Monday, November 4, 2013

Show Review: Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit

Pretty Lights
The (sort of) inaugural Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit was a weekend that proved to be every bit as memorable and exciting as I'd hoped it would be, which means that it met quite lofty expectations that I'd set. Three evenings filled with more electronic music than I usually see all year made for an exhausting weekend, but the diversity of the other acts peppering the lineup made the marathon of music a much more doable feat. Mountain Oasis proved itself to be an excellent representative of the current state of music, many of the acts were forward thinking electronic-based artists--whether that be bro-leaning dubstep icons, English house duos or psychedelically infused indie bands--but there were handfuls of iconic throwbacks that allowed festival goers the option of soaking in age-old nostalgia or entrenching themselves in skull-rattling bass.

The weekend started off an hour into the first night for me. I arrived shortly after 8:00 and just in time to trek through the costumed crowds that were hiking up towards the US Cellular Center and plop in front of the stage for Purity Ring. The Canadian duo has been on my list of must sees since Shrines was released in 2012. Though the act leans towards electronic-pop, the instrumental foundation is heavily ensconced in the world of bass-heavy hip-hop. Pounding low-ends were marked by shimmering vocal melodies and a percussively oriented light show. As Corin Roddick would accentuate his beats with bright synth lines, corresponding orbs of light would illuminate as they were struck with his drum sticks, making for an incredibly well put together stage presence. Megan James' haunting vocals lingered throughout the Arena and a sense of disappointment filled the air once fans realized that their set was over. However, that disappointment quickly dissipated once Deltron 3030 took the stage. While I've admittedly not delved too deep into Del The Funky Homosapien's discography, this Deltron set immediately drew me into the highly revered rapper. Deltron is a hip-hop supergroup comprised of Del, producer Dan The Automater, and prolific DJ Kid Koala, but that's not the main draw of this high-energy hip-hop show. While it was fantastic to see Del and the crew pull out favorites like Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood," the real highlight of this performance was the massive orchestration that backed this sci-fi hip-hop narrative. Swelling strings and soaring horns blended with bass and electric guitars to make for a unique and compelling live hip-hop set-up. It's always a crapshoot when you're stepping into a live hip-hop set-up, it could easily be a blasé affair with a strong lack of personality, but Deltron 3030 turned all expectations upside down and provided one of the most exciting sets of the weekend.

Deltron 3030
It was hard to top Deltron, but if anyone was going to do it it was certainly Neutral Milk Hotel. I stepped into the seemingly endless line shortly after Deltron ended and didn't make it into Thomas Wolfe Auditorium until right as the band was ending with "Holland, 1945" but once I took my seat the outside world gradually faded away as I finally immersed myself in the sweet, familiar sounds of Jeff Mangum's nasally, but therapeutic voice. Fans shouted and swayed along to life-affirming tracks like "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," silenced themselves for the dramatics of "Oh Comely," and damn near wept over gorgeous musings like "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2." Basically Neutral Milk Hotel was everything you could have dreamed it would be, thousands of fans singing to these songs like their lives depended on it, arguably because they did at one point. This is a band that many never dreamed of being able to see and if you're anything like me, they defined your very being throughout some incredibly formative years. While this low-key musical set-up was occasionally drowned out by the insane amounts of sub-bass from Bassnectar, nothing could ruin the transcendental experiences had at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. It was strange to go from such contemplative tunes to dancing my face off at Bassnectar, but hey music festivals are an excellent place to do weird things. Bassnectar's low-end was absolutely one of the most devastatingly awesome live experiences I've ever had. Sure I probably took a few years of good hearing off my life, but being able to experience such a palpable aspect of live music is priceless (I'll probably rue the day I said that later.) Bassnectar brought one of the most dazzling light shows of the weekend to coincide with his unique blend of electronic tunes. Sampling everything from the croaking of a frog to the wobbling bellows of a didgeridoo, Lorin Ashton proved why he sits atop the throne of live electronic music. Bassnectar has a stellar live set-up that any fan of dance music could enjoy. All that dancing and driving had me worn out, plus Asheville Music Hall had an insane line for XXYYXX, so I called it quits after Bassnectar and fueled up for the rest of the weekend.

