Friday, June 10th
This year’s Neon Marshmallow incorporated the visual element, by way of experimental film, at the beginning of every show. Drone-act CVLTS made for a nice transition from sight to sound, as the one-man electronic act plied his craft at the keyboards behind a still-running movie. Very mood setting; and it set the stage perfectly for Spiral Joy Band, who continued the drone vibe with a 40-minute set that likely consisted of a single sustained note teased out to unheard of depths with a violin, guitar, accordion-organ, and various other, wheezing, moaning, groaning instrumentation.
An incontestable highlight of the festival came next with the Baker/Colligan/Zerang Trio. Jim Baker, a local avant-garde pianist (who apparently plays upstairs at the Beat Kitchen every Monday), planted himself behind what looked like an old-fashioned telephone operator switchboard, but was most likely the vintage circuit board of a vintage keyboard. He fiddled with the inputs/outputs, while playing some far out space piano – and the rest of the trio just got weirder. A gentleman seated behind a snare drum scraped Styrofoam across its surface for a ‘fingernails-nails-on-a-chalkboard’ vibe. Later he used a vibrator (the dildo variety) to vibrate his way through a snare solo breakdown. In back of these two, a man hovered over a hotplate and chunk of dried ice, using the former to heat up metal trinkets that would give off whining noises when plunged into the latter. If this set sounds like a lark, it was; but it was also a completely serious and moving sonic investigation into the limits of jazz/noise improvisation. Powerful stuff.
James Plotkin followed with avalanches, waves, whirlwinds and zephyrs of laptop-based mayhem. Mountains followed with a pleasant drone composition that was well received, and would have been ever more so if the act didn’t have to follow the similarly sounding Plotkin. What both these acts lacked – a beat – was provided by Rene Hell, who got the crowd the closest it came all night to dancing. Bubbly electronic noise undergirded with a rhythm; a less serious artist would have turned all these tracks into club bangers, but Rene Hell did a nice job of holding the line.
White Rainbow cut a similar figure to Rene Hell, but leaned more towards the cheesy club banger end of the spectrum, inciting the crowd several times DJ Pauly D-style to feel the music as much as he was feeling it himself. Lucky Dragons closed the first evening with a set that our correspondent, speaking frankly, does not remember due to an excess amount of tequila shots.
Saturday, June 11th
The night opened with Leslie Keffer followed by one-man synth stylist Dylan Ettinger. Ettinger manned a soundboard, delivering swampy, elemental soundscapes. He was dressed like an accountant: neat button-down shirt tucked into pants, with a tie, which gave him a certain New Wave edge as he hammered out the keyboard strokes. The melody went noticeably off-key in a few spots toward the finish, and you have to wonder whether the heat was affecting Ettinger, whose pores were leaking like a thousand faucets. Even at that early-ish hour, Chicago’s Empty Bottle was already crowded and the climate was a bit stuffy. A full house is good for ticket sales, but can make for a toxic ambiance. Without a steady flow of PBR to cool down your veins, the average human would probably perish from heat exhaustion.
Sword Heaven, out of Ohio, was billed as a two-piece according to the official Neon Marshmallow program but they took the stage as a three-piece. At the center of the action was a handlebar-mustachioed punk cretin with a deliciously demented growl that he captured with what amounted to a miked dog collar strapped around his neck. Guttural moaning accompanied primal head banging drums, while a cohort scraped metal tongs across the pocked surface of a suspended sheet of metal. The timid need not apply for this set. The band reminds you of a hardcore band that went all the way into disturbed seas of industrial filth-noise.
The Emeralds didn’t make a return performance in this summer’s edition of Neon Marshmallow, but member John Elliott did as the solo synth act Outer Space. The electronic music maven had the lights turned down low for a massive sonic assault that improbably led to a little whipped-hair head banging. Can you properly headbang without the steady smash of a snare? You can now.
The Sickness to Bill Orcutt to Oneohtrix Point Never transition was the unlikeliest line-up we’ve seen yet. An Antlered Zune blogger tweeted that the transition would probably only work at a festival like Neon Marshmallow. True enough, Neon Marshmallow is a unique event, but not even the Marshmallow could pull this one out. All these acts were marvelous – it was difficult, though, to grasp them bunched so close together. The crowd response – agitated, nonplussed, occasionally downright disrespectful – was indicative of an atmosphere of general confusion.
