On Land Festival 2010 — Thursday shows

And kicking off a series of retrospective posts looking back on the past weekend when I went to SF and droned out. As it were.

My overall post about last year’s festival describes the whole guiding principles behind the festival and the like — it was held in the same location this year, but with some differences. First, instead of concentrated in on a couple of days it was spread out over four days, all shows being in the evening. This was a big plus for me and I think for most of us, if only because it meant we could rest up and/or take it easy all day. Second, most of the shows this time around took place in the Cafe du Nord rather than the Swedish American Hall; while I was certainly grateful to be able to sit down on the final night in the Hall itself, the Cafe space is smaller and a little more comfortable on hot days and/or evenings.

But the key thing remained the same — this was a blast of a time, great performances throughout, in fact I can’t think of one set I didn’t enjoy to one degree or another. Definite sign of quality control at work! I’ll save all the thanks and best wishes for the final post in this sequence but I’ll kick things off pretty much the same as my usual approach — selected photos from my Flickr set and edited descriptions from my Twitter feed.

En, On Land

En — “And On Land officially starts! Maxwell and James with a really big sitar like thing and an electronic setup. This is pure sonic catnip for me, loud blissed out drones….I freely admit to loving music that takes me out of the everyday and this is doing the job very very well.”

Rene Hell, On Land

Rene Hell — “Catching up with my friend Nari and then Rene Hell kicks in…Rene is in front of the stage with his keyboard setup and playing all sorts of random goodness. Bloops blurts and more besides…playing his last song now, a big majestic evil/exultant whomp of a piece. Must really pick up his new cassette.”

Danny Paul Grody, On Land

Danny Paul Grody — “He uses the guitar as something to channel sounds not typically guitar…What’s especially nice about Danny’s set is its openess. It almost reminds me of Roy Montgomery’s monumental Terrastock II set. Lots of effect pedals use now — and Danny just plugged in his Nord Electro 2 keyboard. Bring on the looped swirls…Good as the first two sets were, this is the highlight so far. Danny Paul Grody now creating majestic swells of sound.”

Pulse Emitter, On Land

Pulse Emitter — “…pretty much living up to his name with a nefarious device. It’s a combination keyboard and effects pedal rig/box, self-contained but massive sounding, creating a serene loud flow…Very much shifting into Jean-Michel Jarre territory now. Or maybe Ash Ra Tempel circa 1976. A compliment…And now into deep swelling drone loops and keening serene blasts. All hail Pulse Emitter!”

Starving Weirdos, On Land

Starving Weirdos — “…taking the stage with beer in hand. A good approach…almost like a pocket orchestra version of Pelt, synths, percussion, pulses. Serene…Lots of gear onstage but it’s not limited to it — flutes, recorders, walkie talkies and feedback, all very flowing…Shifting to include clarinets, saxophones, vocals. Everything increasingly unsettled…Interesting seeing the shift from three years ago as hidden in the dark performers to confident, self-contained unit…And now to a variety of percussion instruments and treated vocal keening. Nothing wrong with that.”

(There should be a Barn Owl photo here but I couldn’t seem to find one on my camera! I thought I took one!)

Barn Owl — “…with a drummer, are about to rock. It’s not “it might get loud,” it WILL get loud…It’s all minimal lighting and open ended guitar lines and rumbling drums so far. A laying of groundwork…Okay now it’s getting nuts. Flying hair, drumming roars and guitar feedback fighting through chaos. Didn’t take long!…And from there into big e-bowed drones that are suddenly very beautiful. This band is rapidly becoming a national treasure…Last year I said they created black walls of sound. Here it’s the same black walls with a burning light ripping through…Quieted down and turned all very Pink Floydy all of a sudden. Wish You Were Here/Animals era that is.”

Summer AMG reviews to share…

Another batch from the past few weeks:

Bottled Smoke II — Sunday afternoon

The Sunday afternoon Bottled Smoke II lineup

And now on to the second and final post — though there was a lot more to the weekend than just the two afternoons!

Like the previous festival, this was a three day affair, though this time around I found I could only get to the afternoons of Saturday and Sunday rather than the full Friday through Sunday haul. A real pity but such is life and I can’t complain with what I did catch! I actually like the feeling of the afternoon sets like this, tucked away into the small locations that both the Echo Curio and the comparatively larger syncSPACE find themselves in — neither are rock clubs as such and so they just feel different and, honestly, nicer than a lot of clubs, just because it is something else.

