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FESTIVAL REPORT: Southwest Terror
Joshua Ford , October 31st, 2014 13:21

Joshua Ford reports from a weekend in Tuscon, Arizona on a weekend of performances, including Goatsnake, Primitive Man, Sex Prisoner and the mighty Sunn O)))

There's a hardness and resilience to this desert town and its inhabitants. It is dry and dusty, with daytime temps expanding mercury to dangerous extremes. There are five mountain ranges forming a sort-of perimeter around the flat city centre. The high peaks and saguaro covered crags of the Catalina and Tucson mountains can simultaneously grant senses of both protection and confinement. Are they walls sheltering Tucson from the outside world, or are they natures megalithic giants entombing and cutting off those trapped inside? Regardless, this climate and terrain is not for the faint of heart. There is an unspoken bond between residents who endure; they wear their resilience and self-reliance like a badge of desert honour.

While the main stage acts here at Southwest Terror Festival play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the kick-off show does indeed blast ears late on Thursday night, starting with quick-and-dirty sets from Arizona natives Conqueror Worm and Twingiant. The district is equal parts hot, sweaty, loud and packed, and the crowd is primed by the time New Mexico's Oryx come on stage. Oryx, a two piece sludge outfit, pack a heavy wallop. All three of these bands call the Southwest home, and they are perfect choices to welcome travellers to what the desert has to offer sonically. Amigo The Devil, self-proclaimed "murder/folk" artist, punctuates the four days of SWTF with impromptu pop-up sets. Throughout the weekend, he can be found playing a set in the men's after Pelican, at the Rialto's bar before Baptists, or outside both venues on Congress Street intermittently.

Being the first full day of the festival, Friday finds downtown Tucson buzzing with black-clad droves hungry for volume. Suitably enough, SWFT organiser David Rodgers and his band Godhunter open the evening at the Rialto, a case of "hometown boys make good". Emblazoned on their bass cab is the festival logo: a simple but effective graphic silhouette of the state of Arizona with an inverted cross inside. After just coming off of a two week west coast stint with Saturday's SWTF openers Sorxe, it's evident that Godhunter are battle ready and prepared to represent, and represent they do.

Following Godhunter onto the Rialto stage is the two-piece Eagle Twin, consisting of guitar/amplifier wizard Gentry Densley and possibly the most brutal drummer of the weekend, Tyler Smith, who at one point beats his drum set with his fists, much to the crowd's delight. For two people, they take up an amazing amount of sound-real-estate. Strength in economy. Densley's tone is thick from a foundation of self-made guitars and tube amps (branded with the name 'Hex Cabs'). His riffs are as original as his gear; he is intent on conjuring sounds unlike anyone else.

Next is Pelican's unique brand of Chicago-heavy. A sea of head bobbing ensues for their 60 minute instrumental set, with material ranging from multiple releases over their near-fifteen year career. While their heavier side can and does interlock with other bands on the bill, it's unclear how the crowd will receive their more polished, melodic side. However any initial fears are quickly assuaged as their reception is universal within the Rialto, and nothing but praise is heard after the red-lights dim on a sea of mesmerised faces.

Capping the night at the Rialto is Goatsnake. After 10 years since their last release, and rumors of band dissolution, they are welcomed with open arms by their disciples. With a new lineup, featuring Scott Renner on bass, and a new album awaiting release, they come on strong and fully energised, giving one of the most inspired performances of the weekend. Anderson's killer riff-work leads the galloping charge with openers 'Slippin' The Stealth' and 'Innocent', and from there they crush 70 minutes of their catalog, including several new tracks with insane mid-song tempo changes that catch the audience unaware. Vocalist Pete Stahl, whose voice and delivery is unlike others in his genre, cuts through perfectly in the live setting over the blues-doom of Anderson and rhythm section Renner and Greg Rogers (of doom vets The Obsessed). Towards the end of the set, Stahl makes his way over the barricade and into the loving arms of the crowd for closer 'Mower', singing along with those in the front rows in a show of solidarity (harkening back to his hardcore days in D.C. hardcore band Scream).  

