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Concert Review Festival Coverage Local Music

Manifest Review: A Loud Festival That Shines in the Quiet Moments

I think it was partway through Sister Brother’s set, a ski mask-wearing punk duo with anti-capitalist vocal samples and attacking guitars when I realized just how good of a weekend this would be. For reference, Sister Brother was the third set I went to.

Manifest did not pull punches. This was an event that threw punk and metal bands at you and you had to hold on and enjoy the ride. I spent most of my time in the Local 506, the main venue of the three, and the intimate size combined with the sheer ferocity of the instrumentals meant I had to pull out earplugs at a concert for the first time ever. 

Bands blurred together, but saying that sounds bad, like things were getting stale. When I say blurred, I mean that one band perfectly picked up the energy level from the previous group while adding their own spin on the rebellious under (and over) tones. Of course there were individual highlights. BANGZZ lived up to its name by getting the whole crowd headbanging and kicking off the night with interludes talking about the importance of taking up space and respecting others. Pie Face Girls described themselves as a “comedy troupe first, band second”, and their stage banter was as hilarious as their songs were captivating, with groovy instrumentals and repeated vocals that wormed their way into the brain and didn’t leave in a hurry. And Sand Pact came from left field with an experimental electronic set paired with performative dance that brought a bit of the club with them.

Of all the pedal to the metal guitars and screaming vocals this weekend, the most memorable act I saw was Raleigh “conjurer of sound” Spookstina. Their set consisted of the artist crouching over their decks and playing a continuous wall of distorted sound for over half an hour, punctuated by a couple minutes of vocals and some plucking of guitar strings and, most notably, the rattling of chains. Some of the rattling was recorded, but a lot of it came from them picking up and dropping chains that were on the small triangular stage in the corner of the room. This crescendoed into one of the most surreal experiences of my life: Spookstina picked up what they later told us was a sewer ladder, walked into the audience, and started hitting it with a chain to a beat that apparently only they could hear. 

What really made that work was how close the audience was to the action, and that was a major part of the experience. Artists were just hanging out in the bar after the show and were happy to be interviewed by a college radio station. Indie folk band Honey Magpie didn’t have any merch at the merch table; my friend and I got t-shirts by talking to them after their set and paying the lead singer on Venmo. It was adaptable too. There were plans for an outdoor day party with an art market on nearby Graham Street, but when rain started coming down, they just moved everything inside the Local 506 and kept the fun going. There weren’t many people there during the day, but those who showed up between 1 and 7 p.m. got to experience some great sets. I didn’t expect to hear much country music at Manifest, but Charly out of Lumberton NC surprised me with an emotionally resonant and personal hour of music.

But Manifest, in structure at least, was still a music festival like any other, and this means that its greatest strength is in allowing for the creation of certain moments, pockets of infinite joy, where you stop and realize just how much fun you’re having. The alley in front of The Nightlight, maybe the most underrated venue of the weekend, is perfect for squealing with your friends about how insane a set was, and the distance between venues allowed festival goers to slow down and really sit with the experience they just had. History dictates that, barring another global pandemic, Manifest will return to Chapel Hill next fall, and I’m already counting the days.

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Blog Miscellaneous Music Education

The Power of the Playlist

I’ve been doing some spring cleaning this October, and have been reorganizing the way I listen to my Apple Music library. And it hit me that the way I, and most people my age, organize songs into a genre or mood based playlist that we can carry around in our pockets would not have been possible 15 years ago. Playlists as not just a way of listening but as an art form are so ubiquitous now that they’re just a fact of life, a noun that we all use. Both Google search trends and mentions of the word in books actually peaked in the late 2000s to early 2010s, right around the time Spotify was really entering the public consciousness. So despite the fact that we’re using playlists more than ever, we think about the fact that we use them less, you just throw one together without considering what the alternative might be.

This massive trend has completely reshaped how the music industry presents itself to the listener, with a varying degree of subtlety. The biggest albums of the year now see a 20+ song tracklist as a bare minimum, with more songs meaning a guaranteed increase in streams regardless of the average quality of the record. Even with records that stay around my personal sweet spot of 10-15 songs, I find myself listening through once, seeing which songs really stand  out to me, and then extracting those to a playlist whose theme fits the music of that artist, something I explored as well in my review of latest album by TORRES.

