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FESTIVAL REPORT: OBEY Convention VIII
Eric Hill , June 15th, 2015 10:50

Eric Hill reports from Halifax, Nova Scotia

Temporally wedged right in between the venerable FIMAV in Victoriaville, QC, and Montreal's MUTEK festival, OBEY continues to grow and claim a well-earned spot on the pre-summer calendar of experimental music concerts. Initially mining the unusually vibrant local music and art scene, then drawing artists nationally, the last few years have seen OBEY host the likes of Tim Hecker, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Pete Swanson, Maja Ratjke, Juliana Barwick, Low and many more.

Despite its fairly broad artistic canvas, something about the unforced community vibe underlying the professional roll out of events makes OBEY feels like a festival that grows organically from the interzone spaces of Halifax, not one that's dropped from on high, rootless, on top of the small city's cultural base. It is reflected both in the diversity of concerts, concert-goers, and the venues that host performances, including historic churches, community urban gardens, gay bars, conservatory halls, and public libraries.

This year, the festival is dealt an early setback with the cancellation of Thursday night headliner Omar Souleyman. The cold and rainy weather seems to mirror the attendees' disappointment. NYC's Bing & Ruth, whose ambient chamber performance allows the audience to discover their own heartbeats and new ways to describe their city in sound and silence, soothes this hurt. The septet's piano, string, and woodwind eminence is only slightly fractured for those few standing near the back exit of Halifax Music Co-op's converted church space. Those of us close enough to the door are treated to the sounds of minor criminal enterprise discussed loudly over a cell phone call. Coming during a particularly melancholy string section, shades of GY!BE's early field recordings are easy to conjure.

Toronto's Not the Wind Not The Flag open this evening with a much more raucous survey of improvised music history. The duo move from electronic microsounds, tweaking pedals on the floor, to a free jazz drum and saxophone assault before easing into a noise/psychedelic guitar and percussion suite, bringing everything back to the small sounds they first unveil. All inspiring and seamless.

Friday includes a rain-displaced performance by two local punk groups, Life Chain and Unreal Thought, forced inside from the outdoor courtyard to the children's literature section of the North End Library. Hardcore and D-Beat surrounded by pop-up books and plastic dinosaurs make for an imaginative re-contextualisation. At the other end of the day Container performs a heavy noise set in the slightly more understandable confines of local club Menz and Mollyz.

Something between those two poles is unveiled when saxophones disturb the austerity of Fort Massey United Church. Opening the evening is Last Lizard, a new project from Alex Zhang Hungtai, formerly known under the electro dance-bomb moniker Dirty Beaches. Hungtai's two long pieces feature layering of saxophone loops punctuated by transistor radio blasts, never quite breaking beyond their fairly simple harmonic descriptions of breath.

Headliner Peter Brötzmann begins his solo performance predictably with trademark sheets of notes and noise bursting forth in all directions and dimensions. Less predictably the veteran reedsman follows this overflow with a few more pieces that feature moody, almost romantic tones, breathy silences, and melodic complexity. Having only previously seen him in full megaton blast mode, it is a rare treat to witness his more pensive and playful sides, engaging the audience pre-encore with a bit of a joke about being at the end of a long tour and not "knowing any more music".

Saturday includes festival sponsors Weird Canada providing workshops and mentorships on everything from DIY culture to homemade instrument building. It also features a stellar set by locals Vulva Culture at the heart of a noon till 2pm showcase sponsored by the university's campus radio station. The group, whose name suggests feminist punk anthems, instead play an eerie set of reverb-drenched torch songs and ghostly pop tales. Amy Vinnedge's vocals and Kayla Stevens' winding lead guitar coil around each other in a low lit narrative dance creating a psychedelic buzz that lasts the rest of the day.

The day eventually reaches a new peak with Noveller's headlining set, again at Fort Massey. Sarah Lipstate's new album, Fantastic Planet, features a more sharply defined edge to her layered and looped guitar attack. In concert she confirms her technical skill, building note-perfect recreations of the album's progressive/ambient polarity. She defies the usual assumed head-down introvert pose of the experimental artists, indulging in classic rock poses and arpeggio-shattering power chords to enliven her intricate craft.

The sun finally and appropriately emerges on the festival's closing Sunday. Other rewards include free coffee at a showcase featuring the unusual pairing of percussion/ambient noise trio Gift From God with scene veterans, weird folk-turned-electro/world-turned undefined musical twins Tasseomancy. Later a windy garden party featuring poetry and an unabashedly joyful harmonium performance by Nepalese refugee Laxmi Adhikari casts a positive glow over everything.

As the sun slowly sets outside the unshuttered west-facing windows of the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, Chuck Blazevic's video projections are vague shapes dancing across the backstage drapery. Even without the full visual energy his performance as Dreamsploitation is an elevating cascade of software-scattered guitar. It is his second appearance at the festival for the Halifax ex-pat, having earlier wooed the assembled with his Eno/Satie-inspired pop duo You'll Never Get To Heaven.

With the backlit city skyline outside the concert hall, piano genius Lubomyr Melnyk then describes his love affair with the instrument, both in detailed stories of each piece's provenance then in the hypnotic flow of his "continuous music" play. Three shorter compositions set the scene for epic closer 'Windmill', a piano duet for which Melnyk pre-recorded his own accompaniment earlier in the day. For an unknowable amount of time we are transported by the musical tale of the titular building's construction, stormy destruction, and centuries long appreciation for the growth and events that pass alongside and over its ruins. The digitally redoubled pianist plays with unflagging dexterity and trance-like commitment without the aid of charts. It's a wondrous conclusion to a wonder-filled festival.

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