Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night


I’m feeling my way through the dark, guided by ruby lasers and surrounded by molly-addled millennials. A fire mage walks by and offers me some gummy bears. No thanks, I’m a clean-living American, but respect to your hustle.

Houston, Texas, site of the second-ever Day for Night festival. A flummoxing content-storm.

And I am in a big-ass post office filled with freaking lasers.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: Theo Civitello

We are in 2016 after all. Subculture is flattened. Music, and art, is meaningless in the culture at large. Everyone just gets stoned — everybody wants some, man — on pills n’ poppers’ n’ mongos n’ Nice! Brand™ Creme Pennies. They’re, we’re, all hanging out, waiting for the next commercial for a band to take the stage. A metaphor for our lives, maybe (lol).

Funny how festival culture is one of the only aspects of the music industry that remains as forward-thinking as it was at Woodstock in the ’60s. Day For Night may be even more ahead of the game than that iconic gathering; in what other setting could you walk from stage to stage, flicking the channels between 1980s horror film directors (John Carpenter), iconic junglebeat-composers (Aphex Twin), underground dad-mathcore (Daughters) and anti-millennial hip-rap (Run the Jewels)?

Maybe it’s because there’s actually cold cash at stake in these things. People don’t care about buying records like they did in the ’60s, but they sure do enjoy gettin’ messed up and bangin’ out to some tunes, and they’ll pay a premium penny for a safe space to do so. So you can actually find corporate sponsors willing to foot the bill for zany festival programming dreams, of which Day for Night is the best, and most purely Bladerunner, I’ve ever encountered.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: Julian Bajsel

Load Up the Content

“Everything’s just gonna be shit we download on our phones.” Bret Easton Ellis’s voice is burned into my brain as I amble between stages, ingesting one content-stream after another. Then there’s pop star-turned-Trump-advisor Kanye: “No more parties in L.A,” but we’re in Houston right now, wandering around a gutted, laser-guided post office.

This massive building, designed in the ’60s and named for congresswoman and civil rights activist Barbara Jordan in the ’80s, has been decommissioned, now serving solely as an events space for massive-scale parties like Day for Night. Yet another piece of a bygone American industrial era, the large-scale mailroom complex, re-appropriated for a post-vaporwave world.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: Mark Mulligan

Arts culture has been flattened into a single, streamlined, Pitchfork-headlined Facebook post, and in many ways, so has America in the 20th century. The Barbara Jordan Post Office is just another anonymous victim.

As are Youngstown, Lowell, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Austintown, Camden. I’ve often wondered about the intersecting historical threads of climate change, macro-economic shifts, 3D printing, etc., and how they’ve gutted so much of our country’s stranger histories. Trump won on a promise to rescue these places, to grind against the unstoppable wheels of history. But I’m not sure he’s reckoned with the task of saving acid-laser filled post offices.

It’s also strangely fitting for our social media culture that a festival like this happens in a space named after Jordan, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate and the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. Now it’s a giant room for millennials to dress like lizards and swallow substances.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: @maximusfrank

And download some content.

Trying to Survive

Getting down to brass tacks, I flew here for Aphex. I came for the blips, bloops, and tight polyrhythmic hi-hat breakcore. And I got it, standing in the rain for two hours as Richard pummeled the crowd with a set of 90% unheard material, completely brutal and unyielding. Rich emerges from his dark English castle once every ten years to “play a show,” which really feels more like a hallucinatory Hitchcockian murder sequence.

Far be it for me to “review a concert.” Here are some thoughts, though.

Richard took the stage surrounded by an eleven-beamed laser so powerful that it pierced the sky. He left it the same way.

Some of these animations are Escape From New York tributes, and Carpenter is playing a different stage at the same time.

He disappeared from the stage for almost 45 minutes. Rumor has it he was paid a little over three-quarters of a million dollars for the show, which means that his billing rate during that absent period was 420 times that of partner-level corporate attorneys.

“Are you excited for Aphex Twin? I’ve never seen them live before!” exclaims a girl covered in stripper-glitter.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: Roger Ho

Trying to survive this place.

Make no mistake, I am on Richard’s time, not vice-versa.

Is this what it felt like when Duke Ellington played Newport in 1956?

An unmoving, undancing audience, until the 11 giant onstage screens began to show frozen, upside-down, and photoshopped images of themselves, shot and edited live. Selfie-time.

Trying to survive this place.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Photo: Julian Bajsel

“Is he controlling the weather, too?”

Ted Cruz’s Aphex’d face. Over and over again. Rick Perry and J.J. Watt, too.

Simultaneously, a polar vortex and ice-rain storm striking just as the set climaxes.

Trying to survive this place.

President of What?

Was 2016 the worst year in history? In living memory? Or just in our naive, ’90s-borne brains?

I really don’t know. All I can say with confidence is that we are living in a new era of media-sensitivity. Images mean something different to us than they did 40 years ago. Consider the punch-hard, run-fast aesthetics of Captain America: Civil War next to Taxi Driver. Fine art is still just for hedge fund collector-bros, interns and grant amalgamators.

Fear and Downloading in Houston: An Excavation of Day for Night
Image: Richard D. James

The news complex operates under basically the same corporate and ad sales-driven machine that it did when Robert Moses tinkled champagne with Iphigine Sulzberger in the ’40s, but it impacts us on a stranger emotional level. I guess there’s some fake news out there too, but that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as opinions about real news do.

Music is meaningless too, but that statement doesn’t matter anyway, because Richard James is back in his cave and Dillinger Escape Plan are dead.

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Refused, art has a chance to mean something different to us. Something purer, closer to the bone, divorced from the 30-year historical blip in which bad people like Nikki Sixx could be anointed gods.

This weekend, Aphex Twin staged one of the greatest musical performances in modern history. Across the complex, John Carpenter proved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong: there are second acts in American lives, and maybe even thirds and fourths. Kamasi Washington had 10,000 people dancing, grooving, and clapping for real-shit, improvised jazz. And for all the mainstream arthouse-jocking Run the Jewels receive, they stamped their claim to be our modern Public Enemy, the one voice of punk rock dissent that has managed to cross class, race, and taste boundaries.

The sense I get is that Donald Trump’s inauguration will be the most significant historical event in Americans’ collective memories since 9/11. Who knows whether it will “actually” be as significant — or bad — as we feel it is right now. But in our media-sensitive world, feelings are more important than facts. That’s the key, unquantifiable data point Nate Silver’s investigative lens tuned out. Maybe that’s a good thing; I’m not sure.

But for now, I’m just gonna turn it off.

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