This was a night for a light to be shone on the more distant edges of pop music, where obtuse angles and bold and wilder imaginations take flight. Marcus Whale had emailed Julia Holter requesting a support slot and his wish was granted. Holter and local label Mistletone’s trust was more than rewarded with a riveting opening set that took militant drums, a caustic electronic backdrop and Whale’s soulful, effect-laden voice into territory that artists like Bjork and Zola Jesus inhabit.
Julia Holter’s year has culminated in her appearing at or near the top of many respected end-of-year lists which will no doubt see her cache and audience sizes increase in 2016. That made this show feel like we were witnessing an artist on the cusp of being elevated to the next level of music industry exposure. After a tentative start adjusting equipment and a music stand Holter steadied herself and began an 80 minute set that started with a measured and almost rigid feel and ended in a rousing avant-jazz trip complete with wordless incantations and splintering melodies and rhythms. In the interim Holter showcased this year’s Have You In My Wilderness album with the light-stepping Silhouette a particular highlight as well as musically compatible selections from her earlier albums. Holter has slowly become more confident on-stage since her earlier Australian visits, this time chatting, laughing and making wry song introductions that gave the more avant garde songs glimpses of context. Though the first half of the set too often displayed the conservatorium roots of its composer, the second 40 minutes became richer, more resonant and full-blooded as the mood lightened and the musicians began to sweat and loosen their shoulders. Holter’s recorded music is progressive and avant-pop music but her live set effectively added another layer of personality and approachability to her unique and otherworldly songs.
Over the space of a few years Julia Holter has quickly established herself as a composer, songwriter and singer with a special talent for creating sonically exquisite music. Hers is a musical style that channels classical, jazz, folk, electronica and the avant-garde and Loud City Song stands as her most fascinating and fully realised album to date.
There is a feeling akin to stepping into a Lynchian gallery space when you encounter Holter’s music. Its ethereal qualities have seen her labelled as dream pop yet that is only one facet of her sound. Here it is a thread that runs through the songs; odes to and observations of her hometown of Los Angeles, but the real reward is how she takes that musical dreaminess and adds clarity and a real sense of purpose to the compositions. Maxim’s I is a stately percussive track that swells and skips along with both strings and synths coexisting effortlessly while Surrounding Me takes a dark swerve into ideas of fear complete with field recordings, dread-inducing horns and a stylistic nod to Bjork and CocoRosie in the drama of the vocals. Holter’s voice is always controlled, its enunciation often exaggerated with theatrical complexity and it operates as an instrument as effectively as it does as a vehicle for her lyrics. She multi-tracks herself into a playful choir on the single In The Green World and in He’s Running Through My Eyes she serenades with crystalline notes that shimmer and float over the piano beneath.
Loud City Song is a magical record in the sense of its transportive qualities yet it is also engaging, complex and playful. Musically it seamlessly blends experimental and pop forms into an enchanting balance of tradition and futurism.
The biggest thought on most punters minds as they awoke was how the weather was going to affect the Sydney leg of this years Laneway Festival. Showers and wind were forecast, a contrast to previous years of hot sunny days encased in the sandstone walls of Rozelle’s SCA. The anticipated weather did intermittently sweep through the grounds but as is usually the case it served to galvanise the crowd and create a roll-with-it mood amongst the sea of plastic-clad revellers imbibing cider and sliding down slippery grass slopes.
On arrival one of the first tasks was to orient oneself with the new layout. The site had been expanded outside the immediate college buildings and now included the large sloping field near the entrance housing the main stage and a smaller adjacent one. The Courtyard Stage had always had issues of sight-lines and acoustics for the bigger acts so these changes were an excellent development alongside further diversification of the food on offer.
Much had been said about the curious timetabling decision to have Norwegians Kings of Convenience open the day but they were given a generous hour long set and they proved to be the perfect way to ease into the festival vibe with their sublime acoustic-based folk and endearing sense of humour. They added a full band for the 2nd half of their set, showcasing a wider angle to their sound.
Henry Wagons, in contrast to the twee openers, was his usual ball of humour and country rock. Playing tracks from his Expecting Company album and a superb Wanda Jackson cover he encouraged audience participation in the form of hangman’s noose death gurgles as he danced and lurched through the first few rows.