Those in attendance similarly fit that feeling, and I should say that as with last time I had a chance to meet up with and get to know a wide number of folks, not least of which were many of the performers. Some I’d known from the first Bottled Smoke, some well before that — I think I first met Tom Carter back in 2000 if not earlier — while others were new friends, though there were people who I knew without knowing, as it were. On Saturday I noticed one fellow that I knew I had seen at various past events, and we ended up being introduced by Grant at the Echo Curio — his name’s Mike, who runs the Seagrass Recordings label, and it turned out we knew various people in common and had both been at various Terrastocks, last year’s On Land festival and so forth. Not too surprising, really! Communities do form and continue this way, though they can be broad enough that people don’t close circles until years have gone past.

In meeting folks like him, Bryce at Abbadon Records, Phil and Myste at Stunned Records and in once again meeting Tynan at DNT Records and Nate at Abandon Ship Records one gets the best sense of just how in a time when we’re well into ten years plus of the music industry’s wider collapse and readjustment that the impulse to create, sell and otherwise maintain an economy for music in a physical form still remains and thrives. Over at Chain of Knives I’ve posted about how the whole cassettes-are-back meme seems to have taken on new life now that vinyl-is-back is exhausted for novelty but the deeper truth — and this is just a sampling of all the possibilities out there, obviously, among so many different labels and sounds and styles — is that there are multiple options for any number of performers and any number of curators or label founders, that one can find comfort levels.

I had a good conversation with Phil about this on Sunday, as I was genuinely curious as to how he viewed the inevitably of his particular limited-edition tape-only approach, in that there would inevitably be those who, because of demand or interest or just general obsessiveness, would be looking to convert and share the results ASAP. He acknowledged that he wanted to see that each release properly sold out first and did follow up with those who instantly ripped what they got a hold of but once sold out he really didn’t mind the mp3s circulating out there, because that way those who did need and want the physical item had it, while his creative goals had been achieved — the release of a physical product whose aesthetics he enjoyed — and recompense had been gained. He and Myste had also spoken about their desire to move away to some degree from the short cassette approach, which has generally been common in my own experience with recent work, to longer releases, allowing for more room and longer, more involved compositions.

If anything this reminded me further of the sense of options at work, that there is as much out there to try as can be imagined, and to whatever degree as the technology allows. I wouldn’t say it’s some radical change per se but there is more than ever a clearer and wider range of simply doing whatever works, that the means of production are now able to accessed by so many more than before. It’s still a business structure that exists, of course — somebody still has to make those tapes, that vinyl, etc. — and there are compromises in other areas too (more than one high-profile musician I’ve spoken with over the years specifically laments that the shift from full job to side job/hobby which an adjusting business model has created has meant new pressures, less abilities to learn craft at a different pace or context than possible for most now).

But more of this for a later time, and more on what I actually bought at the festival then too! For now, just to say again what a great time I had, how friendly, without fail, every one of the performers were, and much thanks as ever to Grant at the Echo Curio and Chris and Katie at syncSPACE for all that they do. Were I living up in LA I suspect I would be seeing a lot more shows there! Hope to see many of the people I saw there at On Land in September.

What follows are the collated Twitter posts I made on each artist along with a featured photo and a link to a band or musician webpage — the full set of photos from Sunday afternoon can be found here. All these Sunday sets were performed at syncSPACE. I should also say I had to duck out a touch early and thus missed the final set of the afternoon by the always great Metal Rouge, sadly!

Justin McInteer at Bottled Smoke II

Justin McInteer — “Justin McInteer starts things off with a set done on harmonium. By singing without any amplification — none appears to be applied to the harmonium either — the effect is very intimate. It aligns McInteer less with folk-as-such than with musicians who use the tools to create something more of the now. Add in the rhythmic drones and I’m reminded of Miss Murgatroid’s set I saw over a decade back at a Little Tokyo club.”

Matthew David at Bottled Smoke II

Matthewdavid — “Matthewdavid now starts up with a fair amount of gear, compressors and a variety of swirled sounds. You quickly get a sense of his DJ work, he’s treating the gear as if it was a set of turntables, a lot of quick intercutting. The resultant music suggests various antecedents — Legendary Pink Dots, non popsong Avalanches. Plus a sense of deeper found sound ‘take the remote alien ballroom dance broadcast and make it more so’ aesthetics. His physicality with the gear reminds me of Dan Brown’s percussive set yesterday; this set as recorded would not quite work.”