I started things off in the afternoon on Saturday by checking out some of the immersive panels and exhibits throughout downtown Asheville. But first I stopped through at Farmburger and ate one of the tastiest hunks of meat I've ever had. Seriously. I then struggled to walk off my delicious meal by stopping through Diana Wortham Theater and The Apothecary for some art installations and mind-bending exhibits. Naturally I had to play with all of the synths and theremins that were set up at Diana Wortham, but the highlight of the afternoon came from Mark Mosher's audiocube installation. Mosher displayed how his interactive "9-Box" set-up works and how he's using the innovative technology to teach children about music. 9-Box allows the user to make music and shape sounds using an infrared sensor that picks up which side of the cube your hand is covering, therein applying said effect or playing an assigned sample. Set-ups like this gave attendees a reason to traverse through downtown Asheville and stop in and some of the local businesses to soak in some of the culture of the city. Sadly there weren't many local musicians involved in this year's festival, which can hopefully be addressed in future years. However, there was more than enough excellent music to lose yourself in throughout the weekend.

Robert DeLong
The evening started at ExploreAsheville with the exploratory psychedelic pop sounds of Bosnian Rainbows. The Mars Volta's famed multi-instrumentalist Omar Rodriguez Lopez lurked in the shadows for this set, bringing his jaunting guitar stylings to this wild style of pop music. Vocalist Teri Gender Bender bounced across the stage and engaged fans with her chaotic stage presence, accentuated by jagged arm movements and rockstar-esque hair flips. Bosnian Rainbows kicked off a stacked line-up at the arena, but rather than hang around for Gary Numan I caught Zola Jesus at Thomas Wolfe. Zola Jesus' captivating vocals were enough to draw in thousands to the seated auditorium and JG Thrilwell's brilliantly orchestrated string quartet brought a heightened sense of emotion to the already powerful songs. However, it was hard to stay too attached to these pieces when the festival is brimming with high energy acts. I hung around for a few songs before making my way down to the Orange Peel to check out one of the weekend's highlights in Robert DeLong. DeLong has swiftly become one of my favorite electronic artists in the short month or so that I've been familiar with his music. Not only does his music command your attention, combining infectious vocal melodies with groove-driven electronic music, but his set-up is one of the most original I've seen to date. Combining live drumming with live sampling and countless MIDI controllers like a joystick, Wiimote and XBOX controller, DeLong proves himself a jack of all trades. Whether he's leading a tribal dance party with the powerful rhythms found in "Global Concepts" or leading sing-alongs to Filter's "Take A Picture," DeLong has the fans in the palm of his hands throughout his entire show. I left this set absolutely stunned at how well he pulled of this unique live set-up. I'm most certainly checking out DeLong whenever he stops back through the state. While I was compelled to check out Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I knew that Animal Collective's line was going to be insane, so I plopped down at Thomas Wolfe in anticipation of the brilliance to come.

Surely enough, coming early was an excellent idea. I positioned myself right in the middle of the auditorium, providing an awesome visual point to soak in all of Animal Collective's daunting stage set-up. Framed with inflatable teeth, the stage mirrored that of a trippy mouth in which AnCo was gradually being swallowed by. Various images were projected onto the stage, whether they be psychedelic leaning visual patterns or random clips of media, they never took away from the meandering music on display. After opening with "Lion In A Coma," the band quickly got the fan-favorite "My Girls" out of the way. After this a slew of fans poured out of the auditorium and things got sufficiently weird. The band always preceded their tracks with down-tempo explorative jams, they served almost like a guessing game to see which track was coming up next. Throughout their set they played an excellent mixture of new tracks from Centipede Hz and old fan favorites like "Purple Bottle" and "Brothersport." While I definitely should have checked out some of Nine Inch Nails, I instead trekked over to Asheville Music Hall for Cashmere Cat, which still served as an excellent closer for the evening. Cashmere Cat's cloud-rap production was brilliantly infused with modern hip-hop bangers from acts like Kanye, 2 Chainz and Drake. The set also had a few surprises like the Ja Rule sample that drove the audience to new levels of insanity or the subdued James Blake clip that closed out the show. Many, myself included, walked into the cold Asheville air drenched in sweat after Cashmere Cat's wild set. It was a welcomed breeze and made the walk to the car a bit more comforting. All in all Saturday stood out as the highlight of the weekend, bringing an absolutely stacked lineup from beginning to end.

