While the host city for Moogfest may have changed this year from Asheville to Durham, North Carolina, it's still one of North America's most adventurous and cutting-edge electronic music festivals, with the four-day event offering a smorgasbord of performances, lectures, and workshops. Despite the ongoing controversy over the state's anti-LGBTQ law HB2—which the organizers spoke out against in a statement—Moogfest "Synthesize Love" stickers were everywhere and the programming reflected the festival's approach to inclusive and progressive bookings.
From current stars like Grimes and Oneohtrix Point Never, to genre pioneers including Gary Numan and Laurie Anderson, here's a by-no-means inclusive roundup of some of the best stuff we saw this year.
A is for The Armory
Compared to Moogfest's previous home, there's relatively few traditional music venues in Durham, so the organizers got creative, infiltrating a host of unconventional spaces that included a church, historic theatre, and tobacco factory complex. One of the coolest spaces was the Armory, which was originally built in the 1930s as the headquarters for the city's National Guard unit, and resembled a prom hall with high ceilings and wooden floors. Its close proximity to everywhere you needed to be—including better-than-average food trucks—and late night sets by Bicep, The Black Madonna, and DJ Harvey meant it was consistently busy.
B is for Blood Orange
Few artists represent their city with more passion than New York's Dev Hynes, and performing in front of projections showing skyline images of the five boroughs, his Friday night set felt like a coronation of his bottomless talent. Flanked by two dancers and a saxophonist, he opened with a brief cover of jazz standard "Afro Blue," easily commanding the audience with Prince-influenced, pealing bass riffs and a hushed falsetto few artists can match.
While Hynes' music is more pop-oriented than the majority of the festival's acts, by the time he broke out fan favourites like "Bad Girls" and "Champagne Coast," everybody was dancing too hard to worry about genre constructs. If the handful of tracks he played from his highly anticipated forthcoming album Freetown Sound are any indication, he's ready to cement his reputation as one of the best singer-songwriters of his generation.
C is for Canadians
While Grimes might have commanded one of the biggest crowds of the week (see below), there were plenty of other boundary-pushing Canadian artists who made the trek down to the Tar Heel State. Perhaps the most omnipresent was Quebec-born trailblazing producer and musician Daniel Lanois, who participated in a number of panel discussions, and showcased his pedal steel wizardry during a Thursday headlining set at Carolina Theater's Fletcher Hall.
One highlight was an informative and humorous Friday morning conversation with The Orb's Alex Patterson at the Armory, where Lanois candidly discussed everything from his beginnings in music (he almost picked up the banjo) to meeting collaborator and ambient pioneer Brian Eno for the first time: "It felt like a blazing light came upon me."
On the other side of the musical spectrum, you had everybody's favourite Montreal DJ Lunice playing non-stop hip-hop hits before a high-energy set from rising Toronto rapper Tory Lanez; meanwhile, over at Fletcher Hall, Tim Hecker anchored a late-night lineup which included Ben Frost and Oneohtrix Point Never.
D is for D∆WN
The five minutes I managed to catch of Fade To Mind-affiliated R&B singer-songwriter Dawn Richard's set confirmed what we at THUMP have long suspected—she's a star, and her forthcoming album RedemptionHeart should be a lock for year-end best of lists.
E is for Evans, Claire L.
While her name's been in music news headlines lately for significantly more nefarious reasons, when she's not singing in pop duo YACHT, Claire L. Evans works as a science and technology journalist, in addition to being an editor at VICE's Motherboard. Her well-attended Thursday lecture on the history of cyberfeminism, and women's greatly overlooked roles in the development of the internet, was informative without being dry or navel-gazing. Don't fear if you missed it though—Evans' currently working on her first book, The Future is Unmanned, for Penguin Random House.
F is for Floating Points
If you're a fan of London producer Sam Shepard's Floating Points project, you owe it to yourself to see him live, where his ambient, jazz-leaning compositions are given some post-rock muscle with the addition of a full backing band. Performing outdoors at Motorco Park on Thursday, they also get bonus points for their kaleidoscopic backing visuals, which made you feel as if you're underwater.
G is for Grimes
Seemingly the entire teenage goth population of North Carolina came out for Grimes' Friday night set, and they didn't leave disappointed, with the Canadian art-pop star and her dancers putting on a stadium-worthy set in what was essentially a glorified parking lot. Heavy on material from last year's Art Angels, the tightly choreographed 40 minutes saw Claire Boucher vamping, shrieking, and playing multiple instruments with aplomb.
Moogfest also marked the debut of her "REALiTi: Inside the Music of Grimes," a collaboration with Microsoft which allowed fans the chance to "remix" the song of the same name by touching netting attached to motion sensors. Attending a media Q&A, however, left some questions unanswered as to the degree of Boucher's involvement.
H is for Harris, Liz
Going from Grimes' manic singalongs to a hushed, seated Grouper performance was slightly jarring to the senses, but prolific Pacific Northwest artist Liz Harris' music was the perfect fit for the cavernous, acoustically rich venue. Performing in front of polychromatic 16mm projections by her friend and collaborator Paul Clipson, she sat cross-legged with a guitar and array of effects pedals, her lulling score providing the perfect comedown to the hecticness out on the streets.
I is for IBM Watson
Along with neighboring cities Chapel Hill and Raleigh, Durham is part of what's known as the Research Triangle Park, one of the most prominent high-tech research and development centers in the United States. Plenty of the involved companies' work was on display all week, including IBM Watson, a new platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.
J is for Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter
If there were a better place to see Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter play their intimate, transcendent compositions than at a Presbyterian church, I certainly can't think of one.
