Pharmakon / Vile Creature OBEY Convention, Halifax NS, May 26

Pharmakon / Vile Creature OBEY Convention, Halifax NS, May 26
Photo: Steve Louie
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The current incarnation of Halifax's Seahorse Tavern lives in the basement of the Marquee Club, a venue space that previously went by the name "Hell's Kitchen" — "Hell" for short.
 
Either moniker would have been an appropriately scene-setting descriptor for Saturday night's OBEY Convention show. For one, the headliner — industrial noise artist Pharmakon — hails from New York City, home of the actual Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood. But it's more that the night's music felt underground and underworld in the most biblical of senses: primal, uncanny, discomforting.
 
Now ten years running, Pharmakon is project of Margaret Chardiet, a founding member of the Red Light District collective and a figurehead in the city's experimental scene since she was a teenager. It takes its name from a philosophical idea that, in its simplest terms, encompasses the meanings of both "remedy/cure" and "poison," and can also refer to the idea of a scapegoat (liked with the pharmakos human sacrifice in Ancient Greek society). That fluidity and ambiguity of meaning flowed through Chardiet's performance. Noise and melody, tone and rhythm, artist and audience — all blurred, complicated in crushing waves of distortion.
 
After literally shaking the audience to attention with a monstrous, ear-shattering pulse, Chardiet began building a rolling pattern of noise with her table full of dials and patch cords. For each song (or, more appropriately, "movement," as the 30-minute set felt like one unbroken piece), she would weave back and forth with a prize fighter's poise, snaking over the table from side-to-side until the bed of noise was fully formed.
 
Then, Chardiet would grab the microphone and bound across the stage, screaming her voice into a reverberated echo. Her eyes, filled with determined fury, were impossible to look away from — if you could see them, that is. Chardiet spent much of the set buried in the crowd: prowling around the audience, standing on tables and shrieking, hanging from the rafters, crawling on the floor. It was as if she was determined to have some sort of interaction with each ticketholder in the room, a drive that seemed generous in its emotion, but also marked by a sense of both the mischievous and the malevolent. It was provocative, at times powerful, and near impossible to look away from.
 
Slightly less theatrical but no less forceful in its noise — or its screams — Hamilton's doom duo Vile Creature opened the evening with a crushing set of riff-heavy metal. Performing songs from their post-apocalyptic sci-fi-themed record Cast of Static and Smoke, guitarist KW and drummer Vic — who identify as "a slow and heavy two-piece with anti-oppressive and fantastical leanings" — built their almost-hypnotic crescendos of distortion steadily, patiently, before letting them explode with furious, full-throated belting to spare.
 
KW is a dexterous guitarist, but he wields it more as a weapon of force than as a tool for finger-flying showmanship. Similarly, Vic's drumming is direct, simple, mighty. It was the steady union between the two parts, rather than their individual components, that made Vile Creature's set such a guttural, physical experience.
 
In a bit of unexpected juxtaposition, Vile Creature's "walk on" music was Toto's "Africa," which KW was clearly enthusiastic about. (He sang the words as the band tuned up, and at set's end included Toto among his "thank yous.") And after Pharmakon's set, the Seahorse was set to covert to a retro night, when hordes of 20-year-olds would descend into the former "Hell" to dance to songs like "Africa" and bask in the nostalgia of an age they never knew. (The balloon drop was already set up and ready to go.) One wonders if any of them would get a sense of the darkness and noise that came before them.

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