September 11th, 2013 @ Rotture in Portland, OR
I’d never before heard of ALTO!, but the three-piece band is certainly the impetus for my writing this; I just can’t resist documenting a visually mind-stirring music. Encompassing musical tendencies both spontaneous and controlled, ALTO! manage to strike a balance between eardrum-destroying noise and muted hypnotism with ease.
Beginning with an extremely minimal intro, hardly perceptible, ALTO! slyly beckoned the most curious of minds towards the stage while others chatted on, unaware the set had begun. It was a meditative hello, a subtle glimpse into the type of hypnotic reveries ALTO! are alluding to, even though such glimpses may ostensibly become lost in their most full-on and guitar-shredding moments. From there, the next track increased in speed and density to form bizarrely danceable music — though only for those who like strange time signatures and drum-heavy cycles in sound.
It was in one particular moment of letting up — in ALTO’s most subtle moment of repetition — where I found the most fascination, in the form of a single guitar line adorned by the two percussionists on opposite sides of the stage. One had a shaker in hand while the other chimed a bell, both repeating in his particular pattern as though on a timer. Their sounds were satisfying, certainly — but even more satisfying were the moments preceding each sound, where both drummers moved like wound-up toy soldiers, clinking and clanking with the same repeating series of arm movements or head bobs. Moving into the following track, they left behind their trance-states to join more involved ranks, transforming from mere toys into military drummers flanking a perfectly stage-centered guitarist general. Together, they led showgoers on a journey through the Middle Eastern desert, greeting Barn Owl, Om, and Swans along on the way.
Photography by Frank Correa
I have seen Midday Veil a thousand times over numerous years and various cities — but I have never once written about their live show. I suppose writing a review isn’t even an option that comes to mind anymore. This particular week, however, I happened to be lamenting our lack of resources to cover their latest LP in a timely manner, so it felt fortuitous to give their live set some review treatment instead.
Let’s rewind back to March 2013, where they played our annual Unofficial SXSW house party at House of Commons for the second year in a row. House of Commons is a ten-person vegan co-op affiliated with the University of Texas, and unbeknownst to us, fog machines are highly frowned upon there. We soon discovered the reason; as soon as Midday Veil pulled out their on-stage nicks and nacks, an initial burst of fog set off the smoke detector instantly. As a party planner, twas quite embarrassing and awkward, but it also opened my eyes a little. It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the smoke beneath Midday Veil’s feet before — I’d probably had even marveled at it many a time — but that particular instance made me feel simultaneously surprised and confused. Firstly, by my lack of foresight, and secondly, by Midday Veil’s willingness to bring it. When I say “it” in this case, I mean both the fog machine as well as the mindfulness and energy to bring the fog machine, especially considering the venue was essentially (though homey) a non-fratty frat house.
This evening, under the influence of my newfound critic’s view of the band, I came to truly value Midday Veil’s attention to detail. They take the time to do things bands don’t seem to do nearly enough, such as transforming the stage into their own domain in a ritualistic manner — a bit Wolves In The Throne Room candle-lighting madness style. What results is not just a familiar space for the band (or so I imagine) but a vibe so rich that you can feel it, like you’re being swaddled in velvet-lined cloth.
Their set began at a slow pace with droning low-ends, which added weight and drama to smoke, ornamental chimes, and meditative expressions of the band. Never before has vocalist Emily Pothast sounded as beautiful to me as she did in “Without And Within”, my favorite track from their new LP, The Current. Her voice, drowned out a bit to start, rose in periodic spurts, like ghostly arms rising up out of the sea only to fade repeatedly into mist. It was haunting and heart-felt — a bit of female delicacy in a sea of loud instrumentation.
Midday Veil’s songs can sometimes feel rather guitar-dominated in a live setting — especially depending on where you stand — but whether it’s the small embellishments of percussion, an occasional gadget switcheroo, or the epic space synths coloring the background, the interplay between their instruments is incredibly well-distributed and thoughtful. Every member, and what every member does, it absolutely vital.
Two years ago, when Midday Veil decided to add Sam Yoder to play congas and supplementary percussion, I wondered if the value added by a sixth member would outweigh the headache of having yet another person’s schedule to deal with. This particular evening, more than ever before, the answer seemed to be an emphatic yes. The congas rang out with echoing satisfaction throughout their set, providing yet another very tangible reminder of the band’s impressive attention to detail and consistent willingness to bring it.