Spotlight | Pretty Great Not Basic | Pretty Good Not Bad 2016
By Joseph Leroux
A New Festival in Context
Victoria has a healthy history of boutique Festivals as well as a few long-loved staples. The Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival began its sixteenth iteration the week after the PGNB weekend. Rifflandia is the well-feared indie patriarch of its kind in Victoria. The Victoria Electronic Music Festival was a long-running all-ages event that ended as a lesson in what not to do. Did anyone make it to Odd Pop?
Pretty Good Not Bad is the first festival that I felt taken into its confidence on it’s insecurities; it’s no secret that PGNB was a last-minute job. It's inception date sits around January 2016, according to the festival’s creators. While keeping that in mind it should be said that, as a whole, Pretty Good Not Bad convincingly shrugged off its newborn jitters without losing the energy inherent in a good idea.
The festival was well distributed within the downtown core of Victoria. Don’t be mislead by anyone whose first footfall into Victoria was at Ogden Point—there’s more going on down here than sweet shops, Irish bars and carriage tours. As we outlined back here, part of PGNB’s mandate was to showcase original talent in unconventional venues. They nailed it. But what an impossibly over scheduled weekend for show-goers in Victoria! Aside from PGNB, Levitation Vancouver was happening just a ferry ride away. An equally new, one-night musical endurance test fest called Odd Pop was taking place at the Victoria Event Center (just a quick stroll from Crag X, one of PGNB’s featured venues) not to mention the regular slew of local-band bar gigs to compete with.
In a city this small, all of these events are competing for basically the same audience. My own obligations at another venue caused me to miss Sean Evans and Chris Dammeyer’s piece WAV_FORMS, which was described to me in an interim between sets as “really stunning” and “ten minutes of ideas stretched over an hour.” Late but not ungrateful for the chance to see something polarizing, I shuffled into Alix Goolden Hall and sat down in one of the wooden pews. One of western Canada’s longest-creating ambient artists was at work in front of me. Loscil’s cinematic compositions moved glacially as pools of noise and melody recursed. A huge white sheet had been hung across the back wall of the church, effectively dismissing the characteristic organ of its duty as religious artifact and replacing it with something else: the only light in the room. Aerial footage of rivers bordered by dense foliage scrolled horizontally, tripping backwards in frame with the music. Across most images was embossed a soft moonlike circle of light. Someone in the pew in front of me laid down into it. Try that at your next Sunday service.
Loscil’s sparse sonic atmospheres lead easily into Laurel Halo and Comp_Zit. The festival headliner performed with a fierce-but-calm energy, moving over a table of midi interfaces and esoteric musical gear with a haunting grace. The amount of sonic ground she covered was incredible. Anxious electronics awash in noise fluidly gave way to house synths. Beats that pressed against one another never settled for long. String samples became an organic saving grace in the composition, which never paused until it ended. Above her, the abstract and almost bitcrushed visuals of Comp_Zit hung in the air; revolving cubes, mountainous textures, oceans of torn digital cloth.
I left feeling rejuvenated, convinced I had just seen some next-level shit. I’m still convinced.
If my first night at PGNB was spent in one of the most well-known venues in Victoria, my second was spent in one of its best-kept secrets. Studio Robazzo is a house of many uses, tucked away on Douglas street next to an income tax office and across from a Mexican grocer, a relatively incongruous location for this venue and the wide range of events that happen inside. The studio itself is a loft-style space featuring a ground-floor stage as well as a large mezzanine, which would host Toronto weirdos Phedre later in the evening. It is also home to a myriad of industrial and artistic tools, tucked around corners and behind false walls.
That Saturday night at Robazzo was PGNB’s modern dance showcase. It began with OKPK and Broken Rhythms, two local acts, the second having choreographed a movement piece to augment the virtuosity of the former, aka Dan Godlovitch, who is also the vice-president and artistic director of the Victoria Pretty Good Society, the nonprofit who puts on PGNB. OKPK’s spacey synths possessed an ethereal uniformity, which was only highlighted by the uncanny resemblance of the three Broken Rhythms performers to each other, dressed in metallic blue wigs. The dancers went through a crisis of identity in character, contorting into isolated forms as the music rose and fell. This sonic and visual narrative progressed through a slow removal of costume culminating in a ritual bathing scene in which the dancers dumped buckets of water on each other, and using the large plastic tubs—which had functioned up until now as shields—for what they literally were: high deep kiddie pools. OKPK’s soundtrack never once erred on the side of selfishness—of trying to steal the show—nor did it render itself obsolete by fading into dullness. Instead the balance between electro hooks and narrative was situated excellently within the movements of the Broken Rhythms dancers.
