How Houston’s Day For Night festival served as a sound intersection of curatorial excellence

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How Day For Night festival achieved curatorial excellence

Houston, Texas’ Day For Night festival has established itself as an unconventional, hyper-sensory utopia. Bolstering an exemplary menu of avant-garde talent, the festival satiates thousands all while blurring the boundaries of performance and offering the utmost in aural phenomena in its industrial warehouse setting.

Day For Night prided itself on its snapshot booking in its third year, by and for the experimentally-inclined. Enlisting artists like Nina Kraviz, Kaytranada, Justice, Jlin, Jamie xx, Mount Kimbie, Solange, REZZNine Inch NailsTyler, the Creator, and Thom Yorke, among others, the gathering has situated itself as an unorthodox standout from an at times mundane, and largely counterfeit American festival circuit.

Words by Grace Fleisher Featured image courtesy of Theo Civitello

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In its immersively emblematic nature, Day For Night’s third edition was a polyamorous union of music, culture, and digital art. It was a multifarious destination, and offered its attendees a mode of escapism while simultaneously defying how they explored their own, as well as others’ relationships with art and reality.

Those who attended were immersed in an epicenter of capitalism’s desolation, i.e the former Barbara Jordan Post Office, only to enter a sprawling industrial wonderland; complete with capacious lasers, fog machines, and immersive visual art open to infinite interpretations. Despite its growing pains, Day For Night was an unparalleled destination in the American festival circuit, protruding the landscape with its singularity in 2017, as it likely will in years to come, too.

Photo Credit: Katrina Barber

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Embracement of Reflection: Houston & Beyond

It would be naive to ignore how Houston’s rampantly evolving cultural and developmental environment shaped Day For Night. A look at almost any sect of the city points to hyper-gentrification and a lack of zoning restrictions that are rendering a city of cultural depth increasingly unrecognizable. Festivals have the potential to be the 21st-century’s greatest linking apparatus, and Day For Night embraced multiple methods of coupling reflection in an immensely immersive fashion. Summits delved into socio-political discourse by way of Laurie Anderson, Chelsea Manning, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, and more. The gathering challenged its attendees toward an attainment of outward-awareness.

Photo Credit: Charles Reagan Hackleman

 

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Woven into the very seams of artistic discourse at Day For Night was a thread on how the world’s 24-hour loops and radical advances in technology and communication are seamlessly moving faster than behavioral evolution, rendering many helpless in the interim. In a hyper-connected sect of the world, it’s ironically never been easier for one to feel helpless. Day For Night ruminated on how these very advancements can work to foster connections and discoveries in the world which will propel us further as a collective entity.

Photo Credit: Chad Wadsworth

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Post HTX Served As A Model Venue

“The way one sees things, and the expectations one brings to a performance, or any art form, really, is completely determined by the venue,” articulated David Byrne of the seminal group, The Talking Heads.

This phenomenon of a concert space shaping context, and in turn, enjoyment, is explored in Byrne’s book How Music Works. Surely, the way in which performances are perceived en masse is in relation to the space they’re experienced in. At times this is an obvious element. Take the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, for example. Burning Man’s sustenance relies on the desert space it resides in, and while this may be an extreme example, space is becoming a deeply entwined element in the worldwide festival circuit. The relationship between attendees and venues is why scenes blossom, and it’s why destination festivals are becoming increasingly popular.

Photo Credit: Sara Marjorie Strick

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Day For Night’s decision to place a hyper-sensorial paradise across four stages in a dimly lit, abandoned post office was a masterful one. Ironically, the nucleus of the performance venue were the veins of the warehouse, many of which contained captivating art installations. Unlit hallways that separated the “blue” stage from the intimately circular “yellow” stage, for example, beckoned an art form in themselves. For in these empty spaces, attendees prepared to ascend into visual or aural titillation. Whether it be disco balls adorned from a ceiling in netting, illuminating an entire room, moving mechanical cranes paired to ominous music, or synced screens around a ground level stage, the once-vacant warehouse was flooded with an innate intertwinement of senses.

Photo Credit: Theo Civitello

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Exemplary Curatorial Intent

A festival’s success begins in its curatorial intent. Founded in 2015 by the Free Press Houston and the New York-based creative agency Work-Order, Day for Night established itself as a visually immersive music and art festival from the very beginning. By embedding an exploration of the elements of light, space, and sound in its mission, Day For Night has transformed the festival landscape by combining new media art with envelope-pushing musicians. It may still be a young festival, but its surely created a unique experience. Day For Night’s careful selection of artistry and curatorial intent spoke to several sects of music, tech, and art lovers. Planning such a feat does not come without intent or without a deeply embedded audience understanding, though.

