SxSW 2013: The Thermals - photo by Nicole L. Browner

Photos by Nicole L. Browner

If you’re noticing some people around you who returned from vacation sunburnt, bloated and slightly deaf this week, you can probably chalk that up to South by Southwest 2013, the annual music smorgasbord and purported “conference” that happens every March in Austin, Texas. That people actually attend panels at SXSW continues to baffle me, when much of the allure of making the annual pilgrimage to the Lone Star State involves spending every day, from noon to early morning, watching as many bands as possible, while trying to navigate the physiological distress brought on by the consumption of too many Lone Star tallboys and food truck calorie bombs.

Does that sound fun? Well, it is, if you are a music fan who is well acclimated to a buffet sort of mentality. At South By, one can see a ridiculous quantity of bands — this year, I topped 60+ acts in quantities ranging from 5 minutes to 45 — even if many of the individual experiences are hampered by bad sound, delays (often caused by attempts to fix bad sound), last-minute cancellations or scheduling changes, and lines of people at every possible opportunity.

Now does it sound fun? It still is, for a fan, anyway. I have never understood exactly why so many bands flock to Austin every year, and I’ve often wondered how the aforementioned negatives leave them feeling in its aftermath. Thanks to social networking, one got a bit of a flavor of artists’ South by Southwest frustrations this year, from the corporate encroachment frustrations of DIIV to repeated complaints about sound quality. As Frightened Rabbit posted to Facebook recently, “Thank fuck that’s over.” And who really can blame them?

It seems to me that, given the conditions, many of the bands who did the best were the ones who appeared to be handling everything the best. Basking in the unending positivity of a band like METZ, who I watched perform twice (at SXSW this may be the highest endorsement), I realized that the best strategy an act can adopt during the festival is total unending commitment. If an artist demonstrates complete belief in his or her own merits, he just might convince a group of drunk, iPhone-obsessed industry idiots to share that belief (or at least to look up from their screens to pay attention, or take an Instagram photo), poor sound quality, heatstroke, and intoxication be damned.

This theory — which, naturally, is subject to countless exceptions — may explain why Autre Ne Veut tops my highlights from SXSW 2013. Arthur Ashin sang the fuck out of his entire set at Pitchfork’s day party, turning a tin-roofed warehouse into a megachurch full of enraptured believers. It was, in a word, spellbinding.

Two days later, Death Grips would turn that same room into a deafening, sentient mosh pit. Saturday night’s Boiler Room party had already been a clusterfuck, what with the late opening of doors, rapper Chief Keef’s last minute cancellation, and intermittently terrible sound, but Death Grips revelled in the chaos, with MC Ride beginning the set by launching two giant inflatable vinyl discs into the audience (were they pills?). The discs bounced around the crowd, like scary beach balls, hitting several unsuspecting attendees, including yours truly, in the head. Staring at one’s iPhone during the set was not an option. Drummer Zach Hill wasn’t there in person, but he was omnipresent, with screens around the venue projecting video of him drumming along with the set. It was a clever and inventive approach, and it added to the whole set’s surreal mayhem.

Inventive was a descriptor that kept reemerging throughout the South By week, as a number of highlights straddled several genres at once, avoiding easy classification and carving unique niches in a cluttered musical landscape. Is Ex Cops beach pop, dream pop or shoegaze? Is The Wolf garage rock or psych rock? What to make of Parquet Courts‘ mix of Pavementesque slack and Double Nickles-era Minutemen, or Blue Hawaii‘s pairing of ambient experimentalism with club-ready 4/4 thumps?

Live, Poolside transforms its airy dance-pop into a compelling full band show. It’s a winning change, allowing an audience member to see and feel how many organic layers are embedded in the duo’s lithe songs. Less lithe, but a force to be reckoned with nonetheless, is Slow Magic. Hearing the mysterious artist’s records doesn’t exactly capture the visual of a man dancing in a colorful mask and thumping on drums, all while synth-saturated chillwave-pop pumps through the speakers. It had the whole audience (myself – I’m sorry – included) dancing at Holy Mountain late Thursday night.

Another favorite, Teen, was one of the week’s most engaging and surprising. I’d only previously heard “Electric,” which is about as perfect a slice of motorik pop as one might find, but the band’s malleable art-rock pushed and pulled in a number of directions, with notably strong guitar work front and center. All week long, it felt like bands were taking established forms and playing with them in ways that felt exciting and special.

That’s not to say, of course, that more well-worn setups didn’t succeed as well. For proof of great moments there, see the trio playing endearing noisy pop (PAWS), the uber-catchy punk-pop band (Audacity), or the guy behind the laptop offering immaculate compositions (Lusine), all of whom used familiar approaches to craft superb songs.

In fact, amidst so many bands offering bells and whistles, there’s something comforting about experiencing something that doesn’t necessarily sound new, so much as it just sounds good, and it’s the little moments will stick with me, even as some of the bigger details start to fade. Lunice had a packed warehouse crowd going crazy with a set that balanced reworkings of popular rap songs with original compositions. California X plowed through sound troubles to shred like maniacs. And Beacon‘s quiet, seductive synth pop thoroughly charmed.

If you can get past (or just accept) all of the chaos that South by Southwest brings, it’s memories like these that keep me coming back every year.

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