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The name dunk! may as well be synonymous with post-rock. dunk!records are one of the leading labels within the scene, and their long-running festival in Belgium has a fantastic reputation. Starting another festival in America was an interesting experiment. Would they be able to replicate the Belgium experience in this setting?
They were in good hands. David Zeidler, Arctic Drones writer and general post-rock authority, took it upon himself to run things. He’s a driving force behind the Open Language and Hemispheres compilations, so already had lots of contacts with bands around the world.
Burlington, Vermont, was chosen as the site to birth the American festival – mostly because that is where David lives. The rationale was that it is within tolerable travel distance for major East Coast cities like New York and Boston, and could also attract Canadians. As a non-American, I can’t comment on the most suitable location for the festival. However, I do know that America is an incredibly big country, so the reality is that no matter where you chose to situate the event, it will be a long way to travel for many people.
They chose to run it on Columbus weekend, which would give people the Monday off to travel home. While a good idea in theory, this didn’t help the festival because many Burlington hotels were booked out for the long weekend, making the festival more costly to attend for anyone from out-of-town.
Not that I, a New Zealander and dunk! virgin, understood any of those matters when I decided to go. As far as I was concerned, a band had offered to take me on tour around America, and there was no way I was going to pass up such an opportunity.
That band is Ranges. The tour has been brilliant to date, and dunk!fest was supposed to be the climax of the trip. Ranges have recently released their new album, The Ascensionist, so it made sense to tour America on the way to dunk! to promote it. CJ and Wilson from the band also run A Thousand Arms, a screen printing company that make merch and functions as a distro for bands and record labels. One such label is dunk!records, meaning that A Thousand Arms were responsible for the merch booth at the festival.
We arrived at the venue early on Saturday morning, slightly bleary-eyed, but excited for the weekend. Rages had played a show in Brooklyn the night before, and CJ had stayed up all night driving us to Burlington. I don’t know how he functions.
Higher Ground was a great choice of venue. They had two big rooms, each offering a stage so that acts could play continuously throughout the day. If a band was playing on one stage, stagetechs were setting up for the next set on the other stage next door. Initially there was a no pass-outs rule, but that was removed to allow people to get food. The venue was brilliant, other than the lack of food options on site. It sounded good, looked great, and ran smoothly.
Saturday 7 October
Chinese act Zhaoze started of the weekend on the main stage, albeit slightly late due to sound issues. Central to their sound is a guqin – a traditional Chinese instrument that looks like a slide guitar crossed with a harp. The guqin is played with a bow or plucked, much like a violin. It was also plugged into various effects pedals. Their set didn’t blow me away, but the cool lighting foreshadowed the amazing light shows due over the course of the weekend.
Local band Sad Turtle baptised the second stage with their jazzy, indie-styled instrumental rock. It was instrumental rock music, but not like most post-rock we are accustomed to hearing. It’s refreshing to hear upbeat music that steers clear of restrictive genre clichés.
So far on tour, Ranges have been using their own lighting rig. It includes blinders, strobes, red spotlights and Edison bulbs that flicker and glow along to the music. The light show syncs up to the music, making a Ranges set an impressive audio/visual combo.
Which begged the question: do they use their own lights, or take advantage of the light show offered at a big festival? In the end they opted to use the blinders, but drop the rest of their lighting setup in favour of the stage lights. It’s a shame, because their own setup is impressive. The show looked fine in the end, but lacked a component that usually wows people.
However, they played great. Easily the best I’ve seen them play. I got a bit emotional watching them, seeing my friends reach a career milestone that they’ve worked so hard towards. If they were nervous it didn’t show, because they owned that stage. I still don’t understand how CJ can function without sleep.
If they needed any verifying that they’d done well, they completely sold out their first pressing of vinyl following that set, mere weeks after the album release date.
Of The Vine
Of The Vine showed that you don’t need an impressive light show to look impressive. All the members wore black or grey, and the band was starkly backlit by white lights. The stage was alive, with all the musos whipping about with intensity. One of the guitarists broke a string, so the band had to pause between songs so he could re-string. Usually a moment of boredom, the band told jokes to pass the time, and the crowd laughed along. It was a nice moment that represented the culture of the festival.
This Patch Of Sky
This is the third time I’d seen This Patch Of Sky this week, having shared the stage with Ranges for two dates on their tour. Sadly they’d had sound issues and inadequate set up for the mix both times. But thankfully, this time they shone. Maybe, despite their recent album title, they suit bigger spaces better than small clubs?
Boasting easily the best light show of the weekend, the band played their tranquil tunes bathed in lush hues. They have a lot of members, so took up the space on stage well. And they sounded great. I prefer energetic songs over dreamy music, so my favourites were the ones that featured heavier drum beats, and melodies on the cello, rather than mournful swells.
