The Best Music We Saw at SXSW on Monday

Cifika in a tube, Haru Nemuri thrives live, and other highlights

Monday of South by Southwest’s music week is typically chill in comparison to the ensuing pandemonium, but when our writers hit the clubs – and a cinema – citywide to sniff out new music and exciting events, there’s ample action to recount. Here are our highlights from day one:

Cifika’s Swirling Hydrovox 2.0

Cifika (photo by Gary Miller)

I emerged from the pews of Central Presbyterian with a slight dizzy feeling in my stomach, like the kind you get with a pretty good plane landing. Such is the woozy, pleasant impact of watching projected visuals swirl in a large cylindrical tube for 30 minutes.

Ambient vocal experimenter Cifika led the otherworldly deep-sea exhibition, created in collaboration with lighting designer Alex Griff. What began as a shapeshifting jellyfish, alien internal organ, or dragon’s spine grew into a churning aquarium of amoebas and sea plankton, then a crystallized dandelion.

Cifika’s “Hydrovox 2.0” installation, originally performed at the Arko Museum of Art in the artist’s home of Seoul, loosely mimics an industrial water tank with curved translucent plastic panels. After an introductory score of softly howling, windswept industrial rumble, the artist entered her upright tunnel to a control center of electronic music-making equipment. What began as a persistent click – akin to unsuccessfully starting a gas burner – grew slowly to entrancing, drone-leaning loose pop structures, beckoned by reliable and unexpected club beats.

Her singing, positively Björk-level in force, led the effort. The artist’s soul-baring vocal capacity, represented at SXSW 2018 alongside non-Hydrovox performances upcoming this week, was also previously heard in projects for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Valentino.

The church’s pews largely obscured the singer from her seat on the ground, between flashes of visibility when she heightened her kneel. She appeared to control the light show with outstretched arms, as her and Griff’s visual tech reacted live to the imputed audio. I mostly saw a tall blue hair piece bob up and down, unsure if Cifika was meant to be seen. At times the spinning cauldron of colors almost completely obscured the artist within.

A final vocal crescendo looked like the starry birth of a galaxy, or perhaps the tadpole-y origins of life in deep-sea vents. Cymbals crashed and ghostly backing vocal layers rang out over a pulsating electronic bed. It all looked quite epic under the church’s giant cross, SXSW’s most memorable backdrop. After half an hour of passionate gesture, the rumbling soundtrack reentered. Cifika packed up her things and quietly walked out the back of her former container. – Rachel Rascoe

Haru Nemuri Is the Future

“It’s so hot on this stage,” Haru Nemuri exclaimed early into her set, flapping the microphone in an ineffectual attempt to fan her face.

Now, in fairness to Elysium’s overhead light set-up, this is an artist who spent her previous two songs in constant motion: darting around stage, performing vigorous hand signals, interrupting her motor-mouthed raps & power-chant choruses with the occasional death-metal banshee shriek, and at various intervals jumping into the crowd to hug random audience members.

Now, in fairness to Haru Nemuri – a 27 year old Japanese phenom six shows deep into her first ever North American Tour (all that remains of her initial, tragically aborted SXSW booking is a March 2020 performance on YouTube titled “unused VISA” )— this was one of the most exhilarating rock/rap/whatever shows I’ve seen this year, and I had the time of my life thrashing around with Monday night/ Tuesday morning’s crowd as we attempted to vocalize along with every foreign word. That there were no actual instruments on stage with Nemuri (just a laptop barfing up her clearly quite analog backing tracks) only emphasized the needlessness of a band to ignite her infectiously inexhaustible spark. In fact, I left Elysium wondering if Nemuri might be the only internet-damaged, Gen-Z iconoclast who makes more sense in a live-setting than on my computer. Her sonic eclecticism ceases being a “what genre is this?” distraction ( has her tagged as “Progressive Pop,” “Noise Rock,” “Japanese Hip-Hop,” among many other equally unsatisfactory designations ) and instead gets swept up by the whirlwind energy as but a component trailing her restless performative whims. Indeed, just as the rapt SXSW audience formed a circle for Nemuri to belt out her final song, her music seemed to bend rank and file to accommodate her. Catch her at Cheer Up Charlies tonight before she conquers America. –Julian Towers

Seeing the New King Crimson Doc

A few themes permeate In the Court of the Crimson King, director Toby Amies’ documentary on guitarist Robert Fripp’s British band King Crimson: the grace of creation, the tribulations of extended family, the subjective nature of time’s passage. Also, surprisingly, misery. Touch guitarist Trey Gunn likens his 10-year tenure to having “a low-grade infection.” Former frontman Adrian Belew clearly still smarts from his dismissal. Founding member Ian McDonald, who “broke Robert’s heart” by leaving after the band’s first year, seems particularly morose. Even Fripp tells Amies that, from 1969 to 2013, his time with Crimson was “wretched,” claiming that the current version is the only one in which there aren’t members “actively resenting [his] presence.” Intelligent, censorious, and determined to get out of his bandmates what he himself puts in, Fripp’s earnest philosophizing about music and unvarnished, quotable explanations make him a magnetic personality. But the late Bill Rieflin quietly dominates the film. Frankly acknowledging that his time has grown short during his battle with Stage 4 colon cancer, Rieflin succinctly speaks with wisdom and humor about the significance of playing this music in his final years; as Amies put it in the Q&A afterwards, “he demonstrates to the audience why the band fucking matters.” One of the complaints people have about King Crimson’s music is that it’s cerebral, rather than emotional, in nature. Despite that argument, In the Court of the Crimson King exposes the music’s heart. – Michael Toland

