NXNE: Part 1


Here there be dragons.

Thursday, June 14th 2012

Wherein I recall vividly why having an anxiety disorder is shitty.

So, I’d had a challenging day. I wrote a piece for Toronto Standard that used a recent article published in the National Post as an example what can happen when the changes currently happening to the music writing industry (and journalism in general) make is easier for ill-considered writing to make it past editorial and into circulation. It was a call for all of us writing about music to do better, to produce more thoughtful and respectful work, writing that was worthy of us, writing that we could be proud of. To my disappointment, several people decided to take a phrase out of context, without taking it into consideration how I was using it in the piece, and used it as an opportunity to attack. I was told I did not understand what sexual violence was; I was censured for making accusations I did not level.

I was surrounded by other responses too, voices reaching out in support that were much louder and more eloquent than their negative counterparts. I knew what I had written, and why, knew the form and the substance was sound. Voices who I respected understood what I was trying to do, what I was calling for. But, an ugly knot started to build in my chest, got a solid grip behind my lungs and started to squeeze.

I elected to pick a venue – in this case, Velvet Underground on Queen – and camp out for a while. I thought that anchoring myself to a venue would centre me. I waked in just as The Sweet Mack were getting started. Their set had a jangly, joyous quality that was made for uncoordinated dancing. Their guitar tones are luscious and thick. Were they metal, I’d be discussing their sludgy qualities, but their’s is a cleaner, sweeter viscosity. Like chewing a saltwater taffy while strolling along a beach side boardwalk awash in sun, sticky with ice cream residue and coconut sunblock.

The Sweet Mack at Velvet Underground

The Sweet Mack at Velvet Underground

Then my phone died. A friend brought me a charger, rescuing me from being sadly incommunicado, but there was something about seeing a little red alert that I was down to 10% battery life that sent me far deeper into a panic than it should have. The bartender very unhappily plugged it in for me, then served everyone else at the bar before reluctantly taking my drink order, clearly annoyed. His lowered eyebrows and set jaw made the fist in my chest clench tighter. I sucked down two tequila-and-sodas as fast as I could manage, stupidly trusting my good friend booze to loosen the flesh knots tangling my body.

Next up were Stella Ella Ola, and their sweet sprightliness almost saved me. Made up of half of the members of Hollerado (Nixon and Jake Boyd), along with Anne Douris on guitar and Vince Rice on drums. All four of the band members sing, and bang away on their instruments gleefully, the way little kids attack pots and pans just for the pleasure of the noise it created. Jake, who primarily played the bass during their set (though he and Anne switched instruments for one song), immediately announced that he was drunk; the band did a round of shots in stage as well, and each proudly chimed in whenever the booze hit them. They dedicated the song “Hornet’s Nest” to Anne’s dog, Bean, who had died that same morning; at a visible gasp of sadness from the crowd, Anne announced that she wanted to celebrate her awesome dog’s life rather than dwell on the sadness, but there was a little bit of a husky rattle in her voice as she sang. Their short, cheery-yet-unsettling pieces (especially “Peter Sellers”), went over like gangbusters, the crowd jumping and weaving along to Stella Ella Ola‘s poppy garage surf cocktail.

Stella Ella Ola at Velvet Underground

Then, when I tremulously went back to the bartender to retrieve my phone, his agonized eye-roll somehow, stupidly, undid me. I couldn’t breathe. I sat on one of the leather couches in the back of the room, the heart-attack breathlessness now crushing. There is no way that you can’t be shocked by it, no way to prepare yourself for the moment the emotion of anxiety manifests as deep, intramuscular pain. I gulped and pleaded with my body. I made bargains for time. Finally, just as Always were completing their sound check, I left. I curled up in the back corner of a shuttle bus, the tangle of TTC that has become my route echoing the system of knots that had become my organs. I spent the rest of the night watching the tweets of all the saner music writers and fans chirp away. I hate missing things.


Friday, June 15th 2012

Wherein I try again, with much better results.

My Friday morning, my body had ceased to be a gross, lumpy collection of nerves and was once again working as a fleshy machine should – in other words, no longer foiling my plans. After swinging by the Manitoba Music party and the Drake for tequila and pierogies, and then wandering about the Exclaim! party for beer and underdone grilled cheese (and having an epiphany about Grimes in the process), I decided to attempt Project Campout Take Two and put down roots at Sneaky Dee’s for the evening to catch the Daps Records showcase. I met up with fellow music writer and guest contributor to Canada Arts Connect Michael Rancic near the bar, and the two of us spent the night chattering excitedly about what we had seen between sets.

By the time I arrived, Hussy were already tearing down, so the show began for me with the Cartoons set, which immediately featured some drama. After initially being escorted from the building by security (something the vocalist also mentioned right at the beginning of the set), Cartoons‘ drummer was allowed back in but under guard: a bouncer stood at his shoulder during sound check, would not let him leave the drum stool, and hovered nearby for the entire set. Despite these uncomfortable circumstances, the pop punk Toronto natives performed with guts and volume. Their set was defined by their huge, heavy guitar chords, each filling the room with its weight.

Next up were noisy, patchwork Torontonians Hellaluya, who impressed me with their energy and eclectic set. Their vocalist displayed much more aggression and ferocity than I was expecting, throwing himself into the audience and writhing around on the floor with such weird abandon that another security guard muscles to the front to see what was happening. Their set was a conglomeration of disparate influences, making use of everything from hip hop beats and audio samples to hysterical punk riffs and shrieking vocals, all filtered through the ordered cacophony of noise rock. There were moments in their set that were positively metal, and I liked it.

The highlight of the night for me was definitely the tight, concentrated energy of Odonis Odonis, who hit the stage at 11 p.m. They call themselves “industrial surf gaze,” which seems far too abstract for their very physical, vital guitar-driven performance. For all the heat in the room as more and more bodies packed into Sneaky Dee’s, Odonis Odonis threw off a chill. There is a gelid, far-away quality to the way that they use distortion, which makes their performance seem cool and remote. Rather than being alienating, however, this technique makes their music ache, a needle of loneliness that punctures their aggression. The crowd in front of the stage turned into a churning mass of leaping bodies, as listeners who were overcome by the energy tried to mosh and didn’t know how, flailing and panicked.


Phedre at Sneaky Dee's

I was looking forward to Phèdre, and heard wonderful things about their performativity and style. The moment their set began, with a procession of peacock feathers and huge decorative fans from the back of the venue all the way up to the stage, I was expecting to be entranced. However, their set left me disappointed. Their performa

nce very quickly started to come undone; the music was played too loose, too carelessly, and they quickly became unspooled. Their glittery synth-pop should have been diamond hard in some places and lovingly pliant in others; instead, it fell apart and collapsed on itself in a head of gold masks, sequins and throbbing beats.

As Phèdre‘s set fell like a souffle after an oven door has slammed, I elbowed my way out past the gauntlet of mosh amateurs and into the mercifully cooling night.