sunn O))) / Photo by Ryan Sides, courtesy of Moogfest
There are music festivals at which festivities occur because there is music, and then there is Moogfest, a music festival at which music itself is being fêted, where we go to have our minds blown by the concept of music and the future and all the stuff a synthesizer circuit board might hint at. In its inaugural year in Durham, Moogfest continued its legacy of functioning as both a summit for music nerds and as an event a casual listener could wander into and enjoy, striking a comfortable balance between the two. For every D∆WN or Lunice that you could lose your mind dancing to, there was some seriously cerebral shit to sit around and contemplate. Impeccably curated and spread out over more than a dozen venues, Moogfest was impossible to fully capture, but these performances were among those that captivated me:
Blood Orange Became Iconic Before Our Eyes
Photo by Gus Samarco, courtesy of Moogfest
Blood Orange's 2013 release Cupid Deluxe is an album just about anyone could love, but it's also always felt a little bit like a secret for those in the know, the album that you hear playing through a neighbor's wall and wonder about. Blood Orange performances a couple years ago generally reinforced this impression, imparting the gift of their relaxed vibe. That's still partly the case, but something else has happened in the interim, which is that the show has gotten tighter and Dev Hynes has blossomed into the icon that everyone always suspected he was. Buzzy music comes and goes faster than ever, but Hynes is someone who it's already easy to imagine as a vastly influential, enduring star several decades into the future, the kind of guy who is going to quietly but steadily amass hits for a long time to come. Some of those hits are likely to come on Freetown Sound, the upcoming album he played a few selections from that seemed to push his already killer grooves to more ecstatic highs. The show was consummately enjoyable, perfect festival stuff: Instantly accessible and danceable and admirable even to those unfamiliar. It made Blood Orange feel like a de facto headliner to kick off the weekend. At one point I looked around and everyone in the audience was grinning ear to ear. I made a note in my phone that says “Everyone's smiling, and it rules,” and I think that just about sums it up.
Jana Hunter and EMA Led Four Hours of an Ambient Group Trance
Photo by Eric Waters, courtesy of Moogfest
One of the curiosities of Moogfest that could have only existed at an event like this (although, after this weekend, I am convinced should be recreated whenever and wherever possible) was a series of four-hour performances called “durational sound installations.” Each performer tackled the task slightly differently—the first day, Greg Fox played what was essentially a four-hour drum solo. Jana Hunter, Erika Anderson of EMA, and their band approached the performance as a trance-like noise journey, modulating individual sounds in ways that felt exploratory for everyone in the room (I caught the final two-plus hours). Anderson would sing snippets of lyrics before distorting her voice or turning away to fiddle with a guitar and an array of pedals. At one point she delivered an extended monologue about watching a kitten die while she was stoned. Hunter spent much of the performance almost hidden behind the ensemble's violinist/handheld synth member tweaking guitar effects pedals. A guy played a drum pad in a room so quiet that sometimes you could hear the drumstick hit the pad even when it wasn't triggering any digital noises. At various points, one of the performers might walk off stage and contemplate what was happening from the audience.
The result was a deeply satisfying mental experience that left me considering our relationship with the distractions of technology (i.e. watching people check their phones and checking my phone myself), found me counting the beverages onstage (orange Red Bull, Soylent, San Pellegrino sparkling water, and several cups of coffee among them), and returned me to a childlike state of thinking about the world around me with wonder. At one point, I briefly nodded off and woke back up as the video installation behind the performers showed the lights on the side of a highway rushing by, and I was returned to the feeling of drifting in and out of sleep at night in the backseat on family road trips. It was one of the most calming musical experiences I have ever had.
Well$ Brought North Carolina Hip-Hop Back
Photo by Renee Kramer
The last couple years have seen a promising crop of new rap talent emerge in North Carolina, and one of the most exciting figures in that movement is Well$, who has drawn acclaim online and energetically galvanized both the Charlotte and Triangle scenes (he's from Charlotte but currently living in Chapel Hill, working on finishing a debut album). His Friday night performance was one of the higher-energy, more polished shows I've seen from any buzzy young rapper this year: He seduced the audience into watching from a crouch for one song as it built to an explosive drop, and he performed without backing vocal tracks. Most impressive though, was his guest appearance with fellow local Professor Toon for the chaotic close of producer Made of Oak's (local talent and one-half of Sylvan Esso) set the next night. Catching the frenetic electronic beat effortlessly, Well$ proved that he has talent that deserves to go well beyond a local stage.
