An annual celebration of the legacy of synthesizer inventor and engineer Robert Moog, Moogfest might seem like an odd place for a classic rock fan to search for the rawk. But I have my reasons.
Like an aging empire suffering perpetual turf wars, rock's boundaries have shrunk inexorably since the 1970s. Back in the day, rock was huge. It could claim both the acoustic and the electronic, the funky and the avant garde, everything from Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream to Lou Reed and ZZ Top to Funkadelic and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then there was all the fringe stuff; even the mildly curious rock fan could wind up purchasing a copy of Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air or John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, because he (or she) had read about it in Rolling Stone or Creem.
But those days are long gone. In 2011, rock incorporates little beyond the post-grunge diaspora, jam band shenanigans, senior citizens from the 1960s and '70s, stoner-rock revivalism, some Americana stuff and Wilco. Anything somewhat experimental or strange is almost always tagged indie, alternative, electronic, etc. Here's a perfect example: not too long ago, I had a colleague argue that Radiohead, as captured on their latest album The King of Limbs, is no longer a rock band. I thought to myself, "If Pink Floyd's Ummagumma, which is a million times more radical and form-challenging, can belong to the rock canon, then surely the genre is capable of claiming Thom Yorke's tepid dabblings in electronic sounds." After all, was it not rock music itself that helped spearhead the electronic revolution in the early 1970s, when all those insane prog dudes started tinkering with synthesizers?
And so, this past weekend, October 28-30, I ventured to Moogfest 2011, nestled in the autumn-stained Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, in the hopes that I could reclaim some of rock's lost territory amid a schedule packed with electronica, indie pop, hip-hop, techno and ambient music.
After checking out my five most notable discoveries, be sure to explore my Highlights of Moogfest 2011 playlist.
Anika's Dystopian Chamber Rock
My "pleasant surprise" of Moogfest. I knew nothing of Anika before the English-German singer's Friday-night gig. A friend roped me in, thankfully. Comparisons to Nico pop up in reviews of her debut album for the Stones Throw imprint; the monochromatic tenor and chamber-rock vibe are there, more or less, yet Anika's sound is also deeply rooted in Factory-grade post-punk -- A Certain Ratio meets Blanco Y Negro-era Jesus and Mary Chain, maybe?
What's interesting is how she applies this clanging aesthetic to vintage '60s music. She covered both The Kinks' "I Go to Sleep" and Dylan's "Masters of War." (I'd love to hear her tackle The Doors' "Hello, I Love You.") And her backing group is quite superb: efficient, tight, percussive and capable of slipping in and out of dubby waves of reverb. Plus, each instrument is soaked in an exquisite decay. Just so you know: file next to Zola Jesus rather than Mayer Hawthorne.
Listen to Anika, Anika
The Field's Space Ritual
Swedish producer Axel Willner sits at the forefront of minimal techno's recentish fascination with Krautrock, dream pop, ambient music and cosmic disco. Though it's constructed from loops and breaks, The Field's music is pure space rock to these ears, an electronic descendent of Neu!, Can, Jean Michel Jarre, Floyd and, in a weird way, E.L.O. ("Is This Power" has an Out of the Blue-styled purr to it). The fact that Willner has added a drummer and bassist (a move reminiscent of The Mortiz von Oswald Trio) only strengthens these associations, especially in the live setting, which in this instance was the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a classy theater setup.
The trio fought through PA issues (not enough BASS!), but they proved to be exceptionally physical. Jasper Skarin, behind the kit, was something of a brute, pushing the ensemble into Motorik bliss. Overall, the music might've been sleek and gorgeous, but in terms of pure ecstatic hypnotism, The Field altered my consciousness the same way a Hawkwind album does.
Listen to The Field, Yesterday and Today
The Flaming Lips Deliver Progressive Rock Into the 21st Century
On my way to the AniMoog Playground stage -- outdoors, at night, in the cold -- a car passed by blasting "Carry on My Wayward Son." A portent, because this was a true rock-concert venue, a parking-lot party pen containing food trucks, beer tents and costumed weirdoes bopping about with DayGlo paint smeared across their foreheads. The Flaming Lips are many things all woven together: heartland misfits who emerged from '80s hardcore, modern American Spiritualist bohemians and trickster Discordians with a taste for alien mythology. Moreover, they're ability to embrace concert-as-ritual without surrendering their Midwestern sense of self-deprecation and prairie-dry irony (wise-acre guru Wayne Coyne shouting "C'mon, It's Saturday night!" over and over) is impressive.
