STRIKING THE PERFECT BALANCE Moogfest 2012

October 26 & 27
brought the third annual gathering of the tribes. We were there, natch. (See also:
our exclusive photo gallery from this year’s event.)

 

BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

 

Unlike its peers on the nation’s festival scene, Moogfest
will always be judged by one very specific criterion: How true is it to the
legacy of Bob Moog? The late synthesizer pioneer founded Moog Music and
contributed innovations that have impacted every musical genre that doesn’t
exclusively rely on acoustic instruments. Since relocating from New York to
Asheville, N.C. three years ago, the festival has juggled this high-minded
curatorial responsibility with the necessity of booking the kind of
high-profile acts that can sustain a multi-day festival that includes venues
with capacities of 7,700 (ExploreAsheville.com Arena, aka the former Asheville
Civic Center), 2,400 (Thomas Wolfe Auditorium) and 1,050 (Orange Peel).

 

Ashley Capps, the head of AC Entertainment, the promotion
company behind the fest, spoke to the challenge of representing Moog at a
pre-festival press conference, calling it “the thread around which the festival
is made,” adding: “We try to keep it from being a box.”

 

At its best, the festival explores the boundary between the
popular and the experimental, offering accessible samples of electronic styles
and arresting artists making waves in the indie music realm. Reduced to two
days after a pair of three-day events, this year’s Moogfest lacked some of the
star power enjoyed by its first Asheville
outings, but the line-up was tight and meaty, rich with acts who stretched the
Moog thread in intriguing ways. Leveraging its Halloween-adjacent weekend, the
event retained the party-hardy atmosphere of years past, drunk kids in costumes
vibing to unexpected soundtracks.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday night was the more adventurous of the two sessions,
using Moog’s broad influence as the connective tissue uniting an array of
diverse and vital performers. German electronic innovator Pantha Du Prince
started things off at the arena, and his set played out like a microcosm of the
diverse styles Moogfest manages to draw together. His lush electronic
landscapes united throbbing house beats with delicate techno flourishes and
moments of harsh distortion sourced from experimental rock. The results percolated
patiently only to suddenly lunge forward, a marvel of mood management and
rhythmic acumen.

 

Later, a pair of high-profile rappers offered wonderfully
contrasting sets, a welcome improvement over last year’s scant hip-hop
programming. Nas (pictured above), performing
with a live band that played various Moog instruments, rocked the arena with
his provocative lyrics and steely flow. Bolstered by the band’s muscular,
understated funk inflections, classics like Illmatic‘s
“The World is Yours” impressed with robust beats matched by potent melodic
counterpoints, often in the form of pristine trumpet fills. With a beloved star
daring to try a new approach, Nas’ set took Moog’s mission of innovation to
heart.

 

A few hours later at the Orange Peel, GZA, the Wu-Tang
Clan’s resident “Genius” offered one of the most charismatic rap sets you’ll
ever see. Showcasing an intuitive connection with his DJ, what started as a
performance of GZA’s 1995 landmark, Liquid
Swords
, became a wowing journey through Wu-Tang history. He offered
performances of hallmarks such as “Clan in the Front” and went a cappella to
recite a verse by late Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The latter was one of
many moments made possible by GZA and his DJ’s unparalleled chemistry, beats
dropping out and bouncing back with perfect timing, complementing the rapper’s
sly, gravelly delivery. It wasn’t the full-album performance that festival
goers were promised, but GZA proved himself to be a consummate entertainer and
an artist fully in command of his craft.

 

There were missteps, notably headliner Primus, whose
uninventive combination of Tom Waits-isms and maddeningly busy bass and guitar
fills was in no way helped by the gimmicky 3D projections that accompanied it.
But every sour note was answered with a sweet one, in this case the free
jazz-inflected art rock of Asheville’s
own Ahleuchatistas. Shane Perlowin’s dizzying guitar lines swung from
blistering bop permutations to crushing semi-metal riffs and on to intricate,
Oriental-leaning patterns. Drummer Ryan Oslance added complex clamor, working
through swift, ever-changing progressions and adding creative embellishments,
at one point dropping chains on his tom to create a brutal, leaden stomp.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday began with a slate of performers flush with indie
buzz. Divine Fits (pictured above)
a supergroup comprising Spoon leader Britt Daniel, Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs
alum Dan Boeckner, and New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown — started the night
off at the arena. They united Spoon’s kraut-ish throb with stylish synths,
creating relentless, elongated grooves that drove forth with veteran swagger.
Santigold followed, her lyrical, melody-driven style of hip-hop assisted by the
robotic choreography of two female dancers and myriad costume changes. With
theatrical elements such as a two-man horse — played by her bassist and
drummer — striding onto the stage to a clippity-clopping beat, her set
utilized spectacle to enhance her already catchy songs.

 

Better still was Death Grips, who brought their brash,
noise-inflected hip-hop to the Orange Peel. The beats came by way of harshly
distorted synth lines pulsing from a backstage laptop
and the enraged volleys of drummer Zach Hill. As the incredible volume shook
the Peel to its foundations, Stefan
“MC Ride” Burnett unleashed his rhymes in guttural shouts. Shirtless
and ripped, he gyrated and flexed, roaring at the crowd silhouetted by
blood-red spotlights. It was a jarring and transfixing display, intense
electronic sounds powering some of the most visceral hip-hop around.

 

Saturday’s second half
was an onslaught of top-flight electronic music: ambient duos, eclectic DJs and
energetic EDM. Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford &
Lopatin) induced trances with a powerfully understated wash of serene synths
and ethereal noise. The English EDM pioneers in Orbital led Moogfest’s biggest
party down at the arena, masterfully controlling momentum and unifying zombies,
Trekkies, Muppets and more in movement to their kinetic beats.

 

But none of this topped
Four Tet, who closed down Thomas Wolfe much like Pantha had started things at
the arena one night earlier, with a uniquely diversified electronica display.
Dense dub beats met prickling notes from samples and synths and an undercurrent
of ambient noise, The resulting loop-heavy expenses were at once mentally
immersive and danceable, a potent reminder that forward-thinking music can be
enjoyed with the body as well as the mind. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moogfest was
established to honor the contributions of one of the world’s most important
sonic innovators. This year’s event lived up to that mission, emphasizing
artists who are exploring the possibilities of sound while also creating work
that is intrinsically accessible. It’s a balance that Moogfest has spent three
years refining. This year, they got closer than ever to perfecting it.

 

 

[Photo credits: Margaret
Hester
(top); Jordan Lawrence (other 3)]

 

 

Additional Moogfest
coverage:

 

Moogfest
2011

 

Moogfest
2010

 

The
Legacy of Bob Moog

 

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