Decibel Festival 2011 kicked off with a loud, energetic bang and a surprisingly rowdy crowd at The Crocodile in downtown Seattle. Mississippi-band Bass Drum of Death kicked off the three-set bill with a set of raw, psych/garage rock. It was fairly clear beforehand that this showcase would be the odd-one-out of the festival; Toro y Moi can barely be called a full-blown “electronic” act and UMO and Bass Drum of Death are not even remotely electronic. Nonetheless, Bass Drum of Death kicked ass, frontman John Barrett half-yelling/half-singing indecipherable vocals, hair hanging down over his face to his chin. For the most part, the songs in the set came one after another with only feedback as time to relax and breathe. The songs were structurally simple yet interesting, featuring heavy use of power-chords and crunchy distortion as well as interesting percussion fills and breaks to keep people on their toes. As a whole, the set was quite reminiscent of the San Fran psychedelic rock scene — a bit poppier Wooden Shjips, say. Their short 30-minute set was a great kickoff.
Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, played a substantially longer set, possibly due to the obvious exuberance that this trio displayed. They were laughing and joking around the whole time, at anything from audience members to slightly messing up their parts in songs. Maybe it was the fact that this set, compared to their MusicFest NW set (read my review of that show here), came at a more normal performing hour for a rock band (not before, say, 8pm). That said, the certain highlight in both shows was frontman Ruban Nielson. This guy is fascinating to watch on the guitar, especially his solos which are sporadic yet mastered and unique as can be, at times using a type of trill as would a flute or violin and at times utilizing a quasi-classical composition form as in the intro to “Nerve Damage!” This band is on the up and should be seen live if at all possible.
Closing out the night was Toro y Moi, a band from South Carolina fronted by Chaz Bundick. Toro y Moi has always slightly confused me in terms of their musical style — it has always seemed to me that they are yet to find their niche, not necessarily belonging to the “chillwave” genre and yet not fully committed to disco, funk or pop (although they certainly include touches of all of these genres). In a way, and I can’t tell if this is why I’ve never really gotten in to Toro y Moi, they defy categorization. Bundick and co. must be doing something right though, because they had the whole venue dancing. The set featured dance-friendly songs, the highlights of which were the funky bass lines and Bundick’s smooth vocals and oscillating synth and keys, the trademark of Toro y Moi’s music. At times a bit too loungy for my tastes, Toro y Moi was quite obviously appreciated by the Decibel crowd — with the release of their more danceable recent albums, it will be interesting to see what path Tory y Moi takes next.