Stephen O’Malley

The Best of Two Bands at All Tomorrow’s Parties

Posted: Sep 6, 2010


September 6, 2010, 2:06 PM
The Best of Two Bands at All Tomorrow’s Parties

MONTICELLO, N.Y. — Altar is the project-name of the American duo Sunn O))) and the Japanese trio Boris, convened in front of five enormous stacks of amplifiers. By the end of its show Sunday night at All Tomorrow’s Parties, it had grown to 10 members; a singer, Jesse Sykes, drifted in and drifted out. There were no rhythms, just drum beats that ended before they really started, like arrested lead-ins to a great song. There was a duet between bowed cymbal and bowed double-bass, and frequent use of a large gong.

In their own shows, the members of Sunn O))) do not talk before, during or after performances: They just give the room a thorough ritual fogging of dry ice, come out in their monk robes and then start in on their slow, composed guitar-drone pieces. Boris, which plays something like more traditional acid rock and drone metal, isn’t much more communicative, though the members do make eye-contact with the audience and use their drummer, Atsuo, as a source of theater: He is thin and tall and beautiful, and extends his arms high above his head before the downbeats. But Altar is an average of the best of the two bands: meditative and silly and very seriously loud.

People normally talk about great volume in body-related exaggerations: It’s sinus-clearing, bone-rattling, deafening. Altar could do all of those. (It was replaying music from an album, also called “Altar”; Ms. Sykes came out for the lovely album track she’s included on, “The Sinking Belle.”) You feel it in your spinal column, your teeth, your ribcage. Most of all you feel it in your head, slowly acquiescing to their idea, finally becoming part of it. As the group grew up to 10 members by the end of its 90-minute show at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival last night — including double-bass, trombone, keyboards and five electric guitars, all playing the same long chord, half the sound pure wriggling feedback — you couldn’t remember why you felt skeptical at the beginning.

It attained the level of fully committed music, which was the useful measure to keep in mind all through the weekend. At All Tomorrow’s Parties New York — this was the third annual, at Kutsher’s, the crumbly Catskills resort — there’s a constant background of Brooklyn. You see the older edge of educated youth, by which I mean people in their 30’s and 40’s, consuming and sharing expertise.

Occasionally, it seems like a very rarefied island, pop. 3,500, and you can feel a vicious hunger to escape. I felt that hunger occasionally while listening to a limp band, but more keenly during non-music events. I know I felt it Saturday morning while watching a filmed and standing-room-only question-and-answer session with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch: The questions were dumb and the answers were limp, as if nobody wanted to be caught seeming to care. I felt it again on Sunday afternoon while passing through a bar where an organized game of name-that-tune, with scorecards, was taking place. Someone on a little stage was playing the first two bars of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” on the clarinet. The answer from the audience came forth like a shot. And I suppose that suggests a high order of caring; I contradict myself. But you get the idea.

But in general, this audience knew exactly why it was here; it stayed engaged and ready for more. Because it wasn’t Brooklyn. The sound was good nearly from beginning to end, and everyone had time to talk. The crowd split pretty evenly along gender lines, the drug use was discreet, and the security was present but avoidable.

(Damian Abraham, the singer of the great Toronto punk band with the unprintable name, tested that during his band’s set, roaming into the crowd as far as his microphone would stretch, wrapping himself around anybody he saw; the security remained watchful but friendly, following him out to the lobby afterwards as he signed autographs in his underpants.)

None of the programming ideas went to waste. On Sunday, as with the other days, the crowd kept circulating and took in everything: the art-house movies shown in a little room with a big screen and superlative sound; the hiphop sets by Raekwon (agonizingly splintered and self-promotional) and GZA (flowing, funky); and — this really did surprise me — the extremely high-level karaoke in the lobby.