Whenever someone tells you something is revelatory, take a teaspoon of salt. Basilica Soundscape has been wreathed in clover and sheathed with hosannas since debuting four years ago, most reports citing the beautiful setting and pedigree of its curation, focused on music and peppered with the visual and written arts. The event is named conjointly, for the fest’s dark brick home — a beautifully converted pencil shaving distillery and maple leaf sorting facility that now looks like a place Matthew Barney wouldn’t mind visiting (he did, actually, and has collaborated with fest curator Brandon Stosuy) — and, presumably, for the martian contours of its sonic output. Its list of performers have almost nothing in common sonically, but all live on the outskirts of town.
Autumn finally began its slow creep in the breezy, hilly, crook of Hudson, New York, where 85 percent of the noise pollution on any given day seems to be generated by crickets. It was a golden evening, with sideways light that makes every flitting gnat look like a firefly. The festival, which would eventually become as loud as anything that’s ever happened on Earth, began quietly, with the confident and calm Weyes Blood, who turned a guitar into a harpsichord and married it to voice much like the river glade across the street.
Indrajit Banerjee & Gourisankar were in the right room with the right people. The virtuosity and heart the pair swept into the imposing room was an abstract lesson on magic — the latticework they created still doesn’t seem real or achievable. “Thank you so much for the great inspiration,” Gourisankar said after (and referencing) a sustained, booming applause. “We really are so much happy to be here — you guys are just awesome.”
Lydia Ainsworth was like a Catholic prayer, and smashed the room with her re-interpretation of Chris Isaak‘s “Wicked Game” — a beautiful slab of schmaltz if there ever was one, but excised of any tongue-in-cheek fat by the singer. On the other side of the palette, Viet Cong‘s set could be summed up by their introduction to it: “Is everyone ready? Should we just do this?” Cue the heavy fog and danceable pummel.
Other remarkable performances over a weekend dense with them included Actress, whose atmospherics are smooth and cooing, but bitter and antagonistic, as the British producer cuts into his compositions like a four-dimensional scalpel. Health, whose newest record largely foregoes the static pile-drivers which they built their reputation on and opts instead for pop chants and a love of ’80s melody (one song was produced by Saturday’s headliner, The Haxan Cloak), seemed to be fighting against the space with their night-closing set, pushing on the rafters, like a sequence from Rampage. Perfume Genius‘ (Mike Hadreas) bandless set, accompanied only by collaborator Alan Wyffels, held the room rapt. It’s easy to understand the coy reticence Hadreas’ explained to the crowd about performing without his band, after a long tour in support of 2014’s beautiful Too Bright. It seems reasonable to think that his performance in Hudson was what he sounds like alone, at home, a thousand and one nights spent noodling on a keyboard, humming and cooing.
The consistent rain that descended on Saturday evening was bizarre in its perfection, wrapping the night in a cold-and-cozy camaraderie, especially for those crowded together in the drip, peeking through a dark brick window with the smell of roasting onions in the air, as Jenny Hval, in a blonde and turquoise wig with a Carrie dress and accompanied by a half-dozen-and-more collaborators, presented an obtuse piece of performance art bolstered by the brilliance of her avant-pop. At one point, Hval crouched casually down on the stage and played Lana Del Rey off a sky-blue iPhone. She seemed to enjoy the rain, too.
Now, keeping that rain in mind: Imagine an inky, anxious, elemental center of power. The Haxan Cloak plugs his modest array of equipment directly into that core, some shrieking black hole, transmogrifying it into a drip and an avalanche. He has the air of an occult spelunker; he knows his way around a shrieking shadow, but still isn’t totally sure what he’ll find there. If you can’t, or haven’t learned, how to exult in having your brain pummeled front to back, then you would do well to skip a set from him. But you should try and learn.
Soundscape isn’t only a well-curated weekend; its schedule seems to grow into something part of but apart from the sound of any one artist, flowing into a cohesion glued together by its grounds, by the smell and air, by the decidedly well-hydrated vibe of its attendees. In that it shares a clear sensibility with ATP, another small festival that favored unique settings and bookings outside of the mainstream and which fostered a palpable glee and wonderment from its attendees. While it’s a safe bet that no one was torn between Soundscape and ’90s Fest, which took place concurrently in Brooklyn, an event’s success, especially with so many moving parts, is never guaranteed. But it is, sometimes, deserved.