Twerps and their jangly US pop cousins Real Estate played back to back and though their music is perfectly suited for outdoor listening Real Estate’s sound mix meant they didn’t quite gel compared to the blissed out guitar pop of Twerps whose Dreamin’ was the first song of the day to hit the audience sweet spot.
Diversity has always been a hallmark of the festival curators and this year the harder, faster and heavier end of the spectrum was filled by The Men, Cloud Nothings and Japandroids. The latter two enjoyed the larger crowds and some fervent crowd surfing and projectile throwing due to their spots later on the bill but The Men were the more revelatory of the three, locking in with a rush of punk and psych-rock intensity and dalliances with country music. Japandroids were suffered a muddy kick-drum heavy mix but the fans were oblivious, caught up in the anthemic punk maelstrom.
With the larger acts programmed on the new Park Stage it become the focal point for the crowds who draped themselves over the hillsides and it must have been a magical sight for the musicians gazing up the palm tree dotted slopes. In the wake of Hottest 100 success The Rubens, Of Monsters & Men and Alt-J drew predictably large and celebratory crowds. They sat on shoulders, swayed and screamed along but musically he first two offered little in terms of musical highlights. They sounded like generic music for a generic festival audience but that is the whole point of Laneway, it caters to many tastes from people there purely for the music to those there for the communal festival experience.
Hitting the smaller stages meant discovering artists with a smaller core fan-base. Julia Holter’s sublime voice cut a path through the drizzling rain offering respite from some of the grand gestures on the main stages while EL-P showed just why he is so respected as an underground hip hop artist with his intense rapid fire rhyming over a live band that created some futuristic and often dystopian beats. Jessie Ware was probably the oddest inclusion on the line-up in the sense that hers is a contemporary R&B sound but she proved another highlight with a voice that killed it live and a band that knew the importance of less is more and the power of bass. The crowning glory of the Future Classic curated stage came late in the night with Nicolas Jaar who drew a surprisingly large crowd seeing as he was up against local hero Flume. The sonic clarity of his futuristic electronica made for a wonderfully immersive set that impressed with its musical details rather than big beats or crescendo build-ups.
While Bat For Lashes entranced the majority of the audience with her elegant and creative pop music, Divine Fits were putting the exclamation mark on the festival playing their superb debut album and musically summing up the sounds of the day with their mix of pop melodies, inventive rhythms and an equal dose of rock. The twin vocals of Britt Daniels and Dan Boeckner rang clear into the night and their last song, a cover of Rowland S. Howard’s Shivers felt like the perfect conclusion to a day that saw the expansion and improvement of the Laneway Festival while still retaining a firm hand on the pulse of eclectic contemporary music.
Julia Holter inhabits a fascinating world as a modern composer. Her music doesn’t sit comfortably in any one genre – indie, electronic, ambient or pop – but rather it straddles multiple styles, drifting between them and merely hinting at the musical references that inform her music.
Ekstasis is Ancient Greek for ecstasy and specifically being ‘outside of oneself’ and in the context of Holter’s work it is a wholly appropriate title. There is a dreamy quality to the album which comes from both the instrumentation (Casio SK-1, Fender Rhodes) and her voice. Holter uses its tonal qualities to build up beautiful billowing patterns of phrases that range from the dreamy choir effect on Moni Mon Amie to the Indian influenced Four Gardens and Goddess Eyes I in which she channels the experimental pop of Laurie Anderson.
What prevents Ekstasis from wallowing in its own ambience is her compositional ability to introduce rhythm and percussion just when the music sounds like it is settling into sleep mode. Our Sorrows benefits from defiantly rigid drumming that both steadies and provides movement to the track while elsewhere In the Same Room’s upbeat drum programming takes the song closer to pop music than anywhere else on the album.
The precedents for this kind of exploration of the outer limits of pop music are people like Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins and Mark Hollis from Talk Talk which lends Ekstasis a very English feel. It is precise and considered and suggests its roots lay as much in classical and folk traditions as anywhere else. It is that elusive and ethereal quality that makes this album such a fascinating and immersive treat.