Kode9 Dismantled Our Minds and Capitalism
Photo by Ian Clontz, courtesy of Moogfest
The Hyperdub beat wizard's set was paired with a video performance by Lawrence Lek that yielded probably the best conceptual moment of the festival, pushing those of us watching to contemplate an entire range of questions about automation and technology and capitalism while also losing our goddamn minds dancing to an unrelentingly hard clatter of sound. At one point in front of me a guy started doing pushups, while his friend did sit-ups. And it seemed completely normal because what better way to enjoy this music than to let it short circuit your muscles? The visual portion was a video game mod that Lek explored via a rendering of a drone, wandering creepily empty futuristic staircases to discover more drones waiting to be assembled and an eerie arena, as well as video screens that showed stock market crashes, video of the late great DJ Rashad, and a flashing sign about “fully automated luxury communism.” Was it a hell of a journey through a technological dystopia? Yes. Was it fun as hell to dance to? Also yes.
Grouper Taught Us to Live Better at Church of Nature Drone
Photo by Ben Saren, courtesy of Moogfest
sunn O))) Opened a Portal to Doom, and It Was Fucking Lit
Photo by Caleb Smallwood, courtesy of Moogfest
Word on the street was that sunn O))) had to be moved from the venerable Carolina Theatre to the outdoor stage because festival organizers were worried their performance would be so loud that it would rip the plaster off the walls. I believe it. Another possible theory is that they were worried about summoning a literal demon into the room and leaving the place haunted for generations, which, understandable.
The show was, to put it lightly, an unholy baptism in sound. sunn O))) perform in front of a literal wall of amps—I counted at least 20, although there may have been more hidden in the fog. What else was hidden in the fog? Arcane secrets, my friends. Portals to dimensions as yet untouched by humankind. Sorcery. Necromancy. All that extremely good shit. Imagine Jedi Knights battling Nazgul. Imagine chaos being conjured from a fiery chasm and lightning bolts being pulled down from the sky. Literally any cool nerd thing you can imagine, picture that, and then if it were soundtracked by 100 volcanoes erupting at once. The band perform in robes, and they wield their instruments like wizards might, which, considering the punishing reverb-laden sounds they got out of them, makes sense. They were right, as they did at the end, to bow down to the might of their Moog synths, to praise the sinister force that had made this whole festival possible.
This is music as literal magic, casting spells of destruction on your ear drums (thank, uh, Baphomet for the kind soul walking through the crowd handing out ear plugs). And how about the part where the singer, Attila Csihar (yes, his name is fucking ATTILA), returned to the stage decked out in a spiky suit of mirrors, looking like the Witch King of Angmar/Disco Lucifer incarnate? I have never lost my shit at a concert as much as during that costume change. Or the fact that the band performed while passing a bottle of wine and taking swigs, like alchemists who had gathered to try forbidden spells in some gloomy cavern? Something profane has been awakened within me ever since seeing this show. Doom metal, lest it was unclear, is extremely lit.
Suzanne Ciani Taught an Analog Synth Master Class
There's no doubt that analog synth composer Suzanne Ciani is a genius, but what's more is that she is a benevolent genius. Although she is famous for her own ambitious works, she also, as she described during this performance, was part of a scene that imagined a utopian future in which everyone would own a synthesizer like the one she was playing. She said the liner notes for her (recently re-released) 1975 live album were a user's manual she wrote for the instrument, picturing that future, where the process of music production would be democratized such that everyone would have an analog synthesizer and we would all just be able to summon up music as needed by plugging in the right formulas (in a way, she was right, it's just that it happened with computers rather than the analog synth).
Her riff on the idea of the durational sound installation ended up being a combination of symphony and Q&A, as she explained the intricacies of specific versions of synth pioneer Don Buchla's designs, nerding out with the crowd over highly technical explanations of modules like the MARF, or Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, and demonstrating in real time how sounds change as you manipulate parameters on the machine. She observed that her original idea when she heard the title “durational sound installation” was to just put on a single synth patch and walk away, which she did, briefly, and I loved the idea. Nothing made the grand vision of synthesizers and electronic music more palpable all weekend than this performance.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey and newly minted synth warlock. Follow him on Twitter.