If there was one common thread running through the better performances at Decibel Festival's opening night last night, it was the way they made the case for electronic music's legitimacy as "real" music, live music, played by real musicians. From Shigeto's adroit and jazzy live drumming to the camera trained close-up on AraabMuzik's blindingly fast sampler-pad-tapping fingers to the full-screen visual readout showing Atom TM's computer control parameters in real time, last night felt like a concerted effort to disprove the notion that "all these guys do is get on stage and press play." Except for Zomby, of course, but we'll get to that later.
The madly prolific AtomTM.
The first thing I caught last night was Shigeto at Neumos--actually, the first thing I caught was a waft of patchouli upon walking into Neumos, but I'm willing to let that slide. Shigeto (aka Ghostly International artist Zach Saginaw) split his time between manning a laptop and some controls and sitting behind a drum kit, seeming to slightly favor the kit. His laptop loops ranged from dubby, liquid grooves to pretty electric piano melodies to, later, more beat-heavy material, but what was most impressive was how easily he just dropped into the drum kit and kept perfect time with them, without any visible earpiece or headphones to listen to a click track, just playing live to a monitor. At one point, he was keeping the beat on a cymbal with one hand and leaning over to manipulate a knob on his laptop controller with the other. He ended his set promptly at 11, asked the crowd if they were ready for AraabMuzik (they were), then conferred with someone in the wings and announced, "I guess I'm gonna keep going." AraabMuzik was AWOL.
So Shigeto kept it going, holding things down admirably it must be said, while a small manhunt (including the Times' Andrew Matson) started combing the streets looking for the errant Dipset beat prodigy. 20 minutes later, AraabMuzik took the stage (to the shouting of an invisible hypeman--Larry Mizell--offstage), took a minute loading up his trusty MPC sampler, his baseball cap brim down low over his eyes, and then proceeded to kill the thing, all without so much as a glance at the crowd. On two big screens on the walls, a camera kept trained to a close-up of AraabMuzik's hands as he furiously hunt-and-pecked on the sampler's grid of 16 square pads, his fingers a blur, cutting up hollow pan-flute trance synths and buffeting them with hard-knocking kicks and snares. (There was a slight visual lag to the beat, though, so the best seat in the house was still one where you could see his hands working yourself.) AraabMuzik is basically like the Hella of the MPC: technically dazzling, stunningly dexterous, and musically airtight, but almost exhausting, or just numbing to watch for too long. When we left to go catch the tail end of AtomTM down at Rebar, there was a black stretch limo parked across the street with its hazard lights on.
AtomTM also had a video screen proving the live-ness of his set, though in a much nerdier, more technical manner. As the slightly severe looking German (real name Uwe Schmidt) stood behind a stately Akai MPC workstation of his own, lit from below by pale light, the big screen behind him displayed, in green-on-black Apple 2GS text, the control parameters he was manipulating in real time. So, one screen might say "delay" at the top, and then have columns of numerical values for delay amount, delay time, dry/wet, and such. He hardly needed the gimmick, though--Schmidt is a madly prolific veteran producer (with a massive list of aliases as well, you might know him as Senor Coconut, for his Latin exotica takes on Kraftwerk songs). The part of the set I caught sounded like it was almost entirely rhythm, something like 90% just drum machine beats being juggled and nudged and stuttered. A fine set, but it was all less overwhelming than it could've been had it been properly loud in there.
It was funny when AraabMuzik briefly looked like he might be a no-show earlier, because the guy everyone was half-expecting to not show was Zomby. The anonymous UK producer has a bit of a bad reputation for missing gigs, and even last night rumors were going around that he'd had to be coaxed out of his hotel room with bottles of booze. But while he was there in body last night, he hardly seemed there in spirit. He took the stage wearing a V for Vendetta/"Anonymous" Guy Fawkes mask, which he would tilt up to take a sip of a drink or pull a sneaky puff off a hand-rolled smoke, and for the first time all night, I watched a top tier Decibel artist basically just stand up there and press play.
One track would end, he'd trigger a couple foggy airhorns into delay, and another track would start. Fuck mixing? Yes. Let's dance? Well, sorta. Zomby's original tracks are prime, from the lo-fi bleeps of his Where Were You in '92 material to the more nuanced post-dubstep stuff of his latest album Dedication, but, like AraabMuzik and AtomTM before him, they were more head-nodding stuff than body-working. Which is fine--it's a long festival weekend, best maybe to just ease into it. But even so, the vibe was off. At one point a sound guy came onstage and turned down Zomby's mixer while he was playing--he then motioned to the house sound guy to turn it up, so they were probably just trying to get some overhead and get out of the red, but the sound never really got up to the chest-vibrating levels of bass that it should have. And while it's hard to read facial expressions under a mask, the overwhelming feeling you got from the set was one of abject disinterest, with Zomby just walking offstage while his tracks were playing multiple times. Things picked up a bit with Zomby's excellent "Natalia's Song" and later with a mix that included drops of Soulja Boy and Lil B, but there was a troubling lack of crowd noise during the quiet bits. At a few minutes to 1:30, he played his track with Animal Collective's Panda Bear, "Things Fall Apart," and at 1:30 promptly, he killed the sound and walked offstage. Outside, another rumor circulated, possibly started by Decibel's Microsoft sponsors: Zomby's Macbook Air had overheated, otherwise, the rumors went, his set would have been, as they say, live.