Dead Magic at Bottled Smoke II

Deep Magic — “Okay if nothing else this next set is featuring a LOT of gear. Said gear BTW belongs to Deep Magic, who are about to start here…sometime…soon… And here we go. Starting out with guitar played with cigarette lighter, after which the pedals and more start to kick in. After which he sets aside the guitar to concentrate on keyboards and pedals using the initial tones as building blocks. As with Pedestrian Deposit yesterday the sense here is of power implied rather than demonstrated with deep drones. Yet the sense is of something friendly, almost gently inquisitive and contemplative, suiting the source of the band name. The addition of vocal samples and additional guitar brings another Adam Forkner comparison to the fore, not suprisingly so.”

Sean McCann at Bottled Smoke II

Sean McCann — “And after a quick break Sean McCann starts with equal gear but a noisier feeling. There’s similar elements — echo, depth, serene chill — but everything here combines into a more sudden squall of sound. At times it almost sounds like full-on ambient serenity trying to fight its way through the swathes, intentionally failing. Extra bursts of noise add to the chaos, while his live violin additions seem to create yet more reverb above all else. When the clearer tones of the violin do emerge from the mix, though, the sense of a sudden elegance, a lovely anchor. A full shift into open-ended howls of cavernous sound, slowly ebbing and flowing, then follows.”

Alpine Decline at Bottled Smoke II

Alpine Decline — “Alpine Decline now firing up their two person rock machine as such. Easily the most ‘traditional’ band of all the ones I’ve seen so far, has a feeling of early Codiene with gaze-friendly echo. The background feedback zone adds a sense of extra melancholia, but the next song is definitely fired up more in pace. If not as surprising as Rangers were last night, this is still a sharp performance, pushing just enough fuzz/hook buttons. Whether it’s the amps or the reel-to-reel or more, they definitely do a good job at adding some loud volume to the scuzz. The sort-of ballad now, first just guitar and then with drums, could almost prompt lighter waving in another universe.”

Tom Carter and Barn Owl at Bottled Smoke II

Tom Carter and Barn Owl — “The Deglet Noor Fakirs didn’t show while the Barn Owl folks have to get back to SF soon so they and Tom Carter are setting up as I type. Why yes I’m essentially front and center for this, why do you ask? What’s nice about this combination is that it can go any number of ways. As it stands at the start, delicacy is key with something suggestive of the deep tones Fripp created for Sylvian, higher parts arcing out over the gaps. What’s also clear is Tom’s gift as a collaborator; at no time does it feel like ‘his’ project with assistance. As the performance now builds, the ‘black walls of sound’ that once described Barn Owl as creating now stand out more with Tom’s part alternately adding to the building flow and finding a separate space within it. Quite something. I’m now feeling this through the floor as much as through the air. It’s a perfect sublimity, like last time MBV came through. After a slide into a joint drone, then even more open ended feedback highs, a blasted but high-flying feeling. Tom’s work is almost akin to David Gilmour fighting through surrounding aural corrosion. The performance has slowly adjusted away from dark undertows and crushing force to an aspirational rise to somewhere. A sense of almost…reaching beyond limits, hoping to reach an impossible endpoint but still trying.”

Thoughts on the On Land Festival in San Francisco

The Swedish American Hall stage

As anybody who follows my Twitter feed probably knows all too well, I was up in SF for a few days just now — something I always like to do every so often so I can visit my sis, but also because on that particular weekend the On Land Festival was being held. Started by the good folks behind the Root Strata label, it’s one of any number of festivals and get-togethers this decade inspired by the example of such gatherings as the Terrastocks over the years, in case revolving around the label roster thanks to the many enjoyable acts that have put out releases on it.

I have to say — as I told Jefre of Root Strata directly at some point, I think — that for many reasons this was one of the best such events I’ve yet attended. I think it was down to a combination of things — a good location to start with in the center of the city (literally all I had to do was walk a couple of blocks to catch a tram back to my sis’s after each day ended), wonderful venues in both the Cafe du Nord and especially the Swedish American Hall (most of the festival took place there and the sound throughout was top-notch), enthusiastic support from all involved, good crowd and in the end a really, really sharp collection of bands that played one excellent set after another.

