The Best Things We Saw at Oblivion Access 2023: Earth, BEAK>, GEL, and More

Highlights from year two of the underground Austin music festival

Earth at Central Presbyterian Church (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Not just setting local temperature records for the month of June, this year’s Oblivion Access marked a new high for the homegrown heavy music festival.

The four-day gathering’s experimental roundup of cross-generational rarities, while difficult to summarize by genre, generated easy-to-see community pockets – from the underage fans up front for Duster’s Texas debut to the long lines camped out hours ahead of Earth’s rare performance. New partnerships, including with Stereogum and a national publicity firm, also leveled up Oblivion Access’ second year (following three iterations under the name Austin Terror Fest).

Hear more below from Chronicle writers on the most memorable sets from the festival’s 23 showcases.

Duster (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Duster’s Cosmic Texas Landing

While some may remember Duster’s late Nineties origins and subsequent disappearance into oblivion for 18 years, others – myself included – found a portal into the slowcore band’s discography through TikTok, where the tender lo-fi strums of 1998’s “Inside Out” soundtrack overly dramatic poetry and late-night ruminations. No matter the introduction, the Californian space rockers’ sold-out Texas debut proved a long-awaited cosmic landing for Thursday attendees at Empire Garage. Perhaps an awkward crash landing, the opening minutes found them standing in complete darkness, then blinded by stage lights, then clumsily stalling through six minutes of technical difficulties following set opener “The Twins / Romantica.” Yet when the fuzzy, fluctuating riff of “Orbitron” kicked in, gravity’s pull seemed to loosen, as heads swayed back and forth while phones floated into the air.

Mostly unspeaking, the fourpiece hardly addressed the crowd, with the drawling, whispered vocals of founding members Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber only sparsely wafting atop gently growling atmospherics over 64 minutes. In a strange juxtaposition against the drowsy, droning riff of penultimate song “Echo, Bravo,” one fan somehow managed to crowd surf while festivalgoers cheered. Finally, as the closing scintillations of final transmission “Stars Will Fall” trailed off and the quartet left behind an empty stage washed in red, the crowd erupted further into unanswered demands for an encore. – Wayne Lim

Narrow Head (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Narrow Head Returns with Cool Moments of Clarity

Even before entering, the hot air acoustics were immediately obvious. Empire Control Room was going to be the dankest, most sweltering place festivalgoers would be expected to lodge their slowly melting bodies. Luckily, for close to an hour Thursday night, the performance space – though still broom-closet-sized and cattle-chute-cramped – became the very definition of “Cool in Motion.” Thank Dallas-founded, Houston-based alt-metal heroes Narrow Head. Though sometimes violent, frequently melancholy, and always heaving forward with shrouded purple weight, the band’s songbook is consistently melodic and thick with anthemic heft.

In the context of a festival that prioritizes esoterica, those pop smarts hit like a crisp blast of A/C. With the four guitar-wielding members stacked up front in a line like a row of box fans, it kinda literally hit like a crisp blast of A/C (especially if you think of drummer Carson Wilcox as the tucked away extension cord providing electrical energy). Though Narrow Head has played Austin twice before in the last six months (in support of Moments of Clarity, their third album and best yet), this tour-ending performance seemed a special one for the band, with frontman Jacob Duarte becoming emotional when thanking friends in the audience. – Julian Towers

Chat Pile (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Chat Pile Celebrates Texas Cinema

With basslines that lurch forward like malfunctioning conveyor belts, bandsaw guitars, and a pervading slaughterhouse atmosphere, the middle American sludge metal of Chat Pile is defined by a vividly cinematic sense of place. But when the massively hyped band took the Elysium and Mohawk stages for two (mostly distinct) sets on Thursday and Friday, the place that overtook vocalist Raygun Busch’s between-song banter wasn’t the band’s native Oklahoma City. “Do you realize you’re living on hallowed ground?” he asked the crowd. “Did you know they shot the Friday the 13th remake just a little way away from here?”

