Say hello to the first-ever Neon Marshmallow Fest, a brand new four-day festival in Chicago at the Viaduct Theater, August 19th-22nd. Two stages, more than 90 bands, and $2.50 PBRs: a veritable bloodbath of electronica, digital grind-core, and uncategorizable noise. If you’ve heard of more than half of these bands, than you’re probably playing in the festival. If you’ve heard of them all, you’re probably organizing the festival. QRO jumps into the melee with eyes wide shut!
Shattered Hymen (Chicago)
With a name like that, the bar is set pretty high. I expected shades of Anal Cunt (who are actually still a band these days, though it’s probably their 1,000th iteration) because that’s what you get in some of the recorded tracks. Rage, fury, walls of agro noise chomping at the bit. Though, unsurprisingly, Mr. Shattered Hymen seemed like a very demure presence in person. The quieter side expresses itself in some of the tracks that approached the asymptotic limit of minimal soundscaping, songs that are barely more than serial strings of found phonemes run through some light effects pedals. In fact, a series of popping noises, which I took to be the start of the set, turned out to be just a technical/equipment glitch. Once that was cleared up, huge aerial assaults of noise fill the blackbox theater, a crowd filtered in, and I knew for sure that set had begun. There was quite a bit of, "Has this begun? Is it going? Did it stop?" on the first night, as some of the most experimental artists were thrown to the schedule dogs, Thursday-night martyrs of a four-day festival.
Keith Fullerton Whitman (Massachusetts)
Hailing from the Bay State myself, I expected that I would know fellow Massachusettsian Keith Fullerton Whitman, but I had never heard of him. I know him now, much to my delight. He’s a bearded, one man, electronic artist that relies on eccentric array of knobs and pedals to tease out long-form mantric lullabies. He performed no more than two songs in the 30 minute set, the first song being the longest, with an exhaustingly suspenseful buildup that would have been agonizing were the sonic textures not so appealing. If you heard a clip from the peak of the first song on record, you might get the feeling that the guy was more New Age than he actually is. Sure, there’s some soft-edged mooniness to his sampling, but when you see the sweat dripping off his brow, and feel the slow surge of the electronic crescendo build in front of a completely rapt audience, you know he ain’t no Enya. It can’t be confirmed at the moment, but he seemed to have popped up in at least one other set during the night (and he’s performing multiple nights – catch him!), so he’s a real three-for-one kind of guy.
Miami Beach (New York)
One of the most morally questionable acts of the night. If you’ve ever seen photos from those conceptual Gary Wilson comeback shows, than you can sort of understand the tone of the Miami Beach set. Plastic, lipstick, sex dolls sort of vibe. Deep, deep-seeded and wholly unresolved sexual issues. A transparent cellophane banner was hung between the audience and the two artists on stage. A slightly pudgy fellow with thick-rimmed glasses muttered into a microphone while leaning over a TV set, tuned into Channel Zero apparently. In front of him a girl spray-painted onto the banner while straddling a fan (wind fan, not spectator fan). I can’t remember what the music sounded like, but that’s not really the point, is it? The fan blew the spray-paint fumes around the tight, confined blackbox space and the audience began to get decidedly stoned. Miami Beach hot-boxed the theater with fumes – is this even legal? Probably not. At the end of the set, the girl wrapped herself up in the plastic banner, pulling it over her head, and made faces like a gasping fish-out-of-water at the audience. I leaned forward in my seat, in preparation of saving her from her violence of her own performance art, but thankfully, it all ended with no injuries. Rank this one up with the Spaghettios Girl: whatever you want to call it, don’t call it boring.
