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Wrecking Ball 2016 Festival Review: The 10 Best Performances

on August 15, 2016, 12:00pm
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Photography by Carlo Cavaluzzi

Though it began in 2015 as an event held in celebration of legendary Atlanta venue The Masquerade, which rang in its 25th anniversary just last year, a more than bittersweet air hung over this year’s Wrecking Ball ATL. In late June, eager festivalgoers learned that this would be the final year of operation at the The Masquerade’s original location inside a refurbished excelsior mill in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward — a mainstay since 1989 for bands passing through Atlanta, particularly those in the punk, metal, hardcore, and indie rock scenes.

Throughout the weekend, nearly every band to take one of the festival’s five active stages offered a moment in their set to honor the venue and adjacent music park that hosted the first Warped Tour, inaugural Shaky Knees Festival, and played a vital role in the late ’90s/early ’00s emo and hardcore scenes. Bradford Cox of the Atlanta-based indie rock group Deerhunter, in particular, took an extended break to spout a brashly sardonic takedown of the encroaching redevelopment of the Old Fourth Ward into the newly branded “Beltline” district, replete with all the clichés of modern Whole-Foods-chic gentrification: condos, niche boutique shopping, overpriced fusion cuisine, you get the picture. “Don’t forget that Coca-Cola built this fucking city,” Cox exclaimed to woops and nervous laughter. “You all owe your presence here to corporations. Bow down to them and drink their fetid cum.” Others, like Thursday’s Geoff Dyer and Foxing’s Connor Murphy, lent a more sincere take on the venue’s importance to each of them personally and the loyal local scene that had bolstered each band’s respective success.

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Perhaps the most telling — if understated — praise, however, came from scene celebrity Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh fame. “Anybody ever see The Cure at The Masq’?” he asked during a brief break in Dinosaur’s early evening Park South set. In response, the audience let out what amounted to an audible question mark and one or two encouraging (though potentially sarcastic) hoots. “I didn’t think so,” Barlow replied with a shrug, this tiny movement illustrating the most realistic, unpretentious reaction to the loss and rebirth of this seminal space for experiencing music: scenes change, people age out, careers peak and fade into obscurity, but with every shift and often heartbreaking turnover, there is adjustment, there’s reconstruction and renewal.

The wide mix of performers at Wrecking Bell ATL this year — from killer, if relatively obscure, local acts like Fox Wound, who revive late ’90s emo roots a la Diary-era Sunny Day Real Estate with spasmodic fits of post-hardcore screams and Mogwai-esque guitar trilling, to buzz bands and up-and-comers like Diet Cig and Mothers, to scene mainstays Anti-Flag and celebrated reunion shows from Drive Like Jehu, Piebald, and Thursday — offered more than a necessary share of hope to those who might be worried that with the loss of this long-crucial hub for music in the Southeast the tight bond of the Atlanta underground might begin to wear at its seams. When The Masquerade reopens next week at a new location in burgeoning Blandtown, few will be able to deny that punk and its variant offshoots are not alive and well down here in Atlanta, whether based around North Avenue or far across the interstate in a part of town with a less-than-fortunate name.

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With 50-plus bands scattered across five stages over the weekend (not including late night shows spread out among venues all across greater Atlanta), narrowing down and making time for each act on my list of must-sees was an arduous, exhausting task. Still, despite the heat, the lingering haze of 11th-hour revelries, and relentless treks from one stage to the next, I managed to cobble together a list of top highlights from this unforgettable weekend of music.

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10. Diet Cig

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Even this early in their career, it’s probably already a cliché to say that there’s something infectious about the energy and enthusiasm this young duo bring to their every performance. More than any other show I passed by or sat in on at the small Purgatory stage in the parking lot just outside of The Masquerade, the crowd packed in tight to watch singer/guitarist Alex Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman deliver their Tiger Trap-tinged brand of pop punk earworms. For Luciano, any moment away from the mic is a prime opportunity to pogo from one end of the stage to the other, swinging her pale telecaster every direction the small stage will afford her. With more than half of their songs coming shy of the two-minute mark, Diet Cig kept the crowd shuffling their feet along the concrete to songs about getting passed over by a love interest from a better school or the challenges and disappointments that come with being a female in a male-dominated genre/lifestyle like punk rock. Like each of their songs, Diet Cig’s set was short-lived, but it’s been stuck in my head ever since.

