The SXSW music festival is getting more crowded with each passing year. It’s a drunken, roving zoo with all manner of exotic beasts: the iPhone-fixated publicist, the Lone Star–toting UT fratboy, the black-jeans-in-90-degree-heat Seattle post-post-rock band and, of course, Bill Murray. It’s a semicontrolled fracas: You forget, for four days, about the existence of any bands (and for that matter, people) who aren’t there. But for at least one observer, this relative myopia is broken up by a conversation with Light Asylum on the banks of a Lady Bird Lake tributary. There, Austin’s outcasts drink from Popov vodka bottles, while the other half floats in an indifferent bubble a street level above: a palpable analogy for Light Asylum’s self-imposed dualism.
“You can’t have the darkness without the light and vice versa,” explains Shannon Funchess, the Brooklyn band’s vocalist. From its moniker to its lyrics, Light Asylum is committed to antagonisms. “Angel Tongue,” a swirling epic and one of the best tracks on its eponymous debut (out May 1 on Mexican Summer), pivots and plunges from hope into despair over its nearly seven minutes. “It’s always nice to see you around,” Funchess sings in a lovelorn refrain. Then: “When will you come? / Will I ever seen the sun?”
Funchess’s singing is aggressive, ambitious and, above all, subterranean. Claire Evans of Yacht—with whom Light Asylum toured last year—puts it this way, via e-mail: “Light Asylum’s undeniable physical presence is like a lightning bolt to the solar plexus. What they do is completely raw, and that’s such an uncommon thing that it can actually take a moment to acclimate.”
Funchess cites Clan of Xymox, Nitzer Ebb and Fear as influences; all, it should be noted, are fronted by men. Her voice channels the industrial edge of Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy most analogously into a growling blitzkrieg. “It wasn’t preconceived,” says Funchess. “I just started singing really low and it stuck.” She recalls thinking, “Okay this is my voice. Right now. It was Light Asylum.”
The other half of the duo is quietly housed in an unassuming vessel, Bruno Coviello. (Manifesting the group’s dualist ethos, Funchess is a black woman and Coviello a white man.) Perched on a nearby stair among vagrants, the synthesizer wizard chimes in only a few times during the interview, but notably so. “Everything you hear on the record is what we do onstage,” he claims. “It’s more like the record duplicates what we try to pull off onstage.”
That’s a rare feat in the band’s electronically based universe, where most wire-pluggers can’t dutifully re-create their elaborate recordings live. Light Asylum flourishes in spareness, utilizing a pared-down collection of tools. It affords the duo the ability to travel efficiently. Still, Coviello’s sounds can tread into cinematic territory, often recalling 1980s film-score synth bits, from the opening bars of The Lost Boys to the closing routine from Revenge of the Nerds.
The two weren’t beginners when they linked up: Funchess had previously worked with Telepathe and !!!, among others; Coviello was busy with Bruno and the Dreamies. Light Asylum was born when the pair bonded over Xymox in a minivan during a 2007 tour. Last year the two released an EP, In Tension, that featured “Dark Allies,” a kind of treatise on the intent of their neo-Gothic marriage.
Funchess believes that listeners are too often “spoon-fed” and has no qualms getting grim: “Every living thing with a spirit and positive outlook is getting crushed.” When it’s suggested that she can be intimidating, she doubles down. “I can’t hold everybody’s hand and be like, ‘It’s okay. I’m black.’ I’d rather people feel something than not feeling anything at all. Life is going to kick your ass if you don’t wake up.”
That night at the Red 7, Light Asylum embraced that message, assaulting the crowd with dance beats and Funchess’s hawkish presence. It was evident this wasn’t just another SXSW showcase circled on a list, destined for an Austin hotel room floor and distant memories. Before reaching the operatic heights of the standout “Shallow Tears,” Funchess posed an apropos question: “Will you meet me by the river’s edge?”
Light Asylum plays Le Poisson Rouge May 3.
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