San Diego is a town of perpetual sunshine, but it casts a long shadow. This is no surprise to those who have dwelled in the dank corners of San Diego's musical community. Experimental credibility goes back decades. Avant garde vocalist Diamanda Galás and industrial pioneer Boyd Rice were born here. Many a visionary has been taking music to strange extremes—sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying. That experimental spirit thrives in events like the "Stay Strange" series by promoter and label owner Sam Lopez, as well as through a number of innovative and curious artists. Here are five of the best bands casting a brilliant darkness over San Diego.
Riververb has been leaving a mark on San Diegoís noise scene since the mid-'90s. The mostly improvisational collective began as the duo of Frank Melendez and Leon Franklin Hyatt, though it's gone in and out of being active over the years. When Hyatt died in 2003 Melendez had to decide whether to continue soldiering on with their disorienting, freakish sound bursts. He did, reviving it in 2004 with a revolving cast of musicians.
"I started out just doing it myself to attract like-minded people. Then more people would join over a period of time. Some would join for just one night," Melendez says. "It's always evolving."
Riververb's repertoire includes homemade instruments, masks, costumes and their most important tool: spontaneity. Live performances are notoriously intense. Their recordings are just as experimental in nature, using unusual techniques to find their sounds.
"We'll play in the dark," Melendez says. "You deprive yourself of sight—like total darkness. You have to feel your way through it. It makes you more aware."
KATA is a metal band. Or, maybe they're an ominously beautiful post-rock band. Then again, the eclectic octet, which features members of Ilya, might be both. The band's debut album The Rising is a slow moving, gothic behemoth that balances moments of delicate beauty with overwhelming power. It can sometimes take their compositions a while to fully reveal themselves, but as guitarist Demetrius Antuña says, their biggest inspirations are bands that craft epics.
"We wanted to mix Godspeed You! Black Emperor with Neurosis," Antuña says. "When it comes to vocals, though, we wanted it to be more beautiful."
KATA is working on their second album, Descent, which is tentatively slated for release in early 2016. KATA's songs tend to stretch well beyond 10 minutes apiece, though, so it can take a long time for one composition to reach completion.
"We move pretty slow with songwriting," Antuña says. "We work in sections. They're kind of like orchestral movements."
When Carrie Gillespie Feller moved to Spring Valley, her new home proved to be a source of peculiar inspiration. Strange phenomena began to take place. Ojects would go missing and show up later in unexpected places. She and her husband began to think other forces were at play.
"We started to think maybe the house was haunted," she told me in an interview in August.
That haunted sensibility seeps into her music, which marries the ethereal gloom of darkwave with a distorted, almost shoegaze-like aesthetic. It's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, and even more so on a song like "Enyo," which climaxes with a pitch-shifted voice that lends a disturbing element. As Feller explained to me, a lot of that darkness comes from a personal place.
"It's just sort of about confronting ghosts from your past," she says.
Die Miﬂbildungen Des Menschen is an immersive, sensory experience. Scott Nielsen, Joshua Quon and Michael Zimmerman are the musical core of the band, crafting pulsing, rhythmic pieces and more freely floating ambient and noise compositions. The fourth member of the band is Xavier Vasquez, who is responsible for the visual aspect of the group. His striking, widescreen projections add a disorienting yet compelling element to the group's live performances. What you see is often a representation of the band's name, which translates from German to "the deformities of man."
"It's the name of a 19th century textbook that details human deformities," Nielsen says. "We use some of the textbook in our visuals. The book was written before photography, so it's mostly illustrated depictions."
The band's music is alternately chaotic and hypnotic, as well as reflective of experimental art rock of a bygone era. Nielsen counts German kosmische music as their greatest influence, which they use as a springboard for something new.
"I got really into Cluster, Neu!," he says. "I love Can's spontaneous composition. That music has always spoken to me."
Monochromacy is one man: Esteban Flores. The guitarist only performs solo, without drum machines or other instruments. To Flores that's more a strength than a drawback. When his distorted, droning ambient creations take shape, they become massive things to behold. There sometimes comes a point where his mixture of feedback, melody, delay and distortion intertwines into a strange new sound unto itself—one that might not even be recognized as a guitar. The irony is that his ability to make those sounds comes directly from becoming more skilled at his instrument.
"I started getting into open tunings, and I saw how easy it was to play a melody," Flores says. "So I started just adding effects, and I noticed there were no seams to what I was doing."
In a live setting, Monochromacy's music can be overwhelming. His performance at the St. Francis Chapel in Balboa Park earlier this year was almost spiritual in nature. The swell of his sonic treatments were felt as much as they were heard. Yet Flores says he's careful to keep it from becoming too overbearing.
"The most important thing I've learned is sounding loud without being loud," he says. "Learning to use your amplification means you can sound powerful, but not being so loud that you're clearing out the room."
Monochromacy performs on Friday, Oct. 16 at The Tree House.