Vancouver’s New Forms Festival has been running almost two decades now and this year presented its most challenging lineup to date, placing artists like Scattered Purgatory, Dreamcrusher and Tommy Wright III alongside DEBIT, LSDXOXO, House Of Kenzo and Via App. FACT’s John Twells was there to absorb the atmosphere.
Back in November 2016, mere moments before Donald Trump was elected 45th president of the USA, Boiler Room teamed up with “premium eyewear” company Ray-Ban to cobble together a music festival in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. With a diverse lineup highlighting a rapidly growing underground club scene it seemed, from a distance, to be celebrating North America’s glorious chaos, focusing on queer and non-white artistic innovation at a time when the culture war’s battle lines were visibly shifting. But it was a careless mistake; the location simply wasn’t safe for the bodies the festival was supposedly supporting and the event was shut down by disgruntled cops and aggressive private security after a violent altercation. It was a reminder, before the election, that the music we support and promote poses a threat to mainstream Western society and that putting together events that celebrate this threat must be done with care, attention and open collaboration. Money alone can’t heal minds and brands do not care about your identity.
Three years later, it’s no easier to put on fringe events in North America. After the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, small and mid-sized arts venues across the USA and beyond began shuttering to avoid any possible legal action. But the music hasn’t dried up, in fact there’s more innovation and hope swelling from the culture war’s front lines than at any time in recent memory. So why is it becoming so difficult for people to experience? Shockingly, it’s easier to engage with these crucial movements in Europe, where more arts funding is earmarked and relatively plentiful venues are better equipped. At CTM earlier this year, I was struck by the sheer power of artists like 700 Bliss, Juliana Huxtable, LSDXOXO, Riobamba and others, all of whom brought transmissions from the future, powered by excellent soundsystems. But, yet again, North America needs a place to hear the sounds on its own doorstep, and we need to feel safe in the process.
Vancouver’s New Forms Festival started back in 2000, and over time has managed to build up a strong reputation for championing local creatives and bringing the most interesting international electronic artists to the city. “It’s becoming a very well known fact,” festival director Malcolm Levy told the Vancouver Sun in 2017, “that Vancouver has a healthy and creative electronic scene.” He was referring to the success of labels like Mood Hut and Pacific Rhythm, but there’s way more to Vancouver than lo-fi house.
This year, the festival brought in a new creative team to handle the curation, and the care and attention that went into this was visible from the lineup. Seattle’s Ceci Corsano-Leopizzi (aka CCL), Pittsburgh’s Lauren Goshinski (aka Boo Lean) and Ascetic House boss JS Aurelius put together an ambitious lineup that pulled from the fringes of noise, ambient, club, techno, house and rap. Low on massive headliners and high on ambition, New Forms was taking a big risk and I was eager to know if it was even possible to present a lineup like this in the difficult city festival format.
As soon as the first evening kicked into gear though, my fears were allayed. Before the first event, a member of staff addressed the crowd, stating that New Forms “respectfully acknowledges its location on unceded, traditional and ancestral Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories.” This might not seem like much, but even the acknowledgement changed the mood in the room, forcing festivalgoers to at least consider the space they were occupying.
Later, a blissfully scattershot performance from Washington-based duo A.F. Jones and Dave Abramson ushered in the musical programming. This wasn’t an all-singing, all-dancing opening night, rather it challenged its audience to listen, feel and understand the space: a cozy arts venue called Red Gate. When local duo City & i.o followed, with a performance that meshed raucous free drumming with death metal, videogame soundtracks and frothy trance, New Forms’ message was extremely clear. The night was presented alongside established local promoters Quiet City, highlighting Vancouver’s support for more difficult experimental music. And while there wasn’t a great deal of club music showcased, local DJ Seffrika seasoned the spaces in-between sets with thick, bubbling textures, drizzling some gabber and hardstyle in at the end as a taste of things to come.
The next day, producers LSDXOXO, Nene H and Giant Swan talked curious festivalgoers through their production processes as part of the daytime programming. It was an interesting workshop, more tangibly useful than most discourse sessions or panels, giving local musicians insight into how a selection of New Forms’ performers actually work. Quickly afterwards I walked to Deep Blue, a notorious gallery and cluster of studios, to see “Get Low”, an installation from PTP’s Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste. Brought up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Toussaint-Baptiste brings a rich, nuanced life experience to his artworks; “Get Low” is an exploration of the power of sub bass tones, forcing the listener into a space that’s disorienting, confusing and transportive. I took off my shoes and ducked into a small, pitch-black chamber in the center of the gallery and lay back, allowing the piece to penetrate my mind. Every few moments, I would drift into a semi-sleep state, coming back to life with a start and not completely understanding where (or when) I was.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the ideal introduction to the night’s PTP showcase. New Forms had been working on this lineup for months, fighting to find a way to present the NYC-rooted imprint’s diverse, multi-faceted output in a way that truly fit their inclusive message. And when I arrived at the night’s venue, Fox Cabaret, a quirky former movie theater in the heart of Vancouver’s arts district, I immediately got chills. Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste began the night with an impromptu live set where he sang cursed karaoke, screaming lyrics from pop songs and weaving them antagonistically into laptop noise and spiky tonal experimentation. I’m not sure what the audience were expecting, but this serrated performance set the scene for a night of music that routinely challenged, provoked and awed onlookers for the rest of the night.
