The Outside Lands Festival went big and broad, seeking large crowds with disparate bookings across genres and audiences. While its name might be similar, the On Land Festival is in many ways the exact opposite, offering a weekend sampling of psych, drone and experimental acts in the more intimate venues of Cafe Du Nord and the Swedish American Hall. Curated by the local Root Strata label, who have released albums by many of the featured artists, there's a rich collection of experimental artists to see, led by some compelling headliners.
Portland, Oregon's Liz Harris is Grouper, headlining the fest's Sunday night show at the Swedish American Hall. Harris's third full length, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, reached many critics' Best of 2008 lists. It's a remarkable mix of sparse guitar and beautiful vocals partially obscured by layers of reverb and fuzz. Things drift in and out of focus throughout, which leads to some wonderfully meditative moments of clarity. Grouper will be joined by Christina Carter, co-founder of the Texas psych-experimental group Charalambides. Carter's solo vocals/guitar/effects dynamic may sound familiar, but there's less pop in Carter's improvisational approach.
San Francisco's Tarentel have performed everything from spacious post-rock compositions to dissonant free-form rock-outs. Reviewers seem to frequently describe the band's latest double CD on Temporary Residence, Ghetto Beats On The Surface Of The Sun, as "sprawling;" the two disc set features noise rock explorations and beautiful moments alike. The band headlines Saturday night's show. Tarentel's Danny Paul Grody is also pulling double duty at On Land, with a solo performance on Saturday afternoon. Grody's debut album comes out later this year, and the acoustic instrumental songs he has posted online show how rich a single guitar and atmospheric sounds can feel.
The members of SF's Barn Owl (Sunday night) used to play in metal bands, so it may be a little surprising to hear them join forces to explore droney psychedelia. The duo write compelling guitar melodies interwoven with minimal layers of otherworldly sounds. The results can be surprisingly loud, harnessing the intensity of heavy music while remaining far afield of metal's brutality. Both Barn Owl and Ducktails (Saturday night) have released LPs on the Not Not Fun label. While there's a cinematic feel to both bands, the latter's work aims for an entirely different aesthetic. Employing electric guitar, synths and drums, Ducktails' songs percolate with wandering melodies and analog warmth. Even though Ducktails' Matthew Mondanile is from New Jersey, the music has a strong classically West Coast pop feel.
With over twenty diverse acts performing over the weekend, the first On Land Festival has a lot to offer. If you're experimentally-inclined, it'd be difficult to find a stronger collection of musicians doing creative things with sound and space.