One can imagine that the uninitiated, stumbling upon an Inca Ore performance for the first time—witnessing a pixielike young woman hunched over a keyboard, crooning unintelligible, sing-songy poetry into a pedal-treated microphone—might have the old "My kid could do this" reaction usually reserved for paint-splattered postmodern art. However, a more apt reaction might be, "My kid could feel this," as 28-year-old Eva Saelens dips and plunges into all the awe and terror and joy of childhood as one-woman unit Inca Ore. Saelens has been an essential staple of Portland's weird underground since the early aughts, having collaborated with and contributed to the work of Yellow Swans, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Gang Wizard and Malibu Falcon—to name just a few.
But just as everyone's hope for early spring got crushed by unseasonably cold, gray-skied hail, so too is Portland's Persephone getting snatched away to a different underground: Inca Ore is moving permanently to her "other" city of Oakland, Calif. Couple that with the news that Inca Ore frequent cohort—and lauded experimental noise duo—Yellow Swans is calling it quits (announced via the band's blog earlier this month), and it's a grim one-two punch to local outsider music.
Saelens met Yellow Swans' Pete Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman at a First Thursday gallery in 2003, and their histories intertwined from there. Saelens acted as a roadie for the Swans' first two U.S. tours; Swanson and Saloman released Saelens' first cassette and CD-Rs on their Jyrk label; she sang on the Swans' haunting '06 release, Psychic Secession; and Swanson's mastered a number of Inca Ore releases.
In fact, Inca Ore's latest LP, Birthday of Bless You, was mastered by Swanson. And it shows: Side A opens up with a haunted loop—huge sledges of menacing organ approach from a distance like a ghost ship on an empty sea, while crumbling and fragile vocals drip down like rays of light from otherwise black clouds. Imagine Nurse With Wound's drone masterpiece Soliloquy for Lilith, but with lyrics. The rest of the record skips like a needle over weird soundscapes, from spazz-violin histrionics recalling VU-era John Cale and pointillist keyboard à la minimalist pioneer Terry Riley to freak poetry and spaced-out beauty. This is eco-feminism to the Nth, like Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä playing music instead of taming giant bugs. The accompanying zine, Birthday, is a kind of Inca Ore compendium, telling scattered stories over the past few years, from Portland to Oakland and back—just hearing the way Saelens worships the California sun gives you a good idea why she's headed there now.
As for the Swans, to hear it from them it was "just time for two dudes to move on." And with over 70 releases in seven years, and more to come through 2009, it was an impressive run by any standard. The duo's latest, last year's mighty At All Ends, found itself high on many a 2007 best-of list, and the Swans' reputation as top-notch noise improvisers is internationally sealed. That said, their music's not for everyone. "First show we ever played," says Saloman, "we were so bad that I walked around the block and came back determined to never play music again. Some people are disappointed that we kept on, but no one can argue that there wasn't a reward for our perseverance."
Even now, neither member has given up on sound exploration. Swanson is venturing forth with solo recordings and a new label, Freedom to Spend, which just released an excellent CD from SF electro/organic duo Bulbs. Saloman is pushing onward as well, singing and making noise in Cexfucx, collaborating with psych-scaper Aja Rose and working with the local art collective Red76.
So Inca Ore is leaving, Yellow Swans are finished, and the premature spring that teased us has turned to gray. Yet, if there's one thing you learn from the musical underground that you also learn living in Portland—it's that it's always darkest before the raddest summer of your life. From the ashes rises the Phoenix; Persephone always returns; and if what was before is any indication, what's next can only be that much sweeter.
SEE IT: Inca Ore plays with Eat Skull and Naked on the Vague Thursday, May 1, at Twilight Cafe & Bar. 9 pm. Free. 21+. Yellow Swans plays its last Portland show Saturday, May 3, at Someday Lounge. 9 pm. $7. 21+. Malibu Falcon plays Sunday, May 4, with Starving Weirdos and Bonus at Valentine's. 9 pm. Donation. 21+.