When interdisciplinary artist, poet and musician YATTA followed, they initially struggled with a crackling laptop, so laughed, unplugged and took complete control of the stage, embarking on an exploration of voice and experience. YATTA’s music is about “being black, being trans and being African on foreign land,” and they didn’t allow the audience any opportunity to misunderstand their message. “Techno is BLACK,” they shouted from the stage, allowing the words to form a mantra. When they returned to the laptop, the technical problems seemed to have fixed themselves. The universe was watching.
“It’s funny but the project itself is not meant to be funny,” Sam An admitted to No Echo last year. A name like Lana Del Rabies challenges mainstream perception – sure it’s a joke, but Sam is using humor as a tool, juxtaposing it with the inherent darkness of her noisy, textural productions. She followed YATTA’s ritualistic incantations with vocal gymnastics and grinding waves of distorted harmony, torching her namesake’s gendered melancholy with bursts of fiery synth and noise.
I was lucky enough to see Via App earlier this year at Saule in Berlin, and their set floored me. Here, presented alongside the PTP canon, the sounds were possibly even more inspiring. A transcendent and quietly revolutionary blend of frenetic hardstyle, FM drone splatter and irreverent club forms, Dylan Scheer’s music stands almost alone right now; it’s delightfully forward-facing and even the aesthetic sounds unmistakably politicized. The crowd were waiting for a reason to dance, and Via App’s body-twisting rhythms were the perfect opportunity for movement as the crowd whooped and screamed.
The room was already prepped by the time PTP boss Geng stepped up to perform under his King Vision Ultra alias. He opted to perform off-stage, surrounded by a crowd of fans who hung off his every considered movement. Stomping on pedals and rapping over noisy NY rap-influenced slaps, he rooted the set in his personal biography, tracking through his days as part of legendary crew Atoms Family and as a vocalist in local hardcore bands. The lashing together of rap, hardcore, noise and club music sets PTP apart musically from so many other labels. Geng allowed himself to be vulnerable with this unique set, wandering in and out of the crowd, bearing his soul and embracing fans and family.
The thick, evocative scent of palo santo filled the air as Luwayne Glass, aka Dreamcrusher, prepared to play. Rap and pop snippets bellowed from the pitch black room as Glass set fire to bundles of incense, illuminating their face as the dense smoke filled our lungs. It changed the physicality of the space immediately and every single person in the room became sharply aware that what they were engaging with a distinctly sensory experience. When Glass began screaming into a flashing strobe light, marching across the stage and bounding in and out of the crowd, the energy felt part hardcore punk show, part Kanye West Yeezus tour and part noise basement freak out. It was punishing, absorbing and provocative and when Luwayne jumped into the crowd, they were caught in the arms of a group of fans eager to cradle their rare energy. In over two decades of frequenting metal and noise shows, I’ve rarely encountered more genuine love in the room. This wasn’t repression masquerading as provocation, it was the generous sharing of experience and the dissolving of toxic ideologies imagined in glorious widescreen. By the end of the performance, I was moved and breathless.
Dis Fig, aka Berlin-based East Coaster Felicia Chen, was tasked with concluding the showcase. She performed a live rendition of her debut album Purge, shaking the venue with her idiosyncratic fusion of powerful vocal drone, noise and experimental electronics. Her voice sang through the venue, rising triumphantly and leaving the room in reverence. The entire evening was exceptional – a stunning selection of music that should stand as an example that global festivals should take note of. PTP is a label that stands in defiance to the assumed logic of the contemporary system, rooting itself in community, space and ritual. Eschewing traditional models, PTP provides genuine support for its diverse cast, offering a platform for radical exploration and assembling funds for vital local causes. Are labels still relevant in 2019? Sure, but what a label is and can be needs to be discussed. We shouldn’t distance ourselves from the possibilities offered by support networks, even if technology is pulling us away from each other quickly and silently.
New Forms could have ended at this point and it would have been among my favorite experiences this year, but there were still three more days to go. On Friday, we were introduced to the main set of venues: the Japanese Hall, The Pace and Open Studios, three large spaces that housed the stage performances, club shows and afterparties respectively. Upstairs at the Japanese Hall was another small space, handled by Quiet City, that offered a place to take a breather from the intensity of the rest of the festival. But I immediately wondered how these almost corporate spaces might work in a club context. Where the previous night’s space had no small amount of character, these venues were more like large function rooms, so any vibe had to be meticulously built from scratch.
