This might be the strangest, most unwieldy fundraiser that's ever existed in Seattle. Now in its seventh year, Magma Festival flows in unpredictable patterns every weekend in March at venues such as Chop Suey, Heartland, Chapel Performance Space, and Hollow Earth Radio. The last named is the Central District netcasting station/quasi club that is the beneficiary of all this left-of-center music, poetry, and performance art. Headed by founder Garrett Kelly and curated by almost 20 volunteers from HER's deep pool of DJs, Magma thrives on diversity and extreme unconventionality. Some of the acts are so underground, they have no internet presence (gasp). Some are so bafflingly odd, you won't have the slightest idea how to deal with them. Magma asks a lot of you and repeatedly jabs you out of your cultural comfort zone. More often than not, though, the rewards are worth the risk.
Putting on such a beast of an event is a logistical nightmare, Kelly concedes, "but luckily we have so many people who are willing to help us and a huge volunteer pool... We also don't book the same band twice (to keep things fair), and sometimes that makes it difficult. But, ultimately, it's about pushing ourselves to explore and find interesting artists doing stuff worth showcasing. It's also so badass that the bands are so open to helping us; we really couldn't do it without them. Obviously."
Kelly says that this year's scheduling has been harder because "We're also working on a huge transition of our equipment and processes to gear up for a change to terrestrial radio," for Hollow Earth's FCC Low Power FM application. "So the festival needed to fall onto more people's shoulders. I think this is a good thing."
While Kelly tried but failed to book world-class maverick musicians Chris Corsano, Bill Orcutt, and Lonnie Holley, the lineup's still bursting with strange goodness from Seattle and other cities. Below is a necessarily concise survey of Magma's crème de la lava.
March 9, Chop Suey: For many, this show will be Magma's highlight. Outsider Casio synth sorcerer the Space Lady has fostered her legend by serenading passersby in San Francisco and Colorado (her current home) with utterly charming and naively beautiful covers of '60s and '70s hits and cult classics like the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)." Original Space Lady compositions like "Synthesize Me" sound like a bewitching, lo-fi collab between electronic pioneers Bruce Haack and Joe Meek, augmented by a voice that's a paragon of deadpan sweetness (imagine 97 Es in "sweetness"). Everything this winged-helmeted stellar woman touches turns into perfectly sparkly, spindly miniature tunes that give you a permagrin. Seattle's Goddess Kring fits snugly on this bill; she seems like a very free-spirited woman full of mystical/peaceful vibes, and her mantric songs eagerly bubble up to align your chakras. Perhaps not surprisingly, this eccentric diva's face-painting skills are insanely intricate, and her garishly colorful handiwork is unforgettable. Portland's SciFiSol (Christina Broussard) works in a more serious and modern vein of electronic music. Her productions skew toward the dark side of techno and electro, with occasional vocal intonations adding another intriguing layer to the ominous atmospheres she mongers as she spooks the dance floor.
March 15, Hollow Earth Radio: A wife/husband duo who also run the Portable Shrines arts collective, Ecstatic Cosmic Union present some of the most beautiful and blissful trance rock in the Northwest. These gentle souls drape you in an ornate, therapeutic sonic poncho. On a messier tip, Seattle trio Stalebirth create ritualistic, hypno-chaotic jams that come across like a Pacific Northwest Sunburned Hand of the Man.
March 20, Chapel Performance Space: Longtime Seattle experimentalists Climax Golden Twins perfectly embody Magma's restless unpredictability and predilection for extremes. A CGT live performance can move from the most tranquil aural Ambien to the sheer hellish miasma to Harry Smith sampledelia to gorgeous folk blues faster than you can take off a hair shirt. Jessika Kenney—winner, with husband Eyvind Kang, of 2013's Stranger Genius Award for music—is a vocalist of extraordinary range and purity of tone. She specializes in traditional Persian and Javanese styles, but you don't need an advanced degree to feel the sinuous beauty and timeless poignancy of these works. This showcase is dedicated to musical anthropologist/experimental filmmaker Harry Smith.
March 28, Hollow Earth Radio: The "Electronic Weirdo Ladies Auxiliary of HER" really worked some curatorial magic for this one. Olympia's Josef Gaard peddles exhilaratingly grim techno that's apocalyptically postindustrial. Check out his chugging epic "Siren" on SoundCloud for a sooty taste. Simic (Tacoma's Ben Block) proved his merit by executing a gripping live set of subtle, melodic techno at Hollow Earth last June that superbly built tension and mystery. Newaxeyes are my new favorite Seattle band. They do incredibly creative things with incisive beats, weird textures, and baffling song structures without sacrificing melody. They have the potential to go in several different rewarding directions, unfettered by notions of conventionality. Mark these words: Newaxeyes will be a paradigm-shifting force in this city. Portland's Strategy (Paul Dickow) is one of those gifted producers who can do many things—house, dub, post rock, ambient—extremely well, and he doesn't need a friggin' laptop to accomplish it live.