Feathers were one of the night's discoveries in Austin, Texas. (Todd Martens )
AUSTIN, Texas – There’s approximately 2,500 artists here for the annual South by Southwest music festival and conference, and in the coming days the media will tell you about a few of them. Well, mainly the ones you already know, be it the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Depeche Mode, the Flaming Lips, Green Day, Paramore and Prince, who’s expected to perform here Saturday.
Yet wander the clubs that populate Austin’s Sixth Street and the blocks around it, and it’s quite possible to stumble upon an artist or two who will be occupying the vaunted veteran role at whatever SXSW has morphed into a decade from now. If the likes of Autre Ne Veut and Feathers aren’t yet ready to be declared "the next Prince" or "the next Depeche Mode," each artist made the case that could very well someday assume that role.
Autre Ne Veut , the musical project of New York artist Arthur Ashin, was R&B at its most intense and bold. Ashin came on stage the aggressor, not so much singing a plea such as “stay with me” as much as he was hollering it. But the louder Ashin’s voice got, the more dynamic it became. It’s a hoarse but fragile thing, and just when you think Ashin has shouted his vocal cords into disintegration, he drops a falsetto and gets pulled into an animated give-and-take with foil Cristi Jo Zambri.
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Having recently released sophomore album “Anxiety” on little-known indie Software Recording Co., Autre Ne Veut is primed to be one of acts here that could walk away from Austin with a larger deal. Former Warner executive Lyor Cohen was spotted in the crowd, and this is music that could fit in comfortably well with the experimental renaissance that mainstream R&B is experiencing (see Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd).
Three are times the songs of Autre Ne Veut are built as something of a bait-and-switch. Almost industrial effects will open a tune, only to give way to a softer bed of synthesizers. Ashin, after all, provides enough aggression himself.
Hip-hop effects, techno-snaps and live drums that pound in odd rhythms keep the songs off balance – these are the grooves of a heart racing rather than beating – and Ashin’s lyrics are equally riveting. “I’m counting on you to stay alive” he sings in a love-letter-turned-break-up song, which was one of many of Ashin’s tunes that stopped just shy of the line where passion becomes something more dangerous.
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There was plenty other music to be experienced on this, the second full night of South by Southwest’s artist showcases. There were cult favorites (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), legends (Iggy & the Stooges) and of-the-moment hitmakers (Baauer). There were also buzz-band disappointments (the throwback alt-rock era tunes of Merchandise, for one), as well as dazzling knob-twisters (Flume).
But in a night dedicated to discovery, at least for this reporter, one of the most accessible was Austin-based Feathers. The last three or four years of SXSW have been overrun with synth heavy acts, so much so that it’s perfectly normal to proceed with caution when entering a club and spotting more than one keyboard on stage.
And yes, there’s a lot of Depeche Mode references in Feathers – the forward-momentum rhythms of “Personal Jesus” were evident early in the set – but there’s also plenty to set this atmospheric act apart from its ‘80s influences. Singer Anastasia Dimou always seemed to be attempting to conjure a mood, waving the audience to her and then pushing them away as if the stage was something she was floating on. Her only direction to the soundmen was to “dim the lights,” and the quartet became more alluring the darker the club got, as band members could get lost in the stage shadows just as hushed, minor-key guitar notes could get buried in waves of electronics.
“Push me down just to break my fall,” Dimou sang near the end of the set, and musically Feathers gradually took on more sci-fi overtones. At times, it became difficult to discern where the guitars ended and keyboard began, and vice versa. It was impressive, and not just because the songs had hooks, but because they managed to create a sense of mystery.