Moogfest 2011: Looking forward, reaching back
One needn’t be among the electronic music faithful to take
away extremely positive feelings toward Moogfest, Asheville’s new, yearly
electronic mecca. Since migrating from a tiny single-night event in New York
City to what was arguably the cradle of electronic music innovation after being
settled by Robert Moog, Moogfest has been as edifying as it is entertaining.
Few festivals defy their attendees to completely reassess how they listen to
music in the way that a weekend at Moogfest does. The gray matter-frying,
booty-shaking synth jams raged until early morning all across downtown
Asheville, but oftentimes the lessons in musical futurology were just as
It was not just the ideas that were presented that were fascinating, but who presented them. The chances of spotting a posted bill bearing the aerodynamic dome of Brian Eno were the same as bearded bicyclist or an old lady with a dog downtown. His Saturday afternoon talk, for instance, delved into the roots of Eno’s influence, from the nonsensical to the not-so-obvious.
The witty Brit who was a vital fulcrum in the music of Roxy Music, David Bowie and Talking Heads discussed the impact of everything from haircuts to minimalist composers like Steve Reich on his work, leading the audience to think through internally how influential abstract compositions like “It’s Gonna Rain” eventually bled into the popular music aesthetic that Eno himself championed. As is his wont these days, Eno didn’t perform, unless the few bars of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” that he hummed should count. When minimalist forefather Terry Riley took the same stage only a few hours later, however, it felt like an even more sanctified indulgence.
Contemporary electronica and its antecedents were a theme not just for those few hours, but all throughout the weekend. Tangerine Dream were the vanguard of the German krautrock movement of the ‘60s, but even they owed fealty to the aged Berlin composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, whose Saturday afternoon set was grossly underattended. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew didn’t have that problem. His set that night was a rock-centric reprieve from the bloops and beeps populated by an army of cool dads, and his acutely mathematical style was directly 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 calamitous outbursts of their first eponymous album, 73-year-old singer Alan Vega told how the duo and their music was rejected by New York City punk culture, effectively making them too punk for punk. Synth player Martin Rev flipped between dance-y beats and No Wave noise as Vega shelled the room with the tirades of a fully baked Ozzie Osbourne; his age showing in his gait, but not in his bombast. Suicide could be as disturbing as they were thought provoking, an approach perfected by Tobacco, who took a more visceral approach to unnerving his audience, mainly through bad German porn involving actors costumed as aliens and pterodactyls.
Then of course there was Moby, whose impact on pop can’t be
denied, yet time hasn’t been kind to his own sound. He seems like a nice enough
guy, but long stretches of his show felt like the extended commercial break
before the climax of a Mad Men episode – just hip enough for primetime consumption, but ultimately a decent
bunch of jingles. He had a long way to go before he could match the
exasperation brought on by a Flaming Lips show, however. Wayne Coyne and his
band recalls an old Brian Regan standup on the defunct MTV show The Half Hour Comedy Hour. Regan
describes the first sip of a Fresca as the most glorious sensation a pallet
could ever behold. Then every sip after that tastes like rotting death. That’s
the Flaming Lips in a nutshell.
No worries, because those who came to be challenged were given abundant options. Flying Lotus began his set by asking the audience to think of the greatest film ever made, which lent a singular context for everyone taking part in the Friday night set by the Coltrane legacy. Amon Tobin’s Isis installation practically did the work for the listener/viewer. Imagine a gigantic, three-dimensional game of Tetris with a lit up by swirling constellations and steampunk space cruisers, undulating to a soundtrack of heavily processed field recordings, and that might come close to the behemoth sprawled across the Civic Center stage Friday night. It wasn’t danceable in any way, but still breathtaking in both sight and sound.
But sometimes, people just want to get down, and there were plenty of opportunities for that. The ‘80s were alive during Chromeo’s set at the festival’s new outdoor stage on Friday night, both through originals that would be at home on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack or covers like Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” It seemed to be the best dance parties that were also the most inaccessible. Araabmuzik’s set to end Friday night brought a line that wrapped around the building and down N. Lexington Ave. with a one-in-one-out mandate disappointing the late-late-nighters. But that’s another lesson learned: always get to a Moogfest show early.