Moogfest 2012: In Review

Though Asheville, N.C.'s Moogfest is intended as a celebration of electronic music in all its many permutations, every successful festival must have its bread and butter. And for promoters AC Entertainment, that's apparently EDM.

It's a decision particularly reflected in this year's installment. Taking place the weekend before Halloween (October 26 and 27), Moogfest 2012 featured a swath of techno and trance that was significantly wider than in years past. Among its top-draw acts were big-room veterans Orbital, Pantha du Prince, Richie Hawtin and Shpongle, all of whom commanded slots at the 7,000-plus seat ExploreAsheville.com Arena, far and away the largest of the five primary venues the festival utilizes in the downtown area. Elsewhere, Detroit pioneer Carl Craig helped close out Saturday night with a boisterous two-hour set at The Orange Peel, a medium-sized concert venue that reached capacity an hour before he took the stage. Then there was the American debut of London duo Disclosure, who barnstormed the Asheville Music Hall with their scrappy (and fairly indie) take on garage house.

The presence of these artists, in turn, helped bring to Moogfest a significantly increased dose of rave vibes: throngs of fantastically glowing dancers and (thanks to Halloween) extravagantly costumed party people who claimed the streets of this quaintly picturesque Appalachian town for their own. And while we're on the subject, costume of the weekend has to go to the seemingly omnipresent dude dressed as one of The Residents (massive eyeball with top hat resting on a tuxedo with tails). It was a brilliant getup, primarily because in accordance with the group's self-styled anonymity, he may very well have been an actual Resident. Now that's a wild thought.

But despite the festival's hearty embrace of EDM, this reviewer feels as though the weekend's most electric moments actually came courtesy of the myriad rap artists AC Entertainment slipped into the mix (also up from previous years). Hip-hop at a festival paying tribute to synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog might, at first blush, seem a tad counter-intuitive. But that's only because the genre (for numerous sociocultural reasons too complex to unpack here) doesn't come wrapped in the techno-modernist fetishism that's a fundamental component of so many subcategories of electronic music (especially techno and progressive electronics).

But make no mistake: A massive portion of the American population had their initial exposure to drum machine-generated dance beats -- as well as compositional techniques like sequencing, sampling, sound collage and even musique concrète -- through rap music. Thus, the modern music media's declarations that EDM has finally conquered America with the arrival of Skrillex (or whomever) are misleading in a certain respect, considering it's been a mainstay of the pop charts ever since Run-D.M.C. started Raising Hell back in the mid-'80s.

For marquee hip-hop, the festival went with Nas and GZA, each one unloading sets steeped in the '90s (which isn't surprising, seeing as how the nostalgia fad continues to thrive). For Nas, this meant a balance of classics ('If I Ruled the World (Imagine That),'" "Hate Me Now," "The World Is Yours') and newer material ("Loco-Motive"). As he explained to the crowd, "People like that '90s sh*t." GZA, on the other hand, activated his time machine with zero qualifications. The result was an at-times loose re-creation of 1995's Liquid Swords, one of the foundations of Wu-Tang's golden period. Not at all unlike a Pink Floyd concert, nearly every single person in attendance knew nearly every single word GZA uttered.

But Moogfest also spotlighted several self-consciously outré manifestations of hip-hop, most prominently El-P and Death Grips. Each one put on a performance that totally smoked while also stretching the genre's established parameters. With a backing band that consisted of a guitarist dressed like a Love Boat medic (?) and keyboardist rocking a vintage Moog Liberation (i.e. synth-guitar), El-P dropped a slab of industrial-grade P-Funkadelica laced with screaming-hot licks and rattlesnake percussion. A specific highlight of his Friday appearance at The Peel was the resolutely paranoid "Sign Here" (from this year's Cancer 4 Cure album). Making an audience-approved cameo toward the end of the set was old pal Killer Mike; he played the same stage earlier in the evening (if you've never heard the guy's bizarre tribute anthem "Ric Flair," it's not to be missed).

The following night, leaked-album-with-penis-on-cover controversy-mongers Death Grips turned The Peel into a den of tribal catharsis and lysergic brutality, like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome meets the sax-rock concert scene in The Lost Boys meets Onyx's "Slam" video (look it up). Surely, there exist purists who would scoff at describing the cacophony the Sacramento group whips up as "hip-hop." After all, their sound is deeply informed by maximalist dynamics endemic to the noise-rock scene in which drummer Zach Hill cut his teeth (think The Locust, Olneyville Sound System, Boredoms and, of course, his other project Hella). Yet in terms of rhythm, Death Grips are totally rooted in the put-your-arms-in-the-air-like-you-just-don't-care sway that's been a core element of rap ever since the movement embraced battering-ram drum machines; it's just that the group has brilliantly deconstructed said sway via thick layers of dubby reverb, psychedelic groove exploration and genuinely nauseous bass-pounce.

Imagine, in other words, a vintage Schoolly D megamix slowed down, turned up to 11 and filtered through Sunn O))) and a little Mike Patton freakery. As for frontman Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride), he's a sweat-soaked madman. He has raps (it seems), yet all one could really decipher were his violent howls, screams and barks. They drove the audience bonkers. Kids retreated from the mosh pit during the show all exhausted and bruised and sporting thousand-yard stares, as though they were Union soldiers returning from the advancing lines of the Battle of Chattanooga.

Equally intense (but for totally different reasons) was Andy Stott, the cutting-edge producer from Manchester, England, who in the last two years has released a trio of albums (Passed Me By, We Stay Together and the brand new Luxury Problems) documenting his distinctive fusion of dub techno, ambient-bass murk and industrial dystopia. Early Saturday evening, he played the significantly more subdued Diana Wortham Theatre. Shrouded in darkness, the conservatory-like space rattled and vibrated from Stott's lurching low-end. The DJ covered an astonishing amount of terrain: From his own singular productions, he shifted into various but equally shadowy permutations of techno and post-dubstep goop. What's more, he loves raw segues and unexpected transitions that add labyrinth-like twists and turns to his mixes. Just awesome stuff.

The Diana Wortham Theatre also hosted pioneering composer Morton Subotnick, as well as the new collaboration between Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin, each in their own unique ways exemplifying electronic music's avant-garde thrust. Subotnick's presentation of his landmark 1968 work Silver Apples of the Moon was especially arresting. As its skittery buzzes and whirrs and revolutionary rhythm schemes unfolded, one could actually envision how in the late '60s this strange new brew helped foment the very electronic music movement Moogfest now dedicates itself to honoring.

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