Seeing the Skeletal Lighting Fest announcement back in January was a celebratory moment for myself and many others—after Pygmalion in the fall, the smattering of Miller Lite soaked cover bands on street stages that pass for music festivals the rest of the year simply wasn't cutting it. So, seeing a community-booked event with cheap tickets, an awesome venue, and most vitally non-stagnant musical acts was a relief. But it also raised questions; would the venue be respected (in the words of Channing-Murray venue manager Matt Sulikowski, "nobody's been a dick"), would people actually show up (they did, en masse), would the dreaded spectre of "punk time" put a damper on the proceedings (it didn't), and ultimately, if it would be a success—which it was, in grand fashion.
Label founder Sean Hermann kicked off the festival Friday night on bass with Enta, who debuted two new songs that recalled Godspeed You Black Emperor, plus fan favorite "Become". Despite battling equipment problems, Boilerman and Droughts followed with punchy sets that upped the energy level and filled up the floor. Restore's treble-laced two guitar attack worked well in the chapel, where the bass was sometimes in danger of overwhelming the rest of the sound due to the room's high ceilings and strong echo. But from the onset, it was clear that the majority of the crowd showed up to see Native. No strangers to Champaign-Urbana (according to lore, their first show took place in Urbana, at a house on Illinois Street), Native are if nothing else a well-oiled machine. Nobody else sounded as technically tight all weekend, but this set never took off from an energy standpoint for me. Despite their phenomenal instrumental interplay, what I saw of this performance was regrettably clinical. I'm inclined to chalk it up to an off night and a setlist mostly featuring material unfamiliar to the audience, though.
Day two began with a characteristically exuberant set from Easter, filling in last-minute for Commodity, with a some help from Crippled Sound's John Menchaca, who filled in on drums at the start of the set in addition to running sound in the Herring all day. While the last month's "comeback" show on the same stage was an exploratory and somewhat tentative affair, Saturday's set was a reaffirmation. To wit, Kyle Lang pogoed so hard at one point that he lost his hat. "All the People That I Love the Most" saw the first of the day's many moshes, ranging from upbeat to angry. This one was by far the most welcoming that I encountered. Upstairs, Hank debuted a new lineup containing the addition of Ryan Brewer [Good Night & Good Morning] on guitar, adding yet another layer to their frenetic, tapped chaos. Alongside familiar tracks such as "Peas", the band played several new songs slated for a July full-length.
Moving into heavier territory, Nashville group Altar of Complaints followed Hank with a hungry set that won over a sizeable portion of the crowd. They do an excellent job at drawing in progressive influences, with several songs seeming to echo the ascending roar of mid-period Isis. Our Lady drew from a similar well, aided by a well-utilized electric cello.
Brighter Arrows' open, melodic sound fit the chapel better than perhaps anyone else on the lineup, and they utilized it to full effect, opening with a quick rendition of "Severance" before hitting the meat of their set in a 10+ minute new song (or possibly, several songs). Their patience and willingness to let a musical idea evolve to its full conclusion set them apart from many of their peers, and judging from the crowd reaction, they and tourmates Altar of Complaints made a lot of new fans this day.
After Aseethe mashed out an blanketingly heavy, codeine-tempo set downstairs, Foxing hit the chapel with the first marquee set of the day. Along with Kittyhawk, they were a welcome/breath of fresh air and (relative) calm compared to the sweat and noise of the rest of the day. Kittyhawk were a significant highlight, turning in a phenomenal rendition of "Partial Paradigms" from their self-titled EP (out on Skeletal Lightning), and also had—in this critic's opinion—the best merch item of the weekend in day-glo knit beanies, narrowly beating out Boilerman's used book "distro".