Photo Credit: Katrina Barber

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Appealing to the experimentally-inclined, for example, Day For Night brought forth Nina Kraviz, who’s on the heels of a momentous 2017, and largely regarded as a queen of techno. The festival also booked her трип (or Trip) labelmate Bjarki. Jlin, who’s set ironically rivaled her longtime purveyor Aphex Twin‘s 2016 DFN appearance, was also a standout experimental act. Her album, Black Origami, was an exemplary experimental record of the past year. Additionally, artists like Forest Swords, Jenny Hval, Shlomo, and Roni Size, all capitalized on the use of live sets as a medium for either outward, emotive release or social commentary.

Photo Credit: Julian Bajsel

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Day For Night also booked standout artists like the esteemed Nine Inch Nails, who’ve been touring their immensely accessible EP Add Violence. Solange stunned in her Houston homecoming, merging art and popular culture with an affirming image of black pride and femininity.  Cardi B gave the 12-minute performance of the year, encapsulating a tumultuous 2017 with her ominous hit “Bodak Yellow.”  Tyler, The Creator gave a fervent performance which was brimming with tracks off his introspective new work Flower Boy. Pussy Riot, Pretty Lights, Justice, and REZZ — with her exceptional Mass Manipulation tour visuals — all expectedly stunned.

Day For Night displayed a keen understanding of the experimentally inclined, but also served as an apt pop culture gathering.In bringing together artists who continue to challenge the status quo, the festival’s curational intent was two-fold — displayed initially by the festival, and then, by each and every artist that performed.

Photo Credit: Ismael Quintanilla

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Embedding a Festival Framework for the Future

As more and more festivals continue to emerge on the American festival circuit, immersive affairs such as Day For Night will continue to be a saving grace. It’s one thing to have an exemplary understanding of an audience, but as festival-goers grow into an increasingly digitized world, a means of facilitating connection through art and performance will be needed more than ever. Day For Night blurred the lines between its attendees and artists, it’s an environment where everyone was on an even playing field, as an observer, student of performance, and the outside world itself.

Photo Credit: Sara Marjorie Strick

Hear Nine Inch Nails Break Down “The Lovers” On Song Exploder

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Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor recently guested on Song Exploder to talk about their song “The Lovers,” off of this year’s ADD VIOLENCE. Reznor chatted about sonic inspiration and the way he tries to come up with a very particular vibe for a song before recording concrete ideas. Ross says that … More »

25 Great EPs From 2017

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Over the last couple years, we’ve seen the rise of the “mini-album,” an inexplicable term that is, I guess, supposed to signify some kind of intentionality and artistic vision that an EP simply cannot capture. It’s a designation that’s been rightfully met with ribbing derision, but it’s an interesting development that speaks to some larger … More »

Stream In Flames’ Surprise EP Covering ’90s Hits By Depeche Mode, Alice In Chains, Chris Isaak, & Nine Inch Nails

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Gothenburg veterans In Flames are among the fathers of Sweden’s soaring, triumphant melodic death metal sound. But on their new EP Down, Wicked & No Good, the band leaves that sound mostly behind for something else. The new surprise-release EP consists entirely of covers, with the band taking on the ’90s modern-rock radio hits. The … More »

Live Blog: Riot Fest 2017

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Riot Fest 2017
Douglas Park; Chicago, IL

[September 15-17]

Looking back a year on from my Riot Fest 2016 coverage, I can marvel at my own naivety. Languishing in the jaws of the presidential election cycle, I (and many like me) thought this was as bad as it could get. Trump’s ascent to the top of his party — fueled by a complex cocktail of white nationalism, working-class rage, misogyny, and partisan inertia — had exposed some hard truths about this country that many of us didn’t want to face, but we were coming up on the finish line. November wasn’t too far around the corner, and when the dust settled, we were confident that we’d have a president who, while not universally beloved (even among her own constituents), would at least restore a semblance of sanity to federal politics.

But we all know how that turned out. This year’s festival roster responded to the direness of our present political situation in a variety of ways. Ministry’s Al Jourgensen answered with fury and exhortations to violent resistance, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz and Pedro Erazo with calls for unity among people of good will — hell, even the happy-go-lucky Tim Kinsella of Cap’n Jazz let slip the nihilistic observation that his privileges are paid for by the murders of people all over the world. The enormity of Trump’s presidency threatens to make punk rock’s defiant posturing look hollow and inconsequential. Yet it was a challenge many of the performers were willing to meet head on, even if some of the boldest, most transgressive, and genuinely punk performances of the Fest came from outside the white male-dominated sphere of punk rock.

