Nine Highlights and One Surprising Letdown from New Forms 2013
At this point, summer has basically given way to autumn, yet the festival season marches on. Over the weekend, XLR8R once again made the trip to Vancouver for the annual New Forms Festival. Now on its 13th edition, New Forms has evolved over the years into a more substantial event, spanning four days and incorporating various art exhibitions along with its prized selection of musical offerings. Yet even as it grows, New Forms remains a festival that places curation above mass appeal and provides an intimate setting to take in a variety of innovative electronic outfits. This year's program included a number of more high-profile names (at least in underground circles) alongside local acts and more eccentric artists, and in the end, the Canadian festival's 2013 chapter provided many highlights and only one surprising disappointment.
Kahn by Ash Tanasiychuk
Highlight: Curation and Locations
As mentioned in the introduction, New Forms has long been a festival known for its excellent curation, and this year was no exception. For an event of relatively modest means to have a bill that included the likes of Jeff Mills, Dopplereffekt, Kassem Mosse, Delroy Edwards, Anthony Naples, Lee Gamble, and others of a similar stature across four days is an impressive feat, even if none of these acts (aside from possibly Mills) are truly "stars." But it was more than just the line-up; the music was also presented with proper levels of care, respect, and planning. Artists were put in slots appropriate to their abilities and styles, and each evening's pace seemed purposefully plotted. Perhaps this is a result of the festival's decision to once again enlist local promoters to curate specific rooms for each night. Giving these passionate individuals a chance to put together something on a bigger platform yielded a program that was continually rewarding.
Furthermore, Vancouver's Centre for Digital Media (more accurately, its performance spaces in the rear) provided a highly enjoyable environment to take in the music, with the large Hanger room providing ample space for a sizable dance party while the smaller eatART space directly next door placed its performers on the ground and made for a more warehouse-like vibe. Also, it seems that XLR8R may not have been the only ones who found the sound at last year's New Forms to be less than satisfactory, as both areas sported impressively enjoyable amplification for the performers; the systems were loud but never piercing, and provided full and detailed sonics. These factors, combined with an exceptionally attentive audience, seemed to bring the best out of the international and local outfits invited to perform.
Eprom in the Hangar by Ash Tanasiychuk
Highlight: Lee Gamble
Friday night had a bit of a slow start, but Lee Gamble's hybrid DJ/live set effectively jolted everyone back to reality. Working from a laptop, the London producer refashioned what sounded like many of his own productions into new, more dancefloor-appropriate forms. Still, Gamble did not simply slap a strict kick drum atop his work; rather, he added an extra dose of rhythmic force to the proceedings, keeping the unsettling textures he is known for intact throughout. It didn't exactly make for any hands-in-the-air dancefloor fare, but Gamble managed to successfully reshape his brand of sonically focused electronic music and spark a heady Friday-night party—that was a great place to start.
Top: Lee Gamble by Jon Vincent; Bottom: Dopplereffekt by Jon Vincent
Drexciya co-founder Gerald Donald and his anonymous female counterpart, together as Dopplereffekt, gave what was ultimately the festival's most unique performance. During their hour-long set, both members wore silver masks and worked almost entirely from behind their Korg Tritons, bouncing between a series of machine-minded tracks that came across like a thugged-out Kraftwerk (minus the computer voices). There was something remarkably earnest about the pair's performance—there was little crowd interaction (or even acknowledgement) and the visual accompaniment was a simple pastiche of looping industrial and space-minded images that furthered the computer-science narrative of the music. Still, despite this lack of eye-catching actions or elements, Dopplereffekt emitted a genuineness that was hard not to connect with.
Highlight: Anthony Naples
Hearing Anthony Naples close out Friday's festivities, one was left to ponder just how far the New Yorker has come in the past 18 months. Once an unknown producer and bedroom DJ, he's now a leading upstart with a unique take on contemporary house, not to mention a vinyl believer with a serious penchant for pleasing a dancefloor. Despite some apparent issues with monitoring, Naples sounded rather confident behind the decks at New Forms, especially considering the pace with which he moved from track to track. A brisk but never too obtrusive drive kept Naples as active at the EQs as he was flipping through his collection of vinyl and CDs. His set mostly focused on the soul-flecked ends of hardware house and vintage-tinged techno and actually extended an extra 30 minutes beyond its planned stop time—a development that no one seemed to mind.
Top: Anthony Naples by Jon Vincent; Bottom: Jeff Mills by Adam Stenhouse
Disappointment: Jeff Mills' Star People
Thursday at New Forms, the first night of the festival, was entirely dedicated to Detroit legend Jeff Mills, who's special audio/visual Star People performance was billed as a "three-hour musical observation and journey on the relationship between humans and our paternal connection with visitors from the Stars."
Without a doubt, Mills' DJ skills were the focus of Star People, as the visual presentation was wildly underwhelming. Consisting of a few title sequences (which stayed unchanged on the projection screen for minutes at a time), and alternating images of stoic Native American faces with various photographs of celestial landscapes (perhaps from the Hubble telescope or some such archive), the visual side of the performance was completely amateurish; they looked like something slapped together without much thought in iMovie, and were ultimately unnecessary. Quite frankly, billing Star People as anything other than just a Jeff Mills DJ set with some minor visual accompaniment was misleading.
Fortunately, Jeff Mills is a phenomenal DJ. Technically speaking, he is one of the most precise jocks out there, and his set at New Forms found him utilizing five CDJs (all tilted at slightly different angles, perhaps for ergonomic reasons), two Pioneer mixers, and two TR-909 drum machines. Somehow, Mills was able to make sense of all these components for a full three hours, and the man's raw talent and the exceptional quality of his selections thankfully made up for much of what the visual side was lacking. Still, it was hard not to feel a little cheated. Here was a legend of Detroit techno, a decades-proven forward thinker in electronic music, who just seemed to not have made a full effort to ensure that the complete Star People performance lived up to the transgressive concept it was purportedly based upon. As a conceptual DJ set, Star People was largely a success, but as an A/V performance, it was an underdeveloped effort.
