Live Review: Decibel Festival Finale with Flying Lotus, The Bug, & Supermayer @ Neumo’s 9-28-08

review by Noah Sanders
photos by Nathan Howard

Before I start, a brief disclaimer: I’ve never been a huge fan of strictly electronic music. Yes, I’ve grown used to the more hipster-oriented, ear-friendly brand of electronica that has become prevalent in the ten years, but when it comes down to the real hardcore, 180 beats-per-minute club-shakers, I could honestly care less. The last time I ventured out in the world of live-electronica was an ecstasy-fueled rave in Boise warehouse that left me shell-shocked, ears-ringing, half passed out in a Denny’s, head reeling with aftershocks of pulsing bass and strobe lights. If anything I can’t say I’ve ever really felt myself drawn towards the music.

When I was asked then whether I felt covering the finale of last week’s “internationally renowned” Seattle electronic bonanza, Decibel Festival, my interest was sort of morbidly peaked. The long standing stereotypes I’d held of electronic music dated back to high school, and I thought challenging those as a pseudo-adult might make for an entertaining read. Two of my more electronica-happy friends agreed to help me take a second swing at the live electronic incarnation, and I was, tepidly, on my way.

I guess the idea of attending a festival’s “finale” always raises my expectations, but I was thinking the end-of-the-world rave from the second Matrix film. Sweaty bodies slammed together, futuristic clothing, and maybe, if I was lucky, a block-rocking light show punctuated by massive strobes (there was strobes but they would come later). Instead the main room of Neumo’s seemed like a throwaway scene from a bad Hype William’s video — a weak layer of dirty looking smoke hanging off the clothing of a handful of very normal seeming concert goers, all illuminated by oddly oblong light tubes.

Due to a whirlwind tutorial on the various, seemingly minute differences of the electronica sub-genres in the car outside, by the time we’d stepped in, Flying Lotus was already well in to his set. I’ll say this: if any of the other acts had taken the stage first, it probably would’ve been a pretty early evening for me, but Lotus was impressively engaging. He ran, shook, and hollered his way through a blistering forty-five minute set that ran the gamut from typical beat mashing, to the more chopped up hip-hop samples I’d expected from him. The fact that the crowd and scene were on the far edges of “popping” didn’t seem to bother Lotus, as every moment on stage seemed to be the greatest of his life. I’ll admit that I grew bored during the more electronic moments in his set, but the combination of his fervent energy, the abundance of hip hop beats, and the pulsating visuals emanating from the massive screen above his head kept me riveted. One down, and, shockingly, I was sort of enjoying myself.

This sense of good will towards the music and the scene continued even as the crowd noticeably swelled for up-and-coming, recent KEXP Song of the Day podcast artist The Bug. I’d heard the word “dub-step” bandied about in terms of The Bug’s description, so when the tinny strains of a muted reggae sample starting bleeding through the speakers, I wasn’t surprised… until the bass hit and I literally felt my hair lift off my head. For the first twenty minutes of this intense set, I was completely entranced by the huge, at times ear-splitting bass and the absolute barrage of strobe light. It was a total sensory assault, and I couldn’t get enough. The only problem I could find was The Bug’s tendency to build the music to the point of climax and then painfully slap the programmed rewind button on his turntable, as if he was trying to force his preferred genre in to the more song-based structure of generic pop music.

The Bug grew tiresome after a good half an hour, and I completely lost interest when his special guest Warrior Queen took the stage. WQ’s the kind of emcee who isn’t there to move with the music; she just wants to spit and spit and spit and spit, regardless of beat or volume or how much the crowd’s feeling it. After two or three songs of her machine gun flow, I couldn’t handle it and stepped outside to the refreshing night air. I was ready to call it a night. However, I did stick my head in to see Supermayer but just didn’t get where all the hype was coming from. All I could make out were two effeminate DJs blandly twiddling knobs to create a sort of low key, pretty electronic sound. It wasn’t exciting; it certainly didn’t make me want to dance; it just sort of existed.

And this is I think was my problem with the whole night: the music, for all three artists never sounded terrible (aside from the final Warrior Queen-plagued tracks from The Bug), but it just didn’t sound very interesting either. I couldn’t grasp why people would want to listen to such a repetitive music when what was being repeated wasn’t all that exciting. As each DJ stepped on stage, I felt the rush of experiencing a new artist, but after a few songs I faded out.

Blame it on my lack of exposure, or an inexperienced ear, but you know what? I just don’t care. I can’t commit to electronica — it just doesn’t do enough for me. Give me five, ten years though and another electronica festival, and maybe I’ll give it another chance.

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8 Comments

  1. Chris Estey
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This was a wonderful wrap-up, Noah! Great work.

  2. Posted October 2, 2008 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    That bass WAS great!

    Well written review. I grew a little frustrated with all the laptops in between my camera and the artists. I get where you’re coming from in general, but I have to disagree with you.

    The decibel sound engineers were extremely skilled at what they pulled off. Neumo’s usually sounds a little hollow to me. On the night of the finale, the sound was so solid and booming I had to swim through it. My eyeballs were vibrating in my head. It was hard to focus through the lens of my camera.

    What about those lights?!? That was something of a minor miracle compared to the usual array of the handfull of canned hot lights with wrinkled gel coverings. The colored, mirrored, rotating spot lights were sick sick sick. Way too much smoke though. I still smell it in my hair days later.

    Each of these artists on the finale night represented a vastly different genre of “Electronic” music, as different as Americana is from Rockabilly. It’s unfortunate you missed the first artist, Fax. His guitar work was ethereal and perfectly blended with his laptop constructed beats and rhythms.

