Even as tablets become as common to see onstage as stratocasters, odds are the performers behind those nests of sequencers, wires, and keys will be male. Synths and the computers that house them changed the way we write and perform music, but they haven't done much to shake up its gender breakdown. Maybe now there's an even thicker wall between women and popular music; the role of musician and that of programmer are both traditionally, implicitly assigned to boys.
Which is why it's wonderful and refreshing, even radical, to catch an evening of solo women exclusively wielding electronic instruments. On Wednesday, the Empty Bottle showcased three Chicago producers, all female, who were as deft at navigating networks of electronics as many of the venue's guests are at commandeering a fretboard.
Better known as Verma's lead vocalist, Matchess (the project name of Whitney Johnson) folded her own voice into the heavily processed cascades of a single electronic organ. Winding a vintage Ace Tone through a series of pedals, Johnson complicated the minimal with a set of mixing gear and effects tools hidden from the audience inside a hardshell suitcase. Without percussion or guitars, Matchess channels a similar psychedelic spirit to Verma's long-form stoner rock, but renders it in soft, winding meditations rather than full-blown volcanic landscapes. Set against the Bottle's real-time silhouette projections, Matchess's performance initiated the kind of trance you're lucky to enjoy from a full ensemble. Her quiet, professional presence drew focus away from the songs' origin and into the atmosphere around her--the light, the space, the rolling vapor of the music.
But if Matchess looked to build clouds from organs, Magic Key--Aleks Eva, without the drummer--sliced through the thick air to a bubbling core of dance-edged sound. Outfitted with drum machines, loop pedals and a formidable Korg trio, Eva branched a network of beats and synths around her remarkable voice. With her operatic range and power, Magic Key posits herself as a firm contradiction to the current trend of letting vocals (especially female ones) melt into their electronic surroundings. Eva doesn't let her voice become yet another button on the board; she climbs her own tower of sound to broadcast it from well above the ground. In performance, she's an elegant ruckus. Bouncing with the restlessness of a well-amplified punk singer, Eva commanded the space, her figure and the presence it carries as striking as her voice.
Concluding the evening with the release of the Microsoftcore XXXCell cassette, Gel Set (Laura Callier) tuned the room into a string of coldwave beats and melancholic atmospheres. In contrast to Magic Key's focus on sharp, clear melody, Gel Set engaged mostly with drone and rhythm. Callier's vocals drifted in and out, repeating elusive phrases out of context until they created their own surreal setting. Occasionally her dark industrial weather would crystallize into forms that wouldn't sound out of place somewhere in a goth club mix, but Gel Set seemed more inclined to provoke alienation than pure entertainment. But something inherently pleasant lies in the sensation of being severed from your own thoughts by a shadowy electronic hum and isolated clips of language. By filling the air around her with looping textural explorations, Gel Set conducted a mood that unnerved one moment and reassured the next in turn.