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Review: Monsters, Masterpieces and Mega Man at Subzero 2012

In Culture, Music
One of Art Alive Gallery's bodypaint models at Subzero on Friday. Photo by Terror Kitten.

One of Art Alive Gallery's bodypaint models at Subzero on Friday. Photo by Terror Kitten.

The artsy chaos on South First Street at Subzero makes for great spectacle. At the 2012 edition on Friday, there was once again plenty to see, starting with the return of Art Alive Gallery. This body-painting collective debuted at the 2011 festival, but they really upped their game this year. Semi-nude women decked out head to toe in body paint as everything from mythological creatures to art masterpieces inspired by Botticelli and Dali would be enough to stop traffic in any city, but on this night in SoFA they were just one of many unbelievable things to see and hear.

So yes, Subzero continues to be the South Bay’s coolest street festival, and the sensory overload is its most obvious appeal. But to me, Subzero is really about discovery. The reason people look forward to it so much is that it’s become the place for artists from across a wide range of subcultures to show off what they’re working on the rest of the year. There is eye-opening stuff happening around us every day in the South Bay, but it’s hidden inside San Jose’s industrial warehouses or behind the shiny gleam of tech offices.

A perfect example this year was Dru, the masked headliner on the William Street Stage. Here’s a guy who was making music and games in his South Bay bedroom, releasing albums mostly in Internet obscurity, and suddenly he’s headlining the biggest street festival of the year? He even had three of the Art Alive painted ladies dancing on stage through his set—which was, by the way, the craziest electro barrage I’ve heard in quite some time. His unique take on the Star Wars cantina band theme was particularly inspired.

That’s the genius of festival organizers (and Anno Domini owners) Cherri Lakey and Brian Eder. They pay attention to all of the subcultures around us, and have an irrepressible drive to connect them to each other, and to themselves, and to us. I didn’t get to see nearly as many of the bands as I’d planned to, just because there was so much art to look at, plus excellent randomness like the Oversocial Mofo Revue. But I did get to hear a few of the weirder stage offerings, like the Minibosses ripping through some of my favorite Nintendo themes. Unlike almost all the chip bands that have made arcade retro cool in the last couple of years, these guys play with a straight rock band set up, and their sound is a lot heavier and more powerful in person. I loved how people were yelling out video game names the way “Freebird” would get yelled at other concerts: “Contra! Connnnnnntttttaaa! Mega Man 2!” The band delivered both, by the way.

My favorite discovery of the night wasn’t even from the South Bay, but L.A. (granted, this is probably because I had seen most of the local acts before): the indie-folk outfit Monsters Calling Home. They floated ornate arrangements with intriguing lyrics across the eastern end of the festival, while cryptic messages like “Once I was a dolphin and you, you were a manatee” flashed several stories up on one of the buildings behind them. Apparently it was quite an experience for the band, too, as lead singer Alex Hwang explained that in their hometown, most crowds tend to watch them for a minute before looking down to their iPhones. “We really like you,” he told the crowd. “You guys are a lot more clappy than Los Angeles is.”

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