Decibel Festival 2013 Live Show Review: JETS & Machinedrum, Nils Frahm, The Orb & Juan Atkins

The Pacific Northwest’s premiere music festival, Decibel Festival 2013, has come and gone, with another half-week stint of dream electronic music lineups for all. The type of festival that non-Seattle music lovers drool over and Seattle music lovers take amazing late-night advantage of, Decibel has come a long way in the ten years since its inception… and with this review, we celebrate the best of year 10’s acts, which include a party sounds by JETS, the collaboration between Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, Machinedrum‘s visually-entrancing new live show, neo-classical-meets-electronic composer Nils Frahm, and goofy electronic pioneers, The Orb.


Photography by Lizzy Eve

JETS = Machinedrum & Jimmy Edgar

It can be a bit surprising how successful after-parties at Decibel Festival are — especially considering they always begin at 2:30am, and sometimes on weekday nights. Thursday evening (or Friday morning at 3:30am, if you wanted to get all technical about it) was JETS’ headlining slot at the Leisure System Afterparty, and it was my most anticipated show of Decibel Festival 2013. Still, I didn’t really know what to expect from the duo, comprised of Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar, since JETS is a relatively new project and the amount of material they have out in the world is quite tiny.

I knew from their dearth of recordings that they know how to make bangin’ party music and that they at least somewhat have metaphysical interests — but it was only after seeing them perform at Neumo’s that the tie between the two seemingly disparate elements actually began to make sense. JETS create a whipped-up blend of DJ sensibilities for the complex listener — but their adept copiloting of an atmosphere filled with entrancing sonic trickeries also makes them appealing for the complex dancer.

Upon first taking the stage, JETS reminded me of futuresonic explorers in electronic hyperspace, and I nearly expected the mixer that both Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar laid their hands upon to turn into a brightly-colored glowing orb. Well, it didn’t, and the sci-fi sounds soon faded, but what they gave way to was a challenging set that remained in a constant state of transition. Beats shifted again and again at perfectly-timed yet completely unpredictable intervals, and even better were the moments where JETS dropped down low — sometimes obviously and sometimes almost imperceptibly. While beats continued, repeating vocal samples would brew up from beneath, bubbling up through otherwise dense layers of sound, in the form of subtle mind suggestion cues telling you to “dance”, or some variation of the same.

Such is a subconscious trick that JETS have mastered, with effects that one might not even notice immediately. When I go to electronic shows, I sometimes get bored of my own dance moves because the music remains so static — or conversely, because the music changes with such a jitter that it loses momentum or leads to abrupt transitions between dance styles. Not so with JETS… and this, coupled with the sly vocal mind-control mechanism previously described, may be the most successful aspects of their approach. They are seamlessly dynamic — to a point where it almost hurts because it is so good, and you’re so tired, but you just can’t stop dancing. The way in which JETS can inspire a melting away of a crowd, leaving only the purity of sound — made their set godamn transcendent — and that is not an adjective I use lightly. - Vivian Hua


Nils Frahm

Nils Frahm is something of a gem — a sentiment almost everyone seems to agree with upon first run-in with the Berliner. First, Frahm tore up the classical world, and now, he is bridging the intersection between neo-classical and electronic music — but doing so with much more showmanship, conceptual theory, and understanding of electronic music than most of his other young contemporaries. Frahm is currently on tour with Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, and the two of them headlined what I considered to be the most exciting Optical performance of Decibel Festival 2013, in the Nordstrom Recital Hall, which shares a similar space with the Seattle Symphony.

In a joint interview REDEFINE’s Peter Woodburn conducted with Arnalds and Frahm the day before the show, they spoke of the differences between performing in rock venues and more formal venues. Both stated that performing in spaces like the Nordstrom Recital Hall necessitated a more formal atmosphere than a rock venue or festival; Frahm described a symphony hall show as being “way more normal and less of a happening”.

But one wouldn’t have known it this evening, as charm and jokes exuded from Frahm in his typical humble-shy (but not actually shy) demeanor. The entire stage was littered with five sets of keys; Frahm himself used four of these, with a Juno synthesizer, Rhodes piano, and two classical pianos. Surprisingly, not one seemed extraneous, and the stand-out tracks of the evening made solid use of Frahm’s instrument-hopping mastery.

My favorites of the evening included album single and set opener, “Says”, which is epic in a soft and romantic way, despite being largely centered around growing synthesizer washes that tickle ears with their slight oscillations and modulations. This performance ascertained that the sonics in the Nordstrom Recital Hall were mind-blowingly incredible, and that “Says” may be one of Frahm’s most immediately engaging and genre-linking tracks yet.

Also notable was “Said And Done”, a classical piano piece that makes great use of dynamics — relative loudness of the notes — and Frahm’s mastery of force. Filled with repeating patterns and consistent equally-pressured pounding, “Said And Done” sounds easy enough to perform on paper, but seems more and more a technical marvel with every passing second of observation. It’s also the type of track that necessitates Frahm’s shaking out his hands after performing it; tis clearly no easy feat.