But before we get too far into that, let’s take care of some administrative items:

  • Despite last year being the biggest yet for the festival, Riot Fest scaled back for 2017, cutting out its Denver fest and paring back its lineup to 91 acts. This may, in part, be due to recent death of fest founder, Sean McKeough (May he riot in peace).
  • While I feel for Denver missing out, the smaller lineup was a boon. Bands got longer sets, and it made it easier and more worthwhile to cut out in the middle of a set if there were overlapping acts you wanted to watch.
  • This being our third year attending the festival (“our” being my wife and I), we tried to take in a little more of the nonmusical aspects, getting some yummy street tacos from Tica’s and witnessing the death-defying high wire acrobatics of Circus Una.
  • Security was friendly, but, like, maybe too friendly. The guards felt around my wife’s bust for that switchblade and set of brass knuckles she stores in her bra (lucky for us she stowed them back in the glove compartment). But, honestly, they could have strip-searched me and put three fingers up my asshole because (most importantly)…
  • FREE BEER WAS BACK IN THE PRESS TENT. The courteous festival staff kept the wheels of journalism thoroughly lubricated with all the Dos Equis and Heineken we could get down our gullets.

The Essentials
Saul Williams (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Genre-bending rapper and father of slam poetry, Saul Williams began his set Friday with an improvised spoken word rendition of “Coded Language,” all those lengthy clauses beginning with and punctuated by the legalistic conjunction “whereas,” culminating in a litany of radicals, artists, and martyrs. But while the framework of his jeremiad was familiar, its contents were targeted specifically at us. “A riot is not a festival,” he chided. “A riot is a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” And to drive his point home further: “Your punk rock isn’t that punk rock if it doesn’t make fascists explode.”

It took a moment for me to realize that the stage behind him was bare of equipment and that no band would be joining him. This drew hostility from some in the crowd, at least one member of which repeatedly shouted, “We came to hear music!” as he trudged off in the direction of the main stages. Williams was undaunted, taking aim at targets as large as the Catholic Church and Silicon Valley and as small as the Trump-supporting members of his audience. He attacked the gender binary, the digital revolution, and the sharing economy using the “Hack into…” lyrical framework of “Colton as Cotton,” before launching into an a capella rendition of “Black Stacey.”

It was probably the gutsiest performance I’ve seen in my life, standing on that stage all alone and putting to lie the late capitalist notion that we can spend our way to a revolution, to call each member of the audience to account for their part in the oppressive structures that weigh us all down (albeit not equally). Unlike the Prophets Of Rage, who on Sunday asked their audience if they were ready to have a good time, Williams was there to educate, not to entertain. Next to him, even the most radical declarations of resistance seemed like kids’ stuff.

Cute Riot Fest audience members (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Friday’s other highlight was industrial metal pioneers Ministry. Uncle Al was eager to tell his audience how happy he was to be home, joking, “You all know I’m from here. Some of you have probably ripped me off on cab fare.” They played a relentless, career-spanning set, including a brand new song from their forthcoming album, “Antifa,” celebrating the anarchist resistance network. Watching masked dancers parade around the stage waving red and black flags filled me with a curious sense of unease.

The uncritical acceptance of vigilante justice that I see coming from certain corners of the left is alarming for a variety of reasons that I don’t have the space for here, but suffice to say that I personally regard Antifa’s rise to prominence as, at best, a risky development for political discourse in America. Jourgenson’s embrace of the controversial group is hardly surprising, given his outspoken leftwing politics and heavy metal’s enshrinement of ideological, as well as sonic, extremity. In fact, a Ministry show seems like exactly the place where buttoned-up lefties can crow over fascists chowing down on a knuckle sandwich. I guess I just never thought we’d reach a point where the kinds of things that get shouted out at a heavy metal concert were being considered as a blueprint for political strategy.

My political hand-wringing aside, Ministry was on fire. Jorgenson’s voice is as caustic as ever, and his band remains a finely honed engine of destruction. In lieu of footage from the stage, the band fed surreal psychedelic imagery into the screens: distorted pictures of nude women bleeding into news coverage, music video footage, and internet memes. They ripped through mid- and late-career highlights like “Senor Peligro” and “Bad Blood,” but aside from opening their set with “Psalm 69,” they saved most of their classics for a whirlwind four-song finale of “N.W.O.,” “Just One Fix,” “Thieves,” and “So What.”

