Beanie-clad gig-goers are packing themselves into the basement bar of Birthdays in Dalston like sardines to watch Balam Acab, who’s making his only stop in London on a fall European tour. “I don’t know why everyone’s bumping into each other,” remarks the dude standing next to me shortly after he elbows me in the stomach. “It’s not that sort of gig. It’s not like I’m going to start crowd-surfing.”
Balam Acab is 21-year old Alec Koone, an American from central Pennsylvania, by way of Ithaca College, a university in upstate New York. He’s a musician, a producer, and a pioneer of the so called ‘witch house’ genre of electronic music. To date he’s released one EP, Bird, and an album, Winter/Wander through Tri Angle Records. All I know about him besides his music is what his tweets tell me: he prefers lower-case letters and has a sense of humor that seems to follow in the grand tradition of Arrested Development.
As he begins to perform, I learn that Balam Acab is an architect. He builds beauty out of blocks of dubstep and bass. His music moves along at a glacial tempo, haunting and eerie but there’s a serene undercurrent too. The beginning of the set sees him play three songs with imperceptible breaks between each, and I discover that Balam Acab is also a weaver. He creates electronic cloth out of ghostly threads of sound.
When he plays ‘See Birds (Moon)’ and ‘See Birds (Sun),’ the two tracks that begin and conclude his Birds EP, the crowd cease their jostling and are silent and attentive. The sound of water lapping floats to the back of the audience, and bass begins to pump throughout the venue. The punchy dude next to me is suddenly alert and motionless.
For most of the show, the stage is backlit so that the only thing visible is Alec’s silhouette against a white light. For some songs, he sits in total darkness. Sporting an Oakland Raiders baseball cap and a fleece jacket, he hunches over his equipment, and says almost nothing throughout the hour-long set, save the occasional soft-spoken “Thank you.”
Like both ‘See Bird’ tracks, ‘Apart,’ a song off Wander/Wonder, is a revolving spectral track but is shorter than his other songs, and it’s the one that sweeps me away. But it’s ‘Oh, Why’, the lead track off of Wander/Wonder, which leaves tears slowly trickling down the face of the beanie-wearer standing in front of me.
Besides being a musician and a producer, Balam Acab is evidently also a composer. His live show reveals that he doesn’t simply play songs or make sounds, but thinks carefully about the actual skeleton behind the body of his music. His performance ensures that the audience knows that the dots are there, but he leaves us to connect them on our own.
At the end of the night, I ask for a setlist, in the hopes that it might help me to tease out some of the tracks I heard from each other, and connect some of the dots. “He doesn’t have a setlist,” says the show’s producer, “he just, you know . . .” He makes a keyboard-playing motion with his hands.
“Makes music?” I ask.