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09. Milemarker

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Kicking off the day at Park North early Saturday afternoon may not have been the time slot deserved by a celebrated band who haven’t had a proper tour since 2008, but that didn’t stop Chapel Hill’s Milemarker from unleashing a fully charged set fit for a cramped basement at a house show during their late ’90s/early ’00s heyday. Armed with clipped riffs, harsh distortion, and time signatures that seemed to shift from one moment of a song into the next, the post-hardcore band’s half-hour set spared few moments for breath or chatter. Because of this, those in the audience brave enough to endure the unforgiving Georgia sunlight were treated to nearly every track from fan favorite Frigid Forms Sell, the band’s unofficial concept album whose experimental collisions between electronic dance music and raggedly angular punk rock create a more than fitting backdrop for the anti-corporate satire of songs like “Frigid Forms to Sell You Warmth” and “Sex Jam Two: Insect Incest”, the latter whose closing chant of “Yeah! Oh yeah!” had the audiences pumping their fists in time with every word as singer Al Burian’s screams slowly disintegrated into an almost tongue-in-cheek Cookie Monster growl. By the time the Korg synthesizer collapsed onto the stage under the weight of Burian’s enthusiasm at the close of the set, we lucky few were fully convinced that a revisit over the catalog of this oft-overlooked band was well past due.

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08. Touché Amore

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Photo by Elena de Soto

Though I missed much of their Saturday afternoon set due to an early kink in the line system used to enter the separate Heaven and Hell stages inside The Masquerade, what I caught of Touché Amore’s afternoon set was more than enough to place them among the peak experiences I had at Wrecking Ball this year.

The band is known best for its combination of richly imagistic, emotive lyrics ragged-throat screamed above “four-on-the-floor” uptempo hardcore and flourishes of late ’90s emo guitar picking, but possibly more than the music itself, which was at times ferocious enough to spark an impromptu circle pit amidst the otherwise uncoordinated flailing of the audience adjacent to the Heaven stage, it was the full ecstatic participation of the room at large that won me over completely for this set. Hoarse voices surrounded me at all positions, none skimping on a line or lament, despite their bleeding throats. Near the front of the room, human shapes leapt from nowhere places, thrusting themselves atop arms waiting to pass them from one set of palms to the next, wearing out the two security guys tasked with safely yanking each of these thrashing bodies from the crowd. Throughout everything, singer Jeremy Bolm stood elated, almost in awe, his shit-eating grin peeking out above the mass of clapping hands and raised fists and screams cast out in unity. When the band cut a song short, the collective voice carried them unaccompanied to the very last word.

At the first hit of the final song, a dozen or more backstage lingerers flung themselves three and four at a time over the heads of the polo-wearing crowd-yankers out into the indistinguishable mass of their peers. Bodies collided and were lifted, all of it utterly impossible to control or disassemble.

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07. Foxing

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At the behest of our photographer, Carlo Cavalucci, I carried my sun-bleached retina into the heady darkness of the Hell stage in the basement of The Masquerade to catch St. Louis band Foxing early Sunday evening. Though I arrived a complete unfamiliar, it wasn’t long before I understood Carlo’s insistence that I do not dare miss this particular set.
While if broken down to its elemental pieces, it wouldn’t seem like Foxing is doing anything particularly revolutionary in terms of sonic texture or feeling — their dynamics shifting from delicate finger-tapped melodies a la American Football to post-rock buildups reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky or Do Make Say Think — on stage the band packed enough energy, sincerity, and electronics to make even this somewhat jaded fan perk his ears up.