Nearly everything on stage glowed in luminous white, with grimy rainbows splattered about. Behind the instruments stood a massive, half-circle video screen. It opened tonight's ceremony with a pixilated image of a golden goddess, shapely and dancing. After several slinky gyrations, her vagina went supernova, quickly turning into an actual doorway, from which each Flaming Lip was, uh, birthed. The lone exception was Coyne. Inside his space bubble (a cosmic placenta?), he bounced into the audience, whose hands carried him to and fro. It's obvious the guy grew up digging the theatrics of "Slipperman"-era Genesis, Floyd and The Dead (uncanny how the band flirt with dancing-bear zaniness without drowning in a vat of Cheez Whiz).
As for the music, I'm of the belief that The Lips were most potent in the 1992 to '95 zone, back when they struck that sublime balance between the aggro-chaos of their garage days and a Beach Boys-like knack for visionary pop. It's also when mind-bending guitarist Ronald Jones dominated their sound. That said, I tip my hat to the band for refusing to castrate their eccentricity as they've climbed fame's ladder. Their newer material, though more cuddly, betrays a love for modern heavies Animal Collective, Andrew W.K. and Lightning Bolt (with whom they've recently collaborated). The most prog moment of the evening arrived when the band unleashed an utterly straight-faced rendition of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man." The sky was filled with balloons and confetti, to boot.
Listen to The Flaming Lips, The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing Dark Side of the Moon
Never mind that Wakeman is a grizzled keyboardist from the '70s, while Tobin is a whiz kid of modern post-everything electronic music; both artists surround themselves with abstruse technology and produce dense music that's symphonic, not terribly rhythmic and conceptual in nature (often falling somewhere along the sci-fi/fantasy axis). Even more telling: both have staged elaborate shows that are pretentious and overblown. For Wakeman it was King Arthur on Ice; for Tobin it's ISAM.
The producer knows fans don't want pay to see a lone dude standing on an arena-sized stage, messing with a laptop and whatever else. Thus, for his latest tour, he hides inside a big glowing cube, itself tucked inside an even bigger structure that resembles a cross between Superman's faux-Krypton abode at the North Pole (see Superman II) and Q*bert's cubist pyramid. Across the façade, Tobin projects all manner of CGI hokum: dancing geometry, graphic-design eye candy and even massive spaceships plowing deep into the cosmos -- these look like Playstation 3 commercials, in all honesty. Surely, this guy read his fare share of Michael Moorcock growing up?
Listen to Amon Tobin, ISAM
Suicide Cheat Death
The bands-playing-their-classic-albums trend is silly, though certainly tempting to experience every now and then. My main problem revolves around older rock musicians, particularly rhythm players, attempting to recreate the music of their youth when they so obviously lack the strength, energy and stamina to do so. It's like asking 2011 Kobe to float above the rim the way he did in '99.
But in the case of Suicide, this perspective is complicated by the fact that the band's sound -- outside of Alan Vega's voice, of course -- is the product of synthesizers and drum machines. These don't grow old or ever experience fatigue; so long as Martin Rev can use his hands, the band can successfully produce the sinister industrial garage-rock propulsion of their iconic debut album. Which they did here. Rev's synth-work was even more raw and violent, in fact: there were stretches when he started punching keys with clenched fists.
In contrast, Alan Vega, 73, definitely feels time. His legs are stiff, plus his phantom croon is more of a dirty growl (he smoked numerous cigs and drank plenty of Heinekens while onstage). Nevertheless, he found a way to channel the gnarled fatalism wrapped around his heart like barbed wire. The highlight was "Frankie Teardrop," an 11-minute nightmare about a factory worker whose poverty drives him to kill his wife, kid and, finally, himself (Springsteen's Nebraska sounds upbeat in comparison). It was apparent Vega didn't remember all the words, so he just started damning America to hell beat-poetry-style -- not just the system, but the revolutionaries as well. We're all screwed, he was saying. Totally riveting.
Listen to Suicide, Suicide