by GENEVIEVE OLIVER
Last week we descended along with the rest of the known music-loving world on Austin, TX for the South by Southwest music festival. As you probably could have predicted based on the internet, shit was crazy. The sheer number of hilariously costumed pedicab drivers, the sheer number of perhaps too-rapidly consumed free beers, the sheer number of awesome bands playing shows in the sheer number of random venues for the sheer number of exhausted fans - last week was the only time I've ever actually said "oh, the humanity!" aloud non-ironically. I feel like SXSW gets crazier every year, or maybe I'm just getting old.
Anyway, I took advantage of the craziness to see 51 different bands, and as promised, here's a wrap-up of the acts that most impressed me this week, some expected, some not. Someone suggested I take advantage of March Madness season to make a bracket of buzzbands and select a winner, but that's impossible - I can tell you the best pop act I saw, the best rock band, the best psych band, et cetera, but I definitely couldn't pick just one to be 2013's only definitive breakout act. So check this out - choose your own next big thing based on your taste in music, whether you're into crying in public or getting your face melted off (or both of these things, because they both happened to me).
NEXT BIG... WEIRD-POP PRIESTESSES
Last year's SXSW bore witness to Grimes' meteoric rise, so it's no surprise that a host of hyper-creative female pop artists took to Austin's stages this year to declare themselves contenders for the high-priestesshood of glitchy, earworming electropop. Because we're awesome, we had two of them at the #PMAVILLAGE showcase we co-hosted with Danger Village at Empire Control Room - MØ and Empress Of, who both wowed packed crowds.
Empress Of might only have released three songs to date, but after catching two of her live sets, we're so psyched to see what she has in store on her upcoming self-titled EP. Live drums and keyboards kept things interesting, and Lorely Rodriguez's presence is magnetic, especially as she performed an unreleased song (still stuck in my head) that goes "I've been waiting for you." Even on the festival's final day she and her band were in top form during a noontime set on a broiling outdoor stage - I think that means their live show's pretty much indestructible.
As for the young Danish siren MØ, the dark, cavernous Empire Control Room provided the ideal setting for her only day party appearance. Her live performance is like none other - backed by a guitarist, a keyboardist who also mans computer samples, and some eerie, dark video loops, MØ herself, in an all-black ensemble and tight braid, executed hyper-impressive, charmingly awkward dance moves and simultaneously belted out some of the best and strangest pop tracks I heard at SXSW.
NEXT BIG... PSYCH-ROCK FACE MELTERS
One of my life's best musical decisions and worst hearing-related ones was heeding Akron/Family's Seth Olinsky’s entreaties for the audience at Austin Psych Fest's unofficial day party at Hotel Vegas to move closer to the stage. Watching the band summon feedback demons from the front row, Internet-employed descriptors like "freak folk" or "psych folk" seemed wildly inaccurate - Akron/Family is an intense, hypnotic rock band, especially when their songs devolve into lengthy, noisy jams. I think they played three songs stretched out over twenty or so eardrum-busting minutes, opening with their recent single "No-Room," whose delirious riff was one of the best I heard all week (all year?). They finished their set with a screeching, droning feedback wail, and the entire audience pressed forward to worshipfully shake their hands.
NEXT BIG... POTENTIAL MAINSTREAM CROSSOVER
The Los Angeles sister act Haim is opening for Vampire Weekend in the coming months, and they kicked off their tour together at Stubbs' Saturday night with a fast-paced, killer set that had the whole crowd cheering wildly. Bassist and masterful banter-er Este Haim told a story about seeing the Stubbs' stage last year when she and her sisters were playing across the street and setting a life goal to play there, at which point the whole crowd erupted with pride. They're likely to be playing even bigger stages soon, and not relying on opening slots to do so - Haim's music is, for lack of a better word, irresistible. All three Haims are born frontwomen, charismatic and passionate, but Danielle, who sings most songs, has an incredible voice and a brutal way with her guitar that sometimes recalls Annie Clark. Songs like "Don't Save Me," in which she reckons with a lost lover and fading dreams, could fit in nicely on mainstream radio. But the band are at their best when they're at their heaviest - a driving, rollicking jam with spoken vocals by guitarist and keyboardist Alana had the crowd jumping around and cheering along.
