Andrew Ryce profiles Rabit's label, which has become an outpost for young queer electronic artists around the world.
I was at the same SXSW showcase, and I remember it well. Rabit was DJing between BeatKing, Dawn Richard and British post-punk group NAKED, and it seemed like he didn't give a fuck about what was going on around him. He approached the CDJs like a tool for processing music rather than playing it, building a ragged cacophony that was more noise than club. Imagine Total Freedom with even less connection to the dance floor. Rabit wasn't the biggest name at the show, but his set was the most memorable.
It was around this time that Rabit was really kicking his Halcyon Veil label into gear. What had started as an outpost for experimental club music was growing into something more freeform and community-oriented: an international band of often queer misfits with a de facto leader in Rabit, AKA Houston resident Eric Burton. People were rallying behind Halcyon Veil as an identity, a home, a place where they could be themselves. Recently the artists have started listing their home base as "Halcyon Veil" on their Twitter, SoundCloud and Facebook pages.
"Somebody made Halcyon Veil a location on Facebook," Burton told me. "I think it's a bridge somewhere in San Antonio."
Halcyon Veil's arbitrary location in the real world is appropriate, because the label is a bridge that connects some of the most creative young artists in electronic music. It's where the likes of algo-rave master Renick Bell, hip-hop and R&B artists MHYSA and Moor Mother, industrial noise-rapper Prison Religion and the emergent San Antonio queer collective House Of Kenzo all meet. With music that varies wildly from one release to the next, Halcyon Veil is a nexus of originality, where chaos reigns but makes a strange and intuitive sort of sense.
"The music is deep, moody, hybridized, romantic, intense, lush," said Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, a Montreal-based artist who has helped design and A&R some of the label's major releases. "Nothing to me feels shallow. There's something a tad edgy about the releases, even if no one is really chasing something 'experimental.' All the records are weird. Extremely weird."
"We're just really into drama," Der Kindestod of San Antonio told me. "Making things dark and romantic."
"It's an urgency to make ourselves heard," explained sound artist CECILIA, from Italy. "Urgent and uncompromising. Real as fuck."
"I feel like everyone on the label likes Marilyn Manson," said MHYSA, chuckling over the phone from Philadelphia when I asked if her if there was any common thread in the music on Halcyon Veil.
All of these artists make electronic records that borrow tropes from the past five years of experimental club music in addition to early electronic, industrial, musique concrète, nu-metal and hip-hop. They're often performative or outrageous, what you might call extra. Some Halcyon Veil members make weirdo pop, others make noise, mystifying sound collages or abrasive collisions of rock, rap, metal, goth and dance music. The label is almost always surprising, but it doesn't deal in novelty so much as subversion. The music veers from almost uncomfortably sensual to deafeningly noisy, the kind of music that seems made to get a rise out of the listener.
It's also stubbornly slippery and in-between music, which makes sense, because Halcyon Veil comes from an in-between place: Houston, Texas. The city has a rich musical legacy. It's the birth place of Beyoncé and much of Southern rap—particularly chopped-and-screwed music, the strange and psychedelic sound pioneered by DJ Screw. Today, the city sits in the shadow of its hipper Texas cousin, Austin, and lacks the cachet of other Southern hotspots like New Orleans or Asheville. But that makes it a blank slate for the people that live and work there, particularly Burton.
"People in Texas will mix Jersey club, ballroom, music from Europe, music from Janus people, and they'll mix it all into one thing," Burton said. "It's not a new thing—anyone who makes a FACT mix now does this mix of styles—but there's a certain abrasive quality. If there's any kind of Texas influence, it's the abrasive quality I've tried to introduce, which I didn't see anyone doing before."
Though Halcyon Veil's roster is international, Houston—via DJ Screw—is integral to the story of Halcyon Veil. Burton first discovered the city's chopped-and-screwed music after moving from Philadelphia to Galveston, a port city on Texas's gulf coast.
"You would go into the gas station and see Mariah Carey chopped-and-screwed CDs, stuff like that," he said. "It was the only music that I would hear coming out of cars. It sounds like alien music, especially when it's something like Mariah Carey. DJ Screw played a lot of Southern and West Coast rap music, but he was chopped a lot of, like, Sting, or whatever was popular at the time. Soul or rock. He was selling hundreds of tapes a day."
"That a single person could have such an impact on the way music is heard or transmitted is pretty rare," he added. "That's a huge influence and it's crazy to think about. People aren't doing that anymore. Like, 'I'm gonna play what everyone wants to hear but I'm gonna play it half-speed'—normal people don't think of something like that out of the blue."
Burton started Halcyon Veil because he had so many talented friends who didn't know how to "play the industry game," or simply didn't want to. (By this time, in 2015, Burton was already at an established artist signed to Tri Angle Records.) Wounded by labels and A&Rs who seemed more interested in a certain sound than following his development as an artist, Burton vowed to give his friends and peers the unconditional support they needed to develop their own way.
"No one's gonna give me anything shitty," he said. "The biggest point is that you can't separate the music people make from the person. You can't separate politics from people. You can't take identity away from people, or say I want your identity but I only want it if you make this one kind of music. That you can't be a raging faggot and be, like, soft, too."
The label's first few releases came artists like ANGEL-HO from Cape Town, and the prolific London producer Myth, who released an 83-track album shortly before his Halcyon Veil debut. Danish artist Why Be delivered an EP of truly unique club music. These first few releases sat in the post-club milieu, where young artists deconstructed the dominant sounds of the day—grime, dancehall, Jersey club—into collages of broken beats and discordant samples. But Halcyon Veil quickly moved beyond that into a realm unmoored from the dance floor, driven more by self-expression and artistic vision than genre convention.