Indians are among the breakout acts at South by Southwest. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles…)
AUSTIN, Texas -- The noise at the South by Southwest music festival and conference comes from all corners. Thursday began with an upbeat keynote speech from Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, and afterward the increasingly tricky balancing act of turning the volume up or off began.
There’s clamor from brands, as LL Cool J late Thursday and early Friday was selling his act at the base of a multi-story, multimedia Doritos vending machine, and there’s commotion from industry executives, as in the mid-afternoon when famed record biz mogul Clive Davis was hyping his recently released book from a stage inside the Austin Convention Center.
Come nightfall, there are more than 100 stages filled with artists eager for your attention -- some are as well-known as Grohl and Stevie Nicks, some are up-and-comers such as velocious rapper Angel Haze, and some are relative unknowns such as drama-filled electro-pop trio No Ceremony///. In between, there are thousands of attendees, college partiers and hangers-on to fill lines, vomit in the street and generally just get in the way.
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Amid all the hullabaloo, an artist such as Denmark’s Indians seemingly doesn’t stand a chance. The product of Copenhagen’s Søren Løkke Juul, Indians don’t make noise so much as slow it down. Juul’s music is quiet, calming and aims to soothe the senses rather than knock ‘em out. At a place where first impressions are made in 30 seconds or less, Indians have the nerve to require pin-drop-silent attentiveness.
And Thursday night at an Austin church, Juul succeeded at what is now nearly impossible at the 2,500-act South by Southwest: He created the sensation of bringing time to a standstill. Performing here as a dapper-dressed trio, Juul was joined by Heather Woods Broderick and Laurel Simmons, who added candescent harmonies to Juul’s patiently complex digitally enhanced compositions.
Juul’s voice is a delicate but transfixing thing, all upper-register softness that zeroes in on his often enchantingly melancholic arrangements like a tractor beam. Melodic layer upon melodic layer drifts in like beautifully languid tides, and songs such as “Bird” work the synthesizers as if they’re chamber instruments rather than pop ones.
Stage patter was kept to a minimum. “This is a guitar song,” Juul said and then performed “I Am Haunted,” where the brisk strumming and echoing, lingering harmonies suggested slow-motion. Just how to classify Indians is a challenge. Juul's sounds, whether emanating from a guitar or one of three keyboards, all feel as if they were born inside of a reverie.
Leaving Indians and reintegrating with the anxious hustle of South by Southwest was something of a brief culture shock. There were other acts who impressed, such as Merge Records' Mount Moriah, whose rootsy, country-influenced pop had a twilight mysticism, and there were acts who showed plenty of promise, such as the vigorous, rapid-fire hip-hop of Angel Haze.
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Her 1 a.m. set was short -- at 15 minutes or just under -- and she was best when not proclaiming that she ran New York. But even in this limited sample size, Haze, who had a contradictory style that was alternately aggressive and unguarded, displayed a personality that belonged on a stage.
Haze, with a bare midriff and generous-sized pants, looked dressed as if she were training for a prize fight. Yet she was truly a force when she dared to soften the blows. “I’m a little disheveled right now,” she said between songs, adding that her head was not currently in the “right place.”
She alluded to a recent heartbreak, and then performed “Hell Could Freeze,” her collaboration with English electronic/production group Rudimentary. She comfortably strolled through the audience during the song, and performed what was a relatively open look at the dissolution of a relationship. Haze didn’t offer any cliches, instead turning the song into one in which she makes sense of her own confusion. A major label debut for Universal is due this year, and her spirited delivery alone makes it one worth keeping an eye out for.
More beguiling, and also without a full-length album out, was No Ceremony///. The English trio had a mix of styles and moods and have thus far been keeping their identities and objectives a mystery. No matter, as for now the music is enough to answer any pressing questions.
No Ceremony/// is reliant on machines, but the music avoided any of the retro-snyth trends that have dominated South by Southwest of late. All multi-instrumentalists, the group -- two boys and one girl -- built songs of patterns and glitches. No Ceremony/// is thinking big-picture in its arrangements, as soft builds lead to dramatic climaxes and dance beats give way to enveloping, alien atmospheres.
The music often tends to drift toward the darker end of the spectrum, but the forward momentum of No Ceremony///’s songs are ultimately out to illuminate, even as the act uses secrecy as a means to promotion.
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