NEXT BIG... BRITISH EXPORTS
Libertines reunions not doing it for you? Look no further than the myriad of NME-hyped English boy bands playing infinity shows at SXSW for your Britpop-punk fix. If you like your jams raucous and your stage presence mildly homoerotic, Palma Violets are the band for you, and believe the British press’s hype when it comes to these guys. They might only have been a band since 2011, but they're no amateurs - their final performance of the festival was outside at 3pm on Saturday and it still had an exhausted, sardine-packed crowd moving. Despite the smash popularity of “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets’ best tracks are when its two frontmen sing together and lock into a driving, Clash-y groove that gets the crowd dancing.
NEXT BIG... ART-PUNK ENSEMBLE
The main consequence of a festival like SXSW that gets every single current buzzband in the same place at the same time is probably that, at some point, a combination of your own deafness and the overwhelming influx of all the current zeitgeist's general tenets can make everything sound essentially the same. They can be few and far between, but it's worth scouting out acts that sound like nothing else out there, if only to keep yourself awake. The New York duo Talk Normal, who played a midday show at Hotel Vegas on Thursday, are one such band - I think I saw guitarist Sarah Register play something recognizable as a "chord" just a scant five times during her band's mind-melting set. The rest of the time, she was making ungodly noise doing whatever she could to her instrument (and its myriad assembled effects pedals) that wasn't playing it the way most people do, somehow evincing stunning, bizarre melodies laden with crushing distortion. Add this to her cohort Andrya Ambro’s huge, clattering drums and blunt vocals, and you've got a truly standout set.
I'm obsessed with the Olympia trio Naomi Punk, who made a mark at SXSW for the same reason. Their heavy and brutalized take on guitar pop is absolutely singular, and the taste for fearless, jarring tempo changes they show off live is utterly beguiling - I'm kind of convinced they can read each other's minds. They played the best show of theirs I've ever seen at Longbranch Inn Friday night, at Impose Magazine's largely perfect showcase, thanks in part to the super-psyched, packed crowd. It's awesome (and, unfortunately, pretty rare for the too-often ultra-jaded masses of music industry people at SXSW) to be surrounded by people as stoked as you are while a band you love totally kills it, which Naomi Punk did as they served up four of the best tracks from their record The Feeling, and two fantastic new songs.
NEXT BIG... CHILLY INDUSTRIALISTS
When is someone going to make Savages and Merchandise: The Tour happen? We're just going to have to fantasize until they do, and wonder why no one thought to hook up both bands into the best showcase that could have ever been. Sure, it doesn't sound like it works on the surface - Savages are an all-women London quartet whose best released track "Husbands" is a veritable onslaught of unrivaled intense badassery (not an exaggeration), and Merchandise is four dudes from Tampa Bay, Florida whose verbose frontman is prone to rhyming stuff like "never really there" with "perfumed air" and who brought up a saxophonist to perform some abstract licks during both their shows I caught. They also have wildly different stage presences - between songs, Carson from Merchandise told a story about sitting next to the rapper Riff Raff at dinner and recognizing him thanks to his Riff Raff tattoo; Savages frontwoman Jehnny's only onstage words were "Thank you" and "Next song is 'Shut Up.'" (In related news Savages' "Shut Up" is our most anticipated track of 2013). But bear with me a second - both bands channel a chilly, brutal industrial vibe thanks to driving, motorik bass, big drums, and unreal guitar work courtesy Gemma Thompson and Dave Vassalotti, respectively, who both physically fight with their guitars to get out beautifully hideous noise and eerily lovely, cold melodies. When you boil it down, though, Savages and Merchandise are just two of the best new rock bands in the world right now, and we're feeling pretty blessed that both will release records and hopefully tour a lot this year - you should too.
NEXT BIG... POP PUNKS
Either 2013's a killer year for pop punk or I was just drawn as if magnetized to a ton of great shows, but SXSW was packed with a ton of awesome pop punk bands this year. Standing out the most though was the Nashville six-piece Diarrhea Planet (yup, I'm serious) whose four-guitar onslaught had a packed crowd at Longbranch Inn, yours truly included, all dancing and shouting along. Diarrhea Planet is loud, fun, and charming; their classic rock-inflected tunes are full of wailing guitars, big drums, stadium-ready power chords, and lyrics that might as well have been engineered in a lab to make you want to scream along. Helps that the boys of the band are so sweet: they took requests left and right and promised to play the ones they couldn't get to later that night at another show. Their enthusiasm - one guitarist played most of his fingerpicked, insane solos in the best power stance ever - was utterly infectious.
