Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Culture Tip: Sinister Oculus

Dark themes and multimedia improvisation will be key elements of this innovative Yellowknife group's show this coming Saturday.
Dark northern themes: a scene from Sinister Oculus’ visuals.

“Come feel every human emotion.”

The invitation appears in spidery red font against a black background and above a face with a palpitating skull projected onto it. It’s the unsettling end to a short video promoting Sinister Oculus’s concert at NACC this coming Saturday, May 23. Cut after cut delivers a surreal blur of flaming snowmobiles, throat singers on a snow-swept landscape, car crashes, pulsing faces.

The whole thing is tinged by the macabre; not surprising, perhaps, for this Yellowknife band/multimedia art project, whose nocturnal themes were born from conversations between vocalist Paul Cressman and filmmaker Jay Bulckaert about ‘Bullet in the Brain,’ a short story by the writer Tobias Wolff recounting the last thoughts of man shot in the head during a bank robbery. The themes were then nurtured by the two on their regular hunting trips across the frigid landscapes of the North.

The group, which has been together since 2011, combines film, music and poetry to produce what Bulckaert calls “live cinema.” While the band plays, Bulckaert edits, manipulating the film clips, changing their order, speed and aesthetic. “Every time we do this, I’m cutting a film together live in front of an audience,” says Bulckaert.

And while the music and the film generally follow a pre-rehearsed pattern, the band reacts to the film and Bulckaert reacts to the band: “Essentially they’re scoring to me and I’m editing to them at the same time, and it’s sort of organized chaos.”

“As a filmmaker this gives me the opportunity to be absolutely creative,” he says. “My day job [with film production company Artless Collective] is to write a script, produce the thing that’s on the script; often that’s creative, but this is pure creativity. The end product doesn’t have to be a sellable piece of coherent whatever. It can be David Lynchian, I don’t give a shit.”

This weekend’s show will be the culmination of two years in the NACC mentorship program, and core band members Cressman, Bulckaert and Travis Mercredi will be joined by five musicians: Emily Smits on drums, Anne-Marie Guedon on cello, Brendan Callas on piano, Scott Lough on alto and baritone saxophones and Leela Gilday for some guest vocals. Sonically, the group ranges from saxophone-driven grooves to spoken-word poetry over moody, downtempo loops. In their wilder moments, they even veer towards “a tasteful matte-black metal,” jokes Mercredi. Over much of it, Cressman spins lyrically intricate webs reminisce of poet-rappers like Buck 65 or Sage Francis.

Lyrically and visually Sinister Oculus tends to concern itself with the darker aspects of living in the North.

“You can be stopped in your tracks by this immense beauty and you can also be scared to death up here,” says Cressman. “And there are all these things that affect the psyche of people in Yellowknife but aren’t talked about: the isolation, the fact we live a stone’s throw away from Giant Mine, Canada’s biggest catastrophe.”

“A tasteful matte-black metal”

“The North swirls around in my head in kind of a haunting way,” adds Bulckaert. “When you head out on the land up here, you have to prepare for the fact that you might not make it back, that’s just how it goes.”

“And I’ve always gravitated towards dark stuff personally. I don’t know why, because I’m a huge fan of Dumb and Dumber and dick jokes and everything. I don’t know, but I love surrealism. When I was a teenager my hero was Salvador Dali when other kids liked Wayne Gretzky.”

The group will be filming Saturday’s concert for a promotional video they hope to use to land gigs in southern concert halls and film festivals. Because of this, the show will be a ‘best of,’ featuring the group’s most polished pieces. But there are also new things on offer: the band will be live-scoring photographer Pat Kane’s Dead North award-winning film Maxwell and Bulckaert is bringing in a chunk of unseen Artless Collective footage. “It’s all the footage from every weird place we’re in, every weird experience that we have,” says Bulckaert, including an all-important moment when Pablo Saravanja fires a shotgun at point blank range at a propane tank… you’ll just have to go to the show to see it.

Sinister Oculus perform 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 23, at NACC. Tickets can be purchased here