Day for Night 2017 Rundown, Pt. 2: Nina Kraviz + Pussy Riot + B L A C K I E + Narcons + Andy Stott + Pretty Lights + Perfume Genius + St. Vincent + XLX

Howdy, all — we’re back again with Round Two of our annual-ish bunch of randomly-chosen previews for Day for Night, Houston’s quirkiest music/art/technology/whatever festival, which is nearly upon us. (See over here for Round One, if you missed it…)

Things kick off this coming Friday, December 15th, with the Friday Summit, which features talks from people like electronic/experimental music pioneer Laurie Anderson, whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and Nadya Tolokonnikova from infamous Russian feminist-punk gang Pussy Riot.

Following that, DFN then rolls on into the full music art-and-music thing on Saturday, December 16th, and Sunday, December 17th, with everybody from Nine Inch Nails to The Jesus Lizard to B L A C K I E to En Vogue (no, really), plus 20 or so visual artists, some of whom I’m going to attempt to post about later this week.

Honestly, I think it’s going to be a blast. When I went to DFN last year, I really had no idea what to expect, and what I experienced was like a weird, mesmerizing, entertaining wonderland of lasers, beats, synthesizers, strobes, VR, sculpture, guitars, and, um, hair (well, okay, that was one disturbing art piece in particular). I heard people grumble about how it wasn’t as good as the first year of DFN, but for me, it was overwhelming and amazing. I couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks, to the annoyance of my family, friends, and coworkers.

Anyway, enough talk; let’s do this:

Nina Kraviz
We start off this pile of artists/musicians with Siberian-born DJ/singer Nina Kraviz, who crafts appropriately icy, shiny, Euro-dance tracks that step deliberately and confidently, the beats sounding like they’d fit just as well on a catwalk in Milan as they would on a dancefloor in Ibiza.

The arrangements are minimal and uncluttered, letting you focus on the rhythm and on Kraviz’s sung/spoken vocals, which take center stage on a lot of her tracks; the latter was a bit of a surprise to me, actually, since most EDM I’ve listened to lately either skips the vocals completely or does a few brief samples and then leaves it at that. Kraviz’s songs, on the other hand, are more like actual song-type “songs,” with verse-chorus-verse structures in some cases and a whole lot of her voice, which makes me think of Madonna circa “Vogue”.

At first, I found myself cringing, thinking unkindly of Nico fronting Velvet Underground, but after a while I found myself liking this. What Kraviz does doesn’t necessarily fit with what a lot of the EDM world looks like these days, but hell, who cares? There’s room for everybody, and this is a refreshing shift after hearing a ton of glitchy, ear-filling noise. Fans of old-school Euro-style techno, take note. (Jeremy Hart)
[Nina Kraviz plays at 11:20PM on Sun., December 17th, at the Yellow Stage.]


 

Pussy Riot
Well, that was a surprise. Like most music-/news-loving folks, I’ve been familiar with Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot for a few years now, since their initial run-in with the Putin regime, but apparently they’ve moved way, way far along from those days, at least in terms of their sound. Last year’s Xxx was alternately delicately bumping and funky and belligerent, mixing sarcastic-yet-serious sociopolitical sentiments with beats and rap rhythms in a way that kinda-sorta makes me think of Asian Dub Foundation or Gogol Bordello at times, with lyrics that are half in English and half in Russian but confrontational in either language.

It’s addictive as hell, but it’s a far cry from the Oi!-punk and riot grrl influences they started out with. And now, with new track “Police State,” the trio has seemingly reinvented themselves even further. Despite the song title, gone are both the punk fire and the funkiness, replaced with lush keys, angelic gang vocals, and a joyful, CHVRCHES-like feel that…well, damn, I really like this. It’s different, that’s for damn sure, but they make it feel natural.

No matter what they (she? it’s not real clear if this will be a full-band performance or if only Nadya Tolokonnikova will be in town) sound like, though, the message remains. On Xxx, the group goes after Pres. Trump full-on with the sultry, samba-like “Make America Great Again,” then anthropomorphizes, erm, vaginas in the Cibo Matto-esque jam of “Straight Outta Vagina.” Even “Police State” skewers modern life, seemingly taking a jab at people who blind themselves with consumerism and pop culture. Whatever the hell they do, yeah, it works. (Jeremy Hart)
[Pussy Riot plays at 4:40PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Red Stage.]


