They made me sign a contract stipulating I wouldn’t badmouth the show. By writing this I will most likely not be invited back. I am fine with this. I am of the opinion that these massive festivals should be done way with altogether. The only thing a baseball stadium should be used for is burning Celine Dion in effigy or, well, baseball. Certainly not an exposition of “music” blasted as it were through stacks of speakers like so much dynamite used to tunnel through mountainsides. But you get what you pay for, and yet despite it being the tenth anniversary of the three-day showcase put on by Creativeman, apparently the punk dudes and goth girls are fine paying nearly $175 per day and showing up well into the afternoon. That must be their rock n’f’n roll sensibility: arrive just in time for Nine Inch Nails’ last Japan tour while missing Marine Stage openers Boys Like Girls, who seemed to have trouble getting through whole songs, or maybe those were just their songs. Either way, I decided to start drinking early.Phoenix played a strong and instrumental heavy showing on the “Mountain” 2nd tier stage at the far… Click To Tweet
Why Summer Sonic Sucks
I made my way stage by stage (seven in all) early on before absolute indifference strangled my spirit and managed to catch bits and pieces of Totalfat on the Island (it’s a parking lot with that fake golf grass) stage and Fukuhara Miho at the aptly named Beach stage (who ironically enough first appeared on a Celine Dion tribute album). Bouncing between the Dance and Sonic stages (both indoor a massive concrete warehouse) I caught bits and pieces of School of Seven bells and Fujifabric, whose guitarist needs to get a new band, before jumping back to witness Kyte’s occasionally more than interesting Spacemen 3 and Coldplay lovechild’s version of rock orchestraic shoegaze until well, enough of that 1/16th beat programmed high-hat at 2pm. It was time for Girltalk anyway, who exploded onto the Dance stage for some one-legged cross-genre mash-up fun. I now know where my ¥2000 Eco-Friendly fee went after witnessing Gregg Michael Gillis’ cut-off clad twin ingénues literally blowing through twenty packs of toilet paper and confetti with their day-glo air guns. Though this bothered me at first, as soon as the stage filled with twenty-odd crowd-turned-dancers and Gillis reiterated, “I wanna take it to the next level!” while hop-scotching on the decks with one leg (his preferred dance) and pumping his fist in the air, I didn’t mind the loss of the industrial strength single-ply so much. This is what music is all about: Dancing. The sweat and taut skin of youth grinding away in oblivious joy on some stage somewhere likely under the gaze of disapproving eyes. This is Footloose. Short as his set was it provided much of the Day One highlights, what with Katy Perry A.W.O.L., so how could Paramore or Mercury Rev ever hope to pick up the slack?
Perhaps not so surprisingly Phoenix played a strong and instrumental heavy showing on the “Mountain” stage (the 2nd tier stage at the far end of the warehouse, de facto winner of worst stage name ever) in support of their latest album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, despite all appearances of not knowing where in the world they were playing today. Mewling around for more alcohol to relieve the concrete doldrums a decision was made, and though sacrificing Jack Peñate on the Beach stage at sunset was likely the most difficult of the long weekend, Nine Inch nails managed to carry the day- despite SSSS (shit stadium sound syndrome) with an eclectic retrospective of an hour-long set including “March of the Pigs”, “Closer” and a violent “I’m Afraid of Americans” before closing with- you guessed it- “Hurt”. A thunderous downpour soaking run back to the Sonic stage to see an alternatively brilliant and uninspired set by Mogwai, flip-flopping between mirroring the Thor-like hammering sky outside and waffling around in their own piddle puddles like sad wayward children. Follow the left-brain lads. Aphex Twin was even less brilliant and more disappointing given the rehashed run-of-the-mill dj set Richard James seemed satisfied performing to the easily amused crowd. Giving my bladder the impetus to win out over my sense of dharmic duty to actually finish listening to the entire set. To pee or not to pee. Depends on the DJ.
