Street Sects Live in Sunny, Sunny (Too Sunny) Phoenix
I wear my sunglasses at night so I can so I can…
…watch Street Sects play live without dying of a seizure or heart failure.
So yeah, I brought sunglasses to the Street Sects show in Phoenix last night. (Technically it was a 3Teeth show with Street Sects as one of the openers but I did not go to see 3Teeth and in retrospect I needn’t have stayed around to watch them play. More on that later.) By now, the band’s reputation as… an intense live act precedes them, so I took precautions. Not that I suffer from epilepsy, but I do have a wide range of anxiety issues and I wasn’t too keen on having a panic attack in public. You see, a typical Street Sects performance consists of 50% fog and 50% choreographed strobe lighting, neither one of which is exactly great for calming the jangle of the nerves. It might sound annoying — and yet it is somehow not. I am going to try to explain why not using many, many words, and I am going to fail, because this show was unlike anything I have ever experienced, and I do not have the linguistic tools to define it. (I am going to be chewing on it long after I’m done writing this article.)
But first, maybe some context to ease us into it. The show took place at the Rebel Lounge, a small dive bar with a wide craft beer selection and a stage for hosting everything from DJs and bands to comedians and sketch comedy groups. This was my first time seeing a band there, and I definitely recommend it: The sound system is good, the acoustics aren’t fucked, and the bathrooms do not look like a Jackson Pollock piece composed with piss, shit, and vomit rather than paint.
My assistant and I arrived a bit early, grabbed some beers, and commenced the best night of people-watching I’ve had in a dog’s age. We’d found ourselves adrift on a sea of goths, goths as far as the eye could see. Sure, there were some people like us just wearing band shirts and the pants they woke up in, yet we were definitely the minority. You’ve got to hand it to the goths: Fashion is their forte and they do not skimp on the details. You’d think a subculture arranged entirely around a preference for the color black would result in dull homogeny — and you’d be wrong. This sea of black surrounding us was composed of goths of every shape and size, of fantastical hairstyles and alluring coutures, of social nausea and self-loathing forged into perhaps the most unmistakable style this world will ever know. There was even a trio of people all made up like actors in a haunted house attraction: a psycho demon black metal clown, a zombie ragdoll and…a third who wasn’t really pulling her weight in the horror effects department. It has been a long time since I’ve come in contact with such a density of goths, and I was almost envious of their confidence and flair: If not for an indifference to fashion, I could have been a goth myself once upon a time. (This gothic density, I presumed, was a clue as to the nature of the headlining band, 3Teeth, with whom I had remained willfully unfamiliar so as to generate surprise. I was not wrong. More on that later.)
The first act on the bill was Tristan/Iseult, a one-man unit who unfurled (slowly, with the patient knob-twiddling of an ambient drone act) a sort of deconstructed darkwave. The beats were more disorienting than danceable, the vocals a drifting and noncommittal howl; the meat and potatoes of the music was not actually meat and potatoes but an ever shifting field of sinister noise texture. All of this was executed by a lone man dressed like an extra from that scene in Blade II, silhouetted against a veritable wall of sequencers, samplers, effects modules and blinking lights. Overall, it would have made a fitting soundtrack to some dark, horror-themed video game.
Is it common for headlining bands to set up on stage at the same time that the preceding band sets up? I don’t go to enough shows to know. Whatever the case, that’s what 3Teeth did, and it took them a half hour to do it. Their setup was quite lavish, requiring several roadies to complete. By comparison, Street Sects’ little island of electronic equipment looked almost like some sort of minimalist comment.
The roadies left the stage. The lights went out. The first hiss of the fog machine went off. It was time for us to put on our sunglasses.
The fog machine hissed again, followed by dead silence. Then another hiss, then more silence. (Hiss, silence; hiss, silence; etc.) Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, we were consumed by white mist so thick you could barely make out the back of the head of the person standing inches in front of you. And just when I was certain that the fog had reached saturation, that it could not possibly grow any more dense, the fog machine hissed again — and we all laughed. Street Sects may be terrifying, but never let it be said that they are not also hilarious.
At the first flash of a strobe light, several goths in my vicinity crumbled into dust (hahahahaha because they’re vampires get it? I know that only sunlight kills vampires shut up it’s still a good joke.). I am at pains to describe what happened next. Part of me remained consciously rooted enough to be annoyed by the group of underage kids dressed like the exact opposite of goths who began moshing as soon as the first salvo of rapid bass thuds hit. If not for being stuck on the edge of an obligatory mosh pit, pushing back as politely as possible while dodging a hydra of flailing limbs, I might have become completely hypnotized by the multihued strobing lights, their ferocity diffused somewhat by the fog (and the sunglasses). What song was Street Sects playing? I had no idea. The fog had become possessed by shuddering and skittering hell-sounds. The music (if you can call it that) was the fog. The fog was us. Between the flashing of the strobes, we were no one, nowhere; and then the strobe would light up, transforming us into mere silhouettes, like the moving shadows of lives erased by an atomic explosion.