 

B L A C K I E
YES. If you were to ask me which local Houston icon should absolutely, definitely, no-question-at-all play Day for Night, B L A C K I E, aka Michael LaCour, would be right there at the top of the damn list. To me, he exemplifies all the best things about H-town’s experimental side, mashing/crushing together keyboards, overdistorted guitars and beats, saxophones, and his own tortured howls and raps into an unmistakeable mass of raw, shredded-throat fury.

At times he’s headed sideways into different areas, like the more acoustic, stripped-down vibe of 2012’s GEN, or the more overt No-Wave of 2014’s Imagine Yourself in a Free and Natural World, but it’s always, always B L A C K I E, always with that snarl and that nihilistic, burning rage. This year’s Remains takes all of that, everything that came before, chops it up and snorts it before diving into a mosh pit; it’s simultaneously the hardest and weirdest thing LaCour’s ever done, and it’s freaking beautiful.

Don’t miss his live performance at DFN, by the way. I’ve been lucky enough to see him several times over the last decade or so, and his sets are always wild, loud, chaotic, and absolutely unforgettable, whether he’s teetering atop a speaker on a darkened stage or flailing around wrapped in an American flag out in the festival sunshine. (Jeremy Hart)
[B L A C K I E plays at 7:30PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Yellow Stage.]


 

Narcons
Okay, that was not quite what I’d expected. I took one look at Narcons, an H-town rock supergroup if ever there was one, with Stefan Mach (By the End of Tonight, Lisa’s Sons), Brett Taylor (By the End of Tonight, sIngs, Buoyant Spirit), Chris Ryan (The Energy, Black Congress, Time, a half-dozen other bands), and Cley Miller (Young Mammals), and figured, “cool, this should be some neat, possibly math-y, definitely quirky indie-rock.”

Yeah, I was pretty far off, and I really should have known better; looking at their respective careers, there’s probably not a single band any of ’em have been in that sounds anything like any other band they’ve been in. They get bored easily. And therefore, Narcons, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard from any of these guys.

This stuff is messy, fuzzed-out, kinda heavy, surfy, and hazy, with lots of echoey vocals, sinister electronics, and an overall spacey vibe — it’s like what I’d imagine Man…or Astro-man? would sound like if they were crossed with late-’80s post-punk, with a bit of weirdo psych thrown in for fun. And at the end of the day, do I like it? The jury’s still out on that for me, I’ve got to admit, but it sure as isn’t boring. (Jeremy Hart)
[Narcons play at 1:10PM on Sun., December 17th, at the Green Stage.]


 

Andy Stott
From outer-space acid-surf-rock, let’s shift gears to something that’s similarly sinister — some of the time, anyway — but far more restrained, with that menace lurking beneath the surface. If Narcons make music that’s like the soundtrack to some remake of Santa Claus vs. The Martians, Manchester’s Andy Stott makes music that could damn well be part of the score to Blade Runner 2049.

The music is ethereal at times and harshly metallic at others, at points floating serene and gorgeous above the landscape and at others dragging piano sounds through broken glass and blown speakers. Signed to Boomkat spinoff label Modern Love, Stott makes EDM that’s decidedly not of the danceable variety, rather choosing to swim in a murky underworld of crunching, robotic beats, damaged sounds, and hauntingly beautiful bits of melody, often in the same damn song (see “Violence,” for one).

There’s a bit of Burial going on here, to my ears, but Stott’s sound is more “formed,” more solid and tangible than that; there’s also a resemblance to Massive Attack and Dead Can Dance at times, especially on sweeter, more orchestral-sounding tracks like “Faith in Strangers.” I’m enjoying this a hell of a lot, particularly on a dark, quiet night. (Jeremy Hart)
[Andy Stott plays at 10:40PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Blue Stage.]


 

Pretty Lights
It took me a long, long time, but I’ve mostly come around to the EDM/electronic music/DJ thing. Back in Ye Olden Days, I would’ve snickered at the thought of something like EDM being “real” music; nowadays, however, I’ve grown to love at least some of it, and I can appreciate the work that goes into it.

That said, there’s a part of me that still holds tight to the notion that music’s best when it’s actually being made by real-live instruments. It’s why The Roots and the Beastie Boys both have such a special place in my heart, for one thing, but more to the point, it’s why I can’t help but respect Pretty Lights. See, back in 2013, for A Color Map of the Sun, Pretty Lights (aka Derek Vincent Smith) decided to create brand-new samples to use in his music; he worked with a bunch of talented session musicians, including players from the hallowed Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Treme Brass Band, to record new tracks, which he then pressed to vinyl and then sampled and used in the tracks for Sun.

