly three years and seventeen issues, so far, his freebie Arthur Magazine has reinstated ambition, imagination and, in the end, idealism as vital forces against the integrated, mass media myth machine (which, in return, has lauded the newsprint bimonthly). A counterculture rag retooled for an open source century, Arthur’s most remarkable and subtle feat may actually be placing Los Angeles – a city long and loudly regarded as a cultural swamp – as the node of trans-modern discursive currents. Don’t paint it black, this town’s a wormhole.
With interlocking buildings designed in a hybrid Aztec-Deco style by Frank Lloyd-Wright for oil-heiress and theatre-enthusiast Aline Barnsdall, the Barnsdall Art Park was an ideal setting for Babcock to summon the tribes – performers from both coasts and all inside the States, Japan, Europe not to mention meta-geographic coordinates yet to be determined – to meet ‘n' greet the Arthur readership. That it felt like the campus of a K-12 psychedelic prep school only added to the boho vibe.
Perfected by the Brits, ArthurFest’s ATP-style concert – neither mandated by genre absolutism nor industry influence – is relatively new to the States. And though most acts on the bill do not release records on major labels or garner much beyond college radio play, to call ArthurFest an indie-anything is derisive. This smashed rainbow of crazy diamonds easily outshines the interchangeable, mediocre “indie” bands that garner undue appraisal – not to mention summer festivals from the Puget Sound to Coney Island – with the fest's easily marketable otherness. For two days and nights, Babcock's mixtape come-to-life revealed a true arch-alternative.
A truly motley crew: portly, bearded longhair Jussi Lehtisalo on bass and groin-thrusts, shirtless and shut-eyed Janne Westerlund on guitar, rake-thin drummer Tomi Leppänen sporting a shiny, shaved dome and a black bandit-mask to match his turtleneck, and singer Mika Rättö pounding a Rhodes piano in a leather newsboy cap, aviator shades, sleeveless white T-shirt and suspenders. Circle unfurled three cyclical, side-long grooves, with Rättö – confined to his chair for most of the gig but bouncing in his seat – rattling and screeching in a mighty Damo Suzuki tenor over the vacuum-sealed, communal hypnojams. New England’s Sunburned Hand of the Man appeared bloated and cumbersome in comparison. More than twice Circle’s size – eight members, including five guitarists with varying shades of face-scruff plus Vibracathedral Orchestra’s Dr. Michael Flowers guesting cross-legged – they played loose and lost on the larger, outdoor Lawn stage. The occasional profane free verse simultaneously drew Yippie-chants and frat-boy provocation while their rambling, shambolic orchestrations evinced a superiority on vinyl. But the biggest disappointment of the weekend – aside from prohibitively long lines for food and entry to the 300-seater Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and a generally substandard PA system – was the less-than-triumphant return of Pole. More on this later…
While Dusted lent one eye to the Sunburned Hand's running of the mystic motions, the other was gazing upon SHOTM's tourmates Magik Markers, whose scrawl not only awoke the third eye, it damn near sheared away its eyelid permanently. Despite theirs being one of the better documented ascents across this year's blog-iPod-o-sphere, no language or mp3 quite prepared for the magnetic storm of sound, word and body. Simply put, these kids are doing it: making the music that continually contorts inside-out, with each moment revealing the cosmic and chaotic forces at play. Noise, rock, improv, no wave and all reference points therein surrender to antiquity when Magik Markers break out their black hole. Such abstracted wankery aside, another wanking comes to mind: sex appeal. Much love to John from Wolf Eyes and his sleeveless tees, but these are the Rolling Stones of our noisy, free rocking times.
From behind the communal BGT drum kit, Pete Nolan set the mood with some long drawn-out lines on a mouth harp fed into a reverb box. Gradually guitarists Elisa Ambrogio and Leah Quimby worked their way into the PA hot tub, warming up the jets with various layers of distortion, leading Nolan to rumble and crash to stay afloat. Ambrogio's manic, often panicked mantras would often disregard the mounting rythym eddies forming in the water. At some point her guitar was ditched, left to a committee of clawing fans, while she gyrated, clapped and generally let the audience know what she was thinking. A visit from security, a return to the stage, and the set ended shortly after. As with all sets in the theater, the performance was short to allow a proper soundcheck for the next act, and everyone wanted to see Ben Chasny start on time.