K is for Kode9
The Hyperdub boss' punishing dubstep set was so inspirational that one fan started doing pushups in the middle of it.
L is for Laurie Anderson
You never know what you're going to get with a two-hour Laurie Anderson performance, but inside the Carolina Theater on Saturday night, the American experimental artist regaled fans with humourous stories about corresponding with then-Senator John K. Kennedy, critiques of Donald Trump's architectural acumen, and music played on her custom-made instruments.
M is for Moog
Pretty self-explanatory, but there were plenty of activities throughout the week to keep the gear aficionados busy, including a pop-up factory selling multiple synthesizers like the reissued Minimoog Model D.
N is for Numan, Gary
If there were any question as to who the most anticipated performer at this year's festival was, you only had to look at attendees' t-shirts, with images of the English new wave pioneer's face outnumbering other acts ten-to-one. He might be pushing 60, but his three-night stand at the Carolina Theater proved he's got more vigour than artists one-third of his age, gyrating and prancing like a rooster across the stage.
Dedicating each evening to a different album from his wide-ranging discography—1979's Replicas, recorded with his band, Tubeway Army; 1979's The Pleasure Principle; and 1980's Telekon—Numan and his backing band played in perfect unison, accompanied by a dizzying light show. In case you're wondering if synth-pop classic "Cars" holds up live 37 years after it topped UK charts, the answer is a resounding yes.
O is for Oneohtrix Point Never
This has nothing to do with his performance—which I was unable to get into due to a lineup that snaked across half a block—but the best thing I saw at the festival may have been Usher's Snaps of himself listening to Daniel Lopatin's 2013 album R Plus Seven. Joint set at Moogfest 2017? We can only dream.
P is for The Pinhook
Another one of the more popular venues of the week, the tiny dive bar was full night after night for shows from Tri Angle-signed, Houston producer Rabit, Portland-based experimental metal group The Body, and others.
Q is for Qrion
We've been praising the Japanese artist for a minute now, but during her livestream interview, she revealed she's hard at work on her debut album. The Ryan Hemsworth protégé and Porter Robinson remixer was coy on details, but told us we can expect more "club-oriented" sounds, and a potential release date later this year.
The improvisational comedian, musician, and Late Late Show bandleader was everywhere at Moogfest, announcing lineups in typically offbeat fashion, appearing on a Wondaland Records-organized panel (see below), and even performing for children at a variety show hosted by Yo Gabba Gabba's DJ Lance Rock under a water tower.
S is for Sunn o)))
Allegedly moved outside last minute for fear that their cacophonous drone metal would cause structural damage to Fletcher Hall, Sunn o)))'s Saturday set at Motorco Park had even the hardiest of ears reaching for earplugs, with the cloaked Seattle veterans performing through a blanket of dense purple and blue fog. As if the performance weren't theatrical enough, frontman Attila Csihar disappeared towards the end, re-emerging wearing a demented Statue of Liberty crown and a cloak decorated with shards of glass.
T is for Tobacco
Not the frontman for Black Moth Super Rainbow, but the American Tobacco Company, which was founded in Durham in 1890. Walking amongst the Lucky Strike-emblazoned chimneys and brick buildings, which hosted film screenings and the aforementioned Moog pop-up, felt like stepping into a time-travelling portal into the 19th century.
U is for UV boi
Speaking about his Secret Songs label to THUMP last year, Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth said, "Even if you're making amazing music, sometimes it falls through the cracks, because a lot of kids can't promote themselves that well. [I'm] just trying to co-sign in the most natural, not-gross way." Hemsworth's showcase at Moogfest was a testament to his expert sense of curation, with genre-spanning sets from Gary, Indiana footwork star Jlin, Qrion, and Australia bedroom producer UV boi, the latter of whom was making his North American debut.
V is for Veronica Vasicka
Plenty of people have justly criticized the gender imbalance when it comes to electronic music festival bookings, but the Moogfest organizers showed how easy it is to put together a diverse and inclusive lineup. One of the best examples of this was The Pinhook's stacked Saturday night bill, featuring underground house and techno heavy-hitters like Berlin-based electronic experimentalist Laurel Halo, rising Brooklyn producer Via App, and Minimal Wave founder Veronica Vasicka. Following a brief rainstorm outside, their respective sets left sweat pouring off the walls, and provided a welcome second wind for weary bodies.
W is for Wondaland Records
One of the keynote themes of this year's Moogfest was "afrofuturism," so who better than to lead several discussions than Janelle Monae and her Wondaland Records crew? The American R&B singer joined veteran Chicago producer Hieroglyphic Being; Lagos-born, Chicago-based DJ and production duo Christian Rich; and Reggie Watts to converse about their respective upbringings, and the importance of not being placed in a box as artists. Monae also spoke about the upcoming film, Hidden Figures, in which she plays Mary Jackson, one of three African-American mathematicians who helped NASA send astronaut John Glenn to space in the 1960s.
Y is for Yoga
Every morning the festival offered "Moga" at The Durham Hotel, which is a portmanteau for exactly what you think. I'm sure it was enjoyable, but there's no way I was waking up that early.
Z is for Zzzs
While we don't typically advocate napping at shows, there were numerous multi-hour sound installations helmed by avant-garde innovators like Suzanne Ciani and Greg Fox, which provided ample opportunities to escape the hubbub of Moogfest and recharge emotionally and physically. If that wasn't enough, there was American ambient musician Robert Rich's eight-hour "Sleep Concert," which influenced listeners' REM cycle sleep with auditory stimulus.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.