SXSW 2012: Bear in Heaven, Light Asylum among early standouts

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In about two weeks, a historic Austin, Texas, house built in 1887 that sits just off of U.S. 290 will become an upscale coffee shop. But for the remaining week of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival and conference, it has been given a party crib makeover. Its walls are painted green and white, and it’s safe to say that the drink of choice is not drip coffee.

The house is where Sweden’s music subscription service Spotify has set up shop. Old-school singer/songwriter M. Ward has already stopped by for an acoustic set, and surprise guests will be unveiled daily. Welcome to SXSW 2012, where artist discovery is all well and good, but a little brand cache is where the investment lies. After all, this is a year in which the red carpet will be rolled out to welcome the addition of a 56-foot tall Doritos-branded vending machine.


It’s early yet at SXSW. The music component of the festival and conference truly gets underway Wednesday and lasts in earnest through Saturday evening. Industry panels and nonstop parties will cloud the afternoon, and a full roster of artist showcases spread amongst 92 venues will begin Wednesday night.

But on Tuesday, a few shows were slated for the evening, and whispers of mainstream headliners that might appear during the week began to fill the Austin streets. Rapper Eminem, for instance, is expected to appear Friday at the Shady Records showcase, and the likes of Doritos and Spotify are keeping their headliners under wraps. Add in a Thursday concert from Bruce Springsteen, in which admittance is gained only by lottery, and the amount of spotlight available to the 2,000 or so lesser-known acts who come to Austin becomes even more precious.

But as SXSW proved yet again on Tuesday night, a little willingness to be surprised goes a long way. While name artists such as Santigold and Miike Snow performed on Tuesday, I opted largely watch artists I hadn’t yet seen or knew little about. The night started with Austin’s own Love Inks, a minimalist indie-pop trio with a torch singer of a vocalist in Sherry LeBlanc.

The guitars were desert dry, and the rhythms were looped. LeBlanc even dedicated a song to experimental hero Yoko Ono, and while Love Inks aims for recognizable melodies, the guitars are slinky enough that one gets the sense the band could delve into a more atmospheric presentation at a moment’s notice. LeBlanc’s voice drives the arrangements, and the backing guitars didn’t follow her so much as bend around her.

I caught far less of Oberhofer, but walked away eager to see more. The brevity and speed present in the band’s songs makes it easy to focus on the more simple aspects of the band -- the screaming fast choruses, the bounty of ‘oh-ohs’ and woo-woos.’ Yet the Brooklyn act varies the pace just enough to keep an audience guessing, as songs gallop along until they suddenly don’t, and Oberhofer then builds them back up one piece at a time.

Even less serious, but perhaps more adventurous, was Germany’s Emma Heartbeat. The electro-hip-hop trio marries sometimes eye-rolling sexuality with warring rhythms. In a small dose, it was more a blast than a novelty, especially when Emma, clearly a disciple of M.I.A., alternately raps and sings about choosing an iPhone over a boyfriend.

The night’s standout performances, however, belonged to the final two acts I saw, Bear in Heaven and Light Asylum. New York trio Bear in Heaven turns its synthesizers into a full orchestra. Leader Jon Philpot uses his voice as an instrument, opting for patterns over melodies, and guitars recall the Cure while reaching for the stars.

What’s striking is how expansive the sound is for a trio. A bass-driven dancey undercurrent drives many of a Bear in Heaven tune, and digital effects gradually add layers that the beat must fight through. The momentum never ceases, but Bear in Heaven builds with dreamy psychedelics, constructing one song out of ping-pong effects and another out of full-blown noise.

Light Asylum, meanwhile, was snyth pop at its most punk rock. Singer Shannon Funchess is a force, growling, howling and stomping on the stage while Bruno Coviello backs the aggression of an assortment of electronic trickery. More often than not, he heightens her aggression by crafting techno backdrops that shade lighter rather than meaner. It puts the attention where it belongs. ‘You don’t have any effects on my voice out there, do you?’ Funchess asked the soundman. ‘Because I don’t need them.’


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-- Todd Martens in Austin, Texas