What song were they playing now? Still no idea. Where even were they? The stage was completely obscured. Where was electronics operator Shaun Ringsmuth? I couldn’t hear any vocals. Where was vocalist/performance artist Leo Ashline?
Oh shit — he was in the fog.
He did not come to us from the stage. Rather, he appeared within the spastic industrial tumult of the music, within the nondimensional whirl of animated silhouettes. He was rampaging around inside the pit, wearing his blond wig (the meaning of which escapes me), screaming in people’s faces, living out some torrential psychotic break right there in our midst. I still could not hear his voice. I searched the cacophony for his croons or screams. Eventually I found them, buried deep — although I may have been hallucinating. I heard him moaning the words to “In Defense of Resentment”, then bursting into manic shrieks in time with — at last — a comprehensible beat. The tiny analytical part of my brain that refused to yield to the strobes and fog wondered if Ashline’s microphone was malfunctioning; then wondered if the vocal levels had been purposefully buried in the mix; then realized that perhaps it did not matter whether or not we could hear him because he was there among us, translating the furies of his words into bodily mimesis. I can’t say for certain, because it was difficult to keep an eye on him, but I’d estimate he spent 90% of the set out in of the crowd.
The fulcrum of the performance was the swelling fear and tension of “Featherweight Hate”, a song about someone whose monstrous brother has been sent to prison and is about to be released. Ashline has developed a routine in which, at the song’s pressure-cooker of a climax, signaled by the words “So I showered and then loaded my shotgun and sat facing the door to welcome my brother back home,” he rips off the blond wig to reveal his bald head. It is the only moment in which he is not charging around in the crowd or lost in the mist; the only moment in which he stands still. His sudden stillness gives it great poignance; there is some message beyond blind rage that he wishes to communicate. What is it? Is he the monstrous brother figure from the story?
Unmasked, as it were, Ashline convulsed through the crowd with doubled intensity, seeming to actually grab people and shake them, and for one brief moment I came face to face with him (he was screaming something unintelligible, his eyes like twin portals to the fount of all insanity). Objectively speaking, his presence is terrifying — yet I did not feel terror. Not even tension. I was strangely touched. (My dumb fingers just typed “strangle touched”, which maybe also applies.) We were not watching this performance; it was happening to us. We were all on stage. But there was no stage. There was nothing that was not this shared experience of disorientation and violent energy. Bizarrely, hanging over all of this — or indeed its culminating effect — was trust.
I swear that word actually came to me there in the crowd. I still don’t know exactly why or what it means, but my ultimate experience of being there inside of the phenomenon of Street Sects was a gently euphoric sense of trust. Because we were all made of the same garbage? Because we’d all been sacked with the same sentence to live through this — everything — together? Because we were all going to die and it wouldn’t matter and we were all getting in on the sick joke of our mortality?
Maybe. Or maybe it was just a show, man. Looking back, I think the experience I’ve fumbled to describe was generated by a subversion of my expectations. I had gone to the show expecting to be assaulted by a barrage of negative stimuli that would leave me feeling trapped in my skin and desperate for it to be over. Instead, I was drawn out of my skin into this indescribable space where everything that is usually awful became pleasant and the assault felt very, very good. What I’d assumed would be some aggressively confrontational performance art act turned out to be powerfully inclusive and a hell of a lot of fun. (I’m dancing around referring to this event as a safe space for interacting with three-dimensional madness and violence because those two words have been ruined forever.)
Point being, if you catch Street Sects live in order to listen to their songs or see them play, you have come to the wrong fucking place, my friend. It’s not a show. It’s not music. It is an event, and you are a participant. Through a deft manipulation of the psychology of space and a bold transgression of the performer/spectator boundary, Street Sects takes you hostage and bathes you in poison and — so long as you are not emphatically opposed to fog machines and strobe lights — you quickly learn to love it.
When it’s over, you might find yourself shouting, as one fellow did, “More fog!”
So that was it. It was a tragically short set, and doubtless the last one I will ever forget. After Street Sects (literally) disappeared, it took 3Teeth at least half an hour if not longer to take the stage, even though their instruments were already set up. No idea what caused the delay. My going theory is that all that fog fucked up 3Teeth’s electronics somehow. Anyway, turns out they are a goth-tinged industrial metal band whose sound fits somewhere between Ministry‘s most radio-friendly hits and the early nü stylings of that band Dope. (Remember that band Dope?) Their performance was energetic and flawless and the crowd — most of whom had obviously only come to see them — ate it up.
That said, the music was not my thing, and after Street Sects had just exploded the envelope of my understanding of what a performance can be, 3Teeth’s tame adherence to the rigid performer/spectator relationship just felt tedious.
When the show was over, I caught Ashline and Ringsmuth at the merch table. Two hours must have passed since they’d left the stage, and by that time I was pretty drunk. When Ashline, now displaying a shockingly friendly demeanor, shouted questions at me about the Phoenix industrial scene (about which I know nothing), all I could do was blubber in semi-human speech about how much I liked his music. I keep telling my assistant not to let me drink in public but she thinks it’s hilarious so… sorry Leo.
(Header image originally via. Video and 3Teeth image courtesy of my talented and lovely assistant.)