It is time. The summer was immense.
For the past few months the Hudson Valley has hosted every type of music festival imaginable. Hippies jammed on mountaintops, folkies strummed by the river and hobos set up stages at playgrounds. Jazz bands wailed from tattoo parlors and bakeries while string quartets sawed away inside a 100 year old makeshift barn in the middle of the woods. The site of the original Woodstock music festival was inundated with three days of blistering EDM beats and the proposed site of the original Woodstock music festival was inundated with three feet of mud. We danced, we sang, we raised a glass to Pete and Toshi Seeger one last time. We may have even gotten some sleep at some point.
On September 13th, the summer festival season will come to a thunderous conclusion when the legendary Swans, one of the most ferocious and fearsome bands of the past 30 years, headlines the final day of Basilica Soundscape in a 19th century warehouse that rises among the ruins of an industrial park like the last standing monument to a long forgotten age.
Basilica Soundscape is not like any of the summer’s other festivals. There are no corporate sponsors. No one will try to get you to download their apps or swallow their energy drinks. There aren’t half a dozen stages to choose from. There is just one, in that 17,000 square foot industrial church by the Hudson train station, and if the band that’s currently playing isn’t immediately to your liking, you will just have to trust the curators that there’s something going on up there that is ultimately worth your time.
It’s a strategy that rewards the patient, the open-minded, the adventurous and those who simply don’t feel like giving up their spot in the crowd. Take the band Endless Boogie, who are playing Soundscape on Friday night. The band’s m.o. seems to be “Find a perfect riff, play it over and over until the sun burns out.” When I first saw them in concert more than 10 years ago, I initially thought they were a joke. Fifteen minutes into their set I admitted that they might be onto something. By the time the set was finished, I wanted to be their roadie.
“We’re kind of the anti-festival,” acknowledges Melissa Auf der Maur, known to most as the bass player in Hole, known to the town of Hudson as Basilica’s creative director. Together with the filmmaker Tony Stone, Auf der Maur’s partner in business as well as in life, they have created a festival that does more than just sell tickets.
“There’s a commitment and integrity to every artist that we invite here,” she said. “Everyone, including us, is willing to lose money to do this. Every band. They’re not doing this for any other reason than communing all together with people who make, organize, appreciate and come to events like this. In a world where large sponsors and branded corporate realities are so present, this is a safe haven from that for all of us.”
Besides looking for bands of unquestionable integrity, Auf der Maur says that the space itself dictates what kind of acts they’re looking for. “The space has a particular atmosphere both in its church-like sounds and visuals,” she said. “So when we book bands quite often we ask ourselves ‘How does this space add to what is being presented and how does what’s being presented add to the space, so that there’s an exchange.’” That means looking for bands that create sounds – be they loud or soft, acoustic or electric – that resonate up into the space’s cavernous rafters. And it encourages them to draw connections between certain bands that aren’t immediately obvious.
“The creative brainstorming that takes place leads us to say, ‘Hey! Would you, Pig Destroyer, be interested in playing with Julianna Barwick?’” recalled Auf der Maur, referencing two of last year’s acts.
For those unfamiliar with their work, Julianna Barwick performs haunting multi-tracked choral music that sounds as though it wasn’t so much created as it was downloaded from the Pearly Gates. Pig Destroyer, on the other hand, sounds exactly what you think a band called Pig Destroyer should sound like. There is no known universe in which these two artists would be expected to share a stage together except within the Basilica, and their pairing at last year’s Soundscape was the moment in which Auf der Maur knew that they had succeeded in creating something that was, in her own words, “pretty far out there, but really working.”
“It was the most original and odd pairing I’ve ever seen in my decades of going to shows and playing shows and it really encapsulates what it’s all about for me.”
Auf der Maur isn’t sure exactly who’s going to trigger a similar reaction this year, but with such an adventurous lineup spread out over two nights it’s bound to happen. There’s Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, who will be debuting songs from his upcoming solo album. There’s the ambient and electronic artist Tim Hecker, whose recent album Virgins continues his evolution from laptop producer to one of experimental music’s premier composers. Deafheaven are riding a wave of critical adoration thanks to their 2013 album Sunbather, which effortlessly merges pummeling black metal with moments of gorgeous catharsis that’s more evocative of early 1990’s shoegaze bands like Slowdive and Ride than Napalm Death or Darkthrone. Composer Julia Holter’s work recalls the poetic wordplay of The Magnetic Fields and Noel Coward as well as the fearless, theatrical genre-smashing of Laurie Anderson.
And then there’s Swans. Formed in the crucible of early ‘80s downtown Manhattan as punk slowly morphed into the abrasive movement known as “No Wave”, Swans quickly established a reputation as a band unafraid to sonically – and sometimes physically – assault their audiences. They played crushing ten minute dirges at glacial tempos and earthshaking volumes. They released a live album entitled Public Castration Is A Good Idea. You didn’t listen to Swans as much as you endured them. But as the years wore on, bandleader Michael Gira began to slowly refine the band’s sound, adding moments of quiet, searching grace in between the howls. By the time the band reemerged in 2010 after a 13-year hiatus, they had finally managed to merge all the disparate strains in their lengthy catalog into a shockingly cohesive whole. Their most recent albums, 2012’s darkly magisterial The Seer and the searing heat of this year’s To Be Kind are not only the finest work of their career, but some of the most vital and enduring music currently being made by an American band.
“People always consider us to be very dour and depressing,” said Gira in a 2012 interview before launching into a dismissive string of expletives. “The goal is ecstasy.”
It’s that search for ecstasy that will push Swans and the other artists assembled at Basilica Soundscape to give the Hudson Valley one last blast of musical communion to get us through the long, dark winter to come.
Basilica Soundscape 2014 takes place from Friday, September 12th, through Saturday, September 13th, at Basilica Hudson, 110 South Front Street, Hudson, NY. For more information, and to see the full lineup, visit http://basilicasoundscape.com.
Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer in Beacon, NY. You can find him online at brianpjcronin.com and on Twitter as @brianpjcronin.