Every music festival is a marathon, but ATP’s Friday night felt like a sprint, packed end to end. Saturday was more of an endurance test. Kicking off with a well-attended early afternoon set of solo saxophone by Colin Stetson in the acoustically remarkable Paramount Theater, the virtuoso’s circular breathing technique on horn allows him to conjure up a dense, engrossing symphony. The bleary-eyed and enraptured crowd responded with hard-earned applause; Stetson’s sound is dependent on an unnerving physical commitment that left him sweaty and breathless on stage.
As Stetson’s exertions were coming to a close, down the street at Asbury Lanes a very different display of strength was just getting started. Oneida presents The Ocropolis is a continuous jam featuring Oneida joined by various guests. The band re-create the environment of their Brooklyn studio, providing an intimate glimpse at their working process. To begin the eight hour set, they invited Matt Sweeney, now making his third appearance of the weekend, Chavez’ Clay Tarver and James McNew of Yo La Tengo. The slowly unfurling guitar jam that dominated the first hour of the Ocropolis presaged appearances by Greg Fox (Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (Ceramic Dog, Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Shinji Masuko (Boredoms, DMBQ) among others. Perhaps most surprising was McNew’s commitment, participating in the entire eight-hour set. As Fat Bobby from Oneida told me the next day, once someone sits in at the Ocropolis “you can tell who’s down.”
Over at the Convention Hall, Los Angeles percussive noise-punks Foot Village were putting the finishing touches on assembling their unique four drum-kit circle before launching into a blistering set fueled by each member’s pounding drum beat and accompanied by vocal and physical acrobatics. The show concluded with an appearance from members of Beak>, Geoff Barrow’s group who had played opened the Convention Hall stage earlier. The group’s set confirmed what was becoming an apparent sub-theme of the weekend: great drumming. From the relentless (in the literal sense) throttle of Kid Millions skin-slamming with Oneida to the free-form aptitude of Ches Smith (Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog), the hard charging metronome of John Stanier (Battles) and the magnetic weirdness of Todd Trainer’s (Shellac) hypnotic snare technique this was a weekend lorded over by the humble and oft-misunderstood drummer. Strangely elevated crash cymbals were also on display (Shellac, Battles, Ceramic Dog).
Marc Ribot is likely most well-known for his work as a hired gun, notably with Tom Waits and John Zorn, but he’s an accomplished composer in his own right, and his solo records span a wide variety of sounds. In the trio Ceramic Dog, it’s a mutant hybrid, with one foot squarely in the rock camp, and the other in improvisational jazz. Not known for his vocals, he sang/spoke (thankfully not scatted) on a song or two, in twisted verse that had lower East Side pedigree stamped all over it. His guitar work was impeccable, but unfortunately this master of free playing didn’t end up jamming in the Ocropolis after all. It would have been quite a spectacle to see how his approach would mesh with the primal skronk of Oneida’s.
On the Convention Hall stage the Horrors were set to start, but a ludicrously long sound-check delayed the opening (the technician checking the microphone started to amass a dedicated fanbase and elicit cheers and claps after each “Test! Test!”). That a British guitar band with shoegaze tendencies, one whose sound embodies a sort of ur-text on fashionable rock music reference points being one of the most conventional bands of the weekend was another testament to ATP and Portishead’s unique sensibilities. A one-off collaborative set by two legends of electronic music, Cluster’s Roedelius and Silver Apples Simeon, was underway in the Paramount. The hushed and reverent mood was heightened by the subdued lighting, showing glimpses of the deliberate movements of the two masters at work. The music itself was a slow-burn ambient wash, perfect for losing yourself in the swirling lights cascading around the ceiling of the theater, while intermittent waves of bass rattled the bones of the old building.
The Pop Group followed Silver Qluster at the Paramount. I’ve always found the Pop Group’s Y to be the least approachable of the clutch of legendary late 70s British post-punk LPs. Something about Mark Stewart’s ferocious vocals paired to the disjointed, start-stop rhythms and dub-funk inflections of the band never came together for me on record. Given that they broke up in 1981 and reformed only last year, it’s hard to fault anyone who couldn’t hear the group’s merits on record and never got the chance to see them perform. It was a real pleasure to have them at ATP, re-asserting their influence and the force of their music undiminished and possibly amplified by the passing of time.
I prefer the trio sound of Battles’ new record, Gloss Drop, recorded after the departure of founding member Tyondai Braxton, but the live show left something wanting. Perhaps the cavernous environs of the Convention Hall stage showing its weaknesses under the demands of the group’s sound, although drummer John Stanier’s admirable performance put him in good company with the weekend’s other dazzling percussionists. Using pre-recorded Braxton vocals in the mix was a gambit that didn’t quite work. If you split with the past, make it a clean break.
The night’s biggest scheduling conflict face-off arrived as Swans took to the Paramount stage just minutes before Ultramagnetic MCs were due to start. The coinciding performances crystallized the off-kilter sensibility that makes ATP such a unique experience. In one room, the savage and relentless thunder of Michael Gira’s unhappy band of dedicated miscreants pummeled the audience into submission during a two hour set that made the old theater a very uncomfortable place indeed.
Just across the hall, you could catch a quick glimpse of the ocean and boardwalk before being met by one of the strangest and most inspiring hip-hop crews of all-time, the Ultramagnetic MCs and their most famous member, the enigmatic Kool Keith. The group were blessed with some of the best sound of the weekend in the Convention Hall and took full advantage, smoothly playing off each other and keeping egos in check for a tight set that never descended into live hip-hop cliches.
As Swans were striking out their final notes into infinity and the opposite stage was being prepared for Portishead, Oneida was wrapping up their with the infamous “Sheets of Easter.” I missed most of Portishead (they would also play a full set Sunday night, more on their performance in the next installment, but suffice to say that Beth Gibbon’s fragile voice on record had a steely temper to it on stage, and the band’s subtlety and craft was a perfect complement) to get a spot in Asbury Lanes for Factory Floor’s late-night set.
The London-based live electronic/techno trio were on their first US tour and the combination of a dance music sensibility with live percussion and guitar was a potent one for the dedicated crowd of late-night capacity crowd. Factory Floor delivered with an hour-plus workout that was a highlight of the weekend, the sheer volume and edginess of their sound left me wanting more. Outside the Lanes, as DJ Peanut Butter Wolf was setting up for what would be an unfortunately abbreviated set, news began to circulate that Shellac would be playing a matinee at 12:45 the next day in the very same bowling alley. That settled it: There was no way Sunday was to be a day of rest.