Korean post-rock group JAMBINAI are everything you think they aren’t — a fitting illustration for one of the first artists to kick off South By Southwest’s virtual 2021 festival earlier today. At first glance, the fivesome had all the necessary qualities of a post-rock ensemble: sleek guitars, leather jackets and a lead singer sporting another band’s t-shirt.
Stick around, and JAMBINAI began to set itself apart; their sound was defined by a colorful meeting of the electric guitar with traditional Korean instruments, namely the fiddle-like haegeum, played by Bomi Kim, and a hefty string instrument called the geomungo, played by EunYoung Sim. “Time Of Extinction” built upon distorted guitar and quivering strings to the brink of explosion before screeching to a halt abruptly at the climax; it’s the heavier, domineering predecessor to “Event Horizon,” which significantly picked up the pace from its first note. Carrying a certain rough, untouched quality in the typically softened sound of traditional instruments, the track ebbed and flowed between screeching strings and clashing drums. Crossing cultural textures and merging sound, JAMBINAI worked as a driving, orchestral force.
In sharp contrast stood TV Priest, a British post-punk band whose sound might have felt familiar, if vocalist Charlie Drinkwater didn’t have a lot to say about everything that hasn’t been said. With a vocal tone like a brasher Bowie and a genre-fitting bucket of criticism against society and the media, Drinkwater laid down many objections over melodic basslines; “Went for a walk through an ink-stained land / You’re better off uninformed,” he preacdeliveredhed on “Press Gang.” Occasionally, the singer actually sang; in “This Island,” a track shimmering with an upbeat guitar progression, Drinkwater’s voice crooned with quivering uncertainty. Distortion pedals added an unplugged punk element, as the music built to a crescendo over the vocalist’s slowly burning agitation.
Three standouts of the evening came from Dedstrange, a fresh record label that decorated the screen with grungy animations and psychedelic video effects. Canadian rocker Paul Jacobs, whose live shows are notoriously rowdy and eccentric, sat down for once with his guitar for a lackadaisical rendition of “Day to Day” and “Underneath the Roses.” He balanced a sound found somewhere between lo-fi and garage rock, with glimmering hooks and a dazed, fuzzy vocal tone. “Day to Day” sounds like liquid sunshine even when stripped-down, while the latter hinted at the artist’s garage influence.
Electronica ensemble Holy Fuck stepped out of their usual darkened facade with “Free Gloss,” a track featuring POND frontman Nicholas Allbrook. By nature, Holy Fuck will never not be intense — “Free Gloss” carried that impassioned energy while adding an elated sound to the main keyboard. The blissful sound of the keys echoed to create a consuming, energetic atmosphere, filled with experimental sounds that built to a euphoric release by its final notes.
Notorious for the intense volume of their shows, Brooklyn-based A Place To Bury Strangers brought a red-hot energy to their stage. The standout of the showcase came in the form of “Deeper.” Dipping into a dramatically low baritone, frontman Oliver Ackermann trolls, “If you fuck with me, you’re gonna burn.” A chorus of vocals converged for a climactic end to the six-minute song, while reverb-heavy guitar decorated the track’s crashes and dooms. If not for intensity alone, “Deeper” reeled you in and left its heartbeat humming in your ears long after it disappeared.
Indie-pop duo Magdalena Bay restored some hope, with bubbly and colorful performances from their upbeat discography against a green-screen backdrop reminiscent of warmth and sunshine. The bouncy “Venice” is a catchy, penultimate summer pop number, made even better by vocalist Mica Tenenbaum’s perky demeanor and peppy dancing. Instrumentalist Matthew Lewin stood behind her, but stood out: multi-tasking between bass, keys and looping synth beats, Lewin was the unassuming powerhouse of Magdalena Bay’s zestful performance.
Despite circumstance, SXSW has taken the new normal and kicked it up a notch. With organized channels and categories, a brightly colored webpage setting, and more than a few exciting setlists, the festival’s first day left a great impression fueled by creative invigoration and lifted spirits.
“Time Of Extinction”
“The Big Curve”
“This Island, Decoration”
“Day to Day”
“Underneath the Roses”
A Place to Bury Strangers
“Annie Rise, Deeper”
“Venice, Good Intentions, Story”
File Photo: Sharon Alagna