Saturday evening begins with Phoenix band Sorxe playing to hardcore local fans and unfamiliars who arrive early for Neurosis. Traditional metal headbanging ensues, paving the way for the next and most non-traditional act of the weekend, Author & Punisher. The solo project, or one-man-band-with-machines as it were, is the brainchild of Tristan Shone. What the former art-student has created is something to behold. Having fabricated and machined his own instruments of aural apocalypse, he plays them with an abandon that leaves onlookers speechless and lost within the dark noise. Equal parts electronic doom and drone, the performance is backed by perfectly tailored visuals projected on giant scale. Author & Punisher falls into the category of must-be-seen-to-be-believed, and believers were made in force during his performance. The Body follow with their own screaming apocalypse, the second two piece of the weekend at the Rialto. They've gained enough steam over the last few years to warrant this slot, and rightfully so. They slay live. Period.

The Rialto's largest attendance of the weekend is for Neurosis. Fans of this festival's type of non-traditional metal, doom/sludge/etc., treat Scott Kelly and company with a reverence typically reserved for older giants like Sabbath, Motorhead, Maiden etc. Neurosis long ago reached the point in their career where they are a thing unto themselves, an absolute, and they are properly welcomed by SWTF as such. Opening with the slow-burner 'A Sun That Never Sets' from 2001's album of the same name, they spent two hours building a mountain on stage and proceeded to tear it down piece by piece. By the time they reached 'The Doorway' from Albini-produced Times Of Grace, the crowd was in a dark meditative state, fully engaged and aware while rocking the fuck out, yet taken inward into something deep. Earlier in the day Scott Kelly tweeted: "The day begins in Tucson the night will bring the light". And bright it was.

It's amazing to think that anyone could or should follow Neurosis after a performance like theirs, but SWTF organisers are smart enough to know that those who ventured to the District for Saturday's after-show would need something just as real at that point. Primitive Man, from Denver, are as real and dangerous as it gets. They are heavy and overpowering, brutality-incarnate, cutting through the crowd like a flaming sword: the perfect closer to the weekend's club after shows. Primitive Man give everything they have and level all those with the stamina to jam into the District sweatbox until 2am again.

After the onslaught of slow terror that was Saturday, Sunday's final shows at the Rialto provide a much needed speedy-counterpoint. The faster acts of Sex Prisoner, Obliterations and Baptists are surely programmed to enliven what might have been a drained audience on their third or fourth day of riding such a heavy wave, but they also work really well in laying a contrasting foundation for Saturday's headliners and purveyors of the glacially slow material, Sunn O))). As Baptists front man Andrew Drury later says to the audience, "You couldn't have asked for a better ambassador to your city than Sex Prisoner."

The young and hungry members of the local power-violence four piece, Sex Prisoner, came out with no pretense, no flourish, and nailed a dozen songs (some 30 seconds in length) do the door of the Rialto. Southern Lord label mates Obliterations and Baptists are next to the stage, and with both having released albums earlier in the week, as well as touring together, there is a sense of healthy/friendly competition that drives both of their sets. Obliterations play first, with a swagger and confidence suggestive of a band many years their senior. Initially they chastise the crowd for just standing there, but later they solve the problem by inviting the crowd over the barricade and onto the stage, or rather, insisting: "We're not gonna start this fucking song until all of you are on stage," shouts Sam Velde. Twenty or so accepted the challenge, and then recklessly flailed/danced as Obliterations ripped out 'Shame' from their new burner Poison Everything. Behind the backline, festival organiser David Rodgers and his team buttress Sunn O)))'s extensive backline of amplifiers in order to prevent them from tipping, just in case the full stage of audience members get too out of hand. Greg Anderson watches from the wings, knowing that it could be difficult to yield "maximum results" without "maximum volume". All is well however, amps remain standing, no one is hurt, and the crowds energy level jumps ten notches. It's a sweet science, and Obliterations know how to get the job done.