As I put it in one tweet a few bands in, “key hallmark of the festival so far = variety. It is not simply a ‘drone’ festival, each act has a distinct sound.” And that IS key — you could easily sense the throughline on each act, why they released something on Root Strata and why they were at the festival, but while that sense of something overwhelming and awe-inspiring held sway each time, the resultant range is the true measure of success for both label and festival. I had intentionally held back from listening to any of the bands I wasn’t familiar with already prior to the festival, because I just wanted to experience it completely fresh — very glad I did so, it often meant not merely surprises but truly pleasant ones.

Root Strata’s blog has two sets of photos up from the festival here and here, check ’em both out, along with this clip of the mesmerizing performance by Sun Circle. I’m sure there are many other things out there too, I’ll have to look around a bit!

My own series of photos can be viewed here. For the remainder of this entry, I’m going to pull together the various thoughts via Twitter I had for each performance, plus a link to the band’s site and a representative photo — and please keep in mind a number of acts performed in little or no light at all! Very intentionally. Enjoy, and by all means check out all the artists’ work and support them as you can — as well as the Root Strata label in general via their catalog.

Thanks again to Jefre and Maxwell of Root Strata for pulling it all together — see you next year!

Jefre and Maxwell

Danny Paul Grody

Danny Paul Grody: “…starting the festival with gentle, slow guitar moodouts, then further shifting to keyboards, then acoustic guitar, a gently flowing collage. By adding wordless vocal keening to the layers of sound, the feeling is of a calmer White Rainbow set.”

John Davis

John Davis: “…with help from Maxwell of Root Strata. Davis opening on electric guitar, Maxwell on koto (I think). Elegant melancholic drone from the start. The koto textures the deep drone, which in addition to the landscape film projection is pure slow sunrise beauty….John Davis set just wrapped up on a note of perfect serenity.”

Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes: “…now on stage with a tableful of nefarious devices. A good start….The combination of mixers, pedals, Haynes bowing something and more suggests a lost spaceship, a damaged hulk….Haynes also using acoustic elements well — rhythms and scrapes in a bowl adding a literal crumbling.”


Darwinsbitch: “…deep oscillating drones, electronic violin at a high pitch. Compelling! The combination of the violin’s odd modalities and the vast moaning drone is near Köner-levels of awe. The addition of a slow rising melodic motif put this set at the top of the heap. Stellar.”

Metal Rouge

Metal Rouge: “…focused facing their amps, creating arrhythmic scrabble and drone chaos….their more Sonic Youth/Dead C style playing here is a nice contrast to what has happened so far without disrupting it — again, showing what ‘drone’ can actually encompass. Also, swapping from drums to trombone = nice touch!….And they even ended on a drum solo because why not!”

William Fowler Collins

William Fowler Collins: “…now starting with a big ol’ blast of feedback — that was more a soundcheck — now playing to film accompaniment of water/bubbles. Suggestions of an Old West in the shadow of electricity, twang lost in echo and drift, dark roars….A screech of wires across a night desert, looming power terminals over blasted sand. Majestic.”

Starving Weirdos

Starving Weirdos: “Unlike at Bottling Smoke, this time there’s light onstage….Set up reminds me of early Pelt but sound is more of a mix of echoed howl, mixing murk, chimes, unease. Perhaps the most theatrical show, sonically if not visually.”

Scott Goodman/Operative

Operative/Scott Goodman: “Pure sine wave oscillation madness so far. The equivalent of liquid chalkboard scraping….Okay now that the full drumming is kicking in it makes more sense — New Wave Lightning Bolt, kinda. Suggestions of Suicide, DAF, Trans Am, Mouse on Mars — aggroelectro. Yet still droney!”

Joe Grimm

Joe Grimm: “…now starting, with his film/audio setup on the floor, projecting to the stage….The most minimal of the shows so far — Grimm avoids expected stage presence and projects blank white, letting the flicker of the two beams match the buzzing hissing insect drones he creates, a thousand angry bugs. The constant changes in screen flicker suggest ghost images, all while the drones get angrier and louder.”

Pete Swanson

Pete Swanson: “Saw Yellow Swans once, will be interesting to see the difference….has guitar and mike ready but so far it’s rumbling craggy drone….I’d say this was the most shoegaze set yet, but of the cryptic aggro version — FSA at its most unhinged. Shifting to classic guitar/buried sing scream style now, fighting through waves and waves of sound.” (I randomly mentioned this comparison to Pete later and he suggested more of a Gate sound, which makes PERFECT sense.)