Ah, the day of rest. Kind of. After sleeping until the early afternoon hours, there was only so much catching up on sleep that one can realistically tackle in one day, so it was back into Asheville to start the last day of festivities. Things got kicked off early at 6:00 on Sunday evening, which I must say is the earliest I've ever taken in a dubstep show. Which is pretty much exactly what Adventure Club brought top the table. The looming sunshine didn't stop the slowly growing crowd from dancing their hearts out to bass thumping dance tunes though, as Adventure Club commanded the crowd with booming remixes to Top 40 tracks and deep electronic cuts. After Adventure Club I headed to Thomas Wolfe for Jessie Ware, a welcomed break to the high-octane dance grooves. I took a seat and found myself enamored by Ware's entrancing vocals and sultry take on modern R&B. Echos of Sade rang throughout the auditorium and allowed listeners a chance to take a breather and become immersed in Ware's intricately woven music. While the pacing for the evening was certainly one that I struggled to keep up with, I relished every second of Ware's set--mostly because the crew I was with was just antsy for the next dance act to get started. Shortly before Ware's set ended I headed back to the arena for PANTyRAiD's set, one that basically threw any idea of "pacing" out the window. The duo brought non-stop dance throughout their set, providing one of the most bro-oriented sets of the weekend. Granted I find it hard to not dance to any sort of electronic music, I couldn't find myself getting down to this outside of the live at all. There's just something about that enveloping bass that I can't deny. I was a bit thankful for the end of PANTyRAiD's set, half because I was tired of seeing dudes holding up pairs of panties that they obviously just purchased to hold-up and half because I couldn't wait to see Disclosure.

Disclosure was another one of the weekend's highlights that took me by surprise. I was expecting an awesome set, but they blew my preconceived notions of their live set-up out of the water. Blending live instrumentation of bass guitar, percussion and vocals, Disclosure compelled me to use up every fiber of energy I had left to dance my heart out to this infectious English house music. The two even brought Jessie Ware onstage for a rare on-stage collaboration, making for an even more special set from this swiftly rising duo. If Disclosure aren't figureheads of the electronic scene within the next few years then color me surprised, because I for one can't get enough of these two. Whether they throw on a slow-brooding track like "Latch" or a club-ready banger like "When A Fire Starts To Burn," these two certainly know about the subtleties that make a live show something to write home about. Much of the same could also be said for Pretty Lights surprisingly. I was expected something akin to Bassnectar-lite, but instead I got a full live band that coincided with the heady electronic sounds of Pretty Lights. While the actual light set-up left me a bit underwhelmed--if your name is based around your light show maybe you should bring more than some high-powered lasers--the music actually surprisingly drew me in. It leaned more towards electronic dub jam than my preconceived notion of this bro-step icon. Granted there were moments where I kind of lost myself in thought while the horns noodled along, the fated bass drops brought it all back into perspective.

After a Pretty Lights set that felt like it lasted for hours on end, I sadly realized my stay in Asheville was coming to an end. The weekend was filled with a wide array of musical tastes converging together for one three-night excursion with a bit of something for everyone. The festival certainly had its highs and lows and it could have done with a bit more focus on the local music scene that Asheville contains, it's a fantastic start for a festival that will prove to be a staple for many years to come. While last year's Moogfest felt like a fragmented event that wasn't too certain as to what genre it was trying to tackle, Mountain Oasis feels like a much more realized event with a definite sense of purpose and direction. Mountain Oasis is looked forward to the future of music while paying homage to those that have helped shape the scene into what it's become. To put it simply, Mountain Oasis has its finger on the pulse of the music scene and as far as I can tell this festival has it down to a tee.

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