Wrong Wave 2014 concludes at SFU's World Art Centre
Written by Dillon Ramsey
Photography by Sheng Ho
Wrong Wave 2014 is wrapping up tonight at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre in SFU Woodward’s. This venue is very different from the first two instalments of the festival, which were featured at the Fox Cabaret on October 16 and Western Front on October 17. Perhaps in a borderline-successful attempt to boost the badassness of the otherwise posh and polished venue, gloomy black curtains have been arranged to block the gleam of the apartment complex outside, and it lends the room a shadowy yet comfortable ambience. I’m among the first people there, besides ushers and waiters, and the atmosphere is hushed and subdued; but the place fills up fast, and catered plates of fruit, vegetables, breads, crackers and cheeses are served along the south wall. It’s delightful, to be sure, but the deliciously idiosyncratic irony of it is not lost on Mecca Normal, the main act of tonight’s show. “You’re a lovely crowd. And this is a lovely room. Weirdly lovely,” Jean Smith remarks sincerely, yet with a wickedly wry wit. “We don’t usually have cheese at our punk rock events. Neither do you, for that matter. Like I said. Weird. But, in the loveliest way.”
The theme of this year’s Wrong Wave festival is “Art Rock? Reprise”, and focuses on “artists who rock and rockers who art”; and the acts from the last few days featured July Fourth Toilet, Death Prizm, Late Spring, Frog Eyes, Nicholas Krgovich, and Eden Veaudry. And Wrong Wave couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate duo of duos. Besides being a verbally and sonically powerful vocalist, Smith’s creative career includes being an accomplished author, painter, public lecturer, and an independent curator, collaborating with her bandmate, guitarist David Lester, on the Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Lester is also much more than just a guitarist; his paintings, posters, and illustrations have garnered him international acclaim, and he recently published a new graphic novel, The Listener.
The ladies of Fake Tears, Larissa Loyva and Elisha Rembold, also mix art media, synchronising their synth music with surrealistic videos and their mesmeric melodies to synaesthetic effect. The pop duo begin the night’s performance, and as the lights fade to darkness, and the noise fades to silence, the pair position themselves behind their MicroKorgs at the front of the room. In the stillness, I can just barely hear them breathe a starting count, and in a couple seconds the silence is exploded in a supernova of sound, their electronic equipment sending quivering waves coursing throughout the room. The vibrations make everything move to the music, from the walls to the chairs to the floors to the listeners themselves, who choreograph spontaneously in their seats; maybe we hadn’t expected it to be so electrifyingly catchy, and we can’t help ourselves.
And amid this vibrancy are visuals that, combined with the hypnotic harmonies of the voices and the instrumentals, seem to transport the audience across the universe with cosmic and mystic images that complement the music captivatingly well. The videos are mostly computer animations that take the viewers through a simulation of space, amidst the constellations, the solar system, and eventually the moon and the earth. It’s fascinating how well Fake Tears’ songs manage to match the transcendental trip taking place on the screen behind them, because they never pause to check the progress of the video, or coordinate with it, or change its course; only when the show is over do they look at the monitor, and seem mildly but believably surprised to find out where it is in its duration, suggesting that their seemingly superb timing was a coincidence. The pair employs prerecorded percussions, and each piece is dramatically different from the song that preceded it. A few things never change, though. The characteristic synth pop sound of Fake Tears is constant throughout, as is the fact that the women almost always sing and hold the same notes in an ethereal harmony, their voices combining into a single, two-toned, otherworldly entity. Together, these technological virtuosos give “cyberpunk” a whole new meaning.
The visual elements evolve gradually throughout the performance; eventually, the scenes of the nebulous universe hone in on the earth, where an esoteric, utopian cosmology seems to be hinted at, premised upon the shapes and locations of the Pyramids at Giza, the asterism of Orion’s Belt, and a cryptic arithmancy centred around the number three. After this has gone on for a while, the scene shifts to time-lapse videos of various spectacular atmospheric phenomena, such as sun dogs, green flashes and auroras, which are practically as surreal, serene, and psychedelic as the previous visuals. There is an interesting moment during the cosmological inquest in which a series of symbols is invoked to signify the numbers one, two, and three, which seem to hold a sort of sacramental importance in this otherwise odd, mythical system. “One” is represented with a circle, “two” is characterised by a set of crossing lines, and “three” is symbolised, of course, with a triangle; when these signs are superimposed, they create a monogram of a female form, giving this mysterious model of the universe a vague, yet compelling, gynocentric sensibility. Somewhere between “New Age” and “Space Age”, this feminist foreshadowing begs a lot of questions but yields no simple answers, and it sets the stage beautifully for the next act to begin.
The atmosphere changes with the much-anticipated arrival of Mecca Normal; not only is the maze of cables, cords and keyboards swapped out for a comparatively minimalist electric guitar, but a little more light is cast on the singer, who actually keeps her lyrics on-hand throughout her set. With their thirty-year history and profound, and perhaps pioneering, influence on both the D-I-Y and riot grrrl movements of the 1980s and 1990s, this pair of highly-political punk rockers are a force to be reckoned with, and icons of Vancouver’s independent music scene. And naturally, their performance is incredible.
As she addresses the audience, Smith speaks with an articulate directness in a somewhat subdued tone, and has a dry, aloof sense of humour. But her mood and energy metamorphoses when she starts to perform; her voice rises enthusiastically and resonates with the music, executing a visceral monologue that seems to be simultaneously a song, a poem, a speech, and even perhaps an explanation of ordinary and extraordinary things. As she sings, she moves passionately to the music, sometimes lunging forth to enunciate and exaggerate powerful or problematic phrases, her smoke-coloured hair falling and flailing and flowing like a mist around her head and across her smoky eyes.
And she has her reading down to an art; as Smith performs, she holds a pile of paper in one hand and a microphone in the other, and she refers to a sheet as she requires it and then seamlessly sends it flying with a flick of her finger. And the pages are not written in neat lines of verse, either; they are prose paragraphs, as though Smith is reading us a story or a treatise, and it’s amazing how she can stay so enthralling and engaged while still making use of her notes. Her performance is like a thunderstorm, breathtaking and powerful, in which every lightning bolt is politically-charged. Lester’s music is magnetic as well, and inertia doesn’t seem to exist for him; his performance is one of perpetual motion as he strums his electric guitar and jams tirelessly to its tune. His transition from every number to the next is nothing short of effortless, and his calm, collected demeanour is too cool for words.
Mecca Normal is famous for its feminist lyrics, and tonight’s lineup features a few of their politically rancourous songs such as “One Man’s Anger” and “Anguish (Misogyny)”, poignant polemics that rage against the mistreatment and objectification of women in the media and society. As they finish their set at ten o’clock, Mecca Normal treats us to a new song, “The Ferry to the Launch”, which is more mellow than many of their other works and would be a pleasant way to conclude their performance – except that the audience isn’t ready for the evening to end, and see no reason to stop applauding such an excellent show. Mecca Normal eventually recognises the encore and retakes the stage with “Walk Alone”, a song about every woman’s right to be safe and secure on the street. “The reason we still play it is because the issue seems to have not disappeared,” says Smith with a severeness and a seriousness that resounds throughout the room. This is one of Mecca Normal’s most impressive songs of the night, as Smith goes off the microphone and makes her way down the aisle in the middle of the audience, her unshakable voice still very audible and holding its own above Lester’s guitar onstage. With this awe-inspiring show of moral and musical strength, Mecca Normal concludes Wrong Wave 2014 in all the right ways.