Nyodene D (Ohio)
For fans of digital hardcore, Nyodene D was the find of the night. A solo act; a big, bear of a fellow who played most of the set in the pit, with his back to the crowd. Some sort of magnetized steel mouse pad was rigged up to a spooky looking laptop and drum machine. The setup was calibrated with some far out algorithms so that When Nyodene D ran any sort of metal across the pad, wild electro shriek-‘n’-snarl eruptions would vomit forth from the PA. For dramatic effect, he relied heavily on a short length of metal chain to tweak the pad. It was this same chain that I got belted with towards the end of the set when he started to lash out further into the audience. Your typical hardcore invitation to mosh, which was accepted by a few of the most ruckus fans in the front. I met Nyodene after the set. Nice guy; bought a tape for $5.
Government Alpha/Skin Graft/Jason Soliday Trio (Japan/Ohio/Chicago)
This threesome lined up three-wide on the stage, looking out over the audience from their vaulting DJ towers, like your typical ‘international celebrity DJ’ might at some Ibiza dance party. The sound was a thick digital soup, punctuated by the occasional rioting whoops of an Asian gentleman into a microphone. Obviously the attempt was to close out the night with some heavy, dirrrty dancing, though the crowd wasn’t quite thick enough at 1:30 am on a Thursday night to reach that critical mass of exaltation. To be honest, the PA wasn’t quite capable of communicating the low-end bass of the percussion, the critical ingredient for a real raunchy house sound. But once the hall fills up a bit more on Friday night and the weekend, the general air of excitement will likely push the crowd over the top, PA be damned.
Astral Social Club (UK)
At little after nine this one-man wonder from the U.K. took the Acid Stage with an impressive array of effects pedals, a beat up electric guitar, and a microphone. The setup looked almost conventional, but you were reminded this was the Neon Marshmallow Festival as soon as the music started. He played the guitar mostly from a percussive perspective, pounding the keys, scraping the fretboard, and more or less treating the Fender like it was his bitch. The savage sounds ran through a thousand modulators, before being recycled as the drummy element of the piece.
The microphone received interesting treatment as well. The Astral Social Club-style of vocalization requires one to shove the microphone directly into your Adam’s apple, expelling long moans, so that the guttural vibrations are transmitted through the flesh of the neck into the PA. That’s how he sang. It’s also possible that he was capturing the actual thump of his accelerated pulse via the same method, accomplishing what amounts to a musical pun: the body’s natural rhythm becomes the song’s cultural statement. But it was impossible to discern clearly the hypothetical pulse over the general din, so that can’t be confirmed. Towards the end, he leaned the microphone directly against the amp creating a vicious, climactic feedback loop to close the set.
Dave Phillips (Switzerland)
With what could have passed for an overexcited animal rights protest, Dave Phillips put together one of the most memorable, if not enjoyable, sets of the night. His audio/visual assault consisted of two basic elements: a movie screen pelted the audience with disturbing images of animal experiments, or animal torture, alternating with trite aphorisms on human errancy, while the artist roved among the dark crowds feeding the whiny scrapes of an inflated balloon through a mobile, remote microphone. There also seemed to be a few pre-recorded audio tracks as well, full of belching, vomiting, generally disgusting sounds, which were clearly meant to heighten the sense of horror felt at the sight of the video images.
The music itself was nothing special. A more goth version of noise spunk. Thurston Moore (QRO live review) scraped an inflated balloon on his Psychic Hearts solo release; I’m sure some far out grokker did the same thing in the ‘70s; preceded by a Frenchman, probably, who did the same thing at the turn of the last century. Regardless the audience enjoyed the spectacle, at least for a while.
If Dave Phillips had opted to stay in Switzerland instead, Haters would have probably won the ‘most disturbing act of the night’ award thanks to the threesome’s penchant for playing shows in bondage gear and gimp masks. As it was, after 20 or so minutes of watching animals being tortured, the sight of three people in leather, rocking power tools, was a welcome relief.
