Saturday, May 17, 2014

Napalm Death @ Red Bull Music Academy Festival: Hardcore Activity in Progress

A kind of spiritual successor to the House of Vans shows that ran a few years back, Red Bull sponsored a number music events in New York over the summer. The highlight for me was obviously the one with Napalm Death. It seems strange for bands like Napalm and Bastard Noise to glad hand with, ahem, "multinational corporations"; and frankly, what companies like Red Bull and Scion see in sponsoring extreme metal events is baffling. But with extreme music being split into smaller and smaller pieces by increasingly niche scenes, and very little money going around any of them, metal can use all the help it can get. I say we take their sickly sweet energy drink money and run while we still can.

With the stages in such close proximity, overlap from one stage to another was to be expected, with occasionally comic results. Case in point: Okkyung Lee looked like the world's saddest cellist as she sat on the Mirror Stage awaiting her set time while GNAW's screeching misanthropy reverberated from the Main Stage through her still-empty hall. But when it came time to put bow to string, she was more than capable of holding her own.

Even with the word "hardcore" in the event name, there wasn't much going on that night that was in my wheelhouse; Bastard Noise were one of the few exceptions - and they were stellar. Aimee Artz was a commanding presence as a frontwoman, and Eric Wood wrangled sounds out of his bass the poor instrument was never designed to make. It's amazing how full the band sounded with just a bassist, drummer, and vocalist. Their energized performance owned the Back Room stage and more than made up for the pretentious navel gazing going on everywhere else in the venue. Not just one of the best sets of the night, but one of the best sets I saw in NY this summer.
What's an experimental music showcase without some jazz? The Thing are from Sweden, and ended their set with what they claimed was a Coltrane cover. I can't picture Coltrane's session bassist hitting his instrument quite as much as the The Thing's did, but it was a fun to see jazz taken to this extreme without reaching Zorn-esque overload. 

Meanwhile, guitarist Reg Bloor was on the Mirror Stage doing...something. A small crowd gathered to watch her wail on her guitar, though what we heard we may not all agree on. I listened intently for a few minutes, realized I've never had patience for solo guitarists no matter what genre they're pursuing, and made my way back to the main stage.

During my later days in college, Wolf Eyes were a name that resonated with music snobs and ended up on more than a few mixtapes in my possession. What my cool art school friends never told me is that Wolf Eyes is apparently a guitarist playing indecipherable riffs, a vocalist screaming indecipherable rants, and third member dancing like a scary biker version of the Happy Mondays' Bez. With much of the musical heavy lifting being done by a DAT tape, it's questionable whether what I saw amounted to more than noise karaoke - but if nothing else, Wolf Eyes showed that at high volumes their music is incredibly affecting.

Given the number of heshers who showed up to the event in their heroes' shirts (guilty), it would appear I wasn't the only one who had a middling interest in experimental music and just wanted to see Napalm Death grind and destroy. With a setlist that leaned heavily on their latest album Utilitarian, Napalm, as always, were a glorious exercise in controlled chaos. Perhaps owing to the avant/experimental nature of the event, "Self Betrayal" was aired in a rare showing of their much maligned 90's material. [No "Hung" or "Plague Rages"? I cry foul!] Barney was in fine form, bantering with the crowd and getting someone to finally turn off the damn smoke machine ("We're not the Mission."), as well as using the breaks between songs to proselytize against discrimination in all its forms. Two decades after it first coalesced, this version of Napalm Death isn't just campaigning for musical destruction, but for marriage equality and reproductive freedom as well.

Skullflower is a band that I've been meaning to investigate as I delve deeper into the realm of drone, but seeing them after midnight guaranteed that I'd be too tired to take them in... even with all the free Red Bull I could stuff in my pockets. I'm glad I got to see them, but at the end of a full day that included jiu jitsu and Napalm Death, and with a morning trip to Boston pending, I decided that their formless drone would have been better served through earbuds on the train ride home. Still, the incense was a nice touch.