In review: Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit keeps the current flowing
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It might be slightly off base to refer to the inaugural Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor could have alluded through his latest single and leadoff tune from their Saturday night set. The three-day Asheville celebration of circuits and bass will always be spiritually linked to Moogfest as its Halloween weekend successor (not to mention being the brainchild of former Moogfest promoter AC Entertainment), but it’s not exactly a copy of a copy of a copy.
What Mountain Oasis demonstrated was that creating identity through music isn’t necessarily just artist- or fan-sided, but it extends to the business end as well. As Moogfest prepares to reboot in April under a different promoter with a thus-far closely guarded game plan, the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it drum-machine-beat of Mountain Oasis — keeping venue contracts relatively in place, maintaining an amicable if somewhat distanced collaboration with Moog Music and, most importantly, continuing to embrace the bizarre ephemerality of Halloween as a key identity piece — is mostly championed through a booking ethos sprung from Moogfest’s move to Asheville in 2010: Go big, go broad and go weird.
As huge electronic festivals like Electric Zoo, Ultra, the Electric Daisy Carnival and the innumerable Euro fests upon which they’re modeled attest, cobble together enough big-named DJs with high-end sound and light, and the rest will work itself out. Mountain Oasis, on the other hand, similarly reveled in the bass circuses created by the hugely popular beat swizz Bassnectar, Friday night’s top-billed act in the ExploreAsheville.com Arena, or the dizzied oscillations of Sunday aperitif PANTyRAID, but the juice of Mountain Oasis was how it took some rather daring chances.
It iconoclastically tore down the new gods of electronica by pairing them with the old and the outer gods, and in the process, brought together a broader swath of music fans than nearly all of the purer, openly ageist DJ festivals. Diversity in the audience was imitated via the line out the door of the Asheville Music Hall to adore the 75-year-old electronica laureate Simeon Coxe’s Friday night Silver Apples set as much as it was the mesmerizing, sexy beauty of Disclosure, the futurist British house duo comprising the 19- and 22-year-old Lawrence Brothers, on Sunday. There was no “type” at Mountain Oasis, save for maybe the gaggle of techno gnomes that inexplicably showed up at every really great show, but there was also no taste that went unquenched.
That, as it so happens, is where the weird comes in. The 7,000-8,000 nightly attendance were typically most heavily concentrated in the arena and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — a mere function of meeting logistical demands for larger acts — but often the most enthusiastic demand (and response) was for the fringe. Despite the pervasive, driving beats dwelling underneath Simeon’s compositions, Silver Apples’ lustrous synth poetry took the bite out of the party atmospherics with sleepy cantatas like “I Have Known Love,” but the response brought about by such primitive, yet temporally radical songs was electric. Likewise, soundtrack composer Alan Howarth’s performance of his scores to Big Trouble In Little China, Halloween and Prince of Darkness in front of theater-sized film projections were sweet nostalgia for ’80s horror fanatics, but hearing him rip a meticulously produced guitar solo from “Lo Pan’s Domain” was among the festival’s most priceless moments.
Then there was Daniel Johnston — perhaps the ultimate fringe curiosity, an outsider to not only this beat-centric festival, but to all but the most avant-garde corners — who commanded a nearly full Thomas Wolfe with kindness and graciousness. There’s always the threat of cancellation whenever the manically depressed Johnston announces a date, so watching him beat on an out-of-tune guitar and sing lines like “Johnny laid on the railroad track/ Let the train run over his head/ They said he was just curious/ What it felt like to be dead” felt like a blessing of simplicity among the multitudes of astonishingly high-tech productions. His placement just before the ultimate hepcat bucket-list item, the long-awaited return of Neutral Milk Hotel (whose set was marked by 2,000 people quietly exploding inside), ensured there was a substantial crowd to hear him. The misunderstanding of his condition lingers, though.
One audience member shouted, “You’re so much cooler than you think you are!” which drew a nod and smile of appreciation from the near-toothless Johnston. If only mental illness was so simple.
