For its ninth year, Halifax’s OBEY Convention was billed with the tantalizing tagline of “free ideas in music and art.” As an umbrella statement, this only begins to explain why likeminded lunatics like yours truly are lured out for a 17-hour drive to the Maritime mecca. Think of OBEY like a Gathering of the Juggalos or Phantompalooza for fans of free-jazz, weird punk, and mutant techno. Or maybe the longer running Canadian equivalent of Trip Metal Fest.
The safe haven of OBEY IX welcomed a typically atypical selection of visiting musicians and locals, with an even greater emphasis on visual art, unusual venues (the alley next to a rock climbing gym serving smoothies was a real first), Drone Day broadcast across the airwaves, and free admission to unlicensed events for anyone under 19. This year’s headliners had nary a Mac DeMarco to be seen, though gender-busting underground rapper Mykki Blanco proved to be just as popular, which bodes well for the future of the average bro.
Thursday night began with a return to the pews of Fort Massey Church. The imposing architecture of the Gothic cathedral built in 1871 previously played host to artists worthy of reverence such as sax machine gun Peter Brötzmann and six-string dreamweaver Noveller. This year, OBEY began with a slow-motion headbang headcleaning from Berlin-via-Toronto drone-metal titans Nadja. Reigning down holy riffs of evil, scorched shoegaze effects, and drum machine fills, the duo of Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff may have converted a few lost souls.
From here, it was off to the Cabaret Voltaire art bar (launched by The Khyber and NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery to celebrate 100 years of Dada) for the ecstatic absurdity of double-drum duo Eddy. Nick Dourado and Nathan Doucet are two of the busiest musicians in town, with the former proving himself as the 2016 OBEY MVP in the first of five performances. He jokingly dubbed this year Douradobey Convention, and who can argue with that?
Eddy’s set was a highlight of the weekend, with the pair of drummers facing off for a 48-minute Boredoms-style blowout backed up by brain-jacking industrial beats. No one loves to play more than these tongue-wagging, face-shaking freakers, and they revved up the crowd into a similar frenzy.
After a day trip to the Dartmouth Value Village, Friday’s musical proceedings began in the comfortable seats of Deep Water Church. Here’s a good spot to send some kudos to OBEY sound engineer Kyle McDons, who made this venue and all others (including the aforementioned alley) ring out with near-perfect clarity.
Photo: Shining Wizard
First up at the church were Montreal’s Shining Wizard, who began as the duo of guitarist Alex Pelchat and drummer Farley Miller. For this performance (and their latest recordings) they were joined by singer Grace Brooks and sax wailer James Goddard, all recognizable faces from the Misery Loves Company cosmos. Here, the quartet’s agitated skronk rock and righteously angry no wave poetry brought to mind BOSS-era Magik Markers with even more shredding.
New York’s Zs delivered a radically different reinterpretation of sax, guitar, and drums. Since their performance at Toronto’s Double Double Land in 2012 to celebrate a decade of activity, the trio have drifted even further out into alien music territory.
Zs drummer Greg Fox has played with badasses such as Colin Stetson, Ben Frost, and Hieroglyphic Being, and has recently begun utilizing the innovating sample-triggering Sensory Percussion system. This allows him to play tightly coiled fills on an acoustic snare while setting off woozy electronic effects (for more, check his latest release with the Fox/Soper Duo). At OBEY, these technological experiments didn’t always click, but when Zs locked in it sounded like nothing else known to humankind.
Photo: Marie Davidson
As if that wasn’t enough, the night continued at Menz and Mollyz with sets from the sound art students of NoiseCAD, HHH, Feels, and Carmen. Montreal’s Marie Davidson (one half of minimal wave duo Essaie pas) brought the house down with a live-wire performance of her thumping productions. Ominous arpeggios and clattering beats combined with breathy vocals to bring the dancefloor on a voyage into the void.
