Live: Red Bull Music Academy’s Drone Activity In Progress Showcase

Photographer Mike Sugarman
May 03, 2013

The Knockdown Center in Queens used to be a door factory, which is fascinating because you rarely think of doors as coming from factories. Last night, Red Bull Music Academy presented a massive noise show there called Drone Activity In Progress, which is fascinating because a repurposed factory is an ideal setting for a massive noise show, and also because most of the people present would normally find it hard to imagine a caffeinated soda company plunging so much money into an extreme music festival. There were coach buses shuttling people from the subway station to the venue, sound guys wearing “Owl City Tour 2011” t-shirts, people from Roberta's making pizza, and three separate PAs that probably should not have been used indoors within such close proximity. The story of the night, though, was that Red Bull Music Academy not only figured out how to make a cool concert out of this, but a near-perfect noise show. They handed out ear plugs at the entrance so that Maspeth, Queens wouldn't become ground zero of a city-wide tinnitus epidemic. You could even hear the jaded sonic masochists that usually haunt these events wax utopian. A friend of mine put on a rare smile and pondered that if people could always be subjected to drone being done so well, anyone could grow to love it.

For some reason, I spent most of the night in one of the three rooms. It was the smallest in Knockdown, a little flank flooded with red light (for atmosphere? for Red Bull?), and it was in this room that the baffling multitude of people hit you. Who are these people and where did they come from? The standard “same 30 guys at every noise show” were there, except all of them came out, so it was more like 60. And this 60 was still only a small fraction of who was there. Pharmakon's live set hinges on audience confrantation, yet she was so thoroughly surrounded, bound to a small circle on the floor, that the audience had properly turned the tables on her. She obvoiusly thrived on it, and her particular, bass-heavy brand of industrial music sounded absolutely vicious on the powerful speaker system. As with all the great sets of the night, she turned up the visceral factor as high as she could, working the crowd even if they couldn't see her making excruciating eye contact with the front row.

Dominick Fernow appeared onstage twice in the evening wearing two different jackets—a leather jacket during his Prurient set, and a camouflage for Vatican Shadow. Consider the fact that most of the musicians there wore the same clothes that they'd probably wear to go grocery shopping. You see, even though Prurient's schtick is the harshest of the harsh and the darkest of the dark, his schtick is first and foremost schtick. This isn't meant to disparage him, since few people who deal in the same make it half as compelling. With Prurient, Fernow has always attempted to use noise to communicate something besides just sound. He picks up on the imagistic thread of '80s power electronics, spouting a cartoonish version of sex and violence that is so complexly layered, he may as well be calling himself a conceptual artist. Hence his set under the moniker had the air of a rave in a military prisoner's camp. Over uneven loops and squarely sequenced drums, he shouted what were either orders or poetry. It was great to see-- the Prurient live experience is always singular-- but you could tell that even he was having a tough time getting oriented. For this reason, it was a shock that his Vatican Shadow set ended up being the best of the entire festival. Dealing exclusively in urgent tempos and ecstatic, raw samples, Fernow made the small fraction of weirdos who stuck around until 2:30 AM lose their minds. He was losing it too: fake-seizuring on stage, spitting water everywhere, shining a flashlight in the audience.

It would be a lie to say that there were some performers at the Knockdown Center who make heady music and some who make bodily music. At that volume, it was all arguably bodily, but there were some performers who asked you to do little more than stand and observe. Such was the case with Kim Gordon and Bill Nace in Body/Head. Theirs was a performance in the truest sense, with Gordon eventually standing on top of an amp while grinding her axe's strings against the amp face in an incredibly masturbatory manner; the only people moving were this wide-eyed couple who jerked bodies without blinking. If you were too consumed by this, you may have missed the start of Pete Swanson's set, but once his red room filled up, things went into full hell rave mode pretty quickly. Techno's stock four-on-the-floor beat can often be a crutch for musicians who can't muster anything more complex, but Swanson's utilization of the pulsing bass drum reminds you that the entire point of the device is to subsume the psyche via the legs and crotch. Between that furious kick drum and the synthy lunacy that ducks in and out of his music, Swanson can make the right audience lose its collective shit. Somehow, Red Bull Music Academy conjured that right audience, dragged them out to industrial Queens, and hopefully turned a legion of people on to the some of the strangest sounds in the West.

Live: Red Bull Music Academy’s Drone Activity In Progress Showcase