The crowd at (Le) Poisson Rouge Thursday night was as diverse and eclectic as the lineup: everyone from hipsters, to metal heads, to professionals crammed into the disco/bordello-like space for the second night of the Unsound Festival, clutching their drinks timidly and awkwardly milling about.
Norway’s Next Life (Hai Nguyen Dinh, Tormod Christensen, Anders Hangard) married the principal elements of traditional Norwegian black metal - low, aggressive bass, frenetic drumming, vicious guitar - with electronica. Lacking any live vocals (a few had been prerecorded), the overall sound was a bit like listening to an instrumental interlude from Slayer while playing your Nintendo. Loudly, of course.
This was the second metal band I’ve seen in as many weeks that was almost purely instrumental, which seems to be a growing - and welcome - trend. With the exception of hair metal, heavy metal has always placed a premium on musicianship. Stripped of it's often cluttered and poorly composed lyrics, one can appreciate the finesse of a bassist in his prime, plucking out a symphony of rage. Who knows? Maybe Yngwie Malmsteen had it right all along.
Hype Williams was up next; by this point, the audience was practically drooling with excitement. The lights were dimmed, the room was clouded in dry ice, and the sound guy started playing a sample that seemed to say “So, so, so sorry.” But, then a technical issue stopped the show for twenty-plus minutes, resulting in a number of departures as the track droned on. So, so, so sorry, indeed.
Once the set was under way, the mood picked up again. Electronics whizz Dean Blunt and singer Inga Copeland launched into a series of ultra lo-fi songs that meshed seamlessly through a cloudy haze of synth and drum machines. Unfortunately, the vocals were tuned too low to be heard clearly (or were the synths too high?) and the audience didn’t seem in step with the band until about mid-way through the set. Their multi-headed hydra of sound combines a veritable sea of references: from cheesy Europop, to funk, to rap, all highlighted with gun shots and champagne bottle pops.
What the music may lacked in coherency, the performance more than made up for in strangeness. Hype Williams was joined on stage by two “hype men": a rippling body builder, and a man in a green mask who didn’t seem to do all that much. If that weren’t enough, the tornado of multi-colored lights dancing around the room in the haze of smoke was as alarming and confusing as the music itself. It was a total assault on the senses.
Actress (a.k.a. Darren Cunningham) closed the evening with a transcendent set that managed to convince a good portion of the remaining audience to dance - or at least sway enthusiastically. It was Actress' first time playing in the U.S., hot on the heels of his latest R.I.P. and it seemed a pity to relegate the talented producer to the 2:00 A.M. time slot (which, in a proper dance club, would be considered primetime.) Actress' set had the hypnotic beauty of trance and traditional Detroit techno with a more experimental flair similar to Cabaret Voltaire. In some ways, it was like a less structured or ebullient Justice, slowed down to a pace that matched the communal vibe of the crowd.
He closed his set with “Maze” off his first release, “Splazsh." Far and away the most memorable song in his arsenal, it was also the most predictable. That isn’t to say it lacked merit, but his newer songs had an interesting, almost impenetrable depth of construction. Actress' music might take some getting used to, but it has an undeniably seductive power.