Saturday saw the most art action with talks and events such as the OBABY Convention welcoming children aged 0-10 to paint with pudding. May 28th also marked Weird Canada’s third annual Drone Day with musician/composer Robert Drisdelle acting as traffic controller while switching between 30 different drone performances from across the country, all broadcast on the event’s website.
That night returned to the Deep Water Church for a performance from xxvvii, the jazz duo of Nick Dourado and Andrew MacKelvie. The first half of their set was devoted to a deconstruction of the 1946 standard “Tenderly”, with Dourado showing off his swoon-worthy Chet Baker vocal styles before launching into a double sax squeal-off.
Photo: Joshua Abrams
Chicago’s Joshua Abrams may have been this year’s standout, with his guimbri (a three-stringed North African bass lute) serving as the heartbeat of hypnotic minimalist swells. Joined by players from his 2015 album Magnoception, Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium and electronics bent the fabric of time, while percussionist Hamid Drake delivered impossibly precise propulsion on a tabletop of cymbals and bells. It’s tough to know how many songs were played throughout this trance-inducing set, but Magnoception closer “The Ladder” ended it on a honeyed high note.
Photo: Mykki Blanco
Up next was the show many had been waiting for, with Mykki Blanco packing out the surprisingly large Marquee Ballroom. Texan electronic artist Rabit was sadly unable to travel to Halifax at the last minute, but Toronto DJ Bambii (who had previously performed with Mykki at last year’s Electric Eclectics) more than made up for it. Her immaculately mutated top 40 hits got the crowd lit up, and when Blanco hit the stage they were ready to rage.
This set amped up the intensity at every step, with the transgender rapper alternately ballet dancing, moshing, and walking across tables while tearing into tunes from her upcoming untitled album – it might be called Mommy – currently only heard at live shows. From the devastating “High School Never Ends” (with its brutally beautiful seven-minute video) to hits like “Wavvy” and unreleased songs combining Gravediggaz-style horror rap with heartrending emotional heft, Mykki Blanco has become one of the most captivating performers on the planet.
Photo: Wayne World
Only a band as ridiculous as Wayne World could possibly follow this spectacle. The bizarrely costumed supergroup featured the singing head of Mark Grundy (Heaven For Real, Monomyth) emerging from the stage of Menz and Mollyz in a giant cube made of drywall, which was hilariously stolen after the show. Wayne World have described their influences as “math-rock and death-metal” but sounded more like Halifax jangle-pop mangled by Human Eye.
Photo: New Fries
After an impressive all-vinyl set of dancehall bangers from DJ I-Rad on the Mollyz side, New Fries only had 20 minutes to play until closing time when the bar staff got unnecessarily pushy.
Thankfully, the Toronto band made the most of their abbreviated set time with a powerhouse performance of twitchy weirdo punk tunes. The slashing guitars and keyed up vocals of frontwoman Anni Spadafora were as eyeball-magnetic as always, and an audience possibly served with New Fries for the first time ate it up.
Following a late night after-party in an abandoned office, then an after-after-party with Bambii DJing a packed house (and Mykki Blanco wearing way too much cologne), people miraculously managed to wake up for a final day of music.
Photo: Century Egg
The alley of 7 Bays Bouldering rock climbing gym was the site of a fantastic set from Century Egg, jamming out in sweetly unpretentious and infectious fashion with Shane Keyu Song’s vocals in English and Mandarin. The understated pop of Montreal’s Brave Radar continued to worm its way into eardrums, while Old and Weird fleshed out their singular sound with Nick Dourado on organ, Cheryl Hann on drums, and Allison Higgins on juice bottle slide.
Photo: Old and Weird with crowd
The crowd at this afternoon performance showed off a perfect sampling of OBEY attendees gathered from different corners of the country. Harsh noise lifers from Vancouver brushed up against a photographer traveling from Winnipeg, the founder of Ottawa Explosion Weekend, and a musicologist studying in Ghana.
This assemblage rammed up against random neighbourhood residents, yoga pants sporting rock climbers, plus a smiling circle of babies and parents (half of whom still play in bands themselves). For OBEY’s 10th year and beyond, the future is in good hands.