Grimy death metal from Ossuary, Afro-Colombian music from Grupo Rebolu, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY MAY 23
WisCon 43 Guests of Honor Reception: Charlie Jane Anders, G. Willow Wilson. A Room of One’s Own, 6 p.m. (free)
The annual WisCon, which marks its 43rd edition over Memorial Day weekend at the Madison Concourse Hotel, bills itself accurately as a “a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention,” while accomplishing much more. The convention’s panel discussions, workshops, social gatherings, and celebration of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award offer attendees myriad windows into sci-fi’s ability to help us imagine different ways of living and to empower marginalized people of all kinds. The WisCon schedule is less about celebrating any one author than it is about highly participatory programming, but things customarily kick off on Thursday night at A Room of One’s Own with readings from a couple guests of honor. This year, they’re both writers I’d heartily recommend catching up on: Charlie Jane Anders and G. Willow Wilson.
Wilson’s two novels so far, 2012’s Alif The Unseen and this year’s The Bird King, and her comics writing, including the 2007 Vertigo graphic novel Cairo, deftly interweave the magic and lore of the Islamic world with the political realities that drive her stories. In Alif The Unseen and Cairo, that means modern authoritarianism and ethnic tensions. In The Bird King, it means the Spanish Inquisition coming to swallow up a sultanate in decline. In all three, Wilson’s protagonists form alliances with the jinn, supernatural creatures whose ethics and physics intersect with those of human beings in slippery and morally complex ways. Rather than dazzle or thrill by themselves, Wilson’s jinn characters tend to shed light on the empathetic depth of her human characters. Alif The Unseen brings in yet another complex layer: The title character is a young hacker who runs afoul of the digital surveillance state, and Wilson turns his frenzied bouts of coding into elegant, otherworldly battles. As Alif confronts a malevolent intelligence official known ominously as The Hand, he also grapples with how to reconcile faith with the digital age, the torments of young love, and his conflicted identity as a person of mixed Arab and Indian ancestry. (Speaking of complex identities, one supporting character in Alif is, like Wilson, an American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.) The balance here of literary sophistication and solid genre-fiction momentum make Alif an astonishingly well-realized debut novel. The Bird King‘s tale of a royal concubine and a mapmaker on the run from a ruthless Inquisitor feels a bit subtler on the surface, but it’s just as rewarding.
Anders’ latest novel, this year’s The City In The Middle Of The Night, takes place on January, a forbidding planet to which humans have imported their nationalistic rivalries (along with a heavy bit of denial about same) and tendency toward cruelty and conformism. Half of January always faces an overpowering sun and half remains in perpetual darkness, and human cities exist uneasily along the midway points. In one, Xiosphant, society runs on a strictly enforced cycle of sleeping and waking, an arcane currency system, and a sort of terrified regard for time itself. Police forces dump a young student, Sophie, on the “night” side of the planet to starve or freeze to death, but she survives the execution and forms a bond with an intelligent race of creatures native to the planet. This touches off a series of spartan, far-flung adventures and revolutions, but Anders winds them up into a taut structure, balancing Sophie’s perspective with that of a hard-bitten smuggler named mouth. While not set on earth, The City In The Middle Of The Night shares some of the climate-crisis themes of Anders’ 2016 novel All The Birds In The Sky, and both novels revolve around the stormy evolution of youthful friendships. The two novels are quite different beasts—Birds a bit more of a bizarro magic-laced fairy tale and City more of a spectacularly dark sci-fi journey. That just means that Anders, like Wilson, is a versatile storyteller who hopefully still has much to give the world of science fiction and fantasy. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY MAY 24
The New York City-based band Grupo Rebolu draws on the melodic and rhythmic traditions of Afro-Colombian music—a mix as complex as the migrations, ethnicities, and geographies that shaped it. The core trio of Ronald Polo, Johanna Castañeda, and Morris Canate grew up in different corners of Colombia ( Castañeda in the inland capital of Bogotá, Polo and Canate in Barranquilla, up on the country’s Atlantic coast), and in a concert last year at the Kennedy Center the lineup also included six other excellent musicians on brass, percussion, bass, vocals, and guitar. Polo’s compositions and his performances on both vocals and a flute called the gaita are a highlight, while Castañeda anchors the group’s vocals. Canate leads a fantastically versatile percussion section, steering the band through both insistent, high-tempo dance numbers and equally accomplished slow-burners. . Grupo Rebolu’s new album, Tiempos Buenos, is due out later this year. The title translates literally to “good times” or “better times”; the title track and its accompanying video apply that concept to the immigrant experience and the yearning for peace, with a balance of groove and hopeful solemnity. I’m not entirely clear on whether this show at Robinia will feature a big nine-piece lineup, but either way it’s worth taking the opportunity to see the band in a relatively small venue. And outdoors, if the weather cooperates.