Drum machines, pads, synths, and samplers sprang subtly in and out of the mix, never dominating, but instead adding unexpected texture and outright surprise to moments that the ears might otherwise wash out amid the ring of delay- and reverb-soaked countermelodies offered by guitarists Ricky Sampson and Eric Hudson. Likewise, Jon Hellwig’s rumbling tom rolls brought vitally primal eruptions to counter the swell of violin and trilling guitars and emphasize singer Connor Murphy’s serrated screams, which he often belted with notable distance from the microphone, allowing space for every singing voice in the room to be heard. At points, Murphy was nearly inaudible, his falsetto overshadowed by the roar of the captivated surrounding him. The band closed with their first single, “Rory”, from 2013’s The Albatross, a somber piano ballad that slowly unfolded into an almost Godspeed You! Black Emperor overture of bombastic drum fills, swelling high-pitched guitar parts, and Murphy switching to trumpet to carry the vocal melody beyond the last note of the rest of the band, his horn pointed towards the ceiling as his former chorus passed him from hand to hand.

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06. American Football

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In the unlikely situation that a friend or acquaintance should ever make a reference to the sonic aesthetic of late 1990s emo, American Football is one of the handful of bands to which they will allude. Given this, it isn’t terribly surprising that I couldn’t count the number of times throughout the festival weekend where I heard a distinctly American Football-style melody, guitar tone, or dynamic movement sprinkled into one element or another of a much younger band’s sound. It’s likely that the current resurgence of “classic emo” has played a huge role in the grand success of American Football’s recent reunion, garnering the short-lived group a decade-plus-late stint of sold-out shows both at home and abroad and main stage appearances before thousands at festivals like Wrecking Ball.

Translating such intimate, bracingly restrained music to the festival stage is no simple task, even for a band as beloved as this one. Much can get lost in translation amid the heat, overheard bits of conversation, and the stark juxtaposition of hearing songs once held so close to heart played adjacent to a giant inflatable can of PBR. A great deal more is asked of the audience. Something must be given over by each to allow for the necessary immersion. One must reconnect with the self of an era before cynicism had calcified over less-than-thick skin, when a song about heartbreak didn’t need to be obscured in metaphor or overwhelmed by imagistic plays with language. When the best way to say goodbye was a question with an impossible answer — an equation so complex the figures cycled back on themselves until all was rendered indistinguishable, stained into erasure. In a fraction of a second, the entire audience seemed to understand this vital need to relinquish all pretension. With a single note’s notice, each person scattered across the field at Park South found themselves in the precise moment in time they needed to be: here, now, inside the mind of the person they forgot they used to be, singing, “Let’s just forget.”

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05. Rainer Maria

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Photography by Elena de Soto

Much like my experience with their contemporaries and fest-mates American Football, I don’t know if I had a full grasp of the weight of Rainer Maria’s influence until I found myself inundated by the likes of their variant offspring playing every stage of Wrecking Ball this year. Perhaps more so than the aforementioned group, Rainer Maria’s ride cymbal-smashing, heartfelt choruses and call-and-response vocals found their way into the first bands to bring international acclaim (and marketability) to the genre of emo, a moniker no founder of the movement was willing to claim. Thus, hearing the band today it’s near-impossible not to notice how much of what made this band so special was ripped off by pretty boys with fringe cuts and glistening production values. Despite this, the songs stand up. The raw, unguarded quality of near-shouted lyrics like, “God damnit, I’m not talking about my heart like it’s something you could break,” feel earned, not like a put-on to rally the wallets of a few kids hanging out at the mall. Seeing for one’s self the songs of Look Now Look Again and the Atlantic EP played with the melodic charisma of Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer’s voices belted in unison and the undeniable expressions of joy on each of the trio’s faces, the melodramatic pull of the band’s dejected anthems don’t ring as a callback to a bygone era of immaturity; they seem true-to-life. We’re all a bit over the top when a relationship goes south — when what seemed a certainty liquefies and we forget where we last saw our feet.

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04. Dinosaur Jr.

