Every spring, for many years now, a strange and eclectic horde has made its annual pilgrimage from wherever around the globe its happenstance members may reside, to a somewhat painful little patch of Brooklyn, NY, called Williamsburg. They descend upon this spot to partake in a festival immersed in audio, but strangely enough, not quite falling under the category of music. Even stranger to most people would be the antithetical name for such an event: No Fun Fest. These last two curiosities stem from the fact that No Fun is a festival of noise, a genre typically not known for it’s dance parties, nor it’s sing-alongs.
The brainchild of sound artist Carlos Giffoni, who also runs the record label of the same name, No Fun Fest is a place where noise enthusiasts of all kinds, (yes, noise, like any other musical genre, spans many spectrums, and has many subsets), can go to see performances by some of the most creative people in the movement. Finding myself spread, like a rancid marmalade, across this spectrum, I too followed the fold and attended No Fun Fest 09.
Let me first briefly say that I intended to film most of the fest in the same way that I did during SXSW, but apparently I am part of the evolved species in a land of dinosaurs. Shortly into the first night I was informed that filming was prohibited (and as the list of prohibitions went on, it was a good thing No Fun was in the title, because surely that would not have been allowed either).
This, (though I may be wrong), was not the policy of either No Fun Fest organizers, nor of Giffoni himself. But rather an antiquated law instituted by the Williamsburg Hall of Music. Forgive me for sounding post-modern here, but the only purpose I can find for this, would be to intentionally hurt the artists involved. In an era where paid advertising and promotion are actively blocked out by the average person, but fan promotion, which by the way is free, going viral can make a career, I feel that policies like this are asinine to say the least. I was, however, able to get three short videos before reaching the end of the venue’s patience.
What I did instead was utilize my poor iphone like a Swiss army knife. Using it to take, (sadly unprofessional I know), photos, and record audio (which I also believe was not allowed, but was harder to detect). Since I have already mentioned the limitations in using such a device, let me add that they are meant to supplement the writing, thereby giving the reader a fuller sense of the weekend.
On the first evening I arrived in time to hear the artist Raglani weave together a subtle tapestry of sound that engaged the audience and set the tone, (I suppose pun intended), for what was to come. The next set was supposed to have been from the popular Karl Bauer project, Axolotl, but when instead Chris Corsano came out to perform, the theme of randomly changing schedules throughout the weekend set its course.
The improvisational soloist had taken what seemed to be a contact mic to a high hat, and began to manipulate both with various instruments and actions. If Corsano had not been so tightly focused one might have underestimated his talents, by the way he at times literally threw things around. This however only added to the intensity of the set, and sent waves crashing through the speakers. It would be one of the all too few moments of kinetic action during the festival.
Carlos Giffoni, himself, took a more reserved style to his piece, standing behind the traditional table of equipment, making subtle adjustments to affect the aural outcome. The set was based on manipulation of almost dance style beats, and was very well done. But too early in the evening to elicit a proper response from the still spilling in crowd.
Beats, however, were part and parcel for the, much further to one side of the spectrum, electronic synth duo Xeno and Oaklander. One of the interesting things about adding artists like this to the festival is that they don’t fall under the heading of what would typically be called noise. Very linear, with actual songs, and vocals, they would be one of a very few musically formulated performers at No Fun Fest this year (video).
As minimal layers of synthesizers flowed through the crowd, Sean Mcbride stood stoically behind his mic, while Miss Liz Wendelbo had such a visceral reaction to the music that she spent the first song thrashing wildly about while playing keyboard. The crowd applauded enthusiastically at their conclusion, but you could tell that they were not quite sure how to take this more Adult. than Merzbow duo.
One of the most highly anticipated performers of the entire fest this weekend was sadly also one of the worst. Having been a tour de force in the underground in general, not to mention the power electronics community, since 1985, Grey Wolves have become legends beyond their home in England and out across the globe. So it goes without saying that their addition to the 09 lineup was one of the main draws for No Fun attendees. It would not be clich√É¬© to say that as soon as Dave Padbury took the stage, the crowd went wild. You could feel electricity shooting through the room.
