A Touch of OBEY with Zakary Slax

A tender rain began to fall as I made my way to Fort Massey United Church for the first evening of OBEY X. I would expect no less than precipitation from Halifax, and this heaviness of air – this revealed atmospheric fluidity – seemed perhaps necessary in the context of what was to transpire that evening.

By the time I crossed the threshold I had sadly missed all but the last few notes of Colin Fisher’s set. The curious tonalities emanating from the mouth of the sanctuary fuelled my regret but I knew the imminent magic would alleviate this loss. Jerry Granelli’s drums were ready and waiting, gently gleaming in deep blue light. It was not long before the man, the legend, appeared behind the kit, speaking graciously of his history with the festival and humbly of the percussion piece he was to perform: ‘Dragon’s Thunder’. “I will attempt to play this instrument, or if it goes well, it will play me”, he stated before flinging off his jacket and landing the first blow with lightning speed, as if to catch the cymbals off-guard. This was to be no muscle-headed stadium-rock solo, but more like watching a martial artist achieve levitation through meditative free-jazz motility.

Jerry Granelli, Photo by Meg Yoshida

The piece began with mallets on bells, establishing long smooth tones which not only filled the vast space of the room, but had the effect of opening a space for all (dragons included) to enter. Soon an unseen percussive element to the side of the kit was added, sounding like an oddly tuned zither, serving to introduce dissonance. Then came tempestuous drum rolls, and a delicate dance with rhythm and dynamics which was sustained for at least half an hour. With eyes closed, he would occasionally grunt between intense passages, as if responding to a question in a dream, but Jerry was not sleeping, though at least part of his mind had left normal consciousness and was floating above the room in some metaphysical cloud. Even between hits the instrument was being played, or indeed playing the player, as Granelli became a human conduit for an inherent energy; always anticipating what was descending into the auditory realm he maintained constant movement whether in silence or clamour. This thorough exercise saw him control every corner of every drum, coaxing all possible and impossible sounds from their depths and surfaces, from chirping birds to whirling windchimes to cosmic crashes. An unknown figure began playing bursts of random notes on the church organ at one point, with Jerry eventually responding, “It’s the phantom of the opera! What is that shit!? ….OK you can stop now”. What seemed a planned intervention was perhaps an unwelcome intrusion, but this in no way derailed the elevated state of performance. Dexterous, flowing and focused, he was in touch with a higher force which links the spiritual and physical. I felt as though I had now seen the Bruce Lee of percussion, or perhaps the enlightened master that taught the Bruce Lee of percussion. The unappreciated beauty and underutilized potential of the drum kit was demonstrated with a graceful spontaneity.

Jerry Granelli, Photo by Meg Yoshida

After a pause, OBEY’s creative director Andrew Patterson took to the stage to address the congregation, relating an encounter with Pauline Oliveros and thereby introducing the mission statement of encouraging consciousness expansion through innovative sound “across genres, cultures, identities”. To further quote the programme: “It is our hopes that, year by year, the OBEY Convention offers its audience new ways of listening, thinking, gathering and being together; that the festival continues to grow and change, reflecting a contemporary culture”. And then, as the lights in the chapel went from deep blue to a deep purple, Java Indonesia’s Senyawa appeared.

If Jerry’s accomplishment was to enter the atmosphere through mystic manipulation of percussion, then Senyawa’s was one of unleashing a deeply rooted sonic power; a cry from the earth. Drawing from the rich traditions of the most populated island on earth, they constitute an unhinged expression that is entirely their own. Immediately striking was the incredible vocal range of Rully Shabara. So many voices were at his command, from a low menacing growl, to a high, mournful call, to a stunning, face-peeling screech which surpassed what most Black Metal vocalists hope to reach. Wukir Suryadi in fact wore a Mayhem shirt, exposing such influences, but while this duo may have encapsulated the grim heaviness of black and doom metal, there was much more at work here. Beyond laying waste to the present through gruesome intensity, the playing of Wukir’s handmade Bambu Wukir conjured something entirely new. Wukir’s exceptional plucking, bowing, and riffing, balanced elegance and ferocity, minimalism and abundance. With this occult tapestry as the foundation, Rully’s vocals erupted; a veritable volcano of emotion and artistry. Fear, beauty, hope, terror, and deep yearning could be contained all in nearly the same breath. With speed of tongue and spontaneity of expression, this felt like an exorcism, or perhaps a raw possession by a multiplicity of ancestors.