Their set was simple and effective. A male and female couple stood on stage with two suitcases. Inside the luggage were possibly a microphone and some other loose junk, and the whole rig was wired through a soundboard. The couple raised the luggage above their heads, face to face, and rubbed the suitcases together for about 15 minutes to create a luscious, if somewhat anonymous, outpouring of white noise filth. Meanwhile the third guy stepped into the pit with his own suitcase, and began to attack it with some type of high-powered, handheld sander, sending up huge showers up sparks as the machine came in contact with a machete blade that had been affixed to the suitcase. He writhed around on the ground, attacked the audience with the hot metal spray, and generally invoked the same sort of heated atmosphere you’d get at a hardcore show. A lot of pushing, shoving, hair’s breadth from getting out of control sort of stuff.
To close the set, he detached the machete from the suitcase and hacked it to bits (the arc of his cuts coming perilously close to the power cord of the still plugged in sander). These are times you wish you had a camera.
Keith Fullerton Whitman (Massachusetts)
For the second night in a row (see above) the Bay Stater took the stage. This time was a short 15-minute set consisting of a single piece that invoked the spindly 20th century experimental sound of Iannis Xenakis. Superb stuff. There’s a lot of glorious noise being belted out a Neon Marshmallow, but what separates a guy like Whitman from the general run of the musicians is his carefully calibrated compositions. These aren’t sweat pieces, improv pieces, one-and-done climax pieces; he composes thoughtfully reflective soundscapes that turn about in surprising ways, and avoid some of the white noise clichés of experimental music genres. He plays again on Sunday night – definitely one to look forward to.
Dolphins into the Future (Belgium)
The mustachioed Belgian gave off a sort of Ron Burgundy air during soundcheck, cavorting back and forth onstage with three fingers of scotch. Then he seated himself down at a soundboard and was all business. True to his name, the main sonic constituents of his gentle ambient set were samples of dolphin chatter, or at least electronic bloops-and-beeps that sounded like dolphin chatter. Soft waves of cool digital emanations filtered through the blackbox theater, and set the tone for what was largely a softer-and-gentler Neon Marshmallow Festival on Saturday night. There were no sweaty climaxes to the Dolphins set, but the quality and depth of the compositional architecture more than made up for it.
Dead Machines (Michigan)
Meet the Archie and Edith Bunker of noise rock. This couple looked like your average white, Middle American, redneck couple on their way to a wrestling match. The guy kept up a pre-set chatter about how he hated cops, while the wife looked on with a bemused grin at her hubbie’s antics, a kind of Rodney Dangerfield-type delivery that she doubtlessly had seen many times before. The set was among the noisiest of the night, with heavily transmogrified loops of sax and flute, recycled through the P.A. in a thousand different layers. Shrieking feedback peppered the set, which at times felt like totally uncultivated, unkempt noise, unguided, though the woman’s quiet unblinking calm behind the array of buttons and knobs let you know there was someone still at the helm. Their rig, like their entire approach, was very homespun.
At one point the woman plunged her face into a miked tin can – not the sort of thing you pick up at Daddy’s Junky Music – and filled the room with low guttural intonations, while the husband smiled on. Pretty adorable.
Noveller (New York)
The solo female act probably wins the award for most conventional rig of the night: a microphone, guitar, and modest array of pedals. And she played it pretty straight as well, serving up self-sampled layers of ambient guitar noise (even a genuine melodic line here and there) with the occasional odd duck approach to playing the guitar. In the middle of the set she took a ball of bubble wrap and began sawing it across the fretboard for a predictably thick cloud of sound. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but she did it well.
Points deducted for too much self-sampling layering, though. In a festival full of radically novel start-to-finish compositions, and uncompromising experimentation, the ‘copy & paste’ variety of song construction sounds a bit second rate. It’s the way you would build a song on Garage Rock, or whatever the Mac audio program is called: start with a grounding loop, then build different melodies up on top of that, climaxing at around three-quarters of the way through. That’s good enough most of the time, but probably not at the Neon Marshmallow Festival.