Despite Saturday’s promise of Joan Jett, Elvis Costello, CSS, and the Specials I decided to take a personal day for consumption of proper amounts of Pizza and Belgian Ale, as well as to consider my friend’s overarching indictment that Summer Sonic was like a government-sponsored music festival in Singapore. That bad…or good? I’ll give you a moment to ponder that. While you do so, why not check out the review of Fujirock?
I arrived early-ish Sunday with high expectations that the lineup would overshadow the venue’s shortcomings. The Sonic Stage alone could be depended on to deliver one from the melancholy humidity and violent sonic reverberations. Repeat after me: Grizzly Bear, The Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth & The Flaming Lips. The Veronicas, Five Finger Death Punch and Gogol Bordello, among other compelling acts appearing strewn across far-flung stages, would have to be sacrificed for the greater good.
It’s possible I may be being overly harsh but Tame Impala sounds like a really lame Sterolab, which I suppose is better than a shitty Keane, who are pretty shitty, so kudos for that. After a refreshing slam of the head against the concrete and the first of quite a few contraband whiskeys, The Temper Trap came on and actually reclaimed some of the pride they lost when they chose that name, solely by the intensity of their live set, though the guitarist has to get a new move because Girltalk already has the one-leg-hop-fist-pump trademarked. Though the Vaselines entered to a subdued midday crowd, their three guitar strong call and response post punk ditties soon got the audience ready for the three other 20+ year old bands on tap. Power pop progenitors Teenage Fanclub, who despite putting out nothing but strong albums since the early 90s, always sound better live. So good in fact I decided to kick up my heels with the other flashbackers in the back with a drink, almost tasting that special blend of tea I drank one night in the mid-90s while locked in a room with only Bandwagonesque and an iguana named Ray. Great. Album.
For the third day running the pounding rain outside the cattle-pen-esque warehouse quartered into “stages” and separated by the same movable walls you had in your elementary school when the budget was slashed made it an easy choice between Ne-yo at the Chiba Marines Stadium and Sonic Youth alongside another two boilermakers where I stood. Since the addition of ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold has freed up Kim Gordon to occasionally double him on bass, pick up a guitar or just jump her ass off in her silver go-go girl skirt, the quintet has found an even happier equilibrium- if that can be believed- between their straightforward punk and their trademark harmonic dissonance, which is the balance the band struck amazingly well throughout their eleven-song set. Performed in a dueling banjo-like fashion with Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore cross-riffing with Gordon and Ibold to Steve Shelley’s constant beat in time to the positively and negatively charged ions making their own beautiful clash of sound skyward pouring down and dredging up on their closer “Death Valley ‘69”, quenching the thirst of the sonically deprived audience. Hands raised to toward the heavens- Hallelujah.
There is always a certain point when even the most die-hard sexual participant (or in this case concert-goer) recognizes that all-too-familiar lower backache and the tired, cramping legs which inevitably come in between overlong bouts (waiting between sets…) and with unstimulating partners (…for shitty bands). Yet seeing as how the Flaming Lips began their ninety-minute show (long by S.S. standards) by emerging from a video projection of a psychedelic vagina in close-up shooting day-glo sparks, I would doubt the Oklahoma City denizens have ever had problems with either, not that I would know in the latter, but I do have to admit that the adrenalin pumping through my veins when they started in with “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” as Wayne Coyne rolled overhead in his plastic bubble certainly eased two days of concrete stupor. After which Coyne, perpetually decked out in his natty godfather of rock threads, urged everyone to, “C’mon Motherfuckers!” before launching into Soft Bulletin classic “Waitin’ For A Superman”. Careening through less familiar Zaireeka and newer At War With The Mystics material (though oddly omitting the excellent Clouds Taste Metallic completely) the foursome of Lips- accompanied on stage by a bevy of frogs, bunnies and the random light saber guy- happened on more familiar ground with a stripped down Dylanesque revisioning of “The Fight” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1” in ethereal organic gospel beauty amid comments like, “Never thought we’d be playing at the same time as Beyonce…” as well as more bullhorn blared, “C’mon MFers!” That was when they almost destroyed their carefully crafted momentum by marching everyone through a somber “Taps” (as a simultaneous eulogy / protest song for the Iraq War) to only the second completely silent audience I’ve ever been in with minimum 1000 other people (Mogwai live at El Rey in LA. circa 1999). Their rather obvious closer, “Do You Realize??” punctuated by gong peals and confetti blasts- was preceded by heartfelt gratitude toward Summer Sonic (“We played the first Summer Sonic in 1999…I mean 2000!”) which perhaps clarified for me why western bands and local fans alike revere this celebration of commercialization and concrete.
