Day for Night is a festival unlike any other in the country. It’s an immersive experience of light and sound that brings together a wide array of experimental artists from around the world, pushing the boundaries of what one might expect from the typical music festival experience. For its second year, the festival relocated from its previous home to a large abandoned warehouse on the edge of Downtown Houston that used to serve as a post office. Its dimly lit and cavernous halls provided a dark, dilapidated setting that contrasted with the wide array of installations from groundbreaking visual artists.
While hundreds spent hours in line for a chance to get a look at Björk’s interactive digital experience, just as many wandered around, discovering pieces from artists like Tundra, Nonotak, Shoplifter, and many others that were just as involving. One long hall was filled with red lasers that formed a grid not unlike a security system from a heist movie. Another room contained beams of light oscillating and shining at a reflective chandelier that resulted in lights dancing across the walls. Unlike festivals where people take pictures sunbathing across the lawn, the selfies here came from rooms where lasers shot across the ceiling in noodling patterns, or a hall of mirrors lit fluorescently. Even if you didn’t spend a minute checking out music, you were likely to get your money’s worth just by viewing the unique installations set up in a building that served as a relic from a forgotten age.
Most were there for the music, though, and a quick glance at the lineup makes it immediately apparent why. Sure, there were popular artists that would be draws at any festival (Kaskade, Travis Scott, Odesza, and Banks) that had college kids on break flocking through the doors. And there were indie-rock stalwarts like Tycho, Ariel Pink, Lower Dens, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra that drew crowds. But what made Day for Night stand out in terms of its lineup was a real drive to bring in a mix of electronic artists from influential legends like Björk, Squarepusher, and John Carpenter to cutting-edge experimental artists in their prime like Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never, Clams Casino, and Sophie. They made room for special performances from artists across all spectrums, bringing together artists like Blood Orange, Liars, Run the Jewels, Kamasi Washington ,and Thundercat in an unexpected harmony. Topping it all off was the crown jewel, Aphex Twin’s first US performance in eight years.
By delivering a carefully curated lineup unlike anything other festivals have to offer, Day for Night has quickly established itself as one of the premier festivals in the country. Even when the volatile Houston weather dropped nearly 45 degrees in a 12-hour span, that didn’t dampen the spirits of the crowds who traded their t-shirts for jackets to go back outside and experience something new.
There were a few kinks to work out, which is normal for a young festival, especially one in a brand-new location. Food options weren’t enough to satisfy the large attendance, with lines consistently extending to unreasonable lengths. Plumbing also proved to be an issue, with the indoor bathrooms losing running water in sinks, drains backing up, and a stinky sewage stream running from the warehouse to the street. And for those that forked over the money for the VIP, complaints could be heard about the lack of bang that distinction produced for its buck.
Still, the entire operation ran fairly smoothly considering its scale. Incorporating visual art in a way that went above and beyond the expectations of a typical music festival, Day for Night offered a bold vision that could serve as a blueprint for other festivals to evolve beyond stagnation into something truly remarkable.
S U R V I V E
Best Upgrade From The Local Stage
Judging by the size of the crowd, it’s likely that many of the people in attendance for S U R V I V E’s late afternoon set had discovered the four-piece synth band as the result of its members’ work on the score for Stranger Things. Even if their stature hadn’t risen due to their soundtrack work, it’s likely the band would have been booked at the fest. A key player in the rising synth-based electronic scene in Austin, they were right at home with the other Texas artists Day for Night gave a platform to. Because of their big year, they got upgraded to a more prime spot, playing their aggressive, entrancing instrumentals to a large, enraptured audience. They made the most of it with a tight, involving set, proving they’re much more than the Stranger Things band. –David Sackllah
United Visual Artists
Most “Worth It” Line
Photos by Philip Cosores
No review could be complete without mention of the visual art Day for Night painstakingly incorporated into the very fiber of its being. Many festivals have art and sculpture, but they often feel ornamental, like excessive decorations on a tree that could just as easily have been left in a cardboard box in your attic. Day for Night cannot be separated from its artwork, and the experience is richer for it.