If you like your pop punk made by ladies, look no further than the Atlanta foursome the Coathangers, who played for a pretty tough crowd at Suicide Squeeze's Wednesday night showcase, incongruously following a Chilean krautrock band, and still delivered an awesome set. Frontwoman Julia is wide-eyed and compelling - her voice coos seductively one minute and contorts into insane yowls the next, and she moves as though she's fighting with herself. I was impressed that even faced with such a weird audience, the Coathangers know how to have fun, enjoy each other's company, and put on a hell of a show - that's what makes them the real deal.
NEXT BIG... GRUNGE REVIVALISTS
I could sing eternal praises of the Baltimore quartet Roomrunner for about fifty reasons, but let's start with the basics, by which I mean how awesome their songs are. Roomrunner are really, really loud, and really, really tight. Even on their most complicated, syncopated tracks they lock into an impeccable driving groove for which the most apt comparison is probably Bleach-era Nirvana. The band's persistent live chops are especially impressive considering they played about 200 shows at SXSW: when I caught them at Longbranch Inn at 9:30pm they were coming from a show four blocks away they'd played at 8:30 and their patience was understandably wearing thin. Their drummer (one of the best I saw this week) stripped off his jeans and played in just a Metz t-shirt and boxers; when the sound guy asked frontman Denny Bowen if the band had one or two songs left, he replied, totally deadpan, "We'd like one or two tacos each, please." They closed their set immediately following said exchange with killer single "Weird" and a thorough, wailing feedback-soundtracked trashing of the stage and their equipment. Aside from that, the set's highlight was undoubtably an awesome new track called "Bait Car" we can't wait for the recorded version of.
NEXT BIG... UNABASHED TEARJERKERS
Proof that emotionality transcends genre manifests in two very different songwriters who wowed at SXSW: Torres's Mackenzie Scott and Autre Ne Veut's Arthur Ashin. Scott and her band delivered a set at our Wednesday showcase that had the audience rapt, compelled by her magnetic stage presence - she's inclined to seething vocals, distorted bluesy guitar, and intimidating eye contact during her songs' most intense moments, and she has fantastic chemistry with the rest of her (very talented) band; the end product feels like watching something deeply personal, like reading some diary entries rife with very thinly-veiled anger. Most of the audience seemed best acquainted with Torres's breakout single "Honey," but the set showed off the stunning deep cuts from her recent self-titled record, too. And it was more than appropriate that the venue chose her set to project an awesome lighting design that resembled a desert.
As for Ashin's project Autre Ne Veut, I caught him Saturday afternoon at an outdoor showcase in a recently abandoned and half demolished venue, which is probably the least appropriate place in which to check out an act that seems best suited to dark and impersonal rooms. Regardless, I was impressed - live, Ashin has help from an incredibly talented young female vocalist who backs him up on every song with a voice that functions as his perfect foil, as well as a live drummer, who added a little heft to the backing tracks of songs like "Ego Free Sex Free." Ashin's an intense and physical performer, bending double to wrestle his voice out then staring at the audience with piercing and haunted blue eyes during instrumental interludes, and live, almost moreso than on Anxiety, his lyrics are deeply affecting, compounded by the intensity of his performance. Everyone seemed too tired to get into jams-of-all-jams like "Play By Play" and "Counting," which was a shame, but not the band's fault - they really delivered. We'd highly recommend catching them in a more appropriate venue if you can - definitely bring tissues.
In short, this year's SXSW raised plenty of questions, not all of them answerable. Who will be this year's breakout star? It's too soon to tell. How does [musician] make [crazy sound] with their [voice / instrument]? I'm too shy to ask. Why do people feel the need to film stuff on their iPads? We may honestly never know. While you meditate on these questions and this year's SXSW golden children are revealed in the coming months, check out our favorite acts and start saving up for next year's festival; we'll see you there and hopefully do it all again.