Well Worth the Wait: Aphex Twin, and Other Joys of Day for Night 2016

Aphex Twin | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

Houston music-and-art focused festival Day for Night took place from December 17-18 (not including pre-festival events on Friday, Dec. 16th) for the second year in a row. The festival’s primary mission is to combine bookings of high-quality musical acts with immersive light and art installations, in order to “transform live music production by introducing new sensory experiences to the festival landscape,” as described on the festival’s official site.

Banks | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

Musical bookings for the festival steer predominantly towards experimental genres and styles–with a wide range of what the word “experimental” means here, regarding both the visual and musical elements of performances. I saw Matmos quite literally play upon a washing machine during their set; Anklepants bounced and scampered around the small Yellow Stage with a penis-mask affixed to his face; and Oneohtrix Point Never assaulted the crowd with unsettling (and that’s choosing a nice word for it) images that can perhaps best be described as “what might appear in a haunted crackhouse.” One thing is for absolute certain: Day for Night doesn’t do ‘boring.’

Anklepants | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

The venue chosen for 2016’s Day for Night, an old abandoned warehouse that used to serve as a post office, was both spectacular and odd–especially odd in the chosen use of the space and its hallways, exits, stairways, etc. It is entirely possible that those overseeing the festival decided to enhance the overall sense of non-conventionality with its confusing “you can exit here through this door, but you can’t enter, except sometimes you can, but it changes randomly and there’s no way to keep up” antics. Or, just as likely, some of the staff were more relaxed about allowing people up/down stairs or through doors that were technically supposed to be sectioned off. Either way, it made for a bit of a maze-like experience; sometimes it was fun and exciting that it took forever to find the one permissible exit back downstairs or that the hallway to the bathroom was excessively long and unlit and therefore created a persistent game of bumper-cars-with-other-festival-attendees, but at other times it was frustrating. The light installations, however, did not disappoint. Most of the second floor of the venue comprised these exhibits, and in breaks between musical sets that I wanted to see, I kept returning to explore further into these impressive installations.

Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

A few of my favorite shows from the weekend came from acts who I had seen once or more before, and who I knew to consistently deliver great performances. Tycho was a perfect fit for Day for Night: their eclectic, ambient sound translates beautifully live and the band is known for presenting striking visual accompaniment during their sets. Blood Orange has awed me each time I’ve seen them with the pizzazz and stage presence of frontman Dev Hynes as well as the stunning vocal ability of his two female backup singers (who, as is entirely justified, are actually not positioned in the background but instead right up at the front of the stage, alongside Dev). But, even more exciting for me was the smattering of surprises from acts who I was not very familiar with prior to the festival: Liars sticks out most of all from this category. They put on a dynamic, fun-as-hell performance, even with the less-than-perfect sound system from the Blue Stage. Arca delivered a phenomenal DJ set to close out the night on Sunday that contained such diversity of genres and highlighted his adept ability to produce transitions with precision and unpredictability (his set kept me guessing the whole time, not knowing what he’d sonically explore next and how he’d transition into it–something that not enough modern DJs can masterfully do).

Day For Night 2016

But then, there was Aphex Twin: the number one motivating factor behind my attendance to the festival, as was a common theme among other festival-goers. We had all converged from across the country (and world) upon the city of Houston to revel in the opportunity to see Aphex Twin’s first American show in eight years. Richard D James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, is one of those rare masterminds, a true pioneer (and enigma) in the genre of electronic music, who blends and contorts sounds in a way that is striking in both its uniqueness and quality. I had resigned myself to the idea that I’d probably never see a live Aphex Twin set, and so when Day for Night announced its 2016 lineup, I knew I had to get to Houston for this show.

Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

Days after, I’m still processing the beauty and grandeur that this set possessed. Live music does a special thing for its audience, in generating a level of dynamism and intensity that songs on track just cannot quite rival. This is the number one reason I love to see live musical performances. But a close second behind that primary motivating factor is the communal experience, the connections each audience member creates and builds throughout a performance–to the music, to the artist(s), to each other. At Aphex Twin, the energy washed over everyone like a warm immersive blanket: there were awed, crying, smiling, transfixed faces all amongst the crowd, each of us holding one another in the light of this really special moment. People had flown in from all over the country, all over the world, to see this show; some attendees I talked to mentioned the 15-20 years that they’d waited to experience a live set from Richard D James. I cannot recall another show I’ve attended that emanated such unifying joy from each member of the audience, except for maybe LCD Soundsystem’s show at Bonnaroo this summer.

Sophie | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

The weather played an orchestrating hand in the progression of energy. As the show began, the anticipation was palpable but mixed with a bit of nervousness too. I definitely went into it thinking, “I’ve waited years for this…it is very possible that it won’t live up to my expectations.” But then the winds started blowing in, the predicted cold front we’d all been dreading–and yet, when it arrived, that dread transformed into a recognition that this weather might actually be the perfect complement to the sounds and visuals of Aphex Twin on stage. He seemed to play in junction with the shifting winds, picking up speed as the cold enveloped us. And then, the rain came. All at once, a downpour descended and the crowd split in two: a fair number of (foolish, foolish) people exited the field at this time in favor of finding shelter inside. But those of us who stayed began to jump up and down, cheering as the frigid wind gusts and rain hit our faces and soaked our clothes. The sound of the set became more discordant, the visuals increasingly vibrant and eerie. For two hours, I glided between dancing, really fucking dancing, and standing motionless to take it all in.

Squarepusher | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

Despite the glory and uniqueness of Day for Night, the festival was not without its issues and missteps. The most widespread post-festival complaint has derived from attendees who purchased VIP passes and did not receive the experiences and perks that had been promised. These misadvertised perks include but are not limited to: artist meet-and-greet, swag bags that were supposed to be gifted before the festival’s end, special “front and center” VIP viewing areas for the main stage (in reality, the VIP viewing area was off to the side and ultimately did not provide a better view than close-up in GA did), and general issues with some VIP pass holders not being able to gain access to the lounge areas and other VIP-specific spaces because of inconsistency in security requirements for access. Some of these issues have already been addressed; for instance, the VIP ticket holders will still receive swag bags via mail – a decision that was made so that people wouldn’t have to carry those items around the festival all day. However, the nonexistence of the promised artist greet-and-meet and the lack of true VIP viewing areas at more than one of the stages both remain very legitimate complaints from individuals who purchased VIP tickets for $700.

Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

And I, among many others, felt that what the festival advertised about Bjork’s involvement was not accurate to reality. The Bjork VR exhibit was meant to serve as one of the headlining features of the festival–and yet, the majority of ticket holders didn’t experience it because of glitches in online registration beforehand and the absurdity of the standby line’s length each day. I was supposedly “seeing” Bjork when I caught the second half of her DJ set on Sunday evening, but I did not actually see her once. Her body was concealed behind a collection of large plants on stage , and the set itself was not particularly inspiring. Between this set and the near-impossibility of experiencing the Bjork VR exhibit if online registration hadn’t worked (as was the case for me), I imagine anyone who attended Day for Night primarily to see Bjork would have walked away sorely disappointed. Since I had come for Aphex Twin above all else and was also excited about a solid amount of the undercard performers, Day for Night did not let me down at all – it was a spectacular experience and Aphex was more than I ever could’ve asked for. But I do want to acknowledge that other festival goers, with different motivations for attending, surely felt jipped and with good reason.

Thundercat | Day For Night 2016 | Photo: Nick L.

Due to the ever-expanding number of music festivals in the country and the unfortunate sameness of so many of them, Day for Night’s goal of reinventing the festival experience through focusing on inclusion of experimental, futuristic sonic and visual experiences is genuine and refreshing. Day for Night exists as a bright spot of swirling psychedelic color in a festival landscape that has otherwise become quite monochromatic, and I plan to return next year for that reason and more.

Check out our complete photo album from Day For Night 2016 below:

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