Step upstairs into the abandoned post office DFN used as home base for its installations, and one is met with so much sensory information it’s no wonder the fire marshals were on edge throughout the weekend. At least 10 hypnotic installations were available for play, but the United Visual Artists exhibit stood out as the most fascinating (with a waiting line to prove it). The UVA is a UK-based visual artists collective originally founded to do stage design for Massive Attack, but has since expanded into all types of visual media. DFN’s exhibit featured a long row of spheres with a small light and speaker revolving in perfect harmony around each. The room held a haunting ambiance, heightened by the 15-minute loop of droning electronic noise, shifting lights, and a smokey darkness that swallowed audience members whole — leaving nothing but one meticulously symmetrical moment. –Kevin McMahon
No one really knew what to expect from Liars’ set at Day for Night. The Los Angeles experimental dance-rock trio have adapted and morphed their sound frequently over their career, and nearly two years since their last live show with no new album to promote, the question was which incarnation of Liars would show up this time. Thankfully, the band played a set that pulled from their entire discography, drawing heavily from 2014’s underrated Mess but going all the way back to 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. Liars were in high spirits, with singer Angus Andrew dancing across the stage like a man possessed. As they tore through frantic electronic jams, Andrew shook, wailed, and commanded the stage. They didn’t play anything new, but didn’t leave anyone disappointed. –David Sackllah
Best Inaudible Guitar Playing
By all measures, Dev Hynes had a great 2016, a well-received opus of an album, high-profile collaborations, and even a chic inclusion in an H&M print advertisement. His live sets have received attention, too, for good reason, as his command of body and instrument are unrivaled. The fluidity with which he moved during “Better Than Me” and “Augustine” slipped a layer of poetry snuggly in between the notes and lyrics that made them emotional centerpieces on Freetown Sound.
As is custom, Hynes performed with his seven-piece supporting band — a necessity to bring to life all the subtle textures of his music. Once again, however, it seemed the audio engineer behind the boards had difficulty mixing the variety of sounds coming from the stage. Hynes’ vocals began the performance even lower than his backup vocalists, and his guitar remained muffled under the sonic weight of the other instruments. Throughout the performance, the sound improved, and though his guitar never fully cut through, Hynes’ 3-finger-on-the-pick funk-style guitar playing was as immaculate and Prince-like as ever. Hynes bid the crowd adieu with a beautiful piano rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” swiftly followed by “Uncle ACE”, complete with a saxophone lead jam that kept heads spinning during the walk over to reserve a spot for Aphex Twin. –Kevin McMahon
Welcome to Houston
Best Use of Paul Wall
In the search for cultural relevancy, the media and general public typically display a large blind spot for places and voices outside the artistic despotism of New York and Los Angeles. Day for Night’s choice to begin the weekend with the “Welcome to Houston” showcase — which takes place annually at Free Press Summer Fest — was a bastion for their case that this is indeed a grave oversight.
“Welcome to Houston” celebrates those who put Houston hip-hop on the map. It spans generations and sub-genres: from the seminal sounds of UGK to the mid-aughts mainstream of Chamillionaire, Mike Jones, and yes, even Paul Wall. Opening slots are often sluggish and poorly attended, but the Day for Night welcoming party was having none of that. “Welcome to Houston” started a full 30 minutes early and wasted no time launching into Pimp C’s iconic verse in “Big Pimpin’” and a number of other classics like “Draped Up”, “Still Tippin’”, and nods to DJ Screw’s “My Mind Went Blank”. It was an energetic first step that had spirits high and white cups full. –Kevin McMahon
Best Rock Star
Saturday evening’s headliners should have divided the festival audience in two. For the diehards and the casually curious, there was Aphex Twin, whose ability to maintain a dedicated crowd spoke to the kind of fan that Day for Night attracts. For the more general festival attendee, there was Run the Jewels, performing just weeks ahead of their third album, but still stuck delivering a very similar set to what they’ve been performing for years. They’re not quite into version 3.0 yet, and the crowd they drew couldn’t compare to Aphex on the main stage.
