Though it was one of those teeth-chattering, bone-shatteringly cold nights that makes leaving your apartment seem like the actions of a crazy person, New York City’s Mercury Lounge was still packed to capacity last night, proving the elements were no match for the musical powers on stage. The lineup spanned continents and genres, starting with Ireland’s Daniel James. Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, the young crooner played dark and folky tracks with an air of political protest, stomping his combat-booted feet for percussion.
CMJ 2013 artist Empress Of, aka Lorely Rodriguez, took the stage with her band next. The 23-year-old grinned throughout the set, sliding and dancing around her Macbook/synth set up, playing tracks like Hat Trick and eoeoeoeoeoeo. She stopped midway through the set to hype the headliner: “We heard SOHN soundcheck and it’s awesome. A LOT of bass. They know what they’re doing.” Then, “This is the part of the set where we play new music. It’s fun.” And it was fun. Empress Of’s new songs had a glitchier, more complex dance sound than earlier works, with heavy looping and vocals that shifted rapidly from a pained scream to angelic whisper. They closed out the set with Realize You, leaving in their wake a very excited audience.
The man of the hour (or three) was SOHN. The UK producer, who splits his time between Vienna and London, kicked off his New York City debut with a near pitch-black stage and a wall of indistinguishable noise and feedback. When the lights came up (if only slightly), SOHN was on stage with two other musicians and a veritable orgy of wires, analog drum machines, synths, keyboards, amps and one acoustic guitar. And oh, that bass. Before anyone spoke, the mustachioed bass monster was plucking away at his weapon, solemn and straight-faced, as if it didn’t sound like we were all standing on an airport tarmac.
But once SOHN began to sing, his vibratto tenor began to press against the heavy, pattering synths and looped vocals. SOHN sat in front of the audience, dressed all in black, his billowing hood up like some kind of Voldemort of synth, his wizardly fingers stabbing at the synths in front of him, stopping to flutter in the air before diving down for an attack. After shuttling quickly from track to track, SOHN played a new song, promising the audience, “You’re gonna dance.” But the audience wasn’t dancing so much as writhing; not in pain, but in the kind of discomfort that comes with sudden, palpable intimacy. One audience member even collapsed during the pulse-elevating track Lessons, halting the show. SOHN looked so worried sitting on stage that it made me more worried, and he didn’t begin again until there were multiple confirmations that she was okay. Afterwards, SOHN said, “Well this is my last song…But it was going to be anyway.” The set ended with the night’s biggest crowd-pleaser, The Wheel. SOHN bowed, thanked the audience, and, just as suddenly as he arrived, he was gone.