Social Junk (Pennsylvania)
Female sources report that the guitarist of this two-man synth-y drums/guitar combo was "superhot." Normally that would be a fairly banal statement, since the ladies have always been know to have major hard-ons for musicians; but it’s noteworthy at Neon Marshmallow given the fact that most noise musicians seem to be ugly dudes. At least by conventional standards.
Social Junk injected some much-needed sex appeal into the night (along with Noveller, of course, who is kind of a drone guitar Chan Marshall). There were even some straight-up vocals in the set, albeit delivered via a slow, sludgy effects processor. In the wake of the White Stripes (QRO live review), there’s no shortage of drum/guitars duos, but they are mostly all blues/rock combos. You won’t catch anyone in Social Junk ripping off Leadbelly licks – that’s a welcome change of pace.
Emeralds brought a little bit of name recognition to a festival of unknowns. Their recorded material has passed favorably out of the ethereal realm of noise aficionados into the appreciative hands of a larger indie audience. Never heard them before myself, though sources report that their releases are much more manicured, conventional song experiences, at least compared to the more jam band-y vibrations they were dishing out Saturday night. Esteemed local Chicagoan blogstress Cream Team, a.k.a. V-Dawg, described their recorded sound as like being comfortably ensconced in a ‘70s laserarium. And an absolutely ancient keyboard at stage right helped the attractively retro sonic textures of the sound along. One of the Emeralds manned the ungainly contraption, with laughably large buttons, knows, and turnie wheels; vacuum tubes the size of a pumpkin; and a thick, thick mess of cables feeding into the back of the thing. I don’t know quite what a laserarium sounds like, but I’ll take this jam band version of Emeralds any day of the week. Top-notch lunar investigations.
Jason Crumer (Oakland)
I didn’t catch this early evening set, and I’m not sure how many people did. The one blemish on an otherwise stellar newbie festival was the hubbub stirring around the controversial inclusion of Californian noise rocker Jason Crumer, alleged serial rapist. Calls to boycott his set began as soon as the bill was announced. No charges have been successfully brought against the guy, right? If they had, he’d be sitting in prison. And as far as I could tell from some brief Googling, no charges have ever been filed. There just seems like a good amount of first- or secondhand character assassination on hardcore noise internet message boards. Hardcore, noise, punk: these are all pretty insular scenes used to self-policing (because they generally don’t like the actual police), so occasionally you’ll see this sort of aggressive, Lottery-esque stoning of the Ostracized as the scene attempts to exorcise itself of its demons. Innocent until proven guilty be damned. It can be a bit frightening to see a vicious mob flay one of its own alive – but is it more frightening than the looming specter of the crime he supposedly committed? Lose-lose situation for everyone involved: Neon Marshmallow, the fans, and Jason Crumer himself.
A nasty bit of graffiti was scrawled on the men’s urinal, reading, "does yr mother know yr a rapist?" Later in the night, the question had been rubbed away by an unknown party.
Ducktails (New Jersey)
The Garden Stater wasn’t on any of the printed programs – a last minute addition? He was surely listed on the online schedule, and I knew I had to catch him fist thing of the night. He started the set hovering over a soundboard, sending out some shiny, if not revelatory, vibrations. Later on he transitioned to guitar, sometimes playing over self-sampled tracks, other times noodling spacey-yet-poppy melodies over prerecorded tracks. The appeal of Ducktails isn’t that he does any one thing extraordinarily well – the appeal is that he does all these things, in the same set, with an overarching style that goes on for miles. That’s what makes him a joy to watch and listen to. Definitely wish I had the recorder going on that one. Beautiful set.
Ryan Jewell (Ohio)
This set should have been boring. A one-man minimalist outfit, boasting repetition up the yin-yang, relatively early on in the evening before the $2.50 PBRs were fully taking effect. But I was mesmerized, as were the rest of the jam-packed audience at the Blossom Stage, the stage that generally played to the smaller acts during the festival (didn’t you notice that Acid Stage and Blossom Stage abbreviate to ‘A’ stage and ‘B’ stage?). So it was sort of surprising to see that crowd.