Each year, the New Forms Festival makes a strong effort to showcase a number of local producers and DJs, and this year's selection of artists proved particularly impressive. Vancouver transplant Kline—a member of the city's local Chapel Sound crew—was one such artist. Placed at the beginning of a rather stacked bill on Saturday night, the young producer opened the festival's main space with a brief but memorable array of patient, icy beats. Falling somewhere between the refracted beatwork of Holy Other and the bliss-drenched productions of Pacific Northwest counterpart Kid Smpl, Kline's tracks were appropriately introspective, with waves of chords and manipulated sheets of noise gracefully flowing from the speakers. Moreover, his tastefully sparse drum programming kept heads nodding and interest piqued. Smartly, the man's tunes never came overcrowded with superfluous bells and whistles, which left plenty of space for the moody progressions and expansive atmospheres to breathe.
Kline by Ash Tanasiychuk
Highlight: Evy Jane
Another local Vancouver outfit, Evy Jane, served to make Saturday night at New Forms an early success. Tucked into the corner of the venue's eatART room, vocalist Evelyn Mason and producer Jeremiah Klein pieced together a set full of electronic-fueled, soul-drenched R&B. While Klein manned a station of controllers and drum machines, Mason conjured thick pads from a Juno synth, her relaxed, raspy voice ringing above the fray and occasionally being looped into synchronized layers via a set of pedals. Together, the pair coerced its engrossing songs in carefully measured steps—slow chord progressions and subtle melodies gradually came together with sparse, dry percussion, leaving plenty of space for booming kicks and filtered basslines to eventually fill out the low-end spectrum. That night, Evy Jane's songs sounded as intricate and enticing as they do on record, and Mason's voice was especially alluring.
Highlight: Kassem Mosse
All weekend, a growing anticipation for Kassem Mosse's live performance had served as a recurring conversation point amongst festival attendees, who stuffed themselves into the festival's smaller eatART space to take in the man's set just before midnight on Saturday. The German producer did not disappoint them. Utilizing a tabletop of gear—a few Roland drum machines and a Korg MS-20 among them—Mosse never seemed rushed; instead, he could be seen through the crowd modestly nodding his head as he patiently combined the various elements in his reach to conjure up relaxed, long-looping excursions into druggy techno. Most of the set felt like it existed in the lower end of the bpm spectrum, but still the music never felt lacking for momentum, as Mosse displayed a keen ability to build and release tension as he subtly tweaked EQs and filtered the pleasantly hard-to-follow synth sequences.
Still, the man's set was not entirely built around this sort of subversive fluidity. As the performance progressed, Mosse wasn't afraid to occasionally let bursts of energy rush through the gear, sending squelching tones through the MS-20 filter or, at times, building more commanding patterns on his drum machines full of spastic claps, snares, toms, and thumping kick drums. (He also seemed particularly fond of the 808's clav sound as well.) But one never felt like Mosse was in danger of losing control; his transitions between the different sections and energy levels were certainly felt on the dancefloor, but their mechanics were almost entirely imperceptible. In short, Mosse's live set at New Forms lived up to—and probably exceeded—the hype which surrounded it, and for many will be the performance that stays with them the longest now that the weekend is over.
Highlight: Delroy Edwards
Given the tall task of following Mosse was L.I.E.S. affiliate and LA resident Delroy Edwards, an artist whose guarded profile and limited discography had many New Forms attendees curious as what to expect from his DJ set. Stretching almost three hours, Edwards delivered a collection of tunes that was not quite as eccentric as his recent XLR8R podcast, but also never felt constricted to any particular brand of house or techno. Beginning in more banging territory, Edwards seemed to favor jacking, Jersey-indebted rhythms, which usually came wrapped in acid leads, ghetto-house shuffles, restless basslines, and bits of repurposed noise. Counter to what one might expect, Edwards' selections actually began to lighten a bit as his set pushed on, with the final hour featuring a few sax solos and a decent helping of electric piano chords. Still, his affinity for crisp, swinging house beats and slightly overdriven sonics remained, and served as the consistent throughline that tied the fast-rising artist's set together.
Outside the Centre for Digital Media by Celesse McCarthy
Concluding Saturday night next door to Edwards was Seattle producer Chris Roman, who performed under his 214 alias and delivered a rare live set which saw him commanding a large array of hardware. Donning a headlamp to help him navigate the overwhelming mass of knobs and blinking lights on the table in front of him, Roman tweaked and twisted a few Elektron machines and synth boxes to conjure up a 45-minute set full of incredibly clean electro. Built around a series of classic electro break patterns (which provided a welcome respite from the usual four-on-the-floor fare), Roman expanded into lattices of synth work where steady arps and simple leads were given ample room to do as they pleased, and the resulting combination proved hard to resist.
Some Final Thoughts:
Even in the face of some unexpected rain (in truth, it wasn't that unexpected, as we were in Vancouver after all), New Forms managed to move its Sunday-afternoon closing party from its planned outdoor location in New Brighton Park to a rather interesting indoor spot, the Open Studios venue/gallery. Though the change was unexpected, the music and vibes in there were as good as if they had planned for the event to work out that way all along. We point this out to highlight the fact that the folks at New Forms do not take the task of presenting a weekend of fun and forward-thinking electronic music lightly—by now, they know how to throw a good party. Between its admirable curation and the organizers' attention to detail, its no wonder that the 2013 edition of New Forms was a success.