DEBIT was an early highlight and the New York-based producer and DJ brought her bass-heavy, swung rhythmic club music to Vancouver with a clang and a clatter. In the Japanese Hall, Taiwanese experimental rock act Scattered Purgatory shimmied into spiritual territory before LAFAWNDAH took to the stage, rattling through the high points of her recent Ancestor Boy full length dressed in jaw-dropping costume, commanding the room expertly. Nene H’s live set provided another moment of sharp focus, with her rapid-fire kick-heavy productions filling The Pace completely, and LSDXOXO brought a little of Berghain via NYC, as sex dungeon kick drums echoed over anthemic breaks and occasional pop snippets.
At afterparty, I was given a further taste of the local scene. Local duo Minimal Violence played a goodbye set as they prepared to relocate to Berlin and had the support of almost everyone in the room as they presented a clattering set of chunky hardware techno and hardcore. When the electricity had subsided, Pacific Rhythm’s D. Tiffany followed with a gloriously deep and heady DJ set that coaxed us through psychedelic realms before we were tossed out into the morning air.
When I returned the folowing day after not enough sleep and no small amount of wandering through Vancouver, I was wondering what the night could add to the experience. But within minutes of Ugandan DJ Kampire’s bass-heavy set it was clear the festival had serious staying power. The audience’s energy was inspiring to witness and we danced energetically through BEARCAT’s emotional hybrid club and rap forms, DJ Marcelle’s completely unique, technically jaw-dropping set of noisy global oddities and Chicago footwork pioneer Jana Rush’s bass alchemy. But it was House of Kenzo with visual artist Sam Rolfes who brought me to my knees.
Presenting queer music in mainstream festival spaces presents a problem; when the art exists in its own world, transplanting it encourages fetishism and misunderstanding. House of Kenzo are an act that thrive in queer spaces and thankfully, the New Forms crowd was ready to give back. Within minutes, LEDEF’s decomposing club rhythms incited the crowd to move, and Brexxitt’s impressive theatrics – at one point she grabbed a monitor speaker and dragged it down the large catwalk area – had the crowd frothing at the mouth, whooping and cheering. The relative space had been transformed and the resulting party – like a post-apocalyptic ball – was vital, energetic and unimaginably enjoyable. At one stage Brexxitt grabbed Vancouver legend Baby Blue, embracing her, falling to the floor and making out as the crowd fell into raptures.
Saturday’s afterparty was the section of the festival I’d been most eager to witness, with Memphis rap legend Tommy Wright III performing alongside Vancouver’s own Debby Friday and the s.M.i.L.e collective, a local crew dedicated to fringe club music. When I arrived, local producer x/o was performing, singing over clattering samples and synthesized drones in front of gorgeous visuals. Debby Friday was next, commanding the stage and screaming as bass rattled through the small venue, frothing the audience up to a fever. Everyone was ready for Tommy Wright III, who had waited patiently enjoying the rest of the acts before stepping into the spotlight and wowing the crowd. Memphis rap has long remained a reference point for US club music, and while this kind booking might seem unusual, it should be way more common. The through lines were obvious: massive bass, assertive, charged performance and sizzling, warped samples. Rap is club music, and it’s a staple of so many North American parties, so why is it still such a rarity to see rappers presented alongside club artists like this?
“Last night I heard Tommy Wright talking to Scattered Purgatory about how he could rap over their music,” JS Aurelius told Zweikommasieben, reflecting on the week. “Where else in the world would that ever happen? People go home but those connections remain and grow.”
Vancouver’s very own self-styled “Queen of Techno” Baby Blue finished the night off with a mischievously enjoyable set that smashed together pop (Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ was fragmented into loping microdoses of serotonin), noise, trance, industrial and hardstyle and had the remaining gaggle of cursed cuties vibrating into the early morning. There was a rare magic in the room, an energy that can only be engineered from a place of love and support and it is to New Forms’ credit that they managed to present this as part of an international festival.
Sunday was a chance to exhale and reminisce about the dense programming we’d all just witnessed. A low-key street party was the final event, with Bianca Lexis and They/Them DJ from LA’s Directory crew and Honcho’s Aaron Clark and Clark Price providing the soundtrack. I can’t imagine a better way to end the festival, and standing in the crowd watching young kids dance with aging ravers as frazzled beats from some of the USA’s finest dance outfits echoed across central Vancouver, it was tough not to get emotional. This kind of event shouldn’t be a rarity; the dance music world is packed full of passionate, motivated people who are ready to throw down and make this kind of party possible but at every turn we’re often blocked, appropriated or consumed by brands. As Amazon looms in the distance, with their “Intersect” festival mimicking and ultimately erasing the hard work so many queer outfits across North America have put into the scene over the last few decades, it’s important to visualize the enemy and snap back, amplifying and elevating messages that bring us together, not force us apart. A great festival is still possible, New Forms proved that beyond any doubt, now we need to shout from the rooftops and ask for what we want, in no uncertain terms. Together, anything is possible.