But there appeared to be something wrong with the sound. White noise in this arena is usually a terrifying force, but here it was just a trickle. As Dave took the mic to begin preaching, the crowd began to yell for the sound to be louder, and as those cries became the dominant sound, the two regrouped to remedy the√Ç problem. What happened next was described by my festival partner John, as a half set of sound check. The crowd wanted at all cost to be jubilant in the Grey Wolves, but as time went on it seemed as though this was not going to be possible. Arched over a card table of equipment, no one seemed to be able to find a way to increase the audio to it’s typical full fury. None the less, Dave periodically ambled over to the mic in an odd swagger to spout a few phrases.
Suddenly a fuzzed-out dance beat came through the system, and as joke, John began singing Fuck the Pain Away, right before, tragically, Dave Padbury began doing the same thing onstage. It was all very sad and awkward. The entire set ended with Dave changing the line to, Put my cock away, and zipping up his genital exposing fly before exiting the stage. No one could really explain the self congratulation that took place after what was such a sad performance from such a mighty legend.
All was not lost however, as the crowd was about to be soothed into somber calm by the antithesis of let down performance by one-man drone armada Thrones. I suppose if you have trouble getting your head around noise, then you will equally have the some tough time with drone. But if you let yourself let go, and give in to its deep abyss, you will find each beleaguered note send your consciousness further out to sea. Such was the case with a set that, in the subtlest of ways, shook the entire building. (If you watch the short video, you can actually see the vibration of the bass coming up through the balcony, and gently rocking the picture back and forth.)
Joe Preston is to drone what the Grey Wolves are to power electronics. Hearing him perform should instantly rebuff any snide remarks about how anyone can make drone music. Maybe anyone can, but Thrones is the proof that it takes a deep talent and understanding to create such transcendent sounds. The crowd responded with the reverence normally given to high holy rituals, and everyone went off in an astral direction.
Even if the trance had not been broken by the thunderous explosion of applause it certainly would have been ruptured by the next group. Forming from the ashes of on one of modern punks underground legends, Man is the Bastard, Bastard Noise has been a mainstay of the noise world for several decades now. Though having an ever-shifting lineup, Bastard Noise has always kept its same prominence in the noise world. This is the much more bombastic noise that most people are more familiar with. Typically involving ambient and harsh manipulations of analogue equipment, they did not stray from the path during this set.
After a brief statement about the mole people living in the earth, chattering lines of noise ran through a cacophonous beat that prompted an awkward but somewhat awe-inspiring beat from Eric Wood before he spat out venomous vocals over the chaos. Ever energetic, Bastard Noise, this time a duo, went from high to low, from caustic to calm. Their set had the kind of inspiring dynamism that has kept them in their highly lauded spot for so long. As the reverberant echoes squealed out of the speakers for the last time of the evening, the crowd knew that they had just gone through the initiation of an amazing weekend of bizarre and sacred rites.
Day two found me scurrying through the tunnels of the Music Hall and out into it’s massive space in time to be hit by the harsh wall of noise that I had been waiting for, but had yet to hear so far. I was hit by a HNW so loud that you could feel it actually moving the atoms in the room.
The epic slab was under the control of a thin man, all in black, manipulating the sound at podium. Mattin is an experimental sound artist who goes beyond the normal conventions of noise to add aspects of performance that actually question the medium and it’s intentions. After sending nail sharp sounds aloft, he calmly took the mic, walked to the side of the stage, and sat down. There he began to question himself about the reality of his appearance, the intentions of his work, and the reality of their effectiveness.
It was at this point that the potential culture clash brought on by the ebbing of noise into mainstream became apparent. Some painfully hip, self-referential personality in the balcony simply could not handle this break with norm, and began to heckle Mattin with all the wit and criticism of a huffy twelve year old. Insisting that he be louder than the performer everyone had actually come to see, he pushed the person standing next to me to yell back at him to shut up.