There was no simple reduction of the driving mania behind art-punk originators Sparks in their highly minimal duo form, however. Sonically they remain the missing link between Queen and Of Montreal, though Russell and Ron Mael’s work depends on the assumption that it is much more performance art than song than Kevin Barnes would ever comfortably engage in. In a festival where leaps of faith are often required, watching Russell prance around the small Wortham Theatre Stage while ever-stoic brother Ron tapped out gradeschool music-teacher melodies on his Casio was among the diciest.
Though Sparks are not for the unacquainted, their legendary status is secure, and not even primarily for the laundry list of artists who found influence in their flamboyant oddness. The question of influence was most deeply explored Saturday night via the pairing of synth legend Gary Numan a few hours before Nine Inch Nails. Numan, the most palpable influence of Reznor, starkly reinvented his sound following the rise of Nine Inch Nails to replicate his love of Reznor’s hard-bitten, industrial palette. The ever-amicable Numan (he was a complete ham at his panel interview) went deep into his brand-new, 20th LP, Splinter (Songs for a Broken Mind), teasing his older work through “Films” and Metals” but almost eschewing Tubeway Army, save for “Down In the Park.” Numan is a charged presence on stage and his aggressive new work is the ideal companion to his black-clad persona, but if there was ever a moment to posit the question, “Are Friends Electric?” this was it.
Conversely, Reznor’s new record Hesitation Marks feels more grown up, the work of a man on the precipice of self-actualization, but ironing out the last few questions of identity. The addition of world-class bass mercenary Pino Palladino’s glacial, fretless groove answers a question that used to be asked more when actual instruments were commonly in play. Who was the best bass player at Mountain Oasis? The guy who has played with Herbie Hancock, D’Angelo, the Who and now Nine Inch Nails.
Even with the overly aggro crowd at NIN in mind, the scarcity of bass at Darkside — electronic wunderkind Nicolas Jaar’s collaboration with guitarist composer Dave Harrington — was one of the festival’s most tense moments. Their first-ever US performance was built around their stunning two-week-old debut album Psychic, easily one of the best records of this year, and Darkside has built a live performance to match its shapeless intensity. Harrington’s taste for seething blues passages results in bars that spit in the face of the best hot players. That so much tension could come from so few licks is contrary to the conventional, dad-rock-obsessed blues fan, and paired with Jaar’s pressurized vocal manipulations, the thunder in the Thomas Wolfe Sunday night didn’t have to peg the meter. When they did finally unleash a heavy, subsonic heartbeat midway through “Freak Go Home,” it was as close to religion as the crowd of devil-horned thralls (thanks Four Loko) would come.
Getting an adequate bass fix at Mountain Oasis wasn’t exactly a challenge, though. Levels at Bassnectar were beyond oppressive, particularly in the very front where confetti cannons regularly blasted the arena. The ongoing appeal remains his titanic LED array, among the most expensive of the weekend, but lovers of pure bass monsters likely found more comfort with Saturday night’s set by the Bug at the Orange Peel. Kevin Martin’s thundering, four-on-the-floor marriage of the grimiest island patois and the purest, most perfect jungle beats felt like being possessed — there was simply no way to remain in control. It comes from somewhere so deep and soulful that it blurs the line between aggro and spiritual. Similarly, many who’ve been waiting 25 years to experience the Orb live were treated to two hours of incessant tribal pounding to close out the last night, where the other most important question of the weekend — “What were the skies like when you were young?” — was not left on the table.
If the composite picture painted by Mountain Oasis speaks to any one truth, it’s that the countless variations of popular electronic music are deeply ingrained in all listening experiences. The bedroom jams of XXYYXX took the club out of the equation entirely, while Disclosure’s eminently stunning performance gives new understanding of the ever-evolving purpose of house music. There was no better visual than the giant, androgynous day-glo face behind the brothers singing along to Sam Smith’s impassioned wail on “Latch,” or London Grammar’s enchantment “Help Me Lose My Mind,” but it also isolated the listeners’ focus on that single songwriting element over the singer-personality dynamic that dominates pop. There was no one singing, and yet there were so many singing (when Jessie Ware wasn’t guest-starring for “Confess to Me”). That element of curiosity-meets-discovery remains integral to this Halloween weekend bash, no matter what it’s called.