But one of the biggest surprises of the festival was the turnout that brought John Carpenter pure adoration. Performing with a full band and projections of his films behind him, Carpenter was spry and emotive, relishing in the opportunity to be a rock star to the point that it didn’t feel silly to question whether he’s been in the wrong field for all these years. It was about as low stakes as you could get with two of the event’s biggest bookings playing opposite him, but the joy and fun that Carpenter displayed temporarily distracted from other stages. Whether it was themes from Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, or Halloween, the set honored a career spent out of the spotlight with a night that showed he could more than fill that role. –Philip Cosores
Most Polarizing Set
Photo by David Brendan Hall
Björk sure knows how to capture the attention of an entire festival. Many spent hours of their weekend in line waiting for a chance to view her immersive art installation, and for those who didn’t, she played two DJ sets, one at the preview party for those who paid extra and another Sunday night for a crowd that filled up nearly the entire wing of the warehouse where the stage was. The thousands who crammed in for a chance to glimpse Björk were taken aback by her unassuming setup, a stage decorated like a garden where she DJ’d in a red headdress. As she played, the screens on either side of her were blank, leaving many in the crowd without a good view wondering if she was even there at all. She was, though, and she played an expansive 90-minute set that was challenging and enthralling. Her taste was on full display, as she weaved disparate worlds together, mixing Arabic and African music into darker fare like the Haxan Cloak or serpentwithfeet. An immersive collage of sound, her set was one where Anohni’s “Obama” fit in right next to Ariana Grande’s “Into You”, with the Icelandic legend creating a space where the experimental and popular could coexist, similar to the festival as a whole. One of the most innovative artists of her era, Björk successfully pushed everyone in the audience out of their comfort zone.
For those that did get in to see her art installation, Björk once again proved to be pushing the limits of music and technology’s intersection. To remind attendees that this has long been the case, Digital Björk featured both her Biophilia app and a visual retrospective of her past videos. She relishes in pushing boundaries, and her ability to work on the cutting edge might be as distinguishing a characteristic as her music. In 2016, that means incorporating virtual reality, and Björk Digital included four stations for fans to experience her music in true immersion. They were all beautiful and fascinating, limited a bit by the medium’s developing nature but illuminating the possibilities of such a visual and audio collaboration. At a festival so keen on combining sounds and sights into unforgettable moments, Björk proved to be the definitive artist to lead that charge. –David Sackllah and Philip Cosores
For the Butthole Surfers’ first performance in over five years, Gibby Haynes met the lofty expectations with a simple introduction: “Let’s see how this works out.” Alongside members Paul Leary, Jeff Pinkus, and King Coffey, Haynes led the band through a reunion set that began unassuming and concluded in triumph. Sound issues plagued the first half of the set, as the band was in sync, but the volume went in and out, making for a serviceable performance that couldn’t quite connect. As those issues were smoothed out, the group hit their stride, pounding through blistering, irreverent freak-outs that made them cult icons through the ‘80s and ‘90s. They tore through fan favorites with charm, even including a cheeky, abridged version of “Pepper”, their lone radio hit. For their conclusion, the deranged early cut “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave”, Haynes brought his young daughter on stage to bang on a drum as the band erupted into cacophony.
