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 K├Âner-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.”