I mean, holy shit, people. That’s some Rube Goldberg-level sampling insanity, right there, the kind of thing you don’t really need to do but just do because you can, y’know? And it works awesomely well, giving the tracks a live, real feel that plain-old synths and canned samples just can’t match. The music’s funky and jazzy while still incorporating booming beats, street-level rapping, and meaty synths, and it’s really freaking good. Happily, he’s taken things even further these days, forming an actual band, Pretty Lights Live, and touring with ’em. No word on whether DFN will be a full-band show, but either way, I’m psyched as hell. (Jeremy Hart)
[Pretty Lights plays at 6PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Red Stage.]


 

Perfume Genius
Wow. I’m absolutely new to Perfume Genius, the band name for solo performer Mike Hadreas, but after listening to this past spring’s No Shape, I’m floored. The album is so fragile and tender at times, hearing it is like watching an artist carefully, meticulously carve away at a chunk of crystal, pure and clear and beautiful. The music swoons and soars, bursting into glorious crescendoes that reach skyward like the best of M83’s less-retro moments, then falling back to earth softly, vulnerable as an injured bird.

As the music plays, I’m reminded of Prince and Freddie Mercury, singers who could be sultry and powerful and delicate all in the span of a single song; as Perfume Genius, Hadreas pulls off the same feat, which is no small thing. There’re also elements that make me think of Trembling Blue Stars, specifically the utter fragility and heart-on-the-sleeve openness of all of it — No Shape is an album about love, for the one Hadreas loves, and you get the sense that he’s putting everything out there for that person to take or leave. There’s a risk there, a risk of pain and rejection and all the rest, but a whole lot of bravery, as well. Don’t miss out on this one, people. (Jeremy Hart)
[Perfume Genius plays at 3:20PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Red Stage.]


 

St. Vincent
Out of everybody playing Day for Night this year, I think St. Vincent is the one and only musician or band The Kid and I are both ridiculously excited to be able to see. I’ve seen Annie Clark once before, a couple of years ago at FPSF (R.I.P., kinda), and it literally left me standing there gaping, mouth open, as she roared through the roboticized arena-rock of “Digital Witness,” never breaking character and tearing away at her guitar like the bona-fide guitar goddess she is; The Kid, on the other hand, has only heard stories and seen her on YouTube, so she’s even more hyped about it.

I’m also pretty damn hopeful to hear the songs off new album MASSEDUCTION live. The album is a nice shift from 2014’s St. Vincent, in part because it feels more human, warmer and more connected (in a real-world way, not a digital way) than that previous album. Sure, a lot of the same elements that Clark’s used in the past are still there — those warbly synths, that forceful voice, the Tori Amos-influenced song structures — but at the same time it feels more like a true “pop” album, with some parts of it reminiscent of current pop darling Lorde, and in a good way.

I’ve heard rumors, by the by, that the current Fear the Future tour, of which the DFN set is a part, is pretty different from the previous performance I’d seen from St. Vincent. Supposedly there’s no actual band this time (at least, not a visible one), instead narrowing the focus, laser-like, to Clark herself, alone up on a stage, and reports are that, yeah, it’s pretty incredible. Guess we’ll have to wait and see… (Jeremy Hart)
[St. Vincent plays at 8:40PM on Sun., December 17th, at the Green Stage.]


 

XLX
Last on the list — for now — is Houston band XLX, the former solo project of singer/guitarist/keyboardist Ryan Lawless (compatriot Jason Williams handles the drums & percussion, while Gavin Hendershot plays bass), whom I’d never run across until I saw them on the list for Day for Night this year. I haven’t been able to find much by ’em yet, but I’m liking what I have dug up, like new single “iUsed,” which is nicely ’80s-sounding, synth-tinged pop-rock that makes me think of nothing so much as sadly-departed fellow Houstonians Alkari (damn, I miss those guys); I can’t even put my finger on why, except maybe it’s this particular melding of guitar-rock hooks with retro keys that does it for me.

Apparently a lot of the band’s songs are less rock and more electro-pop/industrial, like “DIY,” which features female vocals, stuttering, clicky percussion, and slow-moving beats over a lush bed of synths, but hey, I’m liking that quite a bit, too. I’m curious to hear more from these folks, for sure. (Jeremy Hart)
[XLX plays at 1:30PM on Sat., December 16th, at the Yellow Stage.]


 

Okay, and now my brain is melting and dripping out of my ears, friends, so I must seek the sleepytime. More of this stuff still to come; we’re gonna crank through a bunch of this stuff, dammit. Join us, won’t you?

(Photos: Nina Kraviz photo by Mike Guesty; B L A C K I E photo by Travis Landolt; St. Vincent photo by Nedda Afsari.)


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