Next onstage was Berlin’s Hyenaz. Their stage show was a bit like watching two aliens, born in an alternative universe caught somewhere between Blade Runner and a kabuki performance, go through all the main stages of a relationship. While it was disappointing to see a few in the front row take the booty-shaking and fourth-wall-breaking as their cue to leave, Hyenaz performance was nothing short of otherworldly, as well as the most foreign and arresting ritual I witnessed that weekend.
Lo-fi electro duo Phedre was set to close the night, but I decided to miss it and settle for trading a fiver for a cassette of their album Golden Age. I made my way instead to Crag X Climbing Gym, Souns was just completing his set, and Magneticring was just about to begin. Both of these artists are well-practiced in making innovative, transcendent ambience, reminiscent of some of the softer Obscure Records releases. What drew me away from Phedre, however, was not so much these two artists (who both have back-catalogues well worth exploring) so much as it was the visuals of EMP Interactions, who changed the drastic angles of a sizable portion of Crag X Climbing Gym into an oscillating wall of coloured panels, a living gem on display. People either wandered in to stare for a minute, or found a spot to lie down on the crash mat floor and take it in slowly. The woman lying next to me fell asleep and so did my photographer. And who could blame them? The atmosphere of comfort was alluring, and I am sure no one would have minded if it had continued until the sun rose and brushed the visuals out of focus through the gym’s glass wall.
I spent the festival’s final evening in the lobby of the building that holds one of the trendiest cafes in town (the excellent and PGNB-sponsoring Habit Coffee) as well as the offices of the much-loathed necessary evil that is BC Ferries. Odd as it might seem in that context, The Atrium justifies itself by its visual and sonic qualities; glossy postmodern architecture, excellent acoustics, and stylized glass elevators which served as a backdrop for the night’s performance.
The rarely performing Southwoods began the night with a brief twenty-five minute set. This duo was the act-to-see for me at PGNB, after hearing their live-recorded cassette. A guitar wandered between jenky treble and feedback, then towards soft single-note voicings. There was a melodica, and a xylophone run through a fleet of guitar pedals, as well as a tabletop of more esoteric electronic musical equipment. I felt like I was watching two best friends jam in their basement through a one-way mirror.
Following them was Iceberg Ferg, a Victoria singer-songwriter with formidable fingerpicking chops and a falsetto reminiscent of postwar Appalachian folk icon Roscoe Holcomb. Ferg’s performance was marked with an unmistakable nervous sincerity. Behind him, a percussionist dabbed at skins with brushes. Someone next to me whispered “this reminds me of Dawson City.” Having never been, I couldn’t disagree. Either way I was interested by the feeling of timelessness that Iceberg Ferg’s songs seem to possess.
The final performer of the evening and the festival was Montreal-based composer Jean-Michel Blais. That night he made his western-Canadian debut with a sincerity not unlike Ferg’s, though his method of articulation was much different. The pop influenced modern-classical minimalist, who recently put out his debut LP Il on Arts and Crafts Records, made a point to stating and restating his gratefulness to the crowd for paying attention, and at their generosity, for they had risen from their seats so that their chairs could be moved. (This way, Blaise wouldn’t have to relocate his piano and thus re-tune it, as if that were even an option.) what a lovely musical host to end the final evening of Pretty Good Not Bad in the company of.
The evening ended with a short moment of thanks provided by the Victoria Pretty Good Society’s treasurer and programmer Chris Long, which ended in the audience's applause of the man himself. “We’re already planning 2017” he admitted to us. It was exactly what we all wanted to hear.
Friday photos by Sol Kauffman
Saturday and Sunday photos by Trevor Ball