The increasingly prolific Chasny, performing as Six Organs of Admittance, started the set solo, mainly running through material from School of the Flower. Sampling and looping himself on familiar, drone-tinged rythym lines, he proceeded to investigate his own ideas with some exploratory jamming. Twenty-four hours later he would cut loose with Comets on Fire, but here Chasny kept it relatively restrained, adding his gentle vocals from song to song with the efficiency of a blue-collar musician.
Eventually he was joined on stage by the drummer and guitarist from Comets, at which point they gave a couple more Six Organ numbers a go, with the expected live edition jam extensions. Though also short, the set served note that Chasny remains a beacon in a congested sky of new weird stars. With both of Dusted's eyes back in the theater, everything came to a painful focus for Pole.
His self-titled CD from 2003 having marred his pristine five-year run, Germany’s Stefan Betke had plenty of ground to recover. Just as his last disc ditched the primary color-coded palette of his prior releases, it also threw an unwelcomed, velvety voice into the mix. Having seemingly invented his own subgenre of ambient music that pulverized dub into a lulling mist of simulated vinyl crackle, deep-bass plunges and icy synth pads, he suddenly seemed to be smoothing out with generic lite-soul flourishes. But onstage for this rare American appearance, Betke stood alone before an Apple laptop, small MIDI-keyboard and mixer. Without a microphone in sight, Betke’s solitude looked promising. A press of the spacebar later, such hope gave up. Like a soda can left open, Pole’s fizz was gone and replaced by saccharine flatness. Betke heaved over his gear as syncopated, hulking rhythms bounced off the speakers, some tones so low one monitor turned a full 180° in the course of the gig. An all-too-brief segment of squiggly oscillations and moog zaps rushed the performance to a climax, but Betke quickly resumed the long, dull gentrification of his virtual Trenchtown. One of the weekend’s few enthusiasts of a drag-and-drop, digital 21st century, Betke was immediately and effortlessly upstaged by another inhabitant of tomorrow’s world.
Masami Akita (a.k.a. Merzbow) differed in every way from Betke. Where the Berliner sported summer vacation wares – khakis and a crisp, short-sleeved button-down – Akita appeared in all black. Where the one stood, rocking to his own patterns and stridently “performing” his computations, Akita sat passively and observed his screeching scrawls scrolling across two PowerBook monitors and swallowing the room whole in one long, spiky gulp. By far one of the weekend’s most anticipated performers, Akita surpassed expectations and surmounted prejudices to become the day’s highlight. His sheets of shrill, shattered hiss – gradients of white noise perfected after years of research – and rumbling, jagged pulses were relentless and anti-entrancing to the point they became a veritable, volcanic force. When the swarm of acid wasps suddenly ceased buzzing, it took Akita closing his laptops to give a cue of conclusion.
Surfacing from both the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre’s subterranean depths and Merzbow’s furiously churning bleach tides, with broken ears and burned mind, we looked to the Lawn Stage for Sonic Youth, and the elder drudes of avant-rock never sounded more melodious. After a muted set thanks to blown-speakers muddying the three guitars and Kim’s bass into a single, colorless gunk (wasn't O'Rourke hired to relieve her of four-string duties?), the quintet returned for a mint encore. Classics of today – “The Empty Page” – and before – “Teenage Riot” – led to a half-lit, SYR-records grade suite of amp-hum and gargling feedback. Thurston grabbed the mike one last time and through his own sibilant susurrus formed a single word: “Peace.” For once, it sounded new.
