The premise is simple: I met two strangers on Reddit, and we went to the 25th installment of the Dallas Ambient Music Nights showcase at RBC in Deep Ellum late last month. The strangers were vetted and questioned. They had to know little to nothing about ambient/noise music or underground concerts. This had to be a participant's first ambient/noise show.
Noise, which dates to the early 20th century, challenges ideas about which sounds are music and which are not. Ambient music has its origins a bit later in the 1970s in the UK and often uses electronic instruments to create an atmosphere or mood. Both genres forgo traditional rhythms and musical structures.
A good ambient/noise show is like floating in water or like falling right into hell. It’s a brave leap, but either way you leave the show having learned something about yourself.
The first Redditor is Adam Armstrong. He's thin, 6 feet tall, and wearing blue low-top Chucks and a neat blue shirt. He's a freelance graphic designer based in Uptown. He’s animated and engaging. His favorite band is Pearl Jam, and he's visited every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
The second, Ilse Rangel, was born in Mexico and moved to North Texas at age 7. She has always loved music, and the last show she went to was a reggae concert in New Braunfels.
Let Armstrong and Rangel be your guides.
Onstage, a woman in a funeral dress sings haunted opera. Hunched beside her, a shadowy, androgynous figure slams pedals, face covered with what appears to be a blood-drenched balaclava. The audience gawks and occasionally laughs nervously.
The room is air conditioned and dark and smells like candied incense. Fluorescent patterns swim on the walls. Video artists perform in real time to create a hallucinogenic backdrop. Forty-odd people stand among all of it, transfixed by Dallas-based noise group Asukubus.
Without warning, the woman bursts into a wreck of screams. From just left of the stage, Rangel and Armstrong follow the commotion.
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Watching Asukubus, Rangel says she feels like she's caught in a never-ending nightmare, yet she enjoys it — she wouldn’t want to wake up, not yet. The blood, the costumes, the drama — she says she finds something about it beautiful. The undeniable feminism of it all, maybe. Rangel crosses her arms, occasionally
rearing back as the screams intensify and the lyrics become unidentifiable. Rangel says she suspects they’re dark.
Armstrong hates the performance right away. "This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard," he whispers. "I can’t stand it." He's wearing smooth cologne and a light glaze of gel in his hair and sipping water from a tiny plastic cup.
"What the hell did I come to?" he asks. The set before this, IAMYU, had been peaceful. It ended with a recording of the countryside and grasshoppers over pleasant keyboard drone. Afterward, Armstrong tells me it reminded him of the feeling he experienced after climbing Machu Picchu.
But, slowly, Asukubus draws him in. "OK. I’ll give it a little more time," he says. When both performers chant together in full-body screams, Armstrong leans back, caught in the heat of their anger. He says he can tell that the turmoil is real, and by the end of the set, he admires the art form.
“Sometimes, after the years you’ve lived and you start listening to music, you start thinking of music, you think it’s gonna be soothing — or just something you wanna listen to. And in the performance we just saw, the sound took second place to what was happening onstage. It was art, and the screaming and the dissonance was their canvas," he says on the porch in between sets. A smile takes over his face. "Although I do think the screaming did go on for too long.”
Throughout the night, DAMN founder Cody McPhail rushes from conversation to stage to soundboard, weaving through people in a black shirt and loose jeans with a camera satchel at his side. He seems to know most of the people here.
Armstrong looks at the crowd. “I like that it’s a small collective group," he says.
Rangel agrees. “I’ve definitely gotten an underground vibe," she says.
Tonight, the more she watches these strange performances, the more she wants to make music of her own. I could do what they’re doing, she speculates.
"I’m glad the sets are kinda short and that we get these breaks. Cause I need to clear my eyes, cleanse my hearing palate,” Armstrong says. “After four or five songs — I loved it, but I needed a little break. And then I’ll go back in there with more energy. Ready to listen to some more.”
A rattling guitar draws people back inside. Houston-based Electric Sleep pokes at sequencers in a white hazmat suit. Through the gauze, you can see the outline of his Maggot Brains T-shirt. He carefully pinches at a cassette player. The music writhes under layers of distortion.
Rangel says it reminds her of a philosophy course she’s taking: Society, Technology and Science. It reminds her of the death of work and the rise of automation.
“I think [Electric Sleep] was the first act where I thought, if he would’ve messed up, I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, but I don’t mean it in a good way, either," Armstrong says, pausing. “But that says a lot about the diversity of the shows. Every time we go back inside, I know it’s going to be nothing like any of the other acts. Every time it’s going to be something different that I haven’t seen yet.”
Rangel agrees. “I really like that there’s something for everybody," she says, smiling.
“And it’s not just the music,” Armstrong continues. “It’s the whole environment. The background adds to the show so much."
“The visuals capture the whole vibe,” Rangel interjects. “Like the cricket noises reminded me of — you know when your alarm clock plays wave noises?”
Drawn toward the rumble of a beat, people begin to wander back indoors, into a paddock of color and sound. It's music that's impossible to dance to, yet you can’t help but try as Ravish Momin thrashes the rubber off his electronic drum kit.
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Armstrong nods to the pulsating sounds. He says he's thinking about the last show he went to, Toadies, and he’s struck by the differences. Not just the setting — although he enjoys being able to move around the room freely here — but also the energy. Tonight, with each performance, the energy has changed. Each has addressed a different part of his mind or emotions, he says. It's the feeling of being engulfed by art and sound.
Under the disco ball, a woman raises her hands into the air like a churchgoer. Her eyes are closed, her skirt down to her bare ankles. The room gets quiet for a moment, and then a din of computerized noise shakes the ground like a gigantic helicopter. Every person sways.
When Dennis Gonzalez — shrouded in undulant color — emerges with his trumpet, the room erupts, wilder with each fiery horn blast. Several women clap and howl and dance, and the room feels like a speakeasy or a futuristic cabaret. The music awakens some wild fever.
A young woman in a low-cut polka-dot dress sways her hips to the beat — her hand toward the gray-suited man she came with. The walls dance with confections of light. Rangel stares at the animated shapes. They look like spaceships, she says. She and Armstrong are both smiling, ready for whatever comes next.