Sickness, a solo sonic assault force, sculpted brutal sound structures with the pop and deep crunch of hyper-amplified white noise, generated, as far as one could gather, from the plugging & unplugging of cables into their inputs. He also had attached some sort of rig to his Adam’s apple that captured his pulse and moans. The composition relied on frequent patches of negative space, pure silence, to heighten the impact of the noise. During one such quiet moment, a harmonica-laden heckler tooted a few notes. Sickness advised the crowd to, "punch that motherfucker." It was the sort of thing that you can’t imagine happening last summer when the festival attracted strictly the dorkiest of respectful music dorks. The Antlered Zunes connection may have brought a few more jokers into the fold.
Bill Orcutt also had to tell the crowd to, "shut the fuck up." The acoustic guitar-toting grandfatherly figure screamed it at the top of his lungs at the beginning of the set, which mostly achieved the desired effect of quieting the crowd, but at a crowded Empty Bottle ‘quiet’ is a relative term. The constant chirping along the bar and in the merchandise room torpedoed any real possibility of a noise-free set. Bill Orcutt played through it well enough, but you can’t help wonder how much better received his intimate guitar dronings would have been in a larger space. After the Sickness set, the energy of the room was too ramped up to fully embrace the gentle acoustic vibe.
Daniel Lopatin, of Oneohtrix Point Never, veered the night sharply back to electronic soundscapes, sketching out enormous alien vistas of sonic astonishment. Download a better-than-average live recording of the set here along with Sickness and Bill Orcutt. Drone-masters Pelt closed out the night with a gong and infinite strains of cosmic chutzpah.
Sunday, June 12th
You look for energy in opening acts – three-piece jazz/noise fusion Tiger Hatchery had it in spades. A wild-haired drummer beat out infernal rhythms while the other two variously belted out the brass squawking or laid down a searing bass line. Pedal to the metal for a good 35 minutes. Beau Wanzer followed with a set of sticky electro beats that would probably have gone down smoother at an early morning house party with a head full of acid. A few brave souls made gestures toward "dancing like no one is watching," but most arms were crossed/folded, despite an appreciative crowd.
Highlight of the night, beyond the headliner, may have been the vintage film strips set to music of Telecult Powers. Across a suspended white bed sheet, and old Encyclopedia Britannica educational documentary advertised the wonders of modern agro-science. The buzzing drone soundtrack imbued the images with layers of intense paranoia. The entire performance took place in the pit below the main stage, in a little cockpit of candles and intrigue, so you had to muscle in to get a peek at the ground level performance, which only added to the mystery.
The ‘most inhospitable’ performance of the festival gets awarded to the Rita, whose undifferentiated wall of white noise static seemed only to have a single purpose: repulse and repel the audience. The volume was turned up to ungodly levels and one feels sorry for anyone without earplugs. There is a certain sense of machismo within the agro-noise scene that ‘just says no’ to protecting against hearing loss. But ‘the boys’ just need to get over it, because there’s nothing badass at all about ringing ears (days later) and permanently diminished levels of hearing.
Someone must have forgotten to turn the volume down after the Rita because Morton Subotnick‘s set was much too loud. The man is a pioneer of mid 20th century avant-garde electronic composition. He’s not a noise punk. The tension and the drama of his pieces should have been allowed to breathe and develop on their own, rather than having their hand forced by crippling volume levels that sent some people out of the room when the crowd should have been most full. That being said, if you moved back away from the speakers and girded your ears a bit, you could enjoy the masterly sequences of sound that the old man conjured up. Shades of Xenakis peppered the entire score. Subotnick doesn’t try to overpower the listener with avalanches of disparate textures. He picks one sound unit – a really interesting sound unit – and explores it from a million different angles, before building up the composition out of this basic unit, and earning complexity gradually, rather than stealing it in one fell swoop. A sight to see, a sound to savor. Kudos to the Neon Marshmallow brain trust for bringing him on board.