Kishi Bashi and the Art of Freeing the Soul

You know the feeling you get when the rising action in a soul-searching adventure film seesaws with the climax? How you disappear into the fictional possibilities of driving along a desolate road at sunset, or laying in the grass watching the quirky-shaped clouds float by? Kaoru Ishibashi – stage name Kishi Bashi – encapsulates this weightless invigoration with every pluck of his violin and tap of his loop station. The singer uses his background in film to illuminate not only ears but also minds of listeners, transcending them into a virtual reality-like realm of disbelief and admiration. Through song requests and conversational engagement, the Washington native allows his audience to take the wheel, making them top priority. His Japanese roots soar through his sound, creating eclectic waves of tear-forming vibrations, dripping with rich history and heartfelt spirit. The overall casual and improvised demeanor of the performance further entrenches the freeing ambience demonstrated by Ishibashi, both heavy and joyful – thus breaking through the barrier of any four-walled venue he’s confined to. – Morgan-Taylor Thomas

Wild Times at Hotel Vegas’ Spring Break Boogie

Font (photo by Tiffany Chung)

The Spring Break Boogie Kickoff served up hot acts across the trifecta of stages from Hotel Vegas to Volstead with sets imploring you to bust a move capable of bringing a glistening tear to Young MC’s eye. Newborn heavy indie rock band Font ached with whiplash highs and lows on the intimate Volstead stage, summoning post-punk Ian Curtis before ripping a progression straight-up Osees. Magic Rockers of Texas bestowed a symphony to the gods through an immaculate union of hard garage rock and country roots that let the substance of their work shine through without needless flash. Punk micro-band Montaz broke a sweat in their performance that came infused with insane drum thrashing and thick guitar pounding that was punctuated by stage crashing antics, reveling in pure, unadulterated destruction. Inside Hotel Vegas, Die Spitz ripped the crowd a new one through an unstoppable psycho-punk rampage that refused to be thwarted, even by the guy who grabbed at frontwoman Ava Schrobilgen and was promptly shoved out the door with a bellowing “Not at our shows, motherfucker!” A party foul – but not in this Thunderdome! - Mars Salazar

A Rousing Mujeres Podridas Pit

Three female-fronted acts made an impression on Monday night during the first day of official SXSW music showcases, but let’s just get the best out now and save the suspense. For my money, the standout act was Spanish-language hardcore-adjacent punk band, Mujeres Podridas, playing at the Hotel Vegas homegrown hullabaloo of local acts worth a damn. In a sea of casual, laid-back Monday events, Mujeres Podridas dared to lay down a rousing set, though the comparison isn’t quite fair to the rest. Frontwoman Dru Molina could clearly do more damage with a pinkie finger than most front acts do sleepwalking or yawning their way through their whole setlist. Lit in violent blue on the inside stage like a bunch of Violet Beauregardes about to get juiced, this seasoned group wasn’t so much highly unique as highly good. I stayed clear of the little mosh pit myself.

The runner-ups were a tie, though these two acts were wildly different. Since yours truly is a drama addict, let’s talk about London’s Nuha Ruby Ra at the Cedar Street Courtyard turned British Music Embassy, who opened ululating into two microphones like a Siouxsie without a band before parting the crowd with no idea what to do with the mostly a-melodic set of vocalizations to digital, avant backing tracks, though most seemed willing, even wanting, to go down a deep well with the artist. Traditional song structures hinted at a compelling lyricist with powers to transfix beyond her sacred/profane tone of ancient turmoil and summoning howls.

Now let’s discuss the parade of almost plastic perfection that was Miami’s electronic pop duo Magdalena Bay, with Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, who went the opposite direction with sweet filtered vocals to great effect for a sardine-packed crowd thriving on the hints of a funky Grimes and a full, fat sound. These two are allegedly old friends who once bonded over King Crimson and Genesis. “When Eighties movies show futuristic bands, it’s this,” said one attendee. – Christina Garcia

No Posers at Pozer Magazine’s Party Promoting Inclusivity in the Motorcycle Scene

Death Chant (photo by Robert Penson)

The Far Out Lounge down south kicked off their week of unofficial SX shows with a day party featuring some far out locals and retro rockers from far away. The influential Pozer Magazine, based out of California, returned to Texas to host a day of choppers, vendors, and bands. Pozer Magazine seeks to celebrate women in the custom motorcycle community, empowering them through more representation in an effort to change the scene from the traditional boys club that it has been. “We love Austin because of its inclusivity. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a Harley or a Honda, everyone is here for the bikes and the music,” said Ashlee Haeri, Pozer’s boss babe. And to celebrate Austin’s vibrant chopper scene, she teamed up with local motorhead Matt Jackson, ex-bassist of the legendary Iron Age and owner of Jackson’s Choppers, to put together a rager featuring bands from near and far. England’s Big Rig Dollhouse brought their hardrock Seventies stylings to open things up, while local stoner rock giants Duel and the Well provided their uniquely Austin brand of heavy psychedelic musings. Everyone was in full bell bottomed form, but the night wasn’t complete until up and coming L.A. outfit Death Chant capped the party off with their modern brand of heavy stoner rock. Between the spliffs and the Sportsters, it was a day of decadence from decades gone by. – Robert Penson

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Sifika, Hari Nemuri, King Crimson, Kishi Bashi, Hotel Vegas, Mujeres Podridas, Pozer Magazine, SXSW 2022, SXSW Music 2022

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