Considering the oppressive and heavy nature of the music created by both of the artists on show at the Church on York on Thursday night, it made sense that the venue choice would end up being the basement of the church. An absence of air conditioning combined with an abnormally hot day in Los Angeles made a sauna out of the tiny room in which the show was to be held, with the result that half of the audience was sweating before anyone had even taken to the stage.
The heat and humidity was entirely appropriate. Both Pharmakon and The Haxan Cloak make music that is almost suffocating in its intensity, and their respective sets were exercises in pushing the art of performance to its limits. Both are also artists who are standouts on two fine independent labels.
First up was Pharmakon, known to friends and family as Margaret Chardiet, whose uncompromising industrial music was showcased on last year’s excellent debut full-length Abandon on the equally excellent Sacred Bones label.
Her set was brief but punishing, as she looped power electronics and live drumming on sheet metal to create her sound. Despite being relatively diminutive in appearance, she did her best to completely break down the barrier between herself and the audience, screaming into the microphone while prowling around the crowd. For twenty minutes or so, she completely commanded attention despite some minor technical difficulties, and she fully lived up to her reputation as one of the most compelling experimental artists on the live circuit.
However impressive Pharmakon’s set was, it proved to be scant preparation for the experience of seeing The Haxan Cloak. The project is one of the leading lights on the innovative Tri-Angle Records, and last year’s Excavation was a stunning black hole of a record, but live this music is another beast entirely. Where Pharmakon confronted the audience while bathed in sinister red light, The Haxan Cloak was happy to remain in complete darkness at the back of the stage, with the only lighting being a twin strobe set up that increased in tempo slowly but relentlessly through the show.
What transpired was something unique. The Haxan Cloak’s show is a completely immersive and deeply moving physical experience. At one moment during the show, when the subterranean bass and ominous rhythms combined with a strobe speed that created cardboard cutouts out of an enraptured audience, the whole thing felt closer to a religious experience or spiritual purge than a concert. It’s so rare for any artist to reach this kind of depth of impact (especially in an age of smartphones and near-constant distraction) that when it happens the effect is even more startling.
The show finished with album closer “The Drop,” a track that ended with the volume ramped up and the strobe light reaching a dizzying speed. Then it was all over, and I staggered into the street with my head spinning and my shirt pretty much stuck to me. I had a flashback to a moment when I had looked around and saw that everyone in attendance was in the same hypnotic headspace that I was. Everyone except the one girl near me ignoring the whole thing and checking her Facebook. There’s always one that doesn’t know what they’re missing.
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