I knew this would happen. My one-person tent is sagging like ruined soufflé. Its support beams are in all the wrong holes, and the whole thing is yet to be staked in the ground. The bus for Basilica Soundscape leaves in one minute. At 5:59 in Meadowgreens Campground in Ghent, New York, I relinquish a losing battle with said tent, leaving it in a frightening half-mast tangle, and board the shuttle flushed with defeat. This row would have to be settled later. In the dark.
For a moment I feared that this tent dilemma would prevent me from enjoying myself at all. What if I kept dismembering and reconstructing the tent in my head all night, and missed all of the music surrounding me? It could happen. These obsessive thoughts ceased however, the moment I entered Basilica Hudson. The 18,000 square feet factory building was built in the 1880s, and has produced everything from railroad car wheels to glue, but these days its main export is art. In 2010, musician Melissa Auf der Maur and filmmaker Tony Stone acquired the building, transforming the space into a sanctuary for music, film, and visual art.
Basilica Soundscape offers all of these mediums at their finest. Often described as “the antifestival,” Basilica Soundscape is exactly that – the weekend of music, poetry, and visual art feeling far more intimate than the word “festival” suggests. In fact, Soundscape seems more akin to a house party hosted by wealthy eccentrics, or a wedding held in a medieval hamlet. Within minutes of surveying the grounds, it appeared as though all the romanticism and utopia promised by other festivals was actually here all along, from the rainbow arching across the sky to the flayed chickens sizzling on an open grill.
At 6:30 everyone funneled into the Main Hall, where openers Bing & Ruth plunged into a dizzying set that I can only describe as sounding like the ocean. Pianist David Moore’s technique was both dense and delicate, evoking a sense of moving through water. The blue light enrobing the musicians and the whale songs sung by cello and clarinet added to the seascape of sound. Even the stage decorations seemed marine in nature; plumes of pink silk hung from the ceiling, dissolving into tendrils of rope and swaying like jellyfish. It was only after Bing & Ruth left the stage that I realized they were hand-dyed parachutes and not aquatic invertebrates.
On the other end of the decibel spectrum, Philadelphia’s Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa) annihilated all previous serenity with her serrated poetry and beats. Ayewa stabbed through her set, entangling herself in the parachute ropes and assaulting the crowd with glass-shattering backing tracks and car crash raps. Ayewa’s brand of hyper-politicized poetry utilizes the distortion of punk and the rage of metal to potent effect. Her command of the crowd was immense; when Moor Mother demands that you “hug your motherfucking neighbor!” and “slow dance!” you’d be wise to do so. And we did.
The next best display of aggression was black metal band Thou, who filled Basilica’s smaller North Hall with bowel-shuddering screams and swampy instrumentation. Next, Tunisian artist Emel Mathlouthi had everyone looking upwards, as she performed from the building’s rafters, her colossal voice bellowing from above. For one last dose of drama, Baltimore’s Serpentwithfeet charmed us with his occult gospel. Singer and musician Josiah Wise – the snake in question – is always mesmerizing live, as he summons the spirits of Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, and Aleister Crowley. He is a poised and diverse performer, able to traverse songs about mourning with his operatic pipes, and then whip the audience into fits of laughter with his wry wit.
A far less verbal artist, Indiana’s JLIN closed out Friday night with her hard-driving electronic collages, often splicing horror movie screams with chopper-like drum beats. JLIN’s set was weaponized and dense, but that didn’t stop a pack of men from breaking into arrhythmic dance moves in the audience, convulsing like electrocuted lab rats under the strobe lights. I hoped to harness their energy for later…I still had a tent to set up.
Basilica’s second day was filled with far more fury than its first. Notable early sets from Yellow Eyes and Yvette got our blood pumping right off the bat. The former filled the North Hall with unrelenting drums and ear-piercing screams. Fog hung around the black metal trio, while two wrought iron candelabras added a solemnity to their set, which was dedicated to a late friend of the band.
Brooklyn’s noise duo Yvette played a wealth of new material on the main stage, opening with the older, hard-hitting “Radiation” before treating us to new songs. Rumor has it the pair are currently recording another album, and their Basilica set was a delightful preview. The energy harnessed by lead singer/guitarist Noah Kardos-Fein and drummer Dale Elsinger was strategically focused on Saturday, only improving their intensity as performers. If Yvette were previously men of chaos, they now appear to be mad scientists, fiddling with knobs and emitting blips and whirrs amidst controlled fury.
There was unfortunately some overlap during sets by Priests and Protomartyr, but I was able to catch a bit of both. Priests commanded the large stage expertly, lead singer Katie Alice Greer stalking the stage in a spangled mini dress like The Runaways’ Cherie Currie. On the other side of the building, Protomartyr channeled FEAR and The Fall with a one-two punch of distilled punk rock.
We looked to the rafters one last time for readings by Morgan Parker, Darcie Wilder, and Hole drummer Patty Schemel, who read excerpts from her new memoir Hit So Hard. Schemel’s tales of Kurt, Courtney, and rock n’ roll abounded before Blanck Mass’s Benjamin John Power mounted the smoke-cloaked main stage. The technical headliner for 2017’s Basilica Soundscape was Zola Jesus, but for me, it was Blanck Mass, whose diabolical wall of sound is more a physical experience than a purely sonic one. Power ripped through tracks off his latest LP World Eater, churning out frenzied tapestries like “John Doe’s Carnival of Error” and slow grinding dance cuts like “Please.” Power is obscured during most of his sets, dressed in black and barely visible within the fog and flashes of light. In this sense, he becomes more entity than man – more furious gospel than mere entertainment.
So what was my takeaway from Basilica Soundscape 2017? Go every summer, bring ear plugs, try the chicken, and definitely get to know your tent before next year.