Peaches (Photo: Amanda Athon)

If Saul and Al had to split ownership of Friday between them, Saturday belonged entirely to Peaches. The Canadian provocateur delivered a riotous and confrontational set of explicit sexuality and gender-fuckery. She opened with her ode to female ejaculation, “Rub,” wearing an absurdly bulky pink fur-suit and anatomically detailed vagina hat. During her second song “Vaginaplasty,” her backup dancers sauntered out in enormous vaginal headgear, while the artist herself stripped down to a flesh-colored leotard to which giant purple nipples and a fuzzy pink merkin had been affixed. By her third song, she was over the photo-pit rail and into the audience, and by the end of the fourth, her leotard was down around her waist.

There were no fucks given. When Peaches needed to switch costumes, she turned her back and stepped out of whatever she was wearing right in front of the audience. Her dancers shed more and more clothing as the show went on, until by the end they were topless in a latticework of fetish-gear and undulating against the singer in simulated sex acts. Peaches performed a good chunk of the time in nothing but her skivvies and flesh-colored nipple-covers. It was, by turns, hilarious, titillating, and unnerving (like, should we be seeing this? Is this LEGAL?). Despite the lack of explicit political commentary, Peaches’ defiant ribaldry felt like an act of resistance, an expression of female power and self-determination. And it was some of the most fun I had the whole weekend.

High-Wire acrobats (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Still, despite the stiff competition, my absolute favorite set of the fest belongs to Chicago’s own Cap’n Jazz. This marks the seminal Midwestern emo group’s second reunion since their dissolution in 1995. Reunions as a whole tend to reek of cash-grabbery, and usually they don’t improve in quality upon repetition, but Sunday’s performance was as pure and unique a concert-going experience as I’ve ever been part of.

Frontman Tim Kinsella may have crossed the threshold into his forties, but he remains a childlike presence, hurling his body across the stage, turning sloppy backwards somersaults, and generally jackassing around with the audience. His ebullience was infectious and his seeming disregard for his own safety and the integrity of the performance created an electric tension. Kinsella made a game between songs of requesting the return of a tambourine that he’d tossed out into the audience, and then throwing it immediately back into the crowd. During their cover of “Take on Me,” he hurled his mic over the photopit rail, but somehow managed to recover it just in time for the big final chorus, just like he miraculously recovered his sunglasses, lost early on in a crowd-surfing excursion.

His bandmates played the grownups, with drummer Mike occasionally bristling over his brother’s showboating. They kept the grooves going when Tim’s shenanigans came between him and his singing duties, like during closer “Que Suerte!” when Tim stuffed the mic down his pants, threaded it through the bottom of his jeans, only to stick it back down once more and thread it down the other leg (he needed help from the security team to get it out his second pant leg).

But if all of this sounds like the music took a backseat to the antics, you can put that right out of your head. The band was in peak form, hitting all the lurching starts and stops, tempo and signature shifts like clockwork, and all the while, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. Third Kinsella brother and American Football alum Nate stood in for Davey von Bohlen on guitar and brought a fan’s enthusiasm to the proceedings. Their set covered almost everything from their sole album Burritos, Inspiration Point… aside from “Bluegrassish,” “Flashpoint: Catheter,” and “Precious,” and they filled the rest of the set out with favorites like “Ooh I Do Love You” and “Forget Who Are.”


Let-downs
Bad Brains (Photo: Amanda Athon)

This is uncomfortable for me to say, so I’m just going to blurt it out. X and Bad Brains were pretty boring live. I know. I KNOW. These guys are legends. They’ve been doing this for four decades now. They have nothing to prove. They’re up there in the years, and at least in H.R.’s case have health concerns. Not everyone can be Iggy Pop, who’s pushing a thousand and still writhing around on the floor like a teenager. They still sounded great, but there wasn’t a lot of energy in their sets.

Saturday night’s penultimate act At the Drive-In had the opposite problem. Cedric Bixler-Zavala still tosses the mic around and launches himself off the drumkit with no apparent care about whether he’ll come down on his feet, but the volume they were playing at really muddied their sound and overwhelmed Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s precise guitarwork. It was still enjoyable to hear my favorite cuts off Relationship of Command, from which their set drew heavily, but years of being baited by ATDI’s reputation as a live band set my expectations at a level they couldn’t quite reach. Plus, no “Transatlantic Foe”? Come on, guys…


Honorable Mentions
Liars (Photo: Amanda Athon)

I’ve drifted away from Liars’ recorded output over the years, but there’s no question these guys can still bring it live. Angus Andrew stalked onto the stage in a white wedding dress, his long lace veil billowing in the wind. Standing before a small podium, he fiddled with dials that hellishly distorted his vocals during the bouncier electronic numbers like “Mess on a Mission” and “House Clouds,” as well as on more harrowing fare like “Scarecrow on a Killer Slant.”