This approach to listening to music has its pros and cons. For one, I don’t really get a chance to have an album and all of its quirks really grow on me unless it’s already an album I really liked being revisited and becoming an album I love. “Suck It And See” from Arctic Monkeys is an album that transcended the way I’ll often leave the album behind; it went from being a cover I would see when the few songs I had from it played off my Arctic Monkeys playlist to being one of my favorites of the last decade. But the reason I went back and got to connect with the album is because Arctic Monkeys have been my favorite artist since sophomore year of high school, and I can only imagine how many albums that, had I been willing to give them another chance, would have become an integral part of my memories the way my favorite albums have.

On the flip side, I find playlists make for a more consistent listening experience on a day to day basis, especially when I just want to get something done and music isn’t my main focus at the time. Very few albums have zero filler, but all those hours spent perfectly sculpting a playlist late at night pay off when you’re doing homework and don’t need to switch through five windows to find the music player to skip a mediocre track. Your personal playlist is ideally nothing but battle-tested songs that will always come through. There’s a level of artistry involved too; building smaller playlists and carefully choosing which songs make the cut lets me engage with music in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Playlists have also become a way of discovering music that’s very interesting to think about. Discover Weekly on Spotify is a lot of people’s go to for finding new songs they would probably like, but all streaming services have pre-made playlists that fit specific moods to draw from as well. Finding new music has less of a barrier in front of it than ever before, a new song is no longer an individual financial investment, like buying a record or downloading an individual iTunes track. On the contrary, if you’re paying for Spotify Premium, you want to get the most out of your monthly subscription and listen to as much as possible.

Being able to look at a homepage of a streaming service and seeing an algorithmically curated “for you” section in some ways lets individual listeners have more power over how they listen to music, but in other ways little has changed from when record companies started to dominate the industry. Algorithmically generated is key here, platforms can get you listening to a lot of music in a very narrow breadth within a wider genre or subgenre without ever having to leave one’s auditory comfort zone. Also many of those genre playlists on Spotify have their slots bought and paid for by record companies to promote their new material anyways, making music discovery in some ways no more organic than in the past, just with a new coat of paint.

Pros and cons aside, playlists aren’t going anywhere. Spotify has more than 30 million new listeners worldwide since 2020 and it’s not alone in this wider industry trend. As someone who grew up in the streaming era, I’ve never known life without them and I’m always looking for the next song to really tie the whole playlist together. I just have to make sure I know why my listening habits are the way they are, and to never listen to an album on shuffle.

-Erie

Categories
Music Education

Soundtrack to a Revolution: My Pick for the Perfect Protest Song

Protest in Raleigh
Women’s March for Abortion Rights in Raleigh – photo by Erie Mitchell

Going to the women’s march for abortion rights in Raleigh recently was a big moment for me because was my first protest since the pandemic started, but during it my thoughts briefly wandered to something else. During a quiet moment between speakers I noticed they were playing “Scoop” by Lil Nas X. Now this is a great song, and it got the crowd going, but it got me wondering if we could do better.

There are songs (some of which were already mentioned) that instantly come to mind when you think of a protest: “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar was the rallying cry against police brutality, Gil Scott Heron created a phrase as relevant today as in 1971 with “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”, and Rage Against the Machine built an entire career around punchy, stick-it-to-the-man anthems like “Killing in the Name”. All of these are classics that have inspired millions and work because of their purposeful simplicity and universality as well as their strong musical fundamentals , but I feel like the best protest song is something that isn’t known for being played on the picket line. The best listen of a song is the first one, and I know I would be just a little more fired up if it was an unexpected song.

This brings me back to “Scoop”. Again, it’s a great song and has the energy level that aligns with a massive demonstration, but lyrically it’s about fame, sex, and looking really good; all fine things to make a song about of course, but maybe not one challenging Texas abortion law. Scoop is worth discussing here because of one important aspect: the context. Lil Nas X has become such a counterculture icon that he’s shifted culture itself, conversely every song and video he releases is accompanied by, let’s say discourse, on Twitter. Everything about him is rebellious, and this is the kind of artist I would want my dream protest song to be by.