Downstairs, things began to get a little nuts. Canyons' set was characterized by a relentless, violent mosh, tempered by Bobby Johnson's irrevocably earnest exhortations that the audience work together and build something. Coma Regalia do a bassless take on screamo, putting the focus fully on the engaging rhymic interlocking between their busy drum patterns and minimal guitar. Before launching into their last song, the band's drummer/vocalist quipped "We wanna do a split with every single band here!" This was a popular sentiment, with the word "stacked" being thrown around as liberally as the bodies all weekend. I went in to roughly half of these acts blind, and I don't believe I saw more than one or two that didn't bring it to their fullest ability. It's a testament to the lineup that is actively gets bands excited to be playing an ultimately is able to elevate the musical level of the weekend.
Chicago's Lord Snow could not have provided a sharper contrast to Kittyhawk, the lineup's other female-fronted band. Vocals shrieked to the point of cracking lent the band a claustrophobic and menacing edge which combined fantastically with their frantic, complex instrumentals, which showed the practiced seasoning that their pedigree suggests (the group boasts former members of notable Chicago punk groups Raw Nerve, Suffix and Lautrec). This highlight was followed by another in Cleveland post-metal band Locktender, whose steamroller of a set was powered by a pair of imposing, oversized cabs running off Orange heads.
Expectations ran high for group Dowsing in the chapel, who breezed through a headliner-length 25 minute set with ease, showing why they are consistently mentioned in the same breath as the Chicago scene's established heavyweights. After they announced "we've got something special for you", Urbana was treated to the live debut of Pet Symmetry, Dowsing's pop-punk collaboration with Evan Weiss, aka Into It. Over It. They quickly ran through two songs slated for their debut 7", Two Songs About Cars. Two Songs With Long Titles.
I'd imagine Northless have never met a loudness gauntlet that they couldn't conquer. Setting up a Jucifer-esque wall of Emperors in the chapel, their glacial riffs became a immersive, physically encompassing experience. Even with the earplugs that festival-goers streamed to the front entrance to get a hold of, it was impossible to not be subsumed into the wall of noise that permeated every free bit of the humid air. Along with fellow Milwaukeeans Protestant, they brought the heaviest performances in a day brimming with excessive volume. Immediately following Northless downstairs were Thieves, who turned in a performance that was nothing short of miraculous. In a lineup filled with bands who live and die by their live intensity, they stood head and shoulders above the rest, feeding off a ferocious pit and blindingly quick guitar work. Upstairs, the Reptilian were almost fully encircled by the crowd, which spilled up onto the stage and onto the tables and stacks of chairs running around the sides of the room. When the band's guitarist decided mid-solo to join the near-constant stream of crowd surfers, the floor became a single collective organism, bathed in sweat and roaring its approval. Ultimately, this communalism is what made this such a memorable weekend. It's the lifeblood of any healthy scene, running through everything from the distros that flocked to the festival like microbuses at a Grateful Dead show (even without live music, one could have spent several hours simply crate-digging) to those who kept fellow concertgoers safe in the pit.
Into It. Over It. closed the day out, bucking expecations with a unplugged solo set in the midst of a sitting crowd. While it may not have been the electric, cathartic release that many in attendance were seeking (honestly, I don't think it could have gotten more cathartic than the Reptilian's set), it was a deft way to cut through the acoustical haze in the chapel and put the focus fully on Evan Weiss' lyrics. Judging by the sing-alongs, those who wanted it badly enough still got their kicks in.
While I missed their set earlier in the day, Kansas City's Texas Instruments put in an admirable effort despite a crowd going into it's twelfth hour of music that day, winning over those filing into the Math Lab by the end of their set. A reunited Diamond Stretch then laid downtuned waste to the living room, proving that they haven't lost a step on "Clown Nouns" and especially "Metal", which got a huge response on its gang vocal section. Those who still had energy to stand after a solid 14 hours witnessed the departure of one of C-U's favorite sons, Midstress. From the first notes of "I'm From the Midwest, I'm Soft Spoken", this was an emotional outpouring between the band and crowd—at the really good show (this being one of the best), the buffer between the two vanishes and they become one. I could keep throwing out adjectives and pieces of the setlist here, but anyone who cares that much was most likely there. I'll just say that twenty-four hours later, I'm throat-deep in herbal tea and can't speak above a whisper.
All photos courtesey of Sean O'Connor.