Similar to Of The Vine, Appalaches rocked the stark black outfits. Five members on a small stage looked crammed, but that didn’t prevent them from moving about erratically. The guitarist on stage right had long hair that looked fantastic as he head banged. Take note bands: long hair and frenzied movements make your stage presence so much cooler!
Tides Of Man
Tides Of Man have shared the stage with Ranges for four nights on tour, and we have grown tight with the lads in the band. They are the best dudes, and their music is phenomenal. I joined the Ranges guys on the balcony overlooking the stage as we watched our friends show how it’s done.
Tides Of Man have a few songs that feature sweeping melodies that I find irresistible. They fill me with bubbling, intense joy. That, and the fact that the band members are so talented makes me rate them very highly.
As a drummer, I’m drawn to the rhythm section. Josh is a monster on drums. His little flourishes and fills are the best. And Alan doesn’t just play bass, he plays lead bass. There is a difference. His parts stand out.
If you can’t tell already from my fawning, the set was superb. The band played four unreleased songs, making me very excited for the upcoming album. It was bittersweet though, because as amazing as it was, it was the last time I will see them play for a very long time.
The Eye Of Time
The Eye Of Time is a solo project. I didn’t catch much of his set because I’d been helping Tides Of Man and Ranges pack their gear away. He had visuals projected onto a screen behind him, with music coming from a laptop and cello.
Emma Ruth Rundle
Perhaps an odd fit for a post-rock festival, Emma Ruth Rundle brought variety to the day. I applaud whoever opted to add her to the lineup, because it’s nice to have a break from the same style of music after a full day of it, and because female artists need more representation at events like this.
Rundle, backed by her fiance’s band Jaye Jayle, looked the part. The room was thick with illuminated stage fog, making the atmosphere palpable. And they were all dressed sharply, with a cohesive image.
Chatting to one of the guys in the band after the set, I asked how he would classify the music. He said he doesn’t like pigeonholing their sound with specific genre – he just plays music. Fair enough. The music was eerie, touching on gothic. And it was spellbinding. Everyone I talked to raved about how great it was.
This is when the night started to get wild for me. Joey from Ranges beckoned me to the bar and handed me two beers. Turns out he’d just bought 10, and someone else had bought a round of whiskeys. “We’re double fisting!” someone shouted, and a group of us including Ranges, Tides of Man, myself and David Zeidler made our way upstairs to the balcony overlooking Astronoid’s set.
I’d already been helping myself to the beers in the green room for a few hours, so those extras I got given was enough to send me over the edge.
Astronoid played a blistering set. Again, a guitarist on stage right was a highlight, turning into a flurry of long hair. Cousin It crossed with the Tasmanian Devil.
Mark, the Ranges drummer, was having the time of his life. He was air-drumming along to the Astronoid set like a madman. His enthusiasm was infectious, and we were all cheering and yelling. After a few songs I decided to make my way downstairs to see the band up close.
I didn’t make it that far though. I spotted Joey backstage and went to see him. Next thing I know, I’m chatting with Emma Ruth Rundle while she has a smoke. Turns out she used to live in Wellington ten years ago, which is where I’m from. I got caught up in talking to her band and missed the rest of Astronoid’s set.
Ok, I’ll admit that I’m super hazy on Pelican’s set. Too many beers are bad for you, boys and girls. I remember enjoying it, and thinking that the photos I took were really good. Sorry that I’ve let you down on the journalistic front. I also asked a girl to dance, and she politely turned me down, saying that it isn’t really dancing music. She had a valid point.
After the set I made the most of any beers left in the green room, the last of which was confiscated from me by security.
The same crew who had been on the balcony during Astronoid gathered behind the venue. It was the last night Ranges and Tides of Man would be together, so we were all doing drunken goodbyes. Two men from Quebec joined us. No-one knew where they had come from, but it was in a backstage area, so we assumed that they were in a band. Eventually we found out that they just wanted to party. We all took a group photo together to commemorate our time together on the road.
All the beers in the green room had been exhausted so someone made the call that we head to a bar. CJ, who had been awake for roughly 30 hours straight at this point, wanted none of it. He just wanted to sleep, and understandably so. He climbed into the van to catch some zzzz’s and texted Joey: “Don’t let Joseph in the van or I will punch him”. Opps, maybe I was being a menace.
The rest of us piled into the Tides of Man van for the drive into town. One of the Quebecers asked us to sing one of our songs, so we all joined in to “sing” a rousing rendition of Tide of Man’s “Young and Courageous”, shouting the tune to the guitar line at the tops of our voices.
I can’t believe I was allowed into the bar, being as intoxicated as I was. I don’t remember doing much though. Jared found an X-Men arcade machine that he played for a while, before smashing a glass. Someone rang David Zeidler to tell him the hotel had messed up bookings, so Ranges conceded their room and we headed to David’s to sleep in his lounge.
