As the most recognizable festivals both regionally and nationwide are steadily beefed up and kept alive by IV’s of liquid gold administered through diamond-encrusted drip chambers, Capitol Hill Block Party’s annual lineups tend to feel like somewhat of a breath of fresh air for their humble, but tempting offerings. Flashy, expensive bills with at least five artists currently in the Hot 100 are ditched for sets of artists that feel more carefully selected to appeal to the very specific mix of Seattleites the festival attracts. Predictable though Father John Misty or Brockhampton in a headlining slot may be, to get to see two highly buzzed-about artists that, despite seeming to be on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, share a significant audience overlap, in the same weekend will no doubt be a summer-making moment for a lot of local Gen X-ers.
Something seemed different about 2018’s Block Party lineup taking it in as a whole when compared to previous years. It’s apparent just at first glance its 2018 lineup wants to take things in a less chaotic, more measured direction when you factor in how many of the names almost serve as anti-hype in a festival context regards what you would typically think of as energetic music for a live setting. I was taken aback by the sheer number of the post-ODESZA chilled-out beat musicians occupying the mid-card of the bill, with only Brockhampton and possibly Dillon Francis there to balance the threshold books. Not really any Deafheavens to be found here.
The need for a couple chilled-out post-trap producer-DJs to pad out a lineup like this in a post-ODESZA festival world makes sense; a festival in a state with legal weed beckons for that atmospheric, expanse-filling sound that even the most staunch baby boomer within earshot could hear and post to Facebook about how it was “The vibes!!” But casual first impressions of these particular artists, the majority of whom I wasn’t familiar with, were mostly that they’re tepid pleasant-pop, bottle rockets or fountain fireworks to the explosive fiery light shows of more dry-sounding and interesting pop music that probably costs more to book, and even as someone that enters fight or flight mode when someone within earshot refers to a techno song as house or vice versa, I really couldn’t tell you what differentiates any of these songs.
You have to imagine this year they’re making a conscious move towards what music will end up having the easiest crowd to handle. I don’t even hate my own life as much as the Block Party security visibly hates having to keep a crowd of cross-faded young people from climbing on each other’s shoulders and passing around spliffs, so I have to imagine the easiest solution is to book a mid-card of blissed-out electronic music, even-keeled rappers and American Apparel pop that won’t harshly affect your MDMA peak. It’s a fun game to play, clicking on the “About” sections of the Spotify profiles for all these names, looking at the playlists under “Discovered On” and taking in how many different ways you can word “Chill Beats” or “Soft Vibes.”
Still, the amount of quality the lineup provides up and down the chain is pretty impressive, and as usual, with a lineup this sprawling and covering myriad genres, it can be a bit overwhelming to grasp the full breadth of its content. So put on your finest John Lennon lens sunglasses and find the best compartment to hide your edibles, here are 12 artists you should check out if you’re going to Capitol Hill Block Party 2018.
Kelly Lee Owens
Coated in a layer of misty ether and cushioned by warm, deep sub-bass, Kelly Lee Owens‘ astral and minimal indietronica manages intimacy without indifference, expanse without straying too far from winning simplicity. Splashes of sun-soaked pastel land against a stylishly black and white canvas, letting its colors run and slowly drip as its songs subtly progress. Cuts like “Lucid” and the tender “Throwing Lines” seem to be broadcast from the state between the unconscious and waking reality, easygoing quarter-note kick drums and inviting R&B-esque grooves hiding in a cavern of echoing synthesizers and Owens’ vocals, which feel like you’ve just put seashells up to your ears during headphones sessions. Come astral project standing up at the Vera Stage on Friday.
A predominant figure in turning the sounds of bass music on their head to a surprising amount of mainstream recognition, Cashmere Cat‘s early releases like his Mirror Maru EP were both delightfully playful and considerably banging in equal measure. The guy has a striking ear for sound and texture, and although some have lamented his more commercial grab with recent material, his 9 record contained songs that were better than they had any right to be, like the earnest Camilla Cabello-featuring “Love Incredible” and the enjoyable but extremely all-over-the-place “9 (After Coachella),” which quite bravely features no lyrical mentions of Coachella, and instead sounds like a ten Rolls Royce pileup on the highway. This set should be fucking awesome.
Halfway through my first ever VanFest, I hit a bit of a lull in the day and happened into one of the indoor stages — basically just a tent that, when pitched, turned into a small room, adorned with roses and Christmas lights, a cheap-looking fake lawn placed down where 20 or so of us sat. Inside, Issaquah’s Whitney Ballen stood alone standoffishly at the mic with nothing but her electric guitar plugged into twin monitors, playing a set so quiet it probably would have been easier for Ballen to play along with the other bands performing during her set that we could all hear. I thought I’d maybe catch a couple songs and then be back on my way before long. Flash-forward 20 or so minutes, I’ve cried at least two times and probably couldn’t have gotten up and left even had the impulse struck me.
Ballen’s delicate, unconventionally gorgeous voice so sadly, yet so passionately calls out some of the most cutting and emotionally stirring lyrics you’ll hear in modern folk. With a promising forthcoming record, You’re a Shooting Star, I’m a Sinking Ship, accompanied by a dreamy first single “Go,” Ballen’s set would be criminal to miss.
One of my most anticipated moments of Capitol Hill Block Party this year is screaming out every lyric to Antisocialites over the sound of the endlessly yapping main stage squatters that will inevitably be on Snapchat through the entire performance waiting for Dillon Francis to come out a few hours later to ask their city “What the fuck is up.” Alvvays is where I want to be; their songs are deceptively dreamy and sweet, revealing a very palpable sense of melancholy under the surface of indie pop summer anthems like “In Undertow” and “Plimsoll Punks.” Giving them an hour is great too since that’s about enough time to run through both of their albums front to back.