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Standing in front of his personal wall of Marshall stacks in his signature trucker hat and sunglasses so large I wondered if he’d just come from an eye exam, J. Mascis didn’t make much of a to-do about jumping into the second-to-last headlining set of the night. There were no dramatic intros or intense builds of feedback to enliven the crowd for the great noise soon to be upon them. Mascis simply said, “This is the first song on our new record,” and the band went to it, drowning the place in a jangly distortion, Mascis’ weathered voice sitting just above the mix as intended.

For as much of a departure Mascis and his crew are from the sounds of the other bands who played Wrecking Ball this year, looking around the crowd during “The Wagon,” the “hit” from 1991’s Green Mind, it appears that Dinosaur Jr. is the unlikely equalizer of the fest. Not only did both Foxing and Motion City Soundtrack implore their respective audiences to head to the Park South stage to see the band, but the crowd was the most diverse age-, dress-, and spirit-wise of any I stood in all weekend. It would seem that Dinosaur’s commitment to sticking to the essentials of their decades-old signature sound somehow has created a common denominator of appreciation among the fest’s primarily hardcore, emo, and pop punk-minded patrons. When, a few songs into their performance, Mascis sings, “I feel the pain of everyone, then I feel nothing,” the connection feels a bit easier to piece together.

At some point in the set, tension begins to build near the front of the stage where at most of the shows a pack of toppling bodies would rebound against each other’s skin. “Come on, motherfuckers!” a bearded, shirtless man implores those around him. “Start dancing!” There are a few woops and shouts about “what kind of show this is,” but beard guy isn’t having it. “Just try!” he yells just a beat before the band jumps into “In a Jar”, from their essential second album, You’re Living All Over Me. Surely enough, a small dance circle emerges of middle-aged dudes not-exactly-moshing and not-exactly-dancing, and though there’s a lot of hair and sweat and general man-ness bobbing around in that compact space the group has suddenly made for itself, with Mascis’ guitar needling and whirring like a distress beacon from some forgotten planet, it takes some considered effort to convince myself that there’s nowhere else more I could belong.

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03. Deafheaven

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The resident scowl on George Clarke’s face is unmistakable even from the furthest out reaches of the field at Park North. The success of 2013’s Sunbather and last year’s comparably riff-heavy New Bermuda has garnished the band not only critical praise, but the admiration of their peers in the greater metal community, landing the band on tour with the likes of Anthrax, Lamb of God, and, this fall, Slipknot. Following suit, as the stages and stakes have continued to increase in size and scope for the band, the collective (or at least lead singer, Clarke) have made a conscious effort to provide their audience with a visceral, enigmatic stage presence, visibly striking whether they perform in the backroom of a dive bar (as they did Saturday night at The Earl) or in some of the largest arenas this country has to offer. During the opener, “Come to the Water”, the first track on New Bermuda, Clarke windmills his wet hair, grunts, widens his eyes in a twin expression of menace and fear. Behind him, drummer Daniel Tracy transforms into an over-modified combustible engine, capable of producing such an outrageous output of force, speed, and intensity that Tracy seems to play every component piece of his drum set in double time all at once, rolling military style on his snare one-handed, his double-bass kick thundering along at such high speeds that the human ear can register it only as a singular, cataclysmic drone.

In contrast, during the more melodic “Baby Blue”, Clarke writhes in time to the intro’s Souvlaki-style arpeggios rendered by guitarists Shiv Mehra and Kerry McCoy. That is, until the anticipated drop finally ruptures through. Here, Clarke snarls, spits, challenges the audience to crush toward the stage, to break down the guardrail, to rush into him with all their crushing weight. When they fail to take him under, Clarke doubles down, descending the stage near the close of the final song, “Dream House”, from Sunbather, his head sinking and reemerging out the depths until finally he is lifted from the guardrail, out above the wake, and is passed weightless and buoyant above it, his body outstretched and lifeless until he is tossed back in the direction from which he came.