Baptists follow, and not to be outdone, Drury takes his mic into the crowd to feel first-hand the pounding and shoulder checking of the circling audience full force multiple times during their scorching set. He appears unfazed by being repeatedly run into by those reveling up in the moment, and doesn't miss a line or break stride. Drummer Nick Yacyshyn, drives them full speed through a set that digs deep into new album Blood Mines, but also reaches back into the highlights of 2013's Bushcraft Though from much farther north (Vancouver), Baptists body of work meshes well with the "fuck-you" theme of the weekend, or as their shirt at the merch stand puts it: "Punk music for not cops".

The final act of the festival, appropriately, is sound-pressure masters Sunn O))), playing one of three 2014 performances just days before their highly anticipated and widely hailed collaboration with Scott Walker is released. While Soused shows Sunn O))) pushing into new territory, their live performances over the years have been steadfast and can be counted on to examine what colossal volume and mood can do to a room, and those within it.

Sunn O)))'s trademarked ingredients are able to transport onlookers out of the theatre; it becomes another place, on a different plane, and is difficult to compare to any other traditional live music experience. While most of the audience are witnessing Sunn O))) for the first time, (having only played in Arizona one time prior) all in attendance have at least some idea of what they are in for, and are frothing with anxiousness. As the room fills with fog and lights dim, music from the film Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is pushed through the PA for 15 minutes, setting an aptly terrifying mood. Some of Scott Walker's playfulness and humour must have rubbed off on Sunn O))) as of late however, because the final bit of intro music shifted to the jangly polka-like Silver Shamrock Jingle from the commercial in Halloween III: "Happy Happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween! Happy Happy Halloween! Silver Shamrock!" Comic relief yes, but grim in typical Sunn O))) fashion, as the song kills people in the film. No boogie, only hate.

All jokes aside, finally O'Malley and Anderson emerge through the now dense smoke with Les Paul and Travis Bean in tow, along with Tos Nieuwenhuizen, center stage on Moog Rogue. For twenty minutes or more, the trio shake the chest cavities of everyone in the room. Having been willingly lulled into an otherworldly state via slow riff and pulsing oscillator, the audience is awoken as front man Attila Csihar slowly makes his way to center stage to deliver vocal accompaniment. Those who've seen Sunn O))) live know that they do not start and stop songs in a traditional format; instead, improvising and delving through their catalog at will, and non-stop. Throughout the set, the four cloaked figures on stage reach into Monoliths And Dimenstions, Black One, White 2 and Grimm Robe Demos. At one point, O'Malley and Anderson left the stage to Nieuwenhuizen and Csihar for a particularly evocative oscillator/vocal section of performance. Upon their return, with wine bottles in hand, O'Malley and Anderson signal to Csihar, who leaves the stage only to return some time later as his Mirror-Man persona. Children would run from him, rightfully so, as he is a laser-wielding unearthly figure with a fully black face, Statue-of-Liberty-type mirrored head-piece, and angular mirror shard gauntlets and full mirrored cloak. The vocals are just as unearthly while Mirror-Man is on stage, and no eyes in the Rialto leave him.

Sunn O))) have a penchant for theatrics, but unlike any other band that employs similar techniques, there is zero camp. Creatures surpassing all description, The fog, the cloaks, the volume, the riff-drone-pulse, the fear-provoking Hungarian at the microphone: all of this adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts in the live setting. It is also something very different from the formidable work they accomplish in the studio. To be present and see it is the catch, and if looked on with eyes that are willing to get lost, that wish might just be granted and oblivion might be touched. It can consume you, if you let it.

Oddly enough, there's a lyric on Soused where Scott Walker sings behind a wall of Sunn O))) noise: "They'll hardly be boarding the 12:10 to Tucson." Walker is clearly not talking about SWTF, but if he were, he'd be dead wrong, for once.