Madison band Acoplados, who also hold down a Thursday Latin jazz jam and dance night at Robinia, will be playing as one of the support acts here. Acoplados offers its own widely varied cross-section of Afro-Latin music: Percussionist/vocalist Juan Tomás Martínez is of Venezuelan heritage and guitarist Richard Hildner grew up in a Peruvian immigrant household. (Both are actually natives of Madison, and both play in another solid Latin-jazz outfit, Golpe Tierra.) Acoplados started as a duo and has expanded to include an excellent array of brass and percussion players and bassist Nick Moran (also a Peruvian-American Madison native). The other Madison-based outfit opening up here, Son Del Atlantico, will offer its own take on Afro-Colombian music, which also incorporates elements of reggae and funk. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY MAY 25
Chicago-based saxophone and bass clarinet player Keefe Jackson plays here with three other musicians who seem to thrive when pushing into extremes and blurry sonic borderlands. Jackson, cellist Lia Kohl, and bassist Jason Roebke all exemplify what’s so exciting about Chicago’s jazz and improvised-music community right now: They’re able to harness the techniques of jazz in ways that transcend familiar points of reference. The same goes for violist Jen Clare Paulson, who established her own ties in that community before moving to Madison in 2004. Paulson’s activities here have included playing in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, leading an experimental string trio called Sheba, playing fiddle for bluegrass band Milkhouse Radio, and performing on the Japanese koto. She has also collaborated with leading avant-jazz artists including Ken Vandermark, Tim Daisy, and Kyle Bruckmann. (Also, if you take your stringed instruments to Spruce Tree for repairs/setups, Paulson might have worked on it.)
For this show at Arts + Literature Lab, the four musicians have promised “a spring evening of strings and reeds sounds, strategies, and vibrations” and that they will be “digging hard, diving deep, and making small motions, altogether and separately.” That could end up sounding like any number of things, given the breadth of work all these artists have done as composers, improvisers, and collaborators. On a 2015 recording with drummer Julian Kirshner and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jackson sticks almost entirely to the abstract and dissonant sounds one can make with reed instruments, but it feels natural and fluid rather than confrontational or strained. Kohl’s recent projects include Pocket Full Of Bees, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Macie Stewart (of Ohmme and Ken Vandermark’s Marker project). The record combines Kohl’s cello and vocals and Stewart’s violin and vocals into wordless drones and undulating soundscapes. Roebke’s nimble, warm bass playing capably works the boundary between tuneful jazz and the disorienting avant-garde, and few things capture that better than his work in an ensemble that features saxophonist Greg Ward and modular synth player Brian Labycz. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY MAY 26
Wurst Times’ grassroots response to Brat Fest—less weird politics, and this year less Smash Mouth—consists this year of 30-odd Wisconsin-based artists playing the High Noon’s main stage as well as outdoors in the patio and on the parking lot. As usual, money from beers and brats sold at Wurst Times will go to benefit the Madison Area Music Association, Guitars for Vets, and the Wil-Mar Community Center. For this ninth edition of Wurst Times, the music ranges from hard rock to country to disco. It’s a chance to take in a variety of local music in a community-oriented setting. The highlights would have to include the playfully freaked-out new wave of Educational Davis, the wittily understated guitar-pop of Gentle Brontosaurus, and the congenial folk-rock of The Getaway Drivers. I would suggest browsing the full lineup on Wurst Times’ Facebook event, where someone has taken great care to serve up a whole bunch of “wurst” puns. —Scott Gordon
Madison-based trio Ossuary takes a grimy and enveloping journey through death metal on its second EP, Supreme Degradation, released earlier this month. Guitarist/vocalist Izzi Plunkett, bassist Matt Jacobs, and drummer Nick Johnson grasp this music’s ability to capture both raw despair and fearsome tenacity. Like the band’s previous EP, 2015’s Cremation Ritual, this latest release has no use for flash or gimmicks, but instead focuses on building tension, with rhythms that drill and drag all at once. All of Supreme Degradation‘s four tracks exert a relentless pull, but “Bestial Triumph” shines in particular, with Plunkett and Jacobs slashing into low-end riffs that transition into a doomy bridge, and Johnson plowing his kick and toms into patterns that feel cathartic rather than mechanical. It’s not really about sheer speed or technical prowess here, but Ossuary does build up to a good sustained pummeling on the EP’s title track. Of course, it also takes vocals to make a death-metal outfit work, and Plunkett’s give the whole sound a coat of cavernous phlegm. This is gruesome, cavernous stuff, drawing on death metal’s extremes but also tapping into the humanity one can find in those extremes.
Even if Ossuary didn’t have the EP to celebrate, this show would be just about an ideal trifecta of metal bands from Madison. Tubal Cain shares Ossuary’s love of the fundamentals, in this case channeling the austere roots of black metal but also finding a great deal of fun, especially in the vocal pairing of drummer Kristine Drake and guitarist Alex Drake. After a few years as a duo, Tubal Cain brought on bassist Bo Chrome Bones in 2018, and he fits right into the band’s viscerally satisfying live sets. Ruin Dweller debuted last year with Cryptic Ruin, an EP that shares a bit of Ossuary’s gritty approach to death metal, but also finds room for minor-key guitar harmonies and atmospheric synths. —Scott Gordon
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