Tricks and treats at the Mountain Oasis Electionic Music Summit

by Ryan Snyder

Whether you were in or whether you were out in the early ’90s depended not on your answer to a simple question posed by British dance pioneers the Orb, but by the length of that answer. “What were the skies like when you were young?” was the “Can you pass the acid test?” of the rave generation, a chill-out touchstone that served as the quintessential comedown track for the first generation of electronic dancemusic fiends.

Taking the sample from interview outtakes accompanying Rickie Lee Jones’ Flying Horses, the Orb’s Dr. Alex Paterson created the signature track, “Little Fluffy Clouds,” for house music’s first real punk movement — a response to record labels’ imperative of waiting out what they collectively saw as the EDM “fad” at the time. Overseas distributors were only humoring the big, propulsive sounds of acts like the Utah Saints and the KLF while England experienced their own Summer of Love. The reaction of Paterson and the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty was to further embrace EDM’s technological and visual component in responding to the stadium and acid-house sounds that were entirely counterintuitive to the labels’ existing models.

“Rock and roll came in because the record companies couldn’t sell dance music. They sat around and waited for the phenomenon that was house music in ’89 and ’90 to calm down and then got back on track,” Paterson said via telephone before a sold-out gig in Dundee, Scotland. “Basically, stalling everybody, stalling us while we tried to put records out. They said they couldn’t sell it because there’s no singer, there’s no lead guitarist. It’s only now that in the last couple of years that it’s okay to be a DJ or a computer bloke onstage with a bit of visuals.”

Almost 25 years later, they posed it once again, this time to dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry on “Golden Clouds,” off of the collaborative effort The Orbserver in the Starhouse. The MO hadn’t changed — still druggy and ascendant — though its canvas had. Next weekend as the Orb close out the inaugural pre-Halloween weekender, the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, “Little Fluffy Clouds” will reprise its role as the sonic digestif before a new generation of ravers, but this time with a sense of retrospection.

Their current tour is spun off from acknowledgement of first, formative act of Paterson’s 25 years as the mastermind behind the Orb with a box set of their Island years as the crux. While the Orb’s set is devised from those early Island records (but not the earliest, to Paterson’s chagrin), the classics won’t exactly be textbook.

“In the moment, we’re really into proving to the world that we can do versions of ‘OOBE,’ versions of ‘Toxygene,’ versions of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ that are more 21 st century, a bit more minimal,” he noted. “A bit more harder on your face and a bit softer on your bum. It’s spontaneous, quite literally.”


The Orb’s role closing the festival that mega-promoters AC Entertainment spun  off from their three-year involvement in producing Moogfest — the homage to the ideas and innovations of inventor Bob Moog that will be reborn this spring — is a bit of casting that’s not without intent. In fact, the programming follows an arc very clearly delineated by its headliners. Dubstep/drum-and-bass totem Bassnectar heads up Friday’s celebratory rising action (his drops take an eternity); Saturday’s aggressive climax and the No. 1 name on the bill is the biggest industrial band of all time, Nine Inch Nails; and Sunday’s blissed-out denouement peaks with the ever-evolving space-jazz unit Pretty Lights. But one could conceivably skip all three and still sustain one of the best weekend’s of music that North Carolina will see in 2013.


It’s not that the seed of electronica just now seems to be bearing fruit in the United States, it’s that conditions in the United Kingdom have long been more than optimal for far longer. Acts like Gary Numan, Kevin Martin, trip-hop Tricky and soulful songbird Jessie Ware provide a window into the influence of successive generations of British synth and electronic music. Numan in particular, essentially an artist in residence at the first MOEMS, has always maintained a consistent touring and recording presence, but this weekend has been framed, almost from the outset, as a revival of the man whose influence can be felt across genre lines, from headliners Nine Inch Nails to inevitable MOEMS participants Basement Jaxx.


While Mountain Oasis needs bass like a sword needs a whetstone, it’s not entirely beat-centric. See: Seattle composer Jherek Bischoff’s sweet and moving orchestral work with David Byrne (Bischoff’s set early Friday should not be missed). However, volume will be consumed to an almost masochistic degree. Bassnectar will be the first in the minds of many in that regard, but sets by the Bug, the ultra-grimy, extremely aggressive dub side project of British producer Kevin Martin (King Midas Sound), are usually preceded by a warning that volume could exceed 130 dBs. For context, that’s just below the pain threshold of most. Hearing his 2008 release London Zoo live, however, just might be worth it.


What made Moogfest great was its willingness to incorporate the unconventional, often highly influential forces in electronic composition into its ranks. Names like Terry Riley and Van Dyke parks made it a destination as much as the EDM titans. This isn’t Moogfest, but it’s the same curatorial universe, and Sunday night’s set by composer Alan Howarth is among the more unique entries into that idiom. As the compositional partner to John Carpenter to the best horror films of the ’80s, Howarth is responsible for the music of the Halloween” franchise, Big Trouble In Little China and, among his underrated best, the highly listenable Prince of Darkness soundtrack.


Just a guess, but it could be accurate to assume that around a quarter of Mountain Oasis attendees could consume only the first Neutral Milk Hotel show in the US in 15 years, spend the rest of the weekend in a weepy, catatonic state with only their hirsute beards to comfort them, and be perfectly happy. The nostalgia factor is indeed strong, but it doesn’t end there. The scheduling conflict between the orchestra-flaunting Deltron 3030 and LA glam kings Sparks (the band who first brought Giorgio Moroder to the masses) is a cruel one indeed, but those camping out at Daniel Johnston’s set for prime NMH real estate are going to miss one of the most important songwriters of the weekend in Silver Apple’s Simeon. The spirit of the poet was born into punk through the aging Simeon, and if there’s a most regrettable miss, it will be him.

The Mountain Oasis Festival runs Oct. 25-27 in Asheville. Find out more at