Bradford Baily

The Lowdown on Substrata's Highbrow Experimentation

It's time again for that splendid display of rarefied drones and other unconventional, highbrow musical manifestations known as Substrata. For the fourth year in a row, Rafael Anton Irisarri has booked an extraordinary festival composed of artists who rarely venture to Seattle. He and his wife, Rita, recently had most of their possessions stolen before they moved to New York in June, so this event will surely have even more resonance than usual for them. Let's look at who's going to be expanding your mind this year in the acoustically magnificent Chapel Performance Space.


New York–based Canadian cellist Julia Kent—who's played with the art-pop groups Antony and the Johnsons and Rasputina—wrings profoundly beautiful and morose sonorities from her instrument, with subtle augmentation from electronics and field recordings. Her most recent album, Character, nestles in that lofty space between chamber music and the solemn, achingly poignant post-rock of artists like Mono and Eluvium. Mills College grad Gregg Kowalsky plays in the sublime trance-rock unit Date Palms, but also has issued two albums on Kranky Records—Through the Cardial Window and Tape Chants—that thrust him to the upper echelon of drone-centric composers. Using guitar, violin, melodica, shruti box, gongs, and computer, Kowalsky transmutes their essences into some of the most transcendent tone soup your ears have ever smelled. (Synesthesia guaranteed.) Germany's Markus Guentner has been perhaps the most consistently brilliant contributor to Kompakt Records' revered Pop Ambient compilations. Which means that his abilities as a generator of beatless music that both prettifies the air and stirs your emotions are among the highest in the whole game. His tracks are at once soothing and levitational, swathing you in ambrosial aural cloudstuff. Aaahhh...


You know Carl Hultgren from his placid, spangling guitarscapes in the long-running Dearborn, Michigan, duo Windy & Carl—right? He finally issued a solo album this year (titled Tomorrow), and it's a sweet dose of his familiar spectral six-string meditations and gilded cascades of loner drones. Lovely. Australian composer/multi-instrumentalist Sanso-Xtro (Melissa Agate) creates a kind of introspective, enchantingly other electronic folk music that recalls outlier artists like Aksak Maboul, Nuno Canavarro, and Colleen. Guitarist Koen Holtkamp has helped lift New York duo Mountains to the forefront of the pastoral ambient movement with his plangent, delicately arrayed oscillations. His solo work doesn't deviate much from Mountains', and that's a good thing. Holtkamp just gives you more of that tranquil, transportive guitar radiation and those yellow-orange drones to ease your damned urban tensions.


Most folks, your columnist included, are beyond thrilled that Finnish minimal-techno legend Mika Vainio is crossing the Atlantic to grace us with his uniquely icy and monomaniacal takes on ambient and bare-bones dance music. An innovator of noise-infused techno with Pan Sonic, Vainio (aka Ø) has created a bountiful canon of Andrei Tarkovsky–soundtrack worthy analog synthscapes and industrial- disaster techno. Might be prudent to bring earplugs. Evan Caminiti made his rep in the two-man guitar-desperado lineup of Thrill Jockey artists Barn Owl. Like a slightly more cosmic late-period Earth, Barn Owl loft grandiloquent, twangy, astral drones for those blessed with long attention spans. In his solo work, Caminiti adds synthesizer to his guitar machinations to produce a more interiorized strain of contemplative zoners that may tickle the tympanic membranes of anyone who flipped for those mid-'70s Fripp/Eno LPs. On records like Dreamless Sleep and Night Dust, Caminiti's compositions bloom at the intersection of deep thought and profound bliss. The wife-husband duo of Mamiffer (multi-instrumentalist Faith Coloccia and ex-Isis guitarist Aaron Turner) patiently build somber, majestic songs that sound like doom metal transposed to the conservatory. A mysterious, elegiac mood informs Mamiffer's ennobling gestures and Coloccia's stoic, dulcet vocals. Listening to their music is one of the heaviest ways to get lifted. recommended

Substrata Festival runs July 17–19 at the Chapel Performance Space, 7 pm, $40 single day/$100 three-day pass, all ages. More info at