It is often unfortunately taken for granted that due to the relative affluence of its large middle class, its rampant consumerism as well as acceptance of foreign medicines, technology and cultural values, that Japan is a western nation. This occasionally causes individuals to overreact to what are viewed through ethnocentric eyes as social peccadilloes, which is another essay altogether. Yet, in general, due to its relative comfort, high salaries and lack of laws pertaining to alcohol, it is often easy to forget that Japan is an island in the far east- the pacific gateway to Asia- and that being so located, the majority of North American and European artists popular on the tour circuit don’t necessarily have the means or resources to pull off an extended tour of Asia, or even a mini-tour of Japan. Flights, equipment costs, hotels number among many other obstacles facing touring artists, who often have to depend on their labels to fund trips due to local promoters offering bare bones remuneration to all but the biggest attractions. Sure, ticket prices are higher here, but so are all domestic charges, so bands rarely see an extra cut. Pedestalized (but not paid) as they are, what they do get is the best service in the western music-loving world. Delivery, translation and succinct efficiency have come to define Japan’s concert industry so much so as to guarantee Summer Sonic the hottest acts at the peak of the summer festival season. Though all this has come to actually guarantee both artists and fans only one thing- a single appearance (maybe two or three if you count Osaka and Nagoya) once every new album cycle or reunion tour grab for cash. Beyond saving the artists exorbitant travel expenses, logistical headaches and giving the Japanese fan what they crave in an otherwise dry international music scene Creativeman can pack as many people as possible into probably the worst venue that ever was. And sadly, boasting their Sex Pistols t-shirts and ripped jeans, these sardines willingly part with their hard earned cash.
The setup at Makuhari Messe is a fire hazard, pure and simple. As well as being ripe for a disaster, which I realized might be tap for Sunday’s 8pm headlining Lips’ set when a 7.1 earthquake set anxious feet prematurely to dance. Few paid any real attention to the temblor, despite the obvious risk to the thousands of avid fans crushing ever closer to the stage, as staffers packed them in like so many tuna in Tsukiji. Creativeman’s exit strategy looked woefully similar to Bush Jr.’s in Iraq until the Lips (Read as Obama) came in with musical advice to avert battle weary troops from further PTSD. Which is the reason the fans don’t mind the crowds, the lackluster sets, the high prices, the shite sound, the constant rules shouted through megaphones, all set in an acoustic nightmare of a wharehouse just made for corporate seminars: Music trumps all.
It’s specifically because of this- apart from the inherent and ignored danger (though that is kind of punk isn’t it?), the ubiquitous concrete and heavy-handed commercialism- Summer Sonic’s producers look to have at least a few more years of success left, what with the stature of the bands they can attract (what can’t massive ego-stroking accomplish when coupled with cold hard cash?) and the intelligent decision to have bikini-top clad cuties pouring drinks to cleavage-starved lads. It might surprise you to know, but among the other western amenities adopted by Japan, drinking milk for strong bones and lean bodies has had an increasingly positive effect on the female population. Now if only we could get Celine Dion to defect…
Apart from attempting to dictate the content of the article, Creativeman also was quite fascist about cameras, not allowing us any access other than what the rudimentary fan would get, thus maintaining the monopoly on imagery for their DVD sales and sponsored quid pro quo write-ups, hence the eclectic shot selection.
The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent HESO Magazine.