by Chris Toenes
For any locals entering Vespa last weekend, what they saw had to shock: No, there weren't carnival-style two-headed goats on display or Gorgoroth-like animal sacrifices. But the Italian restaurant had fully converted into a dance club, complete with front and back rooms, and it was packed Friday. Shoulder-to-shoulder packed for Signal Electronic Music Festival.
In the front "room"—essentially the hallway up front next to the bar—DJs Charlie Burnett and Hidden Cat held a nice-sized crowd with bumping and sometimes mildly over-the-top jams. The crowd at Vespa was mostly college-aged and bordering on teens, and the darkened hallway in the front emitted a strong house party vibe, its DJs perched against the side wall.
Out back was another thing altogether: New Wave Hookers, a Charlotte DJ duo helmed by George Brazil and Christian Ryan, were holding court in a sprawling long room, with vaulted ceilings fitted with laser lights and a Red Bull-branded bar station at the back. Brazil took a Red Bull sponsorship to get to Signal, enabling him to stay at the plush Carolina Inn, a feat he joked about late.
From one end to the other, wall-to-wall dancers egged each other on, making out against a corner or, in one section, swinging the odd glow stick. One guy sported a shirt with electric EQ levels on it; as people around him spoke or made noise, the levels would bounce like a stereo's readout. Up at the tables, Brazil was playing a tweaked big beat remix of Lil Wayne's "A Milli." He closed with Pulp's "Common People" and took off into the crowd himself to dance with friends, letting the song spin.
Erectro/Lock's entrance set a high-drama tone: Dressed as the gang of thugs from A Clockwork Orange, with white outfits and bowlers, they opened with a bit of the film's creepy soundtrack, then cut into their set of funked-up accessible grooves and bumpy pop. A wild trip, for sure...
Every year at Signal, people drop the term "experimental" to cover a wide swath of artists, usually focusing on one night's gathering. This year, there were plenty of left-of-center, non-dance floor musicians tinkering with the temporal qualities of electronic sounds. At its most minimal core, lies Steve Burnett's Subscape Annex. After sets by noisemakers Ted Johnson and Joe Hendrix, Burnett offered a moving, dark passage of loops and plinking percussive bits, calling to mind the eerie analog synthesizer and ring modulator pieces of Norwegian artist Deathprod. Seated Indian-style on the floor surrounded by effects pedals and cords, he played one long piece that moved with an emotional beauty at its center. A string of red, yellow and green lights flickered overhead as the small but rapt audience sat, bowing in meditation.
Alex Kotch followed with a set of diverse sax solos interspersed with breakbeat programming via a laptop. The beats lived in the bright, bloopy vein of dance music, popping with the right amount of suspense between progressions. Though there were no vocals, the combination of instruments gave Kotch's songs the off-kilter feel of Arthur Russell's disco excursions.
Subsequently, another flip of the page led to yugen's dubstep mega-bass. Chapel Hill's TJ Ward dug into some superior low-end, helped by a great PA, which the Drop in Silence guys bring in every year. Riding a low to mid tempo, he cruised through thickets of hip-hop's chunky beats, the frizzed-out echo of dubstep, crushed to dust spectacularly. By now, the crowd was loitering about the front, moving in dodgy gestures bordering on dancing—very appropriate. By set's end, yugen turned things to a quicker drum ’n' bass pace, and a strong finish.
Not blessed with omnipresence, I jumped over to Vespa during part of Drop in Silence's set, which is always a heavy, rattling affair, with precisely-controlled emissions of sound. I returned in time for Datahata's closing set, coming as an analog-only techno set. The main difference between analog and digital for this music resides in making changes on the fly; far fewer presets or tracking software, just jump-cuts using samplers and beat-makers, and in Zeke Graves' case, some personal effects alongside.
He touched on acid's percolations, and the breathy soul music at the heart of Chicago house and Detroit techno, but skirted nostalgia, since this was all delivered in little segments. There was never full continuity, or even movement from one "song" to another. They were a lot of little stabs, and the transitions were as enjoyable as if they'd been strung into long, traditional verse, chorus numbers. Though the crowd had thinnned some by 2 a.m., those still hanging around made enough noise to give a big loud exclamation point to this particular night's end for Signal's Friday.