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02. Drive Like Jehu

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Were their music released for the first time tomorrow, the greater punk/hardcore/indie rock scene would still erupt with a frenzy of hype and mutual admiration of this seminal, genre-bending/defining band. Even in the era of infinite distraction, their arrival would still be considered a kind of awakening — a new element born into the world that unbeknownst to all had been vitally missing.

For clarification’s sake: I am not being hyperbolic. Just needed to get that out of the way.

Even considering the number of times I’ve listened intently to tracks like “Do You Compute” or “Bullet Train to Vegas” in person, I still managed to find myself joyfully caught off guard Saturday night by Jehu’s ability to rally forth unyielding ruptures of discordant guitar squeals and shifting time signatures only to toy with their listeners’ very circadian rhythms by breaking into and out of comparatively spare sections of grooving bass and standard 4/4 kick-snare-hi-hat beats. Of course, this is but one of the beautifully cruel practices in the sonic arsenal of this unfortunately short-lived group.

Watching guitarist John Reis at work is as equally baffling as it is gratifying. Sweat flinging from his forehead with even the flip of his neck, Reis put the full force of body to work as he bent and pulled at the neck of his instrument, ripping every awful sound possible out of that electrified hunk of wood. Even with the sharpest eye on his every subtle flick of a switch or tap of a pedal, I couldn’t for the life of me comprehend the sounds he managed to extract from an instrument I thought I understood. Paired against guitarist/vocalist Rick Froberg’s dissonant anti-melodies and uvula-thrashing vocals, it’s a wonder that the music is coherent to the human ear at all. The machine seems almost too simplistic to make such disparate pieces into something not only a palatable and whole, but also deeply felt.

To say that the crowd seemed relatively self-possessed during the driving cacophony of “Here Come the Rome Plows”, or any other track of Drive Like Jehu’s hour-long set, would be nothing short of a gross misreading of one’s fellow human beings. We weren’t holding back; we were in awe.

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01. Thursday

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From the moment I caught sight of the crowd waiting at Park North for Thursday to take the stage, I knew this set would be different than any other I’d managed to see in the two-plus days of incredible shows at Wrecking Ball this year. As was the case with the switch from one band to the next between the Park South and Park North stages all weekend, I had only a moment to take in the sight and make gaps in the mass of people waiting in eager anticipation of any sign of the band that played its first show in five years to an exclusive sold-out crowd the night before on the Hell stage inside The Masquerade.

Opener “For the Workforce, Drowning” sent an immediate shockwave of motion across the massive crowd, its percussive riffs and relentless chaotic intensity rousing bodies that at any other show of the weekend would have had no issue maintaining some level of restraint. Friends and strangers grabbed at each other’s shoulders, sang or screamed into one another’s faces. Hundreds of people began to cut lines through the thin openings between patrons, running near full speed toward the epicenter of flailing limbs and limply catapulted human frames, a mass that continued to swell as the band blistered through songs like “Cross Out the Eyes”, “Black Jet New Year”, and “Signals Over the Air”.

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Even if it weren’t the loudest show of the week (which it absolutely was), the sheer kinetic force of each member on stage — Geoff Rickley helicoptering his microphone, catching it around his wrist with just enough time to pull it close for the next phrase, the next scream; guitarists Tom Keeley and Steve Pedulla thrashing seamlessly from chug-chug breaks to rhythmically complex countermelodies, interjecting their own icy screams and group chants — would have been enough to bring forth the human tempest swirling anarchically all around me. Admittedly, I approached the set with some level of skepticism, as I hadn’t lent a listen to one of the band’s albums in several years, the sound of that era having become so oversaturated, predictable, and worn-out I kept myself at a decided distance from any part of it. But to see the band fresh from a five-year hiatus, re-energized with the fury they were long known for bringing to the stage every night until the bitter end in 2011, I found myself transported back to those moments in early adolescence when I would drop Full Collapse into my CD player and thrash into the walls of my basement bedroom. That time in my life when everything felt so desperate, so urgent, so earth-crushingly meaningful that I needed a band like this one just to offer some kind of release.

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Wrecking Ball ATL 2016.

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Gallery

Photographer: Carlo Cavaluzzi

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