Sunday 8 October
As you could expect, I felt worse for wear the following day. A bagel or four from a nearby café helped my body replace what it needed though.
Started the day off with a bang. Easily one of my favourite sets of the day. They made a speech before starting about writing music with a message, despite the lack of vocals. I agree with their anti-gun sentiment, but don’t know if it was an effective way to share their thoughts. Asking the government to regulate gun laws and then saying “Fuck the Government” with your next breath is an interesting move.
Politics aside, it was a killer set. They deserved a later slot in the day. Seriously good stuff.
I was beginning to notice a trend. Most bands on the second had minimal lighting, but crazy energy. Case in point, Unconditional Arms threw themselves around the stage, backlit by a stark green light. The guitarist was headbanging so hard that his glasses went flying. The slow songs bored me a bit, but I loved it when they were rocking out. And I loved the clean guitar tone.
Set and Setting
I didn’t like Set and Setting’s sound. Something about it was too discordant for me. I decided that my time was better spent trying to nap off my hangover, so I headed upstairs to crash on a couch in the green room. I slept through my alarm and completely missed KYOTY, which is a shame.
Pray For Sound
I woke up feeling groggy after about an hour. I zombie walked to the balcony to see who was playing. It was Pray For Sound. I have a copy of their latest album, and to be honest I never got into it much. But now I’m converted. Their set was great. The drums were especially good, and I think the drummer even broke his kick pedal half way through the set.
Reminding me of The Eye Of Time, thisquietarmy is solo show featuring projections up on the wall. He improvised as he played, building dark layers and textures of drony sound.
The End Of The Ocean
David Zeidler had told me that The End Of The Ocean were the party band at dunk!, so I was excited to catch this set. They started off on a good note, promising to play Nickleback and Creed covers for us during their sound check. Sadly, it was a lie. I still appreciate the humour though.
The thing that I enjoyed most about The End Of The Ocean is that they mixed things up. Whenever I’d expect them to launch into a crescendo they’d pause, or shift direction. I like how they avoided the conventional clichés of the genre.
They were fun too. Half way through the set they threw a dozen inflated beach balls into the crowd. And the two girls put on a show by whipping their hair around. Tara on keys got so into it that she fell over and sent her keyboard off the stage. Thankfully I was there to catch it, and helped her set it back up. Not all heroes wear capes.
The coolest part was a sample that played during an interlude. It was a quote from Walking Dead about how brains function.
Bonus points to The End Of The Ocean for having the most incredible hospitality rider. Read what they requested and enjoy how brilliant it is!
Portland crew Coastlands were fun. Consistent with most second stage bands this weekend, they had good energy. The drums especially were great – dude has chops!
Junius played in a gloomy haze, lit only by a few dim Edison lights attached to their amps. It made taking photos a nightmare, but it was super effective at creating atmosphere. Hindsight is 20/20, but after seeing how cool that sparse lighting was, it is clear that Ranges should have used their own lighting rig the previous day.
Dimly lit in front of their backdrop, the band delivered a pummeling set. I was surprised that the vocals were not as sludgy as I’d expected, but sounded great.
Arms and Sleepers
I missed most of this set. I was busy chatting to guys from Coastlands backstage, and lost track of time. It’s a shame, because it looked like a cool set up. They had an electronica vibe, courtesy of many racks of keys and synths stacked upon each other.
Although Russian Circles are a big drawcard, I wasn’t that excited about seeing them .This is mostly because I’ve already seen them play in my hometown of Wellington a few times already.
They played well. You don’t get to this level by being sloppy. But the stage fog was so thick I couldn’t even see them. I love watching technically adept drummers play live, but I couldn’t see him. The music was fine, but to me it didn’t feel like much of a show. I preferred seeing them play a small club in Wellington.
It would be nice to see more variety in the lineup – it felt like I saw the same band four times over the weekend. Post-rock has become clichéd, and bands need to work on having a point of difference in order to standout. There are also some bands that sound fine on record, but need to put in more effort onstage if they don’t want to bore their audience.
That said, there was still a good mix offered – local, international, solo projects, bands with vocals, heavy, dreamy… It must be hard as a promoter to decide upon which acts to book to draw a crowd with wide appeal, and they did well.
It has been a while since I’ve been to a big scale concert, so seeing things like the impressive light shows you only find at larger gigs was great. Refining still needs to happen, including changes like perhaps changing the date and offering food options for attendees. But for a first attempt, the festival was amazing. Hopefully there will be another next year!
Words and photos by Joseph James
Poster by Error! Design
The End of The Ocean hospitality rider courtesy of Bryan Yost