    The Supermayer set was insanely good. Being close to the stage made all the difference. Their minimalistic techno set was positively entertaining. It was great fun to watch Aksel Schaufler aka Superpitcher and Michael Mayer shuffle through their collection of vinyl. No laptops. Two DJs working more in sync than a 2 man gold medal volleyball team.

    I was nervous taking this assignment considering my lack of knowledge of the large umbrella that this genre covers. Honestly I was completely unfamiliar with most of these artists prior to this festival. I came away from it with a deeper appreciation for music and the incredible amount of talent it takes to structure and execute.

    I don’t think it will take you five or ten years for this music to do something for you. I think it’ll take a pair of headphones and half an afternoon in a cafe finding the artists tracks online that speak to you. I know headphones and a live show at Neumo’s are worlds apart, but this entire experience made a world of difference to me. Give it another chance. Earplugs on me.

    Nathan Howard

  3. Jeff
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Walking into the Supermayer in the middle, and then walking back out and then concluding, “I couldn’t grasp why people would want to listen to such a repetitive music when what was being repeated wasn’t all that exciting.”

    It’s kind of like walking into a Terrence Malick film for 5 minutes, and walking out and talking about that particular shot having no substance. I at least appreciate the disclosure, but was there no one else that could have done this review for the KEXP sponsored event? Someone at least familiar with the genre would suffice.

    -jeff

  4. Posted October 3, 2008 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Well, obviously Nathan, our photographer, had a different take. And you’re certainly welcome to share yours! In fact, I encourage you to!

    And by the way, we’re not always able to send multiple people to these events, especially on a busy weekend like that. If you or anyone else with some writing experience would like to volunteer your time, please send me a writing sample!

    :)

    P.S. I think that sending someone who isn’t quite as knowledgeable about the genre is just as valid as sending someone who is in that both opinions will be skewed. Discuss.

  5. Jeff
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m a musician, not a writer. Like I said, I appreciated the disclosure and I agree it’s good to get an outside perspective. My issue is that you just “ducked your head in” the Supermayer thing, but you still had a pretty strong opinion about it and “electronica” in general! If that’s the case, then I think it’s better to get someone who at least WANTS to see the whole thing, even if they’re pre-disposed to indie-rock or some other genre, to give a proper outside perspective.

    For what it’s worth, the Supermayer set was definately to be consumed as a whole, not in parts. It started off funky, minimal, and got darker and more intense as it went along. Static if taken in small doses, but Michael Mayer tends to pull you in gradually. Similar to the way Audion operates, but on a less aggressive scale. It’s the Kompakt cross-breed between minimal techno and pop/funk. I thought it worked. As for Flying Lotus, only 2 or 3 tracks were actually his, so I was disappointed, but at least the energy was there. And the Bug was absolutely awful imo. Way too many rewinds.

  6. Posted October 4, 2008 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    I definitely had a different experience and that was where I was coming from in my comment. I can’t express how many times I’ve been to a live show and couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could just go home and take and Ibuprofen and forget the whole evening.

    This festival effected me in a different way than I expected it would. My enthusiasm for the event was based on what I came away with. Naturally, I want to share that enthusiasm.

    I think it’s great we have a forum to like this to express our opinions and views in.

    Nathan Howard

  7. Michael
    Posted October 6, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Regarding your disclaimer about “I’ve never been a huge fan of strictly electronic music” and you closing comments “Blame it on my lack of exposure, or an inexperienced ear, but you know what? I just don’t care. I can’t commit to electronica — it just doesn’t do enough for me.”

    My question is, why in the hell would someone that doesn’t like electronic music cover an electronic music festival? Did someone make you do it or where you merely trying to voice your obviously biased opinions out to KEXP blog readers. Either way, I find it deplorable that KEXP couldn’t find a writer to cover one of North America’s premier electronic music festival’s by someone that actually enjoys and understands the music. It would be the equivalent of having someone that doesn’t like hip hop cover the “Rock the Bells fest” which took place at the Gorge this past September.

    I know over a dozen highly qualified writers that were in attendance at the past year’s Decibel Festival and they all had an entire different experience because THEY ACTUALLY LIKE THE MUSIC.

    For an non-biased account, I would recommend reading these festival reviews:
    http://blog.culturemob.com/decibel-festival-2008-a-review-a-reawakening
    http://www.residentadvisor.net/feature-read.aspx?id=973
    http://lineout.thestranger.com/2008/09/decibel_in_the_park

  8. Posted October 6, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    First off, Michael, thanks for writing in. I do find your opinion as relevant as I consider Noah’s. I agree, it would be great if we had a knowledgeable electronica fan covering a wide range of events during the Decibel Festival. Believe me, as the managing editor, I tried to find someone with more experience in the genre, but it’s not as easy as you’d think when we we’re working with zero budget. (See my note above soliciting for volunteer writers!) Regardless of that, I believe that Noah represents a large majority of KEXP listeners, who are not knowledgeable of the genre. Noah asked me about this earlier and warned that he’d be approaching the topic as an outsider. “Perfect,” I said, “because that’s who the majority of listeners are!” And Noah went into it with an open mind. It’s not his fault that he didn’t like it, nor should he feel like he has to. Does a movie reviewer have to like the movie he’s watching? (Personally, I thought that the finale night was lacking too.) Of course I would have loved to balance Noah’s honest reaction with someone’s who had more expertise with the genre so that the rest of us could learn something about it, but that just wasn’t in the cards. I did know, however, that other sources, as the ones you list, would provide that kind of experience, so thanks for providing those links.

    And Michael, if you’ve got some free time and want to write some reviews, send me a writing sample: jim @ kexp.org

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