I even found myself yelling out to him to shut up and that Blank Dogs would be on soon enough, which was met with cheers and laughter from the crowd. (It’s ironic since I really do like Blank Dogs, I just think the lo-fi phenomenon, and it’s indie rock followers have brought some very unfortunate people into my world.)
I would venture to say that this probably was part of the reaction Mattin was hoping for; a sincere reaction from a crowd forced to have a meta-dialogue in the moment. At any rate, it was all around one of the more interesting performances of the weekend.
This would lead right into the next set, which was the most enthusiastic and kinetic of the weekend. Once their home rigged set up was running properly through the system, Long Island’s Yellow Tears dropped everything to a red clip light and proceeded to tear their way through a primitive noise set that strayed far away from the clinical approach of many noise artists and into that moment when you realize a house party has gone terribly wrong.
Taking off their shirts and savagely gripping their equipment, they still had all of the complexity and dynamism of a group well-versed in their craft. Yellow Tears tread that crass and offensive line coupled with the type anti-rock star stage presence that brings out the best in an audience.
This would be a jolting shift from the soon to follow actual rock stardom of Blank Dogs. And though I hate to beleaguer the point, I spent most of his set up listening to two people behind me moan about how this had so far been garbage, and certainly not music. They were so happy to finally see some guitars. There were two in fact, and a bass, and keyboards, and electronics.
A very full band indeed for what had heretofore been a lo-fi solo bedroom pop project. And while Blank Dogs’ live performances have been met with much excitement, I felt that much of the initial appeal of these chaotic but fragile recordings had been lost in translation. Still though, hiding behind a low pulled hoodie, and backed by a full band, Blank Dogs plowed through a string of many of his beloved hits. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about the new ensemble, I will give him credit for going in, hitting it hard, and then quickly shooting out.
And as the dust blew from the stage, the two lowly members of Pedestrian Deposit sat hunched over their much more minimal equipment, as they laid down a much more quiet and somber form of noise. And while one fidgeted with electronics, the other ran a mic’ed bow over various objects to various effect. This was followed by another stripped down approach by The Sons of God, a duo which includes Joachim Nordwall, one of the members of the much lauded Skull Defekts. They also decided to venture into the arena of performance with two aged men in suits straining under the weight of the world set to an ambient soundtrack. While it was a very striking choice, it did seem to go on a bit past the directions given to the two gentlemen. Nonetheless, it was definitely a welcome choice and addition to the fest.
Accelerating towards the much anticipated finale of night two, the crowd was met with long standing psych noise group Bardo Pond, who go back farther than many of the young hip groups from LA labeled with the same moniker.
The group churned into 60′s-esque orchestrations that were taken apart and reorganized like a Rubik’s Cube. This is group that has been around long enough to really flow into difficult territory with a tight and talented ensemble. And once again, I give them credit for coming in, powerfully filling the space, and then slipping right back out again.
The highlight of the evening, much to the confusion of some of the crowd, was a very old school set by alternative rock legends Sonic Youth, doing what they do best, noise. I have to admit that I was more than a little excited to see what they had up their sleeves. Sitting across the stage, instruments in hand, they all began to slowly strum irregular objects across the strings.
This quickly began to turn into something more grating and percussive. As Thurston peeled off to drive his guitar into an amp for pure feedback, the rest of the group plowed on as though it was a noise arena rock show. Powering through roughly forty-five minutes of sonic intensity, they went out with a bang only to be pulled back out by the raucous crowd for what would be a first for me, a noise encore. And the second round did not disappoint, leaving the audience at the end of night two ragged like refugees from a natural disaster.
