with Pony Bwoy, Chiffon, Fort Wilson Riot, Meth Dad, and more
In the Heart of the Beast Theater, Minneapolis
Friday, August 8 and Saturday, August 9, 2014
FMLY FEST, a two-day celebration of a wide variety of D.I.T. (do it together) musicians and artists, brought the spirit of underground house shows to a sprawling, large-scale event at In the Heart of the Beast this past weekend. Amassing passionate, enthusiastic people representing a number of different styles and techniques, the festival was an infectious love letter to the FMLY community that's been putting together these events across the country for years.
The theater space was lavished with impeccable punk decorations, from Heart of the Beast puppets to giant crystals made of PVC pipe and Christmas lights. Great care was taken to give the space the right balance of big-venue accoutrements and basement aesthetic. Down to the video game chill area, impossibly cheap beer, and the mishmash of sounds represented, it had the feel of a party thrown by bands simply for the love of the music. The stage was arranged so that bands could set up on one half of the stage behind curtains as another band played on the other side, which made for smooth turnovers and a constant stream of music. Visualizations ran in the background behind every band. Art prints, zines, and screen-printed T-shirts were also made available all over the place. Everything was expertly run but still felt loose in the best way.
I began my weekend with locals Kitten Forever. The brilliant and brash three-piece punk band delivered quick bursts of rock energy with just bass, drums, and vocals. The trio switch instrument duties every few songs, adding some great dynamics and variation to the already vibrant stage show. With each new singer comes a slightly new stylistic approach, but the women maintained their driving energy through the entirety of their set.
The Velveteens followed with a very minimal sound heavy on reverb and anchored by Kiera Coonan's haunting vocals. It's the kind of stripped-down sound that might not have worked without restrained guitar playing and an interesting voice. The Velveteens brandished both with aplomb, letting the subtleties speak volumes. The drums were simplified to largely clicks of the stick or soft snare hits, letting the low-end stem mostly from the bass in a very effective way.
New Orleans's one-man ambient electronic outfit 555 was the first of many to operate with simply himself and table of gear, looping live flute alongside vintage synths and other gear to create a wash of smooth sounds both glitchy and understated. Moments were reminiscent of the spaciousness of Boards of Canada or the off-kilter beats of Four Tet, and it was on the fence between dreamy and dancey such that you could decide with what headspace you wanted to approach it.
Vacation Dad, one of the key organizers of the event, was teeming with excitement. At one point, he proclaimed that "FMLY Fest is why I'm alive." I don't think I saw him without a smile on his face throughout the weekend, and that energy definitely bled into his performance. Tweaking knobs and striking toy drum pads, he wailed away on some delightful electro-pop grooves, flailing his hair wildly belying the downtempo lushness that was coming through.
Boston's Little Spoon, another suitcase music pop-noise one-man band, started strong with what turned out to be just a sound check, an atmospheric beat-driven tune with looped vocal harmonies that reminded me of Kawehi. Mostly straight-ahead beat-driven ambient synth-pop, the set had its best moments during occasional slow-paced drums in odd rhythms combined with layered voice parts.
Teenage Moods brought Velveteens bassist Jillian Schroeder back to the stage for something a bit more raucous, but the airy pop sensibilities kept the bands in a similar wheelhouse. Grasping for a proto-punk vibe, they kept songs bright and simple with enough of a rock edge to stay sharp. Frankie Teardrop and Shakin' Babies hit a similar stride, eschewing a vitriolic vibe in favor of a pop sheen, though still approaching the material with an undercurrent of punk mentality. Many on the bill did with their material as well; though a majority was generally upbeat, super-positive poppy fare, nearly everyone had a punk sensibility and ethic about their sound and stage presence.
Fort Wilson Riot gave a tight and powerful performance, echoing some of the pop-laden synth tinkering of the knob-twiddlers that preceded them but with a defined rock element. With a slightly dark tinge to their approach to psych-pop, it was an interesting segue into the manic solo excursion of Nashville's Meth Dad. Blaring lo-fi dance anthems as he screamed and thrashed about in the crowd, he was super-positive and super-aggressive all at the same time, and everyone in the intimate crowd joined in with him. Forgoing any performance element other than the impassioned movements of his body, Meth Dad wound up performing one of the sets most exemplary of the festival's spirit of radical, unabashed, hard-partying community involvement.[page]
I dipped in and out for Saturday's show, catching local doom metal band Lungs' two-song set in the afternoon. They sounded fantastic, delivering piercing cymbal crashes and stomping out down-tuned power chords for the heaviest set of the weekend. Farms followed, with Vacation Dad returning to man a drum kit alongside keyboardist Ben Larsen for an explosive set of shimmering noise. Reminiscent of the duo dynamics and sonic freak-outs present in Gay Witch Abortion (albeit much more bright and major chord-y), one exceptionally long and sprawling song they hammered out relied heavily on precisely timed tempo and swing changes, which they nailed flawlessly despite having practiced once in the past year. It was pretty incredible and very well executed.
The Funeral and the Twilight had kind of an intriguing dark tone, spilling out a Birthday Party vibe but with lightning-fast drums and a doom-laden demeanor. It was an interesting yet fitting contrast with CLAPS, who followed. Carrying over the dramatic voicing and goth-throwback, the synth-and-bass trio rocked steady drum patterns and echoey vocals with a New Order feel.
I returned later in the evening for Pony Bwoy and Chiffon, who each turned in phenomenal sets of slinky electronic funk stemming from multiple points of inspiration. Pony Bwoy combine a understated hip-hop sensibility with gorgeous vocal harmonies and wholly unique backing beats, and put on a very fun live performance. But Baltimore's Chiffon might've won the night with their perfectly crafted '80s electro-pop, with glorious vocoder singing and Jock Jams samples. It was a back-to-back hit of experimental electronic dance music that hit hard and got the crowd dancing wildly.
All in all, the weekend was a wondrous expression of the underground spirit, manifested in a number of genres and human beings, all of whom were remarkably enthusiastic and inspired. A pure celebration of the artistic drive, it was a great gathering of like-minded party-makers.
Random Notebook Dump: Got hit with a lot of musical concepts all at once and it was pretty inspiring.
The Crowd: Fluctuating sizes depending on the time of day, always seemed to be having a good time.
Overheard in the Crowd: "So because I'm 30, you just assume I have back problems?"
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