Which brings me to what my dream protest song actually is: “Generational Synthetic” by Beach Fossils. From a strictly musical perspective (I think it’s important for a protest song to be a good song in its own right) it’s a great song that starts with a killer groove and doesn’t stop that groove, and it’s just low-fi enough to blend with the chanting of a crowd and have the voices not feel completely distinct. Thematically it deals with coming into one’s own and growing along the way with clever turns of phrase, “all your working inspiration // systematic exploration” is heady without sounding pretentious. And the chorus strips all of that away to create a universality that, like Kendrick’s anthem “Alright”, lets it be extracted from the song and become a rallying cry for the voiceless all on its own. 

Lo-fi indie pop band Beach Fossils aren’t exactly an artist that screams protest, but there are some important notes I thought made this selection work. Their most recent album and interviews from lead singer Dustin Payseur about their upcoming project have shown a genre bending willingness and a specific focus on jazz that lends itself to going against the grain, and their videos especially draw from countercultural iconography with depictions of skateboarding and graffiti. One of the founding members left to become a Buddhist monk, so these aren’t a group of people who are sellouts. And the fact that this just feels like a weird choice is an asset because it doesn’t at all feel cliche.

Perhaps the most important aspect, though, is the scale of the lyricism. It’s not too long and wordy, which I think would get in a song’s way here, but also comes with a certain melancholic spirit, with a Payseur tapping into a weight of depicting an entire generation’s trials and tribulations that captures the essence of what a protest is in just a few lines.

This is just my personal pick of course, and there’s too much music out there to have a definitive answer. Mine might change tomorrow, but for now, “Generational Synthetic” is what I’m queuing up when I head to the next rally.

-Erie

Categories
Concert Preview Festival Coverage Local Music

Preview: Chapel Hill’s Manifest Aims to Break Barriers

In my training class to become a WKNC DJ, among the many pieces of advice our then station general manager gave us was to “not just play music made by four white guys”. This was met by laughs, but that line stuck with me because of how relevant it still is. When I was a daytime DJ I tried to have sets with a strong female representation, but four or so guys still made up most of the songs aired from 10 to 11 p.m. on Thursdays. And that doesn’t even take into account the “white” part of that; many genres such as modern indie rock are overrepresented by white artists and artists of color will often have their work labeled as R&B even when that label doesn’t fit the music, which can box in both exposure and creative freedom.

Enter Manifest. This is a festival that, according to the website, is “focused on dismantling patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy” with a diverse lineup that draws from a wide variety of races, sexualities and gender identities. Now dismantling vast social hierarchies is a lofty goal, but they’ve definitely got the lineup down. This is a festival that has seen acts like Skylar Gudasz and Hopscotch 2021 attendee Sarah Shook, and this year the acts range from Basura who make minute-and-a-half long death metal bangers to trans experimental artist KHX05 who brings a nervy and rebellious energy to her mixtapes and remix EPs. 

Manifest bills itself as mostly a punk festival, and there are a number of punk bands making an appearance. Gown is a hardcore metallic punk band that has seven members, three of whom play the cello, while Fortezza is an doom punk band out of Asheville whose long guitar solos and verses screamed over a lone drumbeat create a chaotic and apocalyptic feel to fit their hand-drawn album covers. The artists have a distinctly local flavor too. Of the 28 acts coming to Chapel Hill this weekend, 21 are from the Triangle area, and five of them won’t have to leave their hometown to make it there. 

This is the fifth iteration of Manifest, and it’s the fifth time in these exact three venues. The festival is mostly based around Local 506, a bar and club that, when not hosting live acts, is known for having themed dance parties such as the 80s-style one that I went to this summer. This is where tickets and wristbands are picked up and where WKNC is running the merch table. When not at the Local 506, festivalgoers can head to two other locations, one of which is The Cave. This is another bar/club hybrid, iconic in Chapel Hill for its alley location and will often host rock and punk rock bands. 

Now despite having essentially grown up in downtown Chapel Hill, I’ll admit I had to look up the last venue, Rosemary Street’s The Nightlight. It’s the only one of the venues not located on Franklin Street, and its website is at time of writing a single page detailing its closures due to COVID and in the spirit of Manifest, a link to a mutual aid fund. All of these are within a quarter mile walk of each other so it should be easy to go between any of the simultaneous shows being played.