And though there are many other things to mention about Frahm’s set this evening — including his percussive piece that utilized the insides of a classical piano — I will close with his performance of “Hammers”, which is also from his latest record, Spaces. Labryinthian in its complexity and use of low and high piano keys, “Hammers” is the type of classical composition that even non-classical music lovers can latch onto because of its sheer Olympian technique. It’s dizzying and transportive; jaw-droppingly intense and inclusive of a scraggly and hoarse vocal performance by Frahm, who seems to sing his voice raw without a microphone. No need for words, either; Frahm’s singing is not intended to turn his music into pop music, but for its emotional and melodic additions alone. Just another honest technique to add to his already ridiculously impressive live approach. - Vivian Hua

 

Machinedrum

Decibel Festival marked Machinedrum’s global debut of the live show for his upcoming record, Vapor City, and it boasted live instrumentation and visual projections from Weirdcore, the party responsible for Machinedrum’s “Eyesdontlie” music video.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t planning to attend this particular show but found myself in the area after Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds’ set. And man, am I glad timing and distance worked out in the way it did. Machinedrum is not a musician who has deeply caught my attention in the past, but it seems like the man behind it, Travis Stewart, may have hit his stride big time with Vapor City. The set began with Stewart and his guitar — a surprising thing in electronic music sets of this day and age — and the introduction was almost post-rock in approach. A wicked drumming companion killed it with slight adornments while bass washed over everyone in nearly oppressive ways, while 3D-rendered visual projections, seen through a first-person point-of-view, opened viewers up to a seemingly dark and ghostly world.

A hallway of framed wolf royalty seemed somehow reminiscent of tarot symbolism, and after mazing around inside a building’s walls for quite some time, the scene opened up to reveal the most crappily-rendered amusement park rollercoaster possible. Set in a barren, Burning Man desert, it coiled up and down around giant statues of Anubis and the Statue of Liberty, rickety and rigid as it passed around the, like mummy shrouds. Other sequences in the same nearly greyscale universe followed — with one particularly spectacular sequence of Russian Orthodox churches, filled with stained glass of space travelers, sacred geometries, occultist imagery, and again, wolves.

In short, Weirdcore’s visuals were absolutely mind-blowingly amazing in content, context, and quality… but in this, they were also quite worrisome. They were seriously so good that they entranced everyone in the audience to the point of near stillness. During the first four or five tracks of Machinedrum’s set, I was beginning to think that the audience might never recover from their idleness, and that the entire set would be dominated by awesome visuals and basswash overload — nevermind the dancing. Not so. The visuals ended soon after I had this thought, and it was then that the dance party erupted — with a kind of down down dirtiness that wasn’t at all sexual but just fucking weird, in the way that I appreciate the most. Twas the kind of dancing suitable for clubs with dark walls, where creepers be lurking in corners doing whatever weird shit with their bodies that they feel like, with no concern for what others are thinking. And this is both a testament to the crowd — who just moments before had seriously been dancing to Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” like it was the best track of the now-year — as well as a testament to Machinedrum, who was somehow able to make a crowd that had just been dancing to ’90s Top 40s trance dance to some seriously hardcore bass music, which sometimes veered closely into jungle territory, like in his latest single, “Gunshotta”. Everyone was on Machinedrum’s page and team; everyone was absolutely mesmerized as he incorporated some of the same successful tricks (and occasional tracks) that JETS had the previous night, with just as much — if not more — success. - Vivian Hua

 

The Orb & Juan Atkins

The old guys were out on Saturday night, showing the young ‘uns with their computers and synced-up visuals how it’s been done, and after catching a few of those aforementioned newer acts, I couldn’t have been any happier that Juan Atkins and The Orb — two of EDM’s great father figures — did their thing at Showbox at the Market, representing the past with mixed but ultimately awesome results. Mr. Atkins was the first of the two, and while I was stoked to see the guy behind the decks, Atkins unfortunately proved the rumors about his dodgy DJ skills to be all too true. The man gets a pass for “Skyway” alone, and when you add “Vessels in Distress” and “No U.F.O.’s”, he becomes untouchable. But the studio is clearly his domain. Onstage he looked awkward — maybe even nervous or unsure — and lacked any sort of finesse in his transitions. Not that everyone needs to be robot tight, but there were volume drops, skips, and all kinds of other nasty stuff. The selection was decent, if a little unorganized, but mostly, I was satisfied to have seen one of the masters in person.

The Orb took the stage next, and after a lengthy transition from Atkin’s set to theirs, proceeded to welcome us all aboard their entheogenic time machine spaceship, to show us another universe where one can still construct a semi-coherent audio vehicle out of a passable trip-hop beat with a fat bass line and a load of samples. They also rode that shit out towards the edge of the universe for eternity — and man, it was fucking awesome, if only (but not only) because it was so different from the rest of the stuff going on in Seattle that weekend. Not that I have anything against contemporary electronic music as a whole, and the re-emergence of analog and modular gear has certainly brought a bit of grit back to the style, but this was a different order of raw that felt, sounded, and looked particularly old-school. And not just because of the gear involved. The whole thing was done via computer and CDJ. It was just the vibe. It was funny, and it was strange; it was comprised of cheesy sounds and samples and accompanied by visuals that brought to mind the early ’90s house and grunge videos that used to play on MTV late at night. There appeared to be no attempt on behalf of The Orb to modernize beyond the tools they were using to play back their sounds, and yet, it didn’t seem stale at all. They were clearly having a good time dancing around on stage and the whole affair had the feel of a great light-hearted hallucinogenic come-up.

The audience, comprised mostly of adults who looked to be of the age where it would be reasonable to assume they were soaking in the duo’s classic records back when they were released, seemed to appreciate all of these gestures. And so did I, though I was only 6 or 7 during their heyday and had no idea who they were. For me, it was awesome to see a show that felt so free and un-hip, and it left me thinking that it would be amazing to catch these guys out at Burning Man. I’m a fan of modernist, minimal, and abstract techno, but I’ll take weird over restrained cool any day. The Orb certainly delivered that in what proved to be a welcome contrast to most of the rest of the Decibel Festival’s lineup. - Troy Micheau

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