Beginning with Richard Linklater’s 1990 debut Slacker, which Busch described formatively discovering as an adolescent, the vocalist ran down every Austin shot movie he could recall. Eventually his attention winnowed down to one Austin-born filmmaker in particular, Tobe Hooper, whose Bastrop-shot masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, shares a great deal of American horror story resonance with the music Chat Pile played both evenings – songs of poverty, desperation, and madness that mine a ravaged commercial landscape for the never-ending terror that capitalism buries in plain sight. – Julian Towers

Lil Ugly Mane (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Lil Ugly Mane Is Fully Keyed In

“Shut up! Let him speak!” That was how one fan silenced the packed, energized Empire crowd when it became clear that Lil Ugly Mane – aka Travis Miller, the famously reclusive 39-year-old Virginia rapper, producer, and freewheeling avant-garde creative – was going to address the drama of the last several weeks. Without getting too into messy, uncomfortable details here (a Google search should suffice) recent developments in the artist’s mental and physical well-being had rendered this Friday Oblivion Access performance the only date left standing on an otherwise canceled tour. But if Miller was indeed only three days out of “a facility,” as he informed his audience of devoted fans, no level of societal adjustment or weariness could be detected in the man’s ridiculously tight microphone game.

A sharp contrast to last year’s high-concept Mohawk performance, which cut down on music in favor of Ugly Mane’s banter with an animatronic dog, the no-nonsense setlist ignored Miller’s recent weirdo-rock experiments to instead pull primarily from 2012’s Memphis-hip-hop-inspired Mista Thug Isolation. Spitting his heart-bleeding rhymes and tongue-twisting flows, Ugly Mane was fully keyed in – at one point even pulling down his sunglasses when rapping “look into my eyes.” Still, for all the triumph of his virtuosity, the darkness of the material meant a pervading melancholy still hung in the air. “Death,” Ugly Mane intoned, taking a lengthy pause before adding, “it’s an option.” – Julian Towers

Agriculture (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Agriculture’s Joyous Metal Exercise

Three out of four wearing shorts, Los Angeles noise act Agriculture prepared the room for some seriously athletic feats. Vocalist/bassist Leah Levinson hopped vertically during soundcheck, while vocalist/guitarist Daniel Meyer-O’Keeffe smartly directed traffic. Mohawk indoors already felt full in the early sets of San Francisco label the Flesner’s Friday showcase, leaving some typically untapped space on the room’s far right. Any raised eyebrows over the band’s “ecstatic black metal” ID were completely blown off in the cohesion of screams, cymbals, and fluid guitar harmonies, delivered with a sporty hardcore sensibility.

Drummer Kern Haug’s mouth never closed once, between two serious mutton chops. Most magnetic was Levinson’s big, strained grin while shrieking on the mic, cut with chest thumps, tongue stick-outs, and use of those bunny hops for blasts of feedback. When not obscured by hair flips, Meyer-O’Keeffe looked delightfully surprised by his own anxious guitar licks. He broke up the co-screaming catharsis with a halftime singer-songwriter solo, devotionally leading into new single “Look, Pt. 1.” An engaged Flesner fan then just called out “album,” prompting mention of Agriculture’s self-titled LP emerging in July. Latest “The Glory of the Ocean” ended gameplay. You certainly couldn't discern, but they offered some pretty joyous lines: “Yes! This it! This is the ocean!” – Rachel Rascoe

Sprain (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Sprain’s Cult of Intensity

There’s usually a lot of slow, meaningful hugging in documentaries about self-improvement sects. This is what Alex Kent and April Gerloff, half of Sprain, engaged in onstage before their Friday Mohawk set, potentially as part of the carefully-choreographed chaos to come. With the house lights still on, a whole-quartet-at-once blast sent fans digging for earplugs before Kent shouted, “Weasels! Every last one of you!” Shoe-in for Oblivion Access based on a 2018 slowcore song called “True Norwegian Black Metal,” Sprain embraced (and intensely deconstructed) the louder post-hardcore palette of 2020 LP As Lost Through Collision onstage.

What started as a unit – utilizing drumsticks on both guitars like an ascending airplane engine – evolved into a ceaseless wave with vocal interludes. Gerloff and guitarist Alex Simmons busied themselves applying rosin to violin bows to drone out some final 15 minutes, while drummer Clint Dodson took just-percussion intermittent solos. Putting down the guitar, the charismatic, tortured Kent looked genuinely close to tears at the keyboard climax. Reluctant guru, he faced away from the crowd diagonally, towards a large column. Instagram stories report that the vocalist intensified further as a lit-up Austin Police Department car circled their Saturday aftershow under Montopolis Bridge. – Rachel Rascoe

Earth (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The Religious Experience of Earth 2

Sitting in a sanctuary waiting for Seattle drone legends Earth to take the chancel, the crowd couldn’t help but speak in hushed tones, just like one would before a Sunday sermon began. This only intensified the beautiful juxtaposition of hallucinogenic, cosmic visuals projected across the width of the chapel of Central Presbyterian Church – all serving to draw the congregation deep into the relentless, ambient mind of Dylan Carlson. Along with drummer Adrienne Davies, the core duo was joined by two additional guitarists, Jonas Haskins and Brett Netson, and frequent collaborator Bill Herzog on bass to perform their first full length and fan favorite album Earth 2 in its entirety.