Keep Flasher‘s name in your mouth if you’re a die-hard for propulsive, angular post-punk with a strong emphasis on hooks. For their June 2018 Domino Records debut, Constant Image, the band refined the old-school post-punk influences of their self-titled EP with buzzing, crunchy production and subtly applied effects to give their songs character. The delay-laden “Who’s Got Time?” features a Deerhunter-esque distorted wall of pink noise, set against a punchy chorus and steady, simplistic riffing. “Pressure” proves a monstrous lead single for the album, with one of the most winning choruses in post-punk in a while. Definitely among the more worthwhile names to grace the Friday side-stage.
88rising’s yaeji is a quiet force, a compact, concentrated package of elation, neatly wrapped with an iridescent bow. Her sensual, enveloping tracks, whose genre of choice varies depending on what song you’re listening to, jump around from ambient pop to deep house to trap music, but her songs are uniform in feeling like a warm hug for your ears when they’re on and managing to lodge themselves in your head long after play. Her viral track “raingurl” is a good first impression of yaeji’s M.O. — loose, bouncy house rhythms, charismatic mantra-like vocals that repetitiously ride the beat wonderfully, and the whole track feels like it’s submerged in a stylish murk. Her music lands the best of both worlds between relaxed electronic music that could fall into the background and genuinely hype dance tracks that would crush in a live setting.
Though I never formerly wrote it anywhere, I noted NAVVI‘s last album Omni as the best album I heard out of the Pacific Northwest in 2016, an incredibly refined, otherworldly and dark pop album that sounded like it was all coming live from inside a laser-lit spaceship flying around the stars at a leisurely pace. Producer Brad Boettger and vocalist Kristin Henry’s combined ear for sound and space was a force to be reckoned with on expansive and numbing highlights like “Close” and the twinkly, moonlit “Polychrome.” I caught a brief snippet from NAVVI’s forthcoming record on Twitter in passing earlier this year, the record managing to sound even more third eye-openingly ethereal and futuristic than its predecessor. Absolutely worth the detour to Neumos at the end of the night if all the raver beads and beach balls at the main stage isn’t so much your speed.
In some ways I feel like Dude York shouldn’t work as well as they do. Observing the upbeat indie rock band’s quirky demeanor, their social media presence, the fact just last year they released a nine-track Christmas album, you might mistake the band as another painfully self-aware local indie chancer rocking unfashionable jeans and driving around bumping cassette tapes. I mean come on, ‘dude’ is right there in the name. However, just one listen to their blazing, excellent Hardly Art debut Sincerely immediately wipes that look off any cynic’s face and then proceeds to completely blow all their skin off it. The building volume and heat on “Tonight” makes the track a rollicking barn-burner, with other songs trailing off into sturdy dance-punk. Their latest single “Moon” is among their best songs so far, a to-die-for hook at the centerpiece of a slick, grungy ride. They’re absolutely worth getting there early to see them shred on the main stage to open the day.
Chong the Nomad
A criminally overlooked oddity in the underground-est of Seattle’s underground, the creative output of singer, songwriter, producer and Cornish student Chong the Nomad thus far feels like bedroom-spun pop, but not a bedroom on this planet. The closest point of comparison to her off-kilter, skeletal alt-pop track “in conclusion” is an act like Jai Paul, but I couldn’t picture Paul toying with the bizarre mouth sounds that rear their head at the tail-end of the track. Chong’s 2018 EP Love Memo is among her most fetching and defined material to date. “lip bite” features an irresistible groove and impressive attention to sonic detail, while “for tonight” features a gummy bass line and soft, ear-massaging textures. Come and show love for someone helping keep Seattle interesting.
I’m a sucker for this sort of post-industrial, four-to-the-floor cybergoth shit. Those of you who like your Cold Cave and flippy fringes in the front of your hair will no doubt fall in love with TR/ST‘s 2012 self-titled as I have, a cold industrial factory floor-ready batch of goth-pop wonderment. Everything about their 2012 debut triggers a primal instinct in my inner pouty 14 year-old, especially with the unconventional tone of Robert Alfonso’s voice perfectly fitting the below-zero tone of the instrumentals. TR/ST as a side-stage name will serve as a nice bridge between the one-two punch on the main stage of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Cashmere Cat.
Amber Mark‘s tastefully soothing neo-soul-infused pop does more to invoke feelings of love and crushing than any number of romantic movies. Mark’s sparing instrumental accompaniment, which is both organic and often uniquely synthetic simultaneously, provides a sparse yet vital backbone to Mark’s stunning vocals and steamy emotions that pour through track after track. 2018’s Conexão EP is the rare release that could conceivably appeal to R&B and soul genre purists while providing plenty for those spoiled by LP1 and Take Me Apart to chew on stylistically.
Born out of the dissolution of Chicago’s Disappears, lusciously disorienting post-punk outfit FACS are masters of their own unorthodox musical worlds. Dark, wavy guitar leads call out into the sonic shadows atop gloomy bass lines and dense synthesizers. Their short, but exemplary 2018 record Negative Houses follows in the footsteps of other dismal, rotund modern post-punk to come out over the past handful of years, but with abstract detours like the nearly nine-minute “Houses Breathing,” a syrupy and weirdly jazz fusion-esque track whose ambitious length and structure feels singular not just to FACS but to contemporary rock in general. The Vera Stage is home this year to at least a few artists that will leave your brain pouring out of your ears by the end of the set.