The Buzzcocks made a good showing for old-head punk rock. Their hit-laden set (anyone with a copy of Singles Going Steady could do a reasonable job keeping score at home) was brisk and tuneful, and their chemistry forty-plus years in the making shined through at every turn, particularly on spacier numbers like “Why Can’t I Touch It?” Finally Nine Inch Nails brought Friday to a close with a riveting headlining performance. The fog-machines were going into overdrive throughout the set, such that the stage was constantly cloaked in billowing smoke like the steaming maw of hell. Reznor was intense, if a little aloof as he careened throughout his discography, lightly dusting his set with hits like “The Hand that Feeds,” “Closer,” and “Head Like a Hole.”

Buzzcocks (Photo: Amanda Athon)
Gogol Bordello (Photo: Amanda Athon)

Gogol Bordello brought their brand of feel-good bedlam to the fest on Saturday and convinced me that I need to revisit Transcontinental Hustle. I was left pretty cold by the album when it came out back in 2010, but goddamn if every cut they played off it didn’t bring the house down, particularly “We Comin’ Rougher (Immigraniada),” which has taken on a pointed significance in the era of Trump.

Following Dinosaur Jr.’s sublime album playthrough of You’re Living All Over Me, I crashed the angry party that Prophets Of Rage were throwing on Sunday night long enough to hear them drop a pair of RATM covers (“Testify” and “Take the Power Back”) amid some original songs from their hot-off-the-presses eponymous debut. But it was the siren song of M.I.A. that ultimately seduced me. The British emcee was in fine form, if surprisingly mute on politics. She knocked out hit after hit for her eager crowd, while a mesmerizing light show engulfed the stage. At the risk of losing all my punk cred, after that kind of spectacle, Jawbreaker just couldn’t hold my interest. Beyond one or two songs of Dear You, I’d never quite managed to find my way into them, but the die-hards in the front row seemed to be getting everything they wanted out of them, so that’s all that matters, right?


And that, in a nutshell, was Riot Fest 2017. There’s a ton I missed out on, including Shabazz Palaces, Wu Tang Clan performing 36 Chambers, Built to Spill’s play-through of Keep It Like a Secret, and festival mainstays Gwar and Andrew W.K., but some of the sets I was able to take in this year numbered among the most powerful and exhilarating festival experiences I’ve ever witnessed. As the situation in the outside world grows more dire, we continue to look to art for solace, and there was plenty of that to be found. But the bravest artists offered something we needed more: a kick in the ass to get back out there and try to change something, however small and however futile that might appear.

David Lynch Rejected A Nine Inch Nails Song For Not Being “Aggressive And Ugly” Enough For Twin Peaks

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The strangest and most intense moment of David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return series was the one that featured Nine Inch Nails giving a convulsive performance of “She’s Gone Away” smack in the middle of the episode. Trent Reznor says that he wrote the song, which appeared on the band’s Not TheMore »

Always Music In The Air: Twin Peaks: The Return Performances From Worst To Best

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When Julee Cruise appeared at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return Episode 17 on Sunday night, reprising “The World Spins” from the first season of Twin Peaks way back in 1990, it was reassuring to see the platinum blonde singer in front of those red curtains, her voice soft and ethereal, and her face … More »

Nine Inch Nails Crushed Panorama With Controlled Rage

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Whenever people ask what the first show I ever saw was, my standard response is, “Do you want the cool answer, or the real answer?” … More »

Who Knew The Faint Were Still So Popular? And Other Thoughts After FYF Fest 2017

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In some of my darker moments from this past weekend, I had to wonder why anyone reads these festival recaps. Or, to clarify — why anyone would read a recap from a music critic, and thus, someone who likely feels the need to use them as a narrative device. We love these things, as it’s … More »

Trent Reznor Explains What Sucks About Nine Inch Nails’ Festival Set Times

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The Village Voice has an enjoyable new interview with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, by veteran rock journalist Lizzy Goodman. By the tone of the piece, Reznor was in good spirits and eager to pierce his own myth as the clench-jawed spokesperson for the gothy and disaffected of America — it opens with him … More »