Wednesday, September 24th marked the beginning of the 2014 outing of one of the most consistently-strong annual Pacific Northwest festivals, the Decibel Festival in Seattle, and thus began five days of some of the most fruitful acts in contemporary electronic music coming together to justly spellbind those in attendance. I myself missed out on the first two days of this festival, but happened to catch three performances on day three, all of which were a delight to see live.
My first destination was the Illsley Nordstrom Ball Recital Hall to see the OPTICAL 4: Static Memory showcase, to which I arrived just in time to catch the second of three performers, Alessandro Cortini. For those not in the know, Alessandro Cortini is a multi-instrumentalist whom is the lead electronics guy in Nine Inch Nails, as well as the mastermind behind SONOIO, and a touring musician for the underrated how to destroy angels_. In contrast to any of those projects, though, the music that Cortini played for the Illsley Nordstrom crowd Friday night was much more ambient and far less beat-driven, only rarely ever taking up a driving beat. The music that he performed reminded me of what William Basinski was doing back in the early 2000s, with a bit of Nicolas Jaar (or the excellent Darkside) thrown in for good measure.
I had never heard his music before that night, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. With that said, I was very impressed by what Alessandro Cortini had to offer. I’m a sucker for slowly-progressing ambient drone music, and Cortini seemed to know his shit. The extravagance of the sit-down theatre we were in was a perfect fit for the very slow-burning and abstract music that Cortini presented, and the excellent sound quality was definitely a plus. The visual effects presented behind him were a nice addition to the whole experience without being too distracting, even if some of the backdrops did just feel like glorified Windows Media Player visuals. All the same, I enjoyed my time with Alessandro Cortini, and wouldn’t mind seeing him again.
There was a 15-minute intermission, and after a hefty amount of setting up, Benjamin “Deru” Wynn and visual artist Anthony “Effixx” Ciannamea were ready to begin their ambitious collaborative effort 1979 for the Illsley Nordstrom audience. 1979 is a concept album and short film collection, with the nine tracks composed and performed by Wynn, and nine accompanying short films created by Ciannamea. While I was very much anticipating getting to experience this very enticing-sounding project live for myself, I made it a point to remain blissfully ignorant of 1979 beyond what the Decibel website had to say about it, as I wanted to take it in sight unseen, avoiding listening to any of the album or reading critical views on the album or anything like that. It was an entirely new experience for me.
1979 was one of the most compelling live performances I’ve ever seen. I found it to be a perfect mix of live musical performance and breathtaking visual spectacle. People like to make the argument that a tonne of visual flair in a live performance – pretty lights, pyrotechnics, projections onto silk screens, etc. just serve as distractions to an otherwise boring and insubstantial live performance. 1979, meanwhile, effortlessly proved that those people are so full of shit you might as well call them Honey Buckets. The use of a silk screen to project the visuals on to that was thin enough to be able to see Deru and Effixx behind it was very clever, and the utilisation of the silk screen behind them to project various different visuals in a circular projector was a fantastic touch, and especially saw good use in medias res. The unending visuals projected for the crowd didn’t distract from the music so much as they sealed the deal. They went together with the music so flawlessly that listening to 1979 on its own, as sonically impressive and proficient as it is, it only feels like you’re getting half of the complete experience.
But of course, 1979 is also a musical project too, and Deru’s sound-craft is not to be skimped on. This is the same person that was the sound designer for “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, arguably the greatest cartoon series of all time, with absolutely masterfully-arranged sound design and music. While Deru’s music tends to be fairly beat-driven on his normal solo projects, 1979 is far more slow and ambient, and only went into beat music twice as far as I can remember. A lot of the sounds on display were very calming to listen to, but there was also this overlying sense of teary-eyed introspecting throughout, with some parts that sounded like they could very easily soundtrack a sad, sombre moment in a film. The sections of the LP that treated into beat music territory weren’t infectious and heavy enough to make the audience want to get out of their fancy-ass chairs and shake it like a red nose or anything, nor was Wynn going for that. As I interpret it, these more upbeat and less dismal beats were placed in there to induce a more joyous feeling in the listener to contrast with the sometimes depressive and other times conflicted moods set by the music and short films.
And that’s probably what I enjoyed most about 1979 in the grander scheme of things; how expertly it managed to really run the gamut of emotions throughout the course of an hour. Usually when you go to put on an album, you can expect just one certain mood to dominate the entire LP, whether it’s depressive, scary, cheery as hell, whatever. With albums like 1979, the progression and regression throughout is so natural and so well put-together that it really manages to capture so many different emotions and tones throughout without feeling disjointed or contrived. It’s the kind of project where every single person that sees and/or hears it will interpret it differently, but whoever you are, I have a great feeling you’ll be satisfied as hell by 1979, and if you have the opportunity to catch it live, I wholeheartedly recommend you attend. As for me, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on what Deru does from this point on.
Lastly, following that performance, I rushed over to the nearby Showbox to catch the third and last band of my night, Blue Hawaii, whom was playing the Sines of Life showcase alongside the likes of Yppah and El Ten Eleven. I didn’t know anything about this band other than that one of their members is also the frontman of BRAIDS, an art rock outfit whose work I rather enjoy. I found myself similarly enthralled with Blue Hawaii as well. The band is an ambient dream pop and electronic music duo that reminds me a lot of one of my favourite bands Crystal Castles circa their third self-titled LP; the two bands share a lot of similarities. Both hail from Canada, both are electronic music projects, both are male-female duos, both prefer synthesizers and laptops over organic instrumentation, and both make very catchy and immediate music. Blue Hawaii’s lead vocalist Alex Cowan isn’t as fiery and attention-grabbing as Alice Glass. Rather, her vocals are actually pretty beautiful both live and on tape, being very tuneful, sensual and fitting for the band’s more down-tempo material.
Blue Hawaii’s set was a hell of a lot of fun. The band’s sound was great, there was a lot of passion emanating from Cowan and Raphaelle Standell-Preston, and you could tell they were just having the time of their lives performing for the Decibel Festival crowd, and this vibe of halcyon transcended onto the audience. The vibe was killed to a slight degree around the last ten or so minutes of the set when their equipment stopped working entirely, and they were unable to perform for a few minutes, during which time Alex Cowan killed time by shooting the shit with various audience members, talking about how awesome Seattle is and how great the crowd had been, so on and so forth. Luckily their sound was working again before we knew it, and they played one final track before bidding adieu to the crowd. I’ve been spinning their LP Untogether a lot since seeing them live, and I think I can reasonably call myself a fan of them by this point. It was a great way to end my night, and I’ll be on the lookout for the next time Blue Hawaii rolls into town.
All in all, even though I didn’t see a huge amount of bands during Decibel day three, I had a blast. Alessandro Cortini spellbound me, 1979 blew my fucking mind, and Blue Hawaii managed to pick up a fan whilst kicking ass in the process. Any of these artists I recommend checking out, be it listening to them or seeing them live in concert. This streak of awesomeness continued just as well during Decibel day four. Join me next time when I tell you all about it.
(Below is a gallery of 20 mediocre pictures snapped by me during Decibel day three. Yeah, you heard me.)