Continuity is a major theme here, and not just in the venues. Manifest 5 marks the fourth appearance of Raleigh’s Fruit Snack at the aforementioned festival, a band whose members work at multiple venues in the Triangle and whose themes of anti-capitalism, openness about sex and dislike of the police fit right in with Manifest’s mission statement. It also features a ukulele player. Meanwhile, punk act Pie Face Girls has attended every single iteration since the festival began in 2016. This in combination with its many local sponsors including Orange County Arts Commission, Chapel Hill’s own Midway Market and this radio station gives this festival a strong feeling of community that puts those goals of social change front and center.

I’m personally quite excited to cover Manifest. While I won’t be able to see every artist (The Cave being 21+ is unfortunate but understandable) there are a lot of acts I really want to see and blog about, and a lot of artists I had never heard of before and really want to get to know as part of my ongoing efforts to further connect with the local music scene here. After all, homegrown music with a message is the new punk rock. And the old one too.

-Erie

Categories
Blog Classic Album Review

Classic Album Review: “We Have the Facts and are Voting Yes” by Death Cab for Cutie

"We Have the Facts and Are Voting Yes" album cover
Death Cab for Cutie’s “We Have the Facts and Are Voting Yes” album cover

Death Cab for Cutie are synonymous with metaphorical songwriting and thought-provoking guitar work. Not thought-provoking as in so experimental you’ll think about music differently, more like sitting back and providing a canvas for the listener’s imagination to take over.

And while “Transatlanticism” and “Plans” are certified classics of the 2000s, it can be argued that their album that takes these strengths to the greatest extent is actually “We Have the Facts and are Voting Yes”, an album that came out a couple years before the band really blew up. It’s tied together conceptually with themes of breakup and modern urban life, specifically through a loosely-defined story of a hip Seattle couple and how their relationship slowly falls apart.

A defined concept album suits lead singer Ben Gibbard’s unique songwriting style perfectly. Verses are less of a defined set of lines and more of a section of a longer story arc. “Little Fury Bugs” is a winding tale of a road trip filled with uneasy friend group dynamics, while “For No Reason” makes powerful moments out of a barely raised voice. “Tracing the plot finds, skin touching skin” is an understated chorus with a lot of heart in the small vocal inflections. Meanwhile “No Joy in Mudville” reimagines a classic poem about baseball as a swan song of hipster life. 

Songs take on instrumental arcs as well as just narrative ones. “Title Track” starts with a narrow soundscape to fit the themes of weariness and cigarette filters before opening up with rich hi-hats and a strong bassline.

The narrative climax of the album, though, is the two-part epic “Company Calls” and “Company Calls Epilogue”. It goes from a rant about a relationship that is “so tired” with yells about crashing a “party line” to spiraling further into crashing an exes’ wedding, tying up the themes of the album with powerful metaphorical imagery.

All of this sounds heavy, and lyrically it is, but this is where Death Cab for Cutie’s breezy instrumentals come in. The lines that would be hard to listen to sound weightless when on top of a tight, minimal rhythm section and atmospheric guitars. All of this combines into an album that is the definition of a grower: you don’t even notice when you repeat “Title Track” for the fifth time in a row or whisper “what ghosts exist behind these attic walls” to yourself over and over.

-Erie

Categories
Concert Review

Concert Review: White Reaper (9/25/2021)

White Reaper onstage at Cat's Cradle
White Reaper at Cat’s Cradle on 9/25/2021

Late into the show, lead singer Tony Esposito remarked that “it feels a lot like 2019 again”. This moment of introspection stood out because it was a rare break in almost continuous stream of wailing guitars. Often Esposito would step away from the mic for extended headbanging solos powered by the three guitars, and even during breaks between songs someone would always be hammering a note or keeping a drum rhythm going. There was very little that stood between the five members of White Reaper and delivering the experience the audience paid for, which was for them to play now and loud.

This concert was a long time in the making. White Reaper was originally coming to the Cradle in March of 2020, this was rescheduled for obvious reasons to April 28 of this year, when it was rescheduled once more to Sept. 25. The hype was palpable, and one person I talked to said they drove all the way from Richmond. 

One of White Reaper’s signature traits is Esposito’s howling, passionate vocals, and they certainly put on a show that night. The Cat’s Cradle acoustics meant it was definitely hard to make every word out but that added to the experience, songs became experiences, crashing walls of sound, and everyone knew the lyrics anyway.