In fact, the strangest circumstance surrounding their long-awaited reunion was its scheduling at the festival, as the band played the outside Green stage the slot before Travis Scott. Early into their set, the largely older crowd was overrun by teenagers eager to get as close as possible to the young star. It made sense in a way, as the Houston rapper’s penchant for stirring the crowd into a frenzy isn’t that far removed from the way Texas natives Butthole Surfers used to provoke their audiences through wild performances that have become the stuff of legend. The Scott fans were rudely awakened by the group’s penchant for noise, but next to me I overheard one audience member proclaim “that old man is going off on the drums, though,” showing that King Coffey’s skills can bridge any generational gap. Who knows how long the Butthole Surfers will stick around for, but even in 2016 they’re still winning over new fans. –David Sackllah
Most Intense Set
It’s one thing to become lost under the spell of Arca’s recorded work, as the producer crafts alluring electronics that blend together everything noise, house, and ambient lulls with hip-hop and Latin sounds. Seeing Arca live is an experience on an entirely different plane, as he commands the room with an onslaught of frenzied sound at a level of intensity few can match. HE opened by rising atop the DJ booth in a bodysuit and tall leather boots as a sampled voice from the 1993 film The Cement Garden discussed the dichotomy between conceptions of masculinity and gender fluidity. From there, Arca took the small but dedicated crowd through a gauntlet of noise. Old-school cali rap would give way to thrash, and moments of deep house would segue directly into Texas classics like Selena’s “Dreaming of You”. He made the familiar foreign, as a particularly spirited remix of Rihanna’s “Needed Me” pitch-shifted her vocals so low that it took a minute to recognize her signature flair.
The sounds were visceral, often violent, and he never gave the crowd a minute of respite throughout a frantic hour and a half. Arca’s music is fascinated with the thin line that separates celebration and destruction, apparent through visuals of fireworks he played that lingered on the ignition, flames, and danger present at every step. These images were soundtracked by loud, sharp bursts, propulsive and assaulting, recalling bombs as much as the explosions that are most associated with partying. Other images, provided by collaborator and artist Jesse Kanda, showed mundane images of flesh and animal bodies up close in various states, zooming in to create horrific scenes out of routine tasks like fishing. It’s not just that his sounds of apocalyptic horror feel appropriate at the end of a year where so many are fearful of the future. Rather, his work acknowledges the inherent violence and danger throughout the world, especially for those who live outside of strictly defined gender roles. Arca’s live performance put that intensity front and center, delivering an awe-inspiring set that realized the full potential of the festival’s vision. –David Sackllah
Best Nipple Wax
Photo by Philip Cosores
Richard D. James has not played a set in the US in eight years. This and his unwavering brilliance were the only two things the crowd knew for certain in anticipation of his set. If the mysterious white 12’’ that James released exclusively for his Day for Night set was any indication, it was to be a singular experience.
James took the stage with ferocious intensity, holding a sterile gaze on his equipment reminiscent of Michael C. Hall’s Dexter: the audience, the music, and the very weather itself were on a cutting board for immediate dissection. The set began with a mixture of crying and cackling laughter that grew slowly louder and more shrill, eventually giving way to a heart-pumping reworking of Andy Stott’s “Posers”, and James never looked back. Early visual projections of missiles landing on various targets within an Aphex-branded world map were apt, as every track he played was a direct hit. The performance felt like a comprehensive dissertation on electronic music with James leaving no stone unturned. In a single breath, he took the audience from soulful deep house, which blended meditative bass kicks with melodic components from Olafur Arnalds and Nils Fram’s Loon EP, swiftly into the sensory assault of Jlin’s “Guantanamo”.
Photo by Julian Bajsel
It was a common theme: abrupt changes in styles and tempos that were chaotic and challenging, but at the same time effortless and calculated. James drew from the front lines of today’s electronic left in Jlin, Stott, DJ Nigga Fox, and Rolando Simmons, as well as classic early ’90s techno and plenty of interesting remixes of his own work across various monikers. The performance of his classic Polynomial-C as ice rain began to pelt the crowd and the temperature plummeted nearly 30 degrees in mere minutes is a moment seared into the minds of all who were in attendance.
The cold added a fierceness to the performance that felt very on brand for James, who has never been for the faint of heart. On the heels of the triumphant Jungle tracks that closed the performance, crowd takeaways were more $50 Nick Murphy sweatshirts that I’m sure anyone expected to be sold and the memory of a living, breathing text on what electronic performance can and should be. –Kevin McMahon
Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Day for Night 2016.
Photographer: Philip Cosores