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.
CECILIA’s album Adoration is another important Halcyon Veil release. Divorced of any club music connection, it’s unflinchingly intimate and fussy music made from the human voice and esoteric electronics, connecting the dots between Throbbing Gristle, Félicia Atkinson and artists like Arca who excel in the manipulation and bending of sound. It’s a stunning document of freeform electronics that follows in the footsteps of Rabit’s watershed record, the collage-like 2017 album Les Fleurs Du Mal, which signaled his turn away from experimental club music into a more abstract style.
“Les Fleurs Du Mal was the time we all got over post-club music,” Fletcher told me. “We were like. ‘This genre is so played-out, everyone has to innovate from here on out.’ It’s like post-post-club—experimental artists who don’t want to be in the experimental scene, who are in more of a club setting.”
Since the time of Les Fleurs Du Mal, the label has entered its trailblazing stage: arty rap from Moor Mother and DJ Haram under the name 700 Bliss, searing, BDSM-influenced industrial from a transformed NAKED (who played that SXSW showcase in 2016), batshit ballroom from House Of Kenzo and the completely unhinged noise-rap-metal of Prison Religion, whose debut for the label was appropriately titled O Fucc Im On The Wrong Planet.
Though no one could tell me exactly where 2019 would take Halcyon Veil, it’s already looking promising. Mistress, from New Orleans, will return to the label with an EP that sounds like Wiley’s old beatless devil mixes but for trap instead of grime. Osborne-Lanthier has an 80-minute opus of “compositions, scraps, sketches and études,” what he calls his most “slaved-over work” yet. There’s an LP of stunning Arabic songs from MSYLMA, an anonymous Egyptian artist assisted on production by Zuli and 1127, and an album of spiky, confrontational vignettes from IVVVO, a London artist who Rabit considers one of the core members of the Halcyon Veil collective.
But the most exciting prospect might just be the one that was under Burton’s nose the whole time: Der Kindestod, AKA Henry Rodriguez. He’s been floating around the San Antonio dance music scene for a few years, previously DJing under a different alias that he’d rather keep secret. (He’s also closely tied with House Of Kenzo.)
Rodriguez first appeared on the label with a mix called Bludgeoned and followed it up with the haunting Brown Smolder, which combined video game soundtracks with R&B edits and club tracks from artists like False Witness. As usual, each mix was given a catalogue number, another one of the label’s more progressive ideas—that DJ mixes are as important as regular releases, and should be preserved as such.
“The difference between Halcyon Veil and other labels is that it’s digital first and physical later. Some of these artists don’t need physical releases,” Fletcher said. “Each Halcyon Veil mix is catalogued like it’s part of a discography. A lot of people get stuck on the idea of making an album, like, it’s gonna take six months for it to come out. And especially the type of artists that are on Halcyon Veil, they’re so quick to produce and always changing their style, that sometimes mixes are a better format. When an album comes out it’s not necessarily their most recent music—just more thought-out.”
Der Kindestod is a good example: his debut release, God As Daddy The Deranged, came out months after his first mix, and at 14 minutes long, is hardly more substantial. But it says a lot in just three tracks. The EP is a jumble of ideas and sounds that are out-there even for Halcyon Veil. Take “Mortal Coil,” made in collaboration with LEDEF. It samples a classic freestyle song (Lil Suzy’s “Take Me In Your Arms”) and turns it into something ethereal. It’s almost shocking to go back and listen to the source material.
“I grew up in San Antonio, exposed to Tejano music and freestyle, whatever was on the radio,” Rodriguez explained to me over the phone. “Texas is pretty goth—San Antonio especially—and emo. You’re either out in the country where it’s desert or abandoned small towns with longhorn skulls, or cities like San Antonio where the architecture is old and gothic.”
Der Kindestod’s music is proof of the influence Texas has on Halcyon Veil. San Antonio, less gentrified and built-up than Houston, looks like like a bubbling-over hotspot from the outside. It’s also home to House Of Kenzo, the voguing-house-turned-art-collective that quickly grew tired of ballroom music and instead started to make their own searing club destructions.
“We were more versed with ballroom when we first started out, but we quickly became disenchanted by the musical taste of the Gulf Coast ballroom scene,” LEDEF explained. “There was one ball where they played Beyoncé live on the soundsystem—no blends, just a live audio track! Our tastes are much more vast. We’re an experimental dance and music collective. We have webinars every Tuesday night and face-to-face stretch-and-tells on Thursday nights above a metal bar on the Riverwalk.”
Der Kindestod and House Of Kenzo are also aggressively queer in the way they talk, dress and make music, which is the other key to the label. Just like not everyone is Texan, not everyone on the label is queer, but a certain queerness and assertion of identity is core to Halcyon Veil.
“If there’s one thing that seems consistent, it’s that the artist is an outsider, like me, growing up in New Orleans as a queer black man,” said Mistress, who is one of the crew’s star DJs, as well as a producer. “And it’s the queerness that pushes the boundaries. These people aren’t trying to follow the guidelines of what came before them in the scenes they’re infiltrating.”
“It just so happens that we’re also a bunch of girls and faggots. It’s an added bonus because we all understand where we’re coming from,” Der Kindestod told me. “I don’t think any of us are specifically like, ‘Let’s go listen to this person because they’re queer.’ It’s more like, ‘This bitch is really good, let’s check her out.’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re queer too, let’s kiki with her.'”
Speaking to both Der Kindestod and House Of Kenzo, I got the impression they were tired of San Antonio and Texas more generally, and ready to conquer the rest of the world. But it’s really the nature of Texas—the idea that it is a blank slate—that has let them and Halcyon Veil become what they are. Would Halcyon Veil have become as distinctive if it were based in, say, New York?
“Certain music cities have so much going on that some people are desensitized to it,” Burton said. “That’s the thing here in Houston. It’s a fresh injection of something different. People are galvanized by different things. This scene is also really queer, which might turn the average person off, but a lot of people have connected around that. Maybe the label is just techno for queer people. When did techno and house change from being a gay to being a mainstream, like, Richie Hawtin thing? Maybe this is what techno sounds like now.”
Rabit takes us on a tour through the weird, wonderful and sometimes unsettling world of Halcyon Veil.
Wayne Phoenix – Forthcoming
MHYSA – Special Need intro
Jesse Osborne-Lanthier – Forthcoming
Prison Religion – Alicia Keys (Lee Gamble remix)
Wayne Phoenix – Forthcoming
Why Be – Whalin
Jesse Osborne-Lanthier – Forthcoming
Mistress – Gatekeeper
IVVVO – RUSH (forthcoming)
CECILIA – Descente Ferme