Their stage presence was immaculate, often someone would stand on a platform to almost come at the audience from a new dimension and there was always purpose behind actions as simple as walking around during a song, often coming within a few inches of the front row when a song reached its crescendo. 

The setlist was a nice blend of old and new, with songs like “Sheila” and “Pills” off their debut alongside “Raw” and “Headwind” off their most recent album, 2019’s “You Deserve Love”. “The Stack” was a particular crowd favorite, virtually everyone was jumping and singing along to it. And they wisely kept “Judy French”, one of their biggest crowd-pleasers, until the encore, answering the audience’s cries to hear it played with the familiar opening notes that had everyone cheering.

White Reaper are from Louisville, but they injected some local flair by dedicating “Might be Right” to two of their North Carolinian friends who are engaged to be married and were also in the audience, and their cover of “Aneurysm” was an homage to Nirvana’s 1991 concert at the Cradle. They also asked if anyone in the crowd were students and said to “stay in school otherwise you’ll end up like us”, which was ironic in the face of the absolute blast they seemed to be having onstage.

Opening act Glove set the tone for things to come and while I hadn’t heard its music beforehand I had a great time with its set. It’s a synth heavy band with a strong 80s influence and a lot of fun grooves and piano riffs. Its versatility of lineup was interesting to watch; the drummer switched from a larger drum set to synths to a smaller drum set to being the lead singer and about halfway through they keyboard player started playing sitting down, at eye level with the front row. White Reaper was the star of the show but Glove definitely earned its applause.

And Esposito was right: it really felt like 2019 again. While I along with a few others stayed in the back to keep distance between each other, the mosh pit was alive and well and pretty much the whole front half of the crowd was involved. While this concert had been rescheduled multiple times, everything about the actual event felt like a return to some version of normal, and even from the back, it was a pretty great version.

-Erie

Categories
Music Education

Planning a Long Set – What I Learned

A snapshot of my set on 10/1/2021

World College Radio Day was one of the craziest days of my life, and it came on the heels of a fever pitch of excitement at the station. Never have I been so excited about a holiday I had only heard of a week before it happened.

And in the midst of the hype, I decided to make a 5 hour set focused around dark techno and midtempo, which are genres I’m not exactly an expert in. Here are a few things I learned along the way for anyone who finds their set length exceeding the runtime of “Avengers: Endgame”. This is one for all the DJs out there.

  • Focus on the big picture. Have a set theme going into it, and having different subgenres within your overall set description. This is just personal preference, but you really don’t want to stick to one very specific niche for more than a few hours. If songs start to feel the same, you don’t want to be stuck having to play that same thing for an hour more than you want to. I wanted my theme to be a “descent into madness”, so I started with house music before going into techno and later into midtempo and dubstep, slowly getting darker while trying to make any given few songs feel like they should be in the same set.
  • Don’t worry about individual transitions that much, at least early on. 5 hours equated to around 90 songs for me, and that’s a lot to have to get in a hyper-specific order. Start by grouping songs into general categories like mood and tempo, which will narrow down the amount of ordering you have to do by a lot.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw in something off the wall. Putting a noise pop song by Black Dresses in the middle of a bunch of dubstep feels odd, but don’t sweat it. A change of pace after an hour of the same genre sounds a lot better than you might think.
  • Use your resources. In making this set I had to branch out a lot from my typical listening habits and ways of discovering music, Spotify radio stations of individual songs helped a lot with this. Music-map.com was also a great resource. This website lets you search an artist and showing a map of artists you’ll probably like if you like that artist, the closer together they are the more likely you’ll click with them. I came into this set liking Rezz a lot and wanted her style of midtempo music to be at least an hour of my set, so searching for Rezz on music-map let me find artists like Hlfmn and Whipped Cream whose songs became cornerstones of that time block.

And remember, don’t stress out too much. It might feel like a lot but doing a long set is about having fun and really getting to showcase a genre. If you’re genuinely enjoying the songs and how they’re flowing it’ll reflect in the end product. This is only my first set of this length and I definitely have a lot to learn, and that’s part of the fun of it, just scratching the surface of a new and exciting activity for me.

-Erie