A cornerstone in the development of drone metal, the LP’s unrelenting majesty oscillates between rumble and ethereal contemplativeness. Live, they left room for some improvisation and elaboration, stretching the album’s 70-minute runtime to almost 2 hours. In what some would consider the crown jewel of this year’s Oblivion Access, the band’s Saturday evening service was truly a religious experience. – Robert Penson

Thor & Friends (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Thor & Friends’ Wordless Orchestral Whirlwind

Strolling over to Empire on Saturday evening, after Fuck Money threw plastic hand grenades into the Mohawk crowd, I suspected Thor & Friends may lean into Austin maestro Thor Harris’ harsher impulses. Luckily, they didn’t. Grounded in front of the outdoor stage, the twelvepiece stuck to their minimalist, polyrhythmic compositional guns, offering a much-needed breath of fresh air. The gathering audience seemed delighted by the sensory contrast – no flashing stage lighting, no need for earplugs. Four of the crew, including Harris and core member Peggy Ghorbani, stood behind the decks on marimba, vibraphone, and more to power the mallet-based project’s whirlwind fizzle of wordless feelings: inquisitive, then determined.

Four string players also soundtracked, alternatively fit for flowing gowns in a period piece or an arthouse dystopian score. Out-of-towners wouldn’t know who led the orchestra until Harris pinged a last rhythm – bassist, lap steel player, and all peering over shoulders for the signal. The former Shearwater and Swans member solidified as conductor when he shouted each instrumentalist’s name through an orange traffic cone before their last tune. There, esteemed movie sound designer Lyman Hardy stirred a gong in an apt “My Other Body Is Astral” T-shirt. Harris held out a final tone, nothing flashy, on what may have been a baritone horn (think mini tuba). Among the fest’s overall excellent integration of Austin artists this year, he reappeared to accompany Swans co-founder Jarboe later that night. – Rachel Rascoe

BEAK> (Photo by Robert Hein)

Dance and Dark Comedy with BEAK>

At the beginning of the evening, it was unclear if BEAK>, a British threepiece that grew out of Portishead (drummer/singer Geoff Barrow) and Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters (bassist Billy Fuller), and includes guitarist/keyboardist/whipping boy Will Young, had the mojo to storm the OA castle. Clearly, they did. The trio’s motorik-inspired rock/pop – full of twisted bass riffs, enigmatic lyrics, minimalist guitar and keyboard punctuation, and danceable grooves – had enough adherents among the Empire Garage audience to sound like they were cheering on an arena band.

That comes as much from the group’s sense of humor as their appealing sonic wave; this bunch clearly never met a situation they can’t take the piss out of, especially if it involves themselves. Barrow and Fuller’s vocal harmonies won’t cause the Everly Brothers to turn in their graves, but they suited the words, and the groovy drums maintained the point of it all anyway. Drawing tunes from across their four-album career, BEAK> provided the Saturday audience rhythms they could dance to, technique they could root for, and interpersonal banter that made the answer obvious whenever Barrow asked his mates, “Do you hear anyone laughing?” You bet, and screaming, too. – Michael Toland

Faust (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Faust Ventures Far Beyond Krautrock

Like so many other artistic trends, the so-called “Krautrock” scene of the early Seventies was a loose collective of acts bound by country of origin rather than musical similarities. But even amongst a gang of outliers, Faust ventured furthest. Eschewing the motorik beat for which the movement is famous, the current version of Faust – led by original member Jean-Hervé Péron, longtime guitarist Amaury Cambuzat, and singer Jeanne-Marie Varain – brought their quaintly anarchic psychedelic rock to Austin for only the second time in their half-century career. Industrial percussion, spoken word poetry, distorted guitar riffs, warm keyboards, a sparks-throwing cement mixer, a mic'd barrel, theatrical elements (just what was the point of those women reading the Wall Street Journal onstage?), and Varain’s occasional mania put them outside even their brethren's boundaries.

