Coachella: Put On Your Warpaint

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Day two of the 2014 Coachella Music Festival offered an embarrassment of musical riches, even if you just included the obscene amount of guests Pharrell brought on stage with him. It also offered festival-goers the sort of unique challenge that can only occur here…a sandstorm. While not as severe as the one that attacked last year’s festival, its impact distorted sound, hampered visibility, and did strange things to respiratory systems and vocal cords.

For some acts, (Pharrell), the weather caused serious difficulties. For others, (Queens of the Stone Age), it created a unique, memorable experience. Conditions offer challenges, and they create opportunities. Even the best festival conditions often bother bands used to complete control over the setup and sound system, the trade-off being that they usually offer a wider audience and just may serve as a stepping-stone to wider popularity (see: Sleigh Bells, pre-release of Treats).

This year’s Sleigh Bells – who also performed yesterday (dropping rock thunder that seemingly altered the trajectory of the ambient dust) – is probably the Los Angeles group Warpaint. After suffering through some initial technical difficulties, they quickly displayed their layered approach, an ambient trance rock that they’ve developed over time. And this is a primary difference between them and Sleigh Bells: they’re seasoned, having been around for ten years. And, over that decade, they’ve developed an exquisite, complex aesthetic that challenges the listener’s innate sense of rhythm even when in standard 4/4 time.

They confront their audience’s sense of time, often doing so after locking in a thumping, rhythmic groove that facilitates proggy paths to psychedelic dreaminess. They fuse choral harmonies with dissonance, sensible bass lines and direct drumming with indirect melodies and contrapuntal vocals, and somehow manage to formulate a cohesive whole.

Take the intro to “Keep It Healthy,” for example (itself a continuation of the track “Intro” on their recent self-titled release). It starts with guitar and bass lines that bring to mind the sort of rhythmic and meandering road oft trodden by acts like Tool, before pushing towards a dreamier and less angst-ridden musical moment than those associated with Maynard James Keenan‘s projects. In fact, around the 2:40 mark, the track bridges with an electronic assist and shows kinship to a Radiohead soundscape. Those meandering guitar and bass lines, though, form the backbone of the song, and layering those proggy tendencies underneath female vocals (themselves, layered) provides a thoroughly unique overall sound. Meanwhile, their drums have just enough echo to feel like this is all taking place in a cavernous underground rave site, not a festival tent in Indio, California.

Their idiosyncratic nature thumbs its nose at commercial appeal, actually, making them a much harder sell to the masses than, say, Sleigh Bells. Sleigh Bells relies upon the simplicity of primal aggression, vocals often providing a screaming affirmation of the aggression itself, creating an environment in which listeners reflexively unleash their inner demons with cathartic energy. Warpaint, on the other hand, doesn’t attack the source directly. Their approach is a more elegant and complex, requiring greater effort from the audience while promising equivalent (longer lasting, actually) reward without the collateral carnage that comes from wantonly swinging a battle ax at the darkness. Where Sleigh Bells is black and white, Warpaint is 200 shades of grey. Their music is the journey and its conclusion, a hazy all-night bender arriving at a contemplative existence in the pre-dawn shadows.

And so it is now, their Coachella romp concluding with a devastating jam (“Elephants”), the rapt audience in a shell shocked trance wanting the experience to continue. As they rock out for these final moments, the attractive foursome oozes the sort of unapproachable sexuality that isn’t the cheerleader chic lampooned by Sleigh Bells, nor the sort displayed by the flower-headbanded-neuevo-hippie-chic masses floating around the Empire Polo Grounds. It’s the sort of girl who speaks French and has dyed hair and who’s really into The Smiths and the theater and Amnesty International. Beneath it all is a shared attraction to the primacy of rock, to zigging where others are zagging, and to the ethos of the old West, charting your own path and figuring it out as you go. And as their first of two performances at the 2014 Coachella Music Festival proved, it doesn’t matter whether the journey reaches a landmark destination before releasing a single album or after toiling in the shadows for a decade.

(See photos from their Black Cat show, below).


All Photos | Warpaint: Katherine Gaines
Black Cat, Washington, D.C.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.