Senyawa, Photo by Meg Yoshida

The first half of their set was punk-like with its vigor and brevity – they delivered short pieces with little meandering, introducing a motif and then rapidly twisting it into unforeseen directions. Initially Wukir seemed amused by the children in the front row, occasionally grinning as his fingers moved with bewildering speed. Indeed, what is the effect of Senyawa on the young mind? These children may become wise beyond their years, but perhaps a child can apprehend such sonic anarchy better than most adults. Though definitely dark, a playfulness and instinctive enthusiasm reigned, prying open the endless imagination through a fearlessness to create something new. This is a sentiment lost to many who have spent multiple decades being beaten down by rationalized western culture and compartmentalized bureaucracy. Animated and menacing, Rully’s powerful posturing inspired a reconnection with a more unhindered mindset. Eventually Wukir changed to a smaller stringed instrument, perhaps some kind of hand-crafted electric rebab. The remainder of the set saw them slowing the pace, incorporating drones and loops that allowed for slow-blooming shadowy trances. The last number was unplugged, with Wukir employing wistful flute as Rully stood in front of the stage to deliver an anguished ballad with palm outstretched. For all its tormented heaviness, their music gave an ultimate impression of the sublime – a beauty which carries the weight of the world in all it’s astonishing complexity.

For the next performance of the evening it was off to the Portia White atrium on Trollope street – not so much a street as a paved deviation, serving principally to provide automotive access to Citadel High and Community Centre. In doubt, I circled this tidy modern institution, eventually honing in on the spacious glass compartment that accommodated the opening night party. This hesitant confusion caused me to once again miss all but the last few notes of the first act. Another tragic blow as I was greatly looking forward to BUDI’s set, an ardently luminous figure on the Halifax scene, with his lush fried beat journeys and membership in many exciting projects, including Century Egg and Special Costello.

It was satisfying at least, to casually stroll around a high school sipping on gin & tonic (later, an OBEY! This Brew), making use of the gender neutralized washrooms. I wandered down the hall into the NoiSeCAD classroom, where audio explorations students were unveiling varied projects in sonic/visual/performance art. One with fiery red hair played neutral milk hotel-esque songs with acoustic guitar to some lo-fi noise bubbling from a nearby cassette recorder. The lights were then turned out for a session of skewed avant-club jams, providing the back drop for a live bouquet arrangement in subtly rippling projected light. For what started to seem like eternity the gathering stared transfixed by the desolation of the coldly illuminated vase, but I became restless as I began to worry that Toronto’s New Chance had commenced. The spell was broken and I made my way back to the atrium to the conclusive announcement of “just one more thing”. FOILED AGAIN! This one last thing from New Chance featured some tasteful minimalist electronics, and an upbeat rhythm – less ambient than what I had expected based on her ‘Ear Rationelle’ Cassette, but it is likely that her more contemplative side was on display in the first portion of the set. At any rate this final piece prompted many to fling themselves into dance, each in their own distinct way, disclosing a room of vibrant beings.

Elysia Crampton, Photo by Meg Yoshida

I briefly ducked back into the NoiseCAD room to the sight of a loosely choreographed duo plodding around, tinkering with electronics, drumsticks, glass, and guitar, speaking to each other through heavily reverbed mics, draped in mesh tunics, appearing as a sort of alien noise experiment on a distant moon. I returned to the atrium, thankfully in perfect time for Elysia Crampton. Dressed in a paisley blouse and wielding a bright white keytar she resembled a psych-rock warrior, though on a musical level such elementary classification is impossible. While certainly prioritizing sensory intensification and perceptual distortion, the combination of cumbia-flavoured beats, rich atmospherics, and dizzying, penetrating noise was quite unlike anything I had heard in a live setting. Adding sheets of dark heady sound to inherently buoyant back-beats had the effect of actively peeling back layers of familiar reality. Digging into the subconscious with vigorously mashed keys, she heard a new world – or perhaps just a hidden one waiting to emerge. Though Elysia was enchanting to watch in the multi-coloured glow, and a projection of mutating Aymaran CGI played to the side of the room, the extent of her hypnotic spiritual excavations was more apparent with eyes closed, the music prompting its own visuals through careful listening and cleared mental canvas.

What is described above constitutes only a dipped toe in the deep waters of OBEY. So much more mind-bending music would undoubtedly follow in the days to come, so many more ideas to be shared. Besides bringing truly exceptional underground artists to the city, OBEY sheds light on a dedicated arts community within Halifax, exemplary in its willingness to continually push boundaries. Halifax has always been a city that punches above its weight creatively, but it seems it is also one that is willing to punch through to the void and grasp at something divine. At the intersection of this community is its kindred festival; intense and challenging musically, but relaxed and welcoming socio-culturally. An inspiring conclave of innovation, and an intrepid 4-day narrative that calls one and all to totally immerse in it’s vital fold – here’s to X more years of OBEY.

Photos by Meg Yoshida

For an audible taste of Obey X artists, check this playlist: https://www.mixcloud.com/ZakarySlax/obey-convention-x/

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