The smallest of ArthurFest’s three stages and the other outdoor venue besides the Lawn, Pine served as a perpetual window into an all-folkie Renaissance Fair universe where one soft-voiced, straight-haired string band faded into another. But on Day Two, long before the less than surprise guest Devendra Banhart rode-in on a tired Unicorn to take his Pine throne, the stage was crowded by a sextet from South Los Angeles loaded on Bitches Brew. The Young Jazz Giants are barely out of high school but almost sound like they deserve their cocksure title. Through tangles of electric piano lysergics and laser-morphed flanges floating over sturdy kit-work, lone horns squawked and peeled feverishly. Meanwhile, back on the main Lawn stage, Washington DC’s Dead Meadow plodded with sludge-fingered fuzz axes through tired terrain true to their barren name. Thankfully, Pelt’s own Jack Rose was on hand back at the Pine for a live demonstration of the instrument’s mastery, stripped of big muff and dry as a mesa. Working from a small cache of acoustic guitars, his fingers scraped and plucked steely arabesques. The mottled, rambling melodies rang in the midday heat and projected a spectral, dusty distance. The Olivia Tremor Control, de-mothballed and shaking off the dirt amassed during nearly six years of inactivity, were veritable hippies compared to the fest’s other non-folk acts. With good vibrations intact, their freewheeling pop tunes still translate into goofy, gee-wiz quirkiness live. Unfortunately, these master builders of sublimely fried 4-track Babylons revert to longhair Wiggles onstage.
On the other side of the looking glass from OTC’s crayon-colored wonderland, Comets on Fire sped off into to cold, dark depths of astral wilderness only roamed by Metabarons, Cosmic Jokers and other travelers on the edge of time. In lashing convulsions, the five-piece thrashed across the Lawn stage, rapidly approaching zero gravity over the Los Angeles basin. Phaseshifters aflame as hoarse, echoplexed screams were cast into the void, Ben Chasny’s other band is a supernaut. It took the angry, loud machines of The Juan Maclean to surpass them. After a long, visibly tiresome sound check, Juan – accompanied by a mustachioed drummer and blond “Eric” on assorted electric devices – met the sundown and a diminishing crowd with fierce beats and prickly frequencies. The last thing anyone expected from the psych-leaning ArthurFest was a rave, but for 40-plus minutes the grassy Lawn melted into the ultrawold. From behind his shades Maclean turned “Crush the Liberation” even more sinister as pistons thwacked, theremins squiggled and loops layered and pixilated. The gelid “Shining Skinned Friend” and rubbery “Give Me Every Little Thing” made LCD Soundsytem look like a disco-dealing session band with a shouty, boorish frontman.
Next, a double-dose of drone narcosis was offered back at the BGT. Though Earth actually made it a triptych of Jurassic heavy metal minimalism, the womblike theatre seemed even smaller and murkier than before after a day of open-air acoustics.
By the time the Pacific Northwestern duo Growing began – Joe Denardo bent over a table of knobs with a Gibson SG and Kevin Doria standing next to him on bass – the space felt like a bedroom. Aptly named, Growing have yet to be stifled by a single mode. Rather, they’re a blurred montage of Orange crunch, detuned doom, e-bow flow, crystalline shimmers, and celestial etherea. It took the BGT’s shoddy PA system to clip their symphony of seismic crossfades and insert an unwanted gap into the bliss out. Unfortunately, an even worse fate befell Sunn 0))).
Before an impenetrable wall of amplifiers, the duo of guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley plus a third member on lectern-propped moog – all donned in their uniform of grim robes – rattled bones, teeth and brains with their time-lapsed thrums. But the electric funeral came to an abrupt halt as, again, the monitors clipped. Middle fingers were raised but, as with Growing before them, the power returned and this sepulchral Windy & Carl continued on their slow, barbituric dark passage of simmered synapses. Soon, face caked in white paint and towering over the trio, an unidentified figure (Xasthur) entered stage left and grabbed a microphone. As Anderson placed his humming Les Paul into an opened coffin and the tall ghost-demon croaked over the decaying ashscape, again the monitors gave out. Anderson greeted the unwanted quiet with more flying birds and even some violence as a pair of the venues’ sizeable speakers were pushed over.
Meanwhile on the moonlit sod, with souvenir “Onochord” flashlights peppering the night, Yoko Ono screeched and riffed over vibrant un-rock. Spending most of her time closely addressing Sean Lennon’s ear, Ono, the weekend’s de facto veteran of disorder, seemed wholly nonplussed. After roughly 16 hours soaking in ArthurFest’s vivid goon-age daydream – a spectrum of sublimity in the face of such a greater, tumescent ignorance – so was everyone else. And all was better for it.
Pat Mirjahangir took photos and contributed to this article
By Bernardo Rondeau