LIVE REVIEW: RBMA Celebrates 10 Years of Sacred Bones Records

Jenny Hval performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

Who says witchy things don’t go down in daylight? The event designer for Sacred Bones’ 10 Year Anniversary bash certainly wanted us to feel the darkness, despite the concert’s sunny 4pm start. The Brooklyn-born record label teamed up with the Red Bull Music Academy Festival on Saturday for seven straight hours of music. The impressive lineup boasted the best of Sacred Bones’ alumni, including sets from Genesis P-Orridge (of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle), Uniform, Marissa Nadler, Psychic Ills, Moon Duo with Jim Jarmusch, The Men, Jenny Hval, Blanck Mass, and Zola Jesus.

Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse was a sight last weekend– bathed in white smoke and thoroughly branded with Sacred Bones’ occult insignia. Blazing neon triangles were the focal point of the room’s two stages, and if anyone has seen the new horror film The Void, they may have found these symbols a touch unsettling. Columnar black cages rose to the ceiling, filled with red and blue light – I crossed my fingers for cage dancers, but sadly, none appeared. Perhaps the most noticeable detail was the massive fabric moon that hung above the center of the audience, illuminating different colors throughout the night.

Atmosphere at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan

It was an intense tableau to enter; I was so overwhelmed by the fog machine and the imposing triangle shrines that I thought I saw a large raven out of the corner of my eye. It was a mic stand.

Time for a beer. As I ordered my 4pm libation I noticed that even the cocktails were cultish in theme, as one of them was called a “Ritual.” Very metal.

Genesis P-Orridge was the first to take stage, backed by percussionist Edely Odowd and Benjamin John Power of Blanck Mass. It was perhaps the most unsettling set of the evening, as Power knows well the discomfort buttons on his synthesizer, and P-Orridge reserves only the worst words for her anti-humanist poetry. It wasn’t a humorless performance however. After a scathing indictment of people who live in “Williamsburg…in the apartment your dad paid for,” and who “look like everyone else,” she warned us: “that was the nice song.” Looking around I saw dozens of people in motorcycle jackets like my own, and wondered if she was singing about us.

Three acts in, Marissa Nadler’s dreamy set was a welcome respite from P-Orridge’s vitriol and hardcore duo Uniform’s unbridled rage. The Boston-based folk singer added a hushed beauty to the evening; her weightless voice floating towards us on beams of purple smoke. She seemed especially fragile framed by the neon geometry and stark cages, but her dark melodies were nourishing after two harsh, a-melodic performances.

Marissa Nadler performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

New Yorkers Psychic Ills continued this melodious excursion with an atmospheric set that merged psych rock, stoner metal, country, and soul. However it wasn’t atmospheric in sound alone; someone was having a bit of a field day with the fog machine. The band became so enveloped in smoke that I was unaware how many people were onstage. I seemed to hear a pedal steel being played – but no pedal steel player could be found. At one point, I could see literally everything in the room…except for the band.

Despite Moon Duo’s alliance with filmmaker/guitarist Jim Jarmusch (making them, undoubtedly, Moon Trio), their droning set was the night’s most snooze-able. Maybe I just wasn’t close enough to see the nuanced facial expressions under Jarmusch’s sunglasses as he did his best Thurston Moore impression, or perhaps it was a matter of sound quality. “The singer’s mic wasn’t even on in that first couple songs,” a friend said to me after the band unplugged. I was mystified. “There were vocals?” But then again, this could have been part of Moon Duo’s plan, as the lengthy “About” section on their website points out that “the root of the word occult is that which is hidden, concealed, beyond the limits of our minds.” And our ears.

Jim Jarmusch performs with Moon Duo at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan.

Five bands, three hours, and two beers in, it was time for a cigarette. It was also time for the lady in pink to arrive. Just as I stubbed out my butt on the warehouse wall, a woman gingerly approached the venue in a hot pink puffy blouse and trousers to match. Her black hair was twisted around her head, and a sheer, flowered fascinator partially concealed her face. She looked like Pagliacci the clown dipped in Manic Panic. Intrigued, I followed her in – but she dissolved in the crowd awaiting Jenny Hval.

Hval took the trophy for most visually arresting set that night. Light beamed down in fine, white-hot needles, forming a pyramid shrine around the singer. Beacons of purple and blue smoke billowed like storm clouds trapped in a prism, and strobes of broken halogen stripes radiated around the stage. As much of a performance artist as she is a songwriter, Hval orchestrated some potent images for us. She and her entire band sported shiny, black wigs and dark velvet tunics, making them look like Druids against all the iconography. At one point, a bandmate crept up behind Hval with a pair of scissors in hand and cut her “hair” while she continued to sing. Hval clutched the cut tendrils and occasionally threw them towards us.

The mischief didn’t stop there, however. Hval’s wigged tuba player-cum-barber eventually snatched a woman from the audience – a woman, with REAL hair – and readied their shears. “We should have some more light for a haircut, don’t you think?” Hval cooed.  She serenaded her victim as the barber snipped away.

Jenny Hvala performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan

If Hval’s set got the blue ribbon for optical titillation, then Benjamin John Power’s one-man-army Blanck Mass took the prize for audible precision. Blanck Mass’ abrasive set felt like a new gospel baptizing us in rage and mayhem. Power’s music is so densely packed, it behaves as an ecosystem of sound, home to numerous species: metal, R&B, EDM, soul, and noise.

Blanck Mass’ prowess at electronic composition has become irrefutable with his most recent LP World Eater, but now I know how well it translates live – something I was concerned about at the start of Saturday. The relentless hour of glitchy, weaponized noise felt oddly soothing, yet incited a series of dance-like convulsions that were no more within my control than the music itself.

As it turned out, I was not the only audience member enraptured with Blanck Mass; to my left, the woman in pink was rocking back and forth, shouting “wooh!” and occasionally sipping her Ritual. She occupied the space right next to a gargantuan monitor – a place too loud even for me. Within minutes, a man standing close by noticed my blatant gawping at the neon jester, and playfully nudged, “The girl in pink is part of the show, eh?”

I looked back at him. “That’s Björk,” I asserted.

Blanck Mass performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Colin Kerrigan.

After being effectively knocked out by Blanck Mass and a Björk sighting, I wasn’t entirely sure how the evening could be topped – which is perhaps because I’d never seen Zola Jesus live before. Lead singer and dark mastermind Nika Roza Danilova was fiercely energetic as Saturday’s headliner, bounding back and forth onstage and engaging in some serious fist pumping.

A truly dynamic performer, Danilova was panting and shrieking one moment, and blowing us over with her arena-reaching vocals the next – all the while maintaining a severe air of seduction. The theatrical performance was grounded by Zola Jesus the band, whose minimalist violin brought to mind a more foreboding Arthur Russell.

Zola Jesus performs at Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, in Brooklyn, NY, USA on 20 May 2017.
Photo by Ysa Perez.

Throughout the evening, there was one consistent remark made by artists onstage (or at least the ones who spoke): “I’d like to thank the Sacred Bones family.” On the label’s website, Sacred Bones bill themselves as “a family affair,” too. At first the notion freaked me out a bit with its cult implications. What kind of family we talkin’ here? Manson? Addams? But at the night’s close, after running into more people I knew than any other concert in the past nine years, I realized that maybe “family” is the best word. After all, a good record label does tend to bring people together. With such a talented roster – and fans like Björk and Jim Jarmusch – Sacred Bones’ RBMA Festival anniversary show is one reunion I’d gladly attend again.