Sounding Board

Avant-R&B Singer serpentwithfeet Preached A Gospel All His Own At Basilica Soundscape

If you know anything about Basilica Soundscape, the boutique music festival that transpires every September in Hudson, New York, it’s that its organizers brand it as an “anti-festival.” It’s true: The event is a far cry from the average American music festival experience, in which the same handful of accessible, industry-supported artists perform on large stages in outdoor spaces surrounded by endless corporate branding. Soundscape takes place at Basilica Hudson, a converted 19th-century industrial factory on the Hudson waterfront that now serves as a multidisciplinary arts space and community hub. Its scale is intimate — just a midsize indoor space and a courtyard — and its lineups tend toward the experimental and esoteric.

This year’s assortment of performers, in particular, seems to disavow the concept of headliners to an audacious extent. Whereas last year Basilica’s first night was geared around an astounding performance from Angel Olsen, there was no indie-rock household name to be the center of gravity last night. Not that the program lacked for highlights: Bing & Ruth began the evening with staggeringly gorgeous ambient classical music that seemed to suspend the essence of beauty in midair. Moor Mother spearheaded a confrontational noise-rap revolution, even accusing her largely stationary audience of being “narcs” with trust funds. Thou played sludge metal with a hardcore dynamism many of their peers are lacking. Jlin ended the night with a footwork dance party that recast Chicago as a portal to other dimensions.

And in the penultimate spot Olsen held down last year was serpentwithfeet, the solo project of 29-year-old Josiah Wise. As a Guardian profile last year explained, “he’s trained as a jazz vocalist, formed a neo-soul group, had a goth phase and was once hellbent on being an opera singer.” All of that is apparent in serpentwithfeet’s musical output. But the throughline of Wise’s songwriting is gospel, the kind that prizes freestyle feats of vocal prowess and getting caught up in spiritual euphoria. Many R&B singers have transferred that style into a secular, hedonistic context — think R. Kelly howling, “My mind’s tellin’ me no/ But my body! My body is tellin’ me yeah!” — and there’s a long history of singers such as Sylvester translating gospel vocals into disco, house, and other historically queer dance music. But under Wise’s supervision, gospel gets yet another, even more radical makeover.

Last year’s blisters EP found Wise singing richly and passionately over ominous soundscapes informed by avant-garde electronic and classical music, using the musical language of gospel to emote about pagan subject matter like the four ethers and mercury in retrograde. Matched with his androgynous appearance — which Friday night included a giant nose ring, high-heeled boots, and an open-chested plaid duster in addition to his beard and baggy jeans — it adds up to an aesthetic that radically re-appropriates its source material in much the same way Basilica Hudson subverts the traditional understanding of an ornate place of worship. Wise’s vocals are unmistakably churchy, but he’s presenting a different kind of church service, one very much in the spirit of this festival.

Onstage at Basilica, he stood alone, switching between live keyboard selections and pre-recorded productions built from dramatic orchestral music and aggressive trap drums. He let his voice run wild into sensual outpourings (“There’s enough space in my body for you”), falsetto trills, and ardent exclamations such as, “Oh no, no-no-no-no-no/ But it could be yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” His banter often took the form of warmup vocals, so that sentences like “Thank you Basilica Soundscape!” became melodic flourishes atop shifting piano chords. There were references to Destiny’s Child and Maya Angelou and a miniature sermon about how we do people a disservice by holding back the full extent of our feelings. At one point he proclaimed, “We’re going to continue adult story time if that’s OK,” adding, “What a gift it is to grieve.” On “penance,” from the blisters EP, he cried out “Mercy!” over top of tense tremolo bass notes. His hands remained active all night.

The gig left no doubt that Wise is a captivating performer or that serpentwithfeet represents a striking creative vision. But just as his discography remains in its initial phase, Wise’s stage show seems to still be germinating. A performance that at first seized the room’s attention eventually began to drag for lack of fresh stimulation. When Wise alluded to “a choir of invisible serpents — without feet,” it was hard not to imagine what he might do with more resources at his disposal. In the meantime, he is still a show unto himself, and one unlike any other.

CREDIT: Andi State / Stereogum