It was unfortunate that I had forgotten that day three was to begin early, but still arrived in time to catch most of the acts. I must say, however, that even though Keith Fullerton Whitman is an experimental artist to be held in high regard, his near hour long opus seemed a bit out of place so early in the night. It was one of the more quiet and focused sets that seemed to lose my attention at many points.
It also seemed to be a bit cyclical in nature, which I also don’t think helped its engagement. The next set seemed more like an interlude as the three members of Jazzfinger sat upstage facing amps as though they were sunlamps as they treated the crowd to a brief dose of subtle feedback manipulation.
Soon we dipped once again to the place where noise interlopes with pop, as the misanthropic members of Cold Cave shuffled behind their minimal electronic equipment. I won’t lie, as much as I despise anything that sounds like Joy Division, I simply could not get these morose anthems out of my head. Which may also explain the odd bedfellows of Cold Cave being integrated into the noise community. More notably the fact that not only did Prurient himself, Dominic Fernow, put out several of their albums on his Hospital Productions label, but was also setting the final preparations for a European tour with Cold Cave as No Fun Fest concluded.
But then I suppose you can’t criticize a group too much on their credentials when one of the members has X’s tattooed on his hands, and upside down crosses tattooed on his neck. Clocking in at a mere three songs, they left the audience with cries of, I am. Going. To. Put you. In the. Hospital, which were much more venomous than said same lines on the recorded version of The Laurels of Erotomania.
The lightness of Cold Cave carried the crowd right into world of the normally dreamy done group Emeralds, who this time opted to start with a cannon-like bang, shocking the audience right into their clutches. This set easily explained why they are one of the more popular groups in ambient noise today, carrying its listeners through a dizzying swirl of soundscapes. It seemed as though the movement of all time and space were suspended in those moments, so though no one wanted it to end, in some ways it never did.
Thankfully there was plenty of time to recover, as Black Pus set up a drum kit and a large person made of amps. Even if you were not aware of the fact that Brian Chippendal was a member of Lighting Bolt, his signature sound and unique vocals were a dead giveaway. Being one of the more engaging artists of the weekend, he slipped his shaggy mic/mask over his face, and began talking to the audience as he transitioned from set-up to set before letting fly a hailstorm of percussive and vocal furry. It was like Lightning Bolt were sucked into an even harsher and more abstract dimension. Periodically stopping to record frantic voice loops to play over, Brian explained that the equipment was his testy bandmate, and that the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Overall, it was an amazing set the added more than a few followers to the Black Pus cult that evening.
Which was exactly what was needed to carry the audience to a place where they were prepared for intensely ferocious performance of Prurient with Kevin Drumm. One of the most grating up and coming stars in the noise scene coupled with one of it’s stalwart veterans was an absolute force to be reckoned with. Dominic began to squeeze harsh tones over top of the deep carpet that Kevin had laid out. Building to savage height, Prurient grabbed the mic and berated it until deeply effexed venom shot out of the PA. Drumm continued to lay the necessary foundation as his partner wailed into two mics in between shoving both into his amp creating a battle hymn for hell. Clearly the duo one the war as none were left standing onslaught subsided. No one could have walked away from this without permanent wounds.
And finally it all came down to a man I don’t even know what to say about. A genius who for decades now has been able to do more than could ever have been dreamed up, with simply a guitar and an amp. Skullflower’s set had been held in deep anticipation since it’s announcement in the lineup. And indeed it was worthy of such hype. Coming out with a supporting ensemble, Matthew Bower crouched out his bright red, metal aesthetic guitar, and began to draw a diverse and complex array of sounds out his ragged amp. Between Bower’s guitar, and his comrades of cello, violin, and even a second guitar, they built an entire city with their aural masonry skills. I could think of no better performance to tie the final ribbon on this amazing and exhausting weekend of exploration.
Per usual, every performer should be thanked for bringing their utmost talents to the table, but mostly to Carlos Giffoni for orchestrating another symphony of sounds that will go down in history. The only regrettable thing is that I will have to wait another year to experience the next No Fun Fest.