Mr. Jewell teased out long drawn passages of spacey astral spunk. The sound was clean, a minimum of distortion. The homemade ‘instruments’ were a distinguishing feature of the set. One ‘go to’ axe was a thin wisp of what looked like stiffened horsehair; Mr. Jewell would gently massage the spindly reed in a north-south direction, eliciting a shadowy helium-drenched chorus. Strange vibrations all around. The sort of set where you sit cross-legged in a room without letting out a whisper for even a moment. Except for this drunk girl who was getting really freaked out by the remote amp which had been hidden somewhere in the audience, rigged to emit a muffled sort of static at barely audible levels – it had everyone checking their pocket’s to see if their cellphone were ringing.
Pod Blotz (California)
Apparently the freaked out drunk girl was the next act. That’s kind of how Neon Marshmallow rolls. The set had all the makings of total disaster. Soundcheck was an existentialist farce worthy of Beckett. The girl, beshawled, bespectacled, her hair cropped up into a tiny little toadstool on the top of her head, pushed the patience of the sound and lighting team to the limits. First there was too much red light; the blue light was "freaking her out"; the set was dedicated to her dead grandparents; she couldn’t start on time because she was "waiting for the go ahead."
But when she finally started, it was a revelation. Another homemade musical outfit. She appeared to open with a modded theremin, and segued into some heavier beats, noise, and blizzards of wonky destruction. The crowd was won over, her early meanderings forgiven, or maybe just never fully registered.
Justice Yeldham (Australia)
The Aussie was one of the compelling presences of the evening. Even before his gig, he was the sort of guy that would make you turn your head, thinking "WTF?". Just a generally larger than life, spaced-out demeanor, but Aussie-style, so that you could envision him throwing down a keg of beer with Crocodile Dundee before hollowing out the interior of a steer for a bedchamber. He only played one instrument during his set; it was a giant shard of glass that had somehow been miked. When he slobbered and gnawed at it, the crystalline vibrations transmitted through the wiring into the PA. At one sweaty climax Mr. Yeldham literally bit into the shard, shattering the sonic wall he had created into a million little pieces. Not sure if he chewed on the glass or just broke it with his teeth. Either way, pretty badass.
Plus the music was first-rate, which isn’t a guarantee when you already have such a solid hook like chewing glass to lean on. Later I saw him sitting nonchalantly on the stage where another artist was performing while he noshed on some chicken wings. He left the bones on stage, arranging the leftovers into compelling patterns for the janitor to muse over.
Music of the Sky Islands (New Jersey/Belgium)
An exotic collaboration between the irrepressible Ducktails (guitar – see above) and Dolphins into the Future (soundboard, synth – see above) can’t miss, right? Well, it sort of can. Unfortunately the pair didn’t seem to have any notion of what to do together. Ducktails noodled above what sounded like less inspired outtakes of DITF’s original set. It was straight high school jam-wank. At one point the Duckster leaned over to whisper something in the mustachioed Belgian’s ear. Probably: "Why the fuck did we let them talk us into this?"
Government Alpha (Japan)
The diminutive Japanese gentleman with the superlative sound played the midnight set on the last night of Neon Marshmallow. I had seen him earlier as part of a trio on the first night: he was the most magnetic personality of that set, but it was hard to discern his particular musical character above the din of that three-car pileup. Alone, with a soundboard at hand, he was a wonder. Tightly articulated noise ejaculations. No washes of hazy uncommitted sound; every movement was pointed, directed, powerful. It’s always the little guys that wile out the hardest, know that.
At the end of the set he climbed up on an amp in the back, for a bit of drama, etc. But it really wasn’t needed – the music delivered in and of itself. The noise scene is full of pretenders and part-timers, because it’s just so damn easy to get stoned and freak out over some expensive equipment you bought with your dad’s credit card. When the real players come to bat though, it’s a whole different ballgame.