Ducktails: “…a guy, a guitar and a lot of gear, plus bright lights. And twinkly keyboards….it’s all rather sparkly somehow….Okay and the sample swirl explains the Hawaiian references — like a lazier Avalanches, not without charm. This might be the first performer ever who takes percussive inspiration from Tones on Tail’s “Slender Fungus.”

The Alps

The Alps: “…after a slightly rushed soundcheck, the Alps are good to go. The first ‘traditional’ rock band lineup of the day, but aiming for mantras in a Spiritualized sense in part….Also exploring open zone freakouts, Stooges/Can steady builders, an effective tour of styles.”

Keith Fullerton Whitman

Keith Fullerton Whitman: “Keith Fullerton Whitman has plugged in his box of mystery wires and we’re off and running. And I’m definitely not kidding about the box….Whitman uses/abuses electronics to make them both uglier and prettier, a simultaneous reworking. The pulses, abbreviated melodies, loops and underscoring crushing collapse just screams tension. One senses Whitman is willfully unsure what the machines will do, testing to see what happens.”

[Tarentel was next and closed out the first night, and by all accounts slew. But I was wiped! Had to cut out early and recuperate — I’ve been lucky enough to see them before so I knew they would rule and I regret having to duck out. Next time!]

Brendan Murray

Brendan Murray: “As the photo sorta shows, this is another set where films are key, with Murray behind his computer. Murray’s work is a kind of classic drone, overlapping tones and rhythms as deep, strange contemplation. The choice of film projections — insects, water, plants — is actually more soothing than the music!”

Common Eider, King Eider

Common Eider, King Eider: “…a duo, with one on two guitars and violin and another just guitar. Very contemplative, calm Charalambides style to start, but tension builds….Should also say there’s a third member, a pianist off to the side hidden by amps a bit. The combination is ultimately familiar but still striking, forlorn voices and notes in suspension.”

Sun Circle

Sun Circle: “Sun Circle begin with low light and hand percussion, plus mixers….It’s a lovely way to suggest ‘wrong’ elements (drum circles, new age spirituality) via a different context. Meanwhile, slow building feedback murmur textures and starts to override the performance as viewed/interpreted.”

Barn Owl

Barn Owl: “Flying Vs and guitars with bows. It’ll be bemusing, whatever is about to happen….Yet the result is calm and contemplative, both guitars bowed while films again play. As ever, by forcing the eye away from the band, the result is strange disconnect, an actual film soundtrack even when, as now, the duo now play guitar directly, a dreamy slow spiral down akin to Isis or Jesu, or even Sunn0))) at a stretch, but cleaner and less obviously metal or shoegaze, if you like….Even now, moving fully toward full drone howl, it’s a feeling of black walls of sound, performance hidden away.”

Ilyas Ahmed

Ilyas Ahmed: “Ilyas fronting a trio lineup. With Honey Owens of Valet on guitar and Jed from Heavy Winged on drums, it’s a nice switch from Ilyas’s solo approach….There were rumors of Doors-like rock sleaze for this set — no leather pants yet….The feeling so far is of Ilyas at his most serenely unsettled — spikes and starts behind an air of calm. His keening vocals here feel more lost in the music as a result, a sinking anchor into bubbling water….The shift to full improvisation makes sense, given his affinity for and knowledge of many musical approaches.”

Christina Carter

Christina Carter: “Her ever-powerful, wordless wails are as stunning as when I first heard them ten years back, plus having seen Joan La Barbara in her company the other day, her approach has a greater context for me, less rhythmic but more free and swooping, yet equally yearning to reach beyond linguistic traps which, matched by her shards of reverb country guitar, relentlessly suggest fracture and refraction.”


Grouper: “Grouper now starts, her own vocal keening and guitar approach complemented by a slew of pedals and films….By playing her initial parts as samples, she moves the focus from direct performance to direct manipulation, her individual parts of playing become redone elements in flowing evolution….By contrasting Christina Carter’s immediate performance with Grouper’s, the festival rightly concludes with an extension of the themes of like/unlike — common elements but individual approaches, set for set….The return to vocal/guitar now complements the samples in turn, working them back into a slow, depthless riff, another demonstration of Grouper’s ability to know the difference between homage and invention in that this does not reconstruct shoegaze, sampling, loops etc but aims for a shifting new synthesis….The silent presence of the audience has never felt so strong before now. It seems fitting to end the festival thus. It is also is fitting to end with a rich sound, feedback and delay plunging down and down, perfectly suiting the dark black water of the film, light sparkling on the edges, framing the full depths. A triumph of art.”