Whether they were addressing recent material (“Morning Land”) or reworking golden oldies (“The Sad Skinhead,” “Miss Fortune”), the band flitted so deftly between conventional psych rock and their own weird space that it became impossible to fault them for occasionally sounding dated. When the group ended the Saturday show at with the parodic celebration “Krautrock,” the Empire Garage audience reacted enthusiastically enough for the band to line up and take a bow – probably the most mundane thing Faust did all night. – Michael Toland

GEL (Photo by Wayne Lim)

GEL Turns Up the Afternoon Heat

Though the Sunday afternoon heat peaked at 105 degrees when GEL took the Mohawk outdoor stage, neither the New Jersey hardcore quintet nor their audience seemed to care. Scorching through 10 songs in a tight 19-minute set, the punk rockers wasted no time launching howling feedback and pummelling drum fills to introduce opener “Bitchmade,” as vocalist Sami Kaiser yelled: “You cowards, come through/ Man up, come on.” Answering the raw, guttural call, the crowd supplied a steady stream of stage dives for the first time that afternoon.

Letting snarling distortion and tinnitus-inducing feedback ring between songs, the fivepiece barreled doggedly through track after track: drummer Zach Miller never relented as Kaiser paced back and forth tirelessly onstage, while guitarists Anthony Webster and Maddi Nave blazed through a flurry of crunching chords together with bassist Matthew Bobko. Despite immediately satisfying Kaiser’s demands for a circle pit to usher in thunderous finale “Out of Mind,” many festivalgoers raced back indoors just as quickly while discordant guitars continued to warble at the end of their set. Well, that’s one way to acknowledge that GEL turned up the heat. – Wayne Lim

DRAIN (Photo by Wayne Lim)

DRAIN’s Sea of Positivity

To say DRAIN are the current darlings of new wave hardcore would be an understatement. Fresh off the release of Living Proof last month, the surf punks have been riding the wave of popularity since their breakout 2020 LP California Cursed. Bedecked in matching swim trunks, the Santa Cruzers were a tidal wave of energy at Mohawk’s outdoor stage on Sunday. Right before the music kicked off, a slew of beach balls and pool floaties dispensed into the crowd, along with a welcome volley of water guns to help fight the Texas heat.

Despite heavy breakdowns and ferocious vocals, the band was a sea of positivity, with every single member smiling and laughing their way through the rowdy performance. Vocalist Sammy Ciaramitaro emanated energy and encouraged crowd participation, mixing humor and genuine affection for their fans. It was apparent in the smiles of the kids in the crowd that the love was reciprocated. With the use of hip-hop samples between songs and a much-appreciated cover of Descendents’ “Good Good Things,” the California cursed quartet had everyone swimming in upbeat vibes. Also, the band brought up a couple of fans for a marriage proposal mid-show. Congratulations, Lance and Kiara! – Robert Penson

Godflesh (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Godflesh Rages Through Their Catalog

Halfway through Godflesh’s headliner at Oblivion Access, guitarist/vocalist Justin Broadrick mentioned that the unnamed airline on which the duo flew to the states lost all of their gear, and everything onstage was a rental. “But we’ll try to have fun anyhow,” he growled. Broadrick and bassist G. Christian Green certainly didn’t pull a single punch over the course of 85 minutes, imbuing the band’s distinctive sound core – downtuned riffs, dubwise bass, the bandleader’s gravel-soaked bark, and the iciest drum machine grooves this side of the Sisters of Mercy – with their trademark burning intensity.

Godflesh immediately gave their brand new LP Purge some love by opening with its first two tracks – “Nero” and “Land Lord” boasted almost funky grooves under the usual dissonant guitar figures and throat-shredding bile. The rest of the set pulled from nearly every album in the catalog, from Us and Them’s unsettling “I, Me, Mine” (in its first live performance since 2000) and A World Lit Only by Fire’s brutal “Shut Me Down” to Streetcleaner’s pounding title track and Pure’s thundering “Spite.” The crowd’s boundless enthusiasm earned a striking two-song encore, the angular punk-metal of Selfless’ “Crush My Soul” and the grinding doomgaze of “Slateman” from the CD single “Slavestate.” It’s unclear if the band had the fun for which they hoped, but the crowd did, and let Godflesh know it as loudly as possible. – Michael Toland

The crowd at Lil Ugly Mane (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Oblivion Access, Oblivion Access 2023, Duster, Narrow Head, Chat Pile, Lil Ugly Mane, Agriculture, Sprain, Earth, Thor & Friends, BEAK>, Faust, GEL, DRAIN, Godflesh

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