Moogfest 2011: Looking forward, reaching back

by Ryan Snyder

The appeal of Moogfest 2011 was both aural and visual. (photos by Ryan Snyder)

One needn’t be among the electronic music faithful to takeaway extremely positive feelings toward Moogfest, Asheville’s new, yearlyelectronic mecca. Since migrating from a tiny single-night event in New YorkCity to what was arguably the cradle of electronic music innovation after beingsettled by Robert Moog, Moogfest has been as edifying as it is entertaining.Few festivals defy their attendees to completely reassess how they listen tomusic in the way that a weekend at Moogfest does. The gray matter-frying,booty-shaking synth jams raged until early morning all across downtownAsheville, but oftentimes the lessons in musical futurology were just asfulfilling. It was not just the ideas that were presented that were fascinating, but whopresented them. The chances of spotting a posted bill bearing the aerodynamicdome of Brian Eno were the same as bearded bicyclist or an old lady with a dogdowntown. His Saturday afternoon talk, for instance, delved into the roots ofEno’s influence, from the nonsensical to the not-so-obvious.

The witty Brit who was a vital fulcrum in the music of RoxyMusic, David Bowie and Talking Heads discussed the impact of everything fromhaircuts to minimalist composers like Steve Reich on his work, leading theaudience to think through internally how influential abstract compositions like“It’s Gonna Rain” eventually bled into the popular music aesthetic that Enohimself championed. As is his wont these days, Eno didn’t perform, unless thefew bars of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” that he hummed shouldcount. When minimalist forefather Terry Riley took the same stage only a fewhours later, however, it felt like an even more sanctified indulgence.

Contemporary electronica and its antecedents were a theme not just for thosefew hours, but all throughout the weekend. Tangerine Dream were the vanguard ofthe German krautrock movement of the ‘60s, but even they owed fealty to theaged Berlin composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, whose Saturday afternoon set was grosslyunderattended. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew didn’t have that problem.His set that night was a rock-centric reprieve from the bloops and beepspopulated by an army of cool dads, and his acutely mathematical style wasdirectly heard through the tightly-wound electro-prog at Battles’ set where the kids of those dads probably wound up.

The radicle of punk music also reared its head in the form of Suicide at The Orange Peel Saturday night. Amidst the calamitousoutbursts of their first eponymous album, 73-year-old singer Alan Vega told howthe duo and their music was rejected by New York City punk culture,effectively making them too punk for punk. Synth player Martin Rev flippedbetween dance-y beats and No Wave noise as Vega shelled the room with thetirades of a fully baked Ozzie Osbourne; his age showing in his gait, but notin his bombast. Suicide could be as disturbing as they were thought provoking,an approach perfected by Tobacco, who took a more visceral approach tounnerving his audience, mainly through bad German porn involving actorscostumed as aliens and pterodactyls.

Then of course there was Moby, whose impact on pop can’t bedenied, yet time hasn’t been kind to his own sound. He seems like a nice enoughguy, but long stretches of his show felt like the extended commercial breakbefore the climax of a Mad Men‘ episode – just hip enough for primetime consumption, but ultimately a decentbunch of jingles. He had a long way to go before he could match theexasperation brought on by a Flaming Lips show, however. Wayne Coyne and hisband recalls an old Brian Regan standup on the defunct MTV show The Half Hour Comedy Hour. Regandescribes the first sip of a Fresca as the most glorious sensation a palletcould ever behold. Then every sip after that tastes like rotting death. That’sthe Flaming Lips in a nutshell.

No worries, because those who came to be challenged weregiven abundant options. Flying Lotus began his set by asking the audience tothink of the greatest film ever made, which lent a singular context foreveryone taking part in the Friday night set by the Coltrane legacy. AmonTobin’s Isis installation practically did the work for the listener/viewer.Imagine a gigantic, three-dimensional game of Tetris with a lit up by swirlingconstellations and steampunk space cruisers, undulating to a soundtrack ofheavily processed field recordings, and that might come close to the behemothsprawled across the Civic Center stage Friday night. It wasn’t danceable in anyway, but still breathtaking in both sight and sound.

But sometimes, people just want to get down, and there wereplenty of opportunities for that. The ‘80s were alive during Chromeo’s set atthe festival’s new outdoor stage on Friday night, both through originals thatwould be at home on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack or covers like DireStraits’ “Money for Nothing.” It seemed to bethe best dance parties that were also the most inaccessible. Araabmuzik’s setto end Friday night brought a line that wrapped around the building and down N.Lexington Ave. with a one-in-one-out mandate disappointing thelate-late-nighters. But that’s another lesson learned: always get to a Moogfestshow early.