HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Author: Sophie Knight (Page 2 of 2)

Stallion Rock

Stallion Rock

Stallion Rock by Isobel Wiles

Stallion Rock by Isobel Wiles

I remember a comedy skit in which a nurse gently broke the news to a group of middle aged men that they would never be astronauts. They all burst into tears in unison with the realization that age slowly closes down all the possibilities you never even dreamed or yearned for— but you can still feel the loss. I can empathise with this. At every age of my life I have been overly aware of the things I never be. At ten, a child prodigy. At fifteen, an Olympic gymnast. At twenty, a teenage mother (okay, less sad about not achieving that one). But the message is really hammered home when your peers achieve something, which is why Foals, as friends of a friend, made me realize that I’m now too old to ever be in a world-famous band. Sigh.

There is always vicarious pleasure, of course, and Foals provide that in spades. As the first few plucked notes of “Blue Blood” ring out I realize how far they’ve come (a Tokyo stadium, to be exact) from the intimate house parties they used to play in their native Oxford. Their music has matured, too— from their first spiky and riotous album Antidotes, to Total Life Forever, which garnered both mainstream appeal and a wave of critical acclaim.

Despite the differences in the two albums, it’s surprising tonight how well their whole body of songs blend together. From the first gently plucked notes of opener “Blue Blood”, they clatter directly into a string of their early hits, from the funky “Olympic Airways” to the frantic “Cassius”, complete with squalling horns and yelping. A brief moment’s respite comes in the anthemic title track, “Total Life Forever”, where the drums provide a strong ballast, before the crowd take over the beat with clapping.

The best sets are always those that exhaust the audience, whipping them up with a relentless sprint, never letting the tension drop Click To Tweet

Stallion Rock

Stallion Rock by Sophie Knight

Stallion Rock by Sophie Knight

Frontmen usually receive disproportionate attention to the rest of the band, but Yannis really does seem to be the leader here, holding his hands aloft and pumping his fist like an evangelical preacher and bounding around the stage like a freshly released cage fighter. His strength is his ability to switch from a gentle Jekyll to a vitriol-spitting Hyde in the space of a song, as when he nearly breaks a drum stick thwacking the big snare brought out for him in “Electric Bloom” (that must be where those roadie-like muscles came from) to the spine-tingling whispers on “Spanish Sahara”. When he climbs on top of one of the speakers and starts swinging objects hanging from the ceiling, the bouncers look a bit desperate and lost— and he continues to make them look edgy throughout the set, throwing water over the crowd (not so welcome when it’s snowing outside) and then crowd-surfing twice.

The other members are slightly more subdued, although in the case of the drummer and keyboardist, their kit is to blame for their lack of mobility. Lead guitarist Jimmy Smith, a quintessential indie kid with straggly long hair, pin-thin legs and a slightly Jesus-like look, somehow manages to dance while nailing the highly complex and finicky, fast riffs that they have become known for. The five of them together seem to be so intuitively in touch with what the others are doing and where they are going that their performance is fast, flawless, and lethally precise.

Yet their precision is equally matched by an infectious groove that simply doesn’t allow the crowd to stay still. The second album allowed them to explore their softer side, but even the gentle, honey-like vocals of Alabaster break into a thickly layered cacophony pinned together with drums that sound like rain on a roof. In contrast to the quiet/loud/quiet dynamic that so many bands still stick to, Foals have found their ideal formula in quiet/louder/even louder/deafening.

The best sets are always those that exhaust the audience, whipping them up with a relentless sprint, never letting the tension drop. You can see where the fans’ fervour comes from— and when Yannis jumps off the stage into the press pit there are so many fans’ hands on him it’s like a faith healing convention. After a shouty “Electric Bloom” in which the crowd explodes, they come back for an inevitable encore for a whole three songs, leaving the crowd sweaty and with smiles so wide they split their face in two. They may be named after baby horses but it feels like they’re already racing at Ascot.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A Tokyo 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

In the interests of journalistic integrity, I’ll grant you a full disclosure: I have never really liked Blonde Redhead or Ariel Pink. Both are bands that I felt like I should like, given my friends’ evangelical fervour for them: they made me mixtapes with them on, played their albums on loops when I was around, sent me links to their videos. I felt like I was missing something, but the only response I could drum up was a resounding ‘meh’. Then when Pitchfork awarded the best single of 2010 to Ariel Pink, I realized my uncoolness required some remedial action. Before I got thrown out of hipster circles, I decided that seeing them live might be the only way to alchemise my indifference into appreciation.

I found Ariel Pink difficult to listen to on record. To me, they were the aural equivalent of bad fusion food, taking the worst of several different cuisines (or musical genres) and then adding fistfuls of cheese. And his syrupy pastiche of old funk and cheesy lyrics- “I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on a strip”- just sounded like the sad kind of muzak played at an office party in a cavernous bar strewn with streamers and deflated balloons.

But Ariel’s corniness is not what it seems, as I found out. Obsessed with the sound of the radio as he remembered it in his youth, he was an archetypal reclusive artist, holing up in his bedroom to record hundreds of tapes that recreated the sounds of his youth, replete with lo-fi scratchiness and the disjointed, shifting sound you get from flicking through stations. He is in fact a master of memory, attempting to resuscitate the 70s and 80s not through repackaging it for hipsters but by slicing it up and serving it raw.

I realise after a few songs that while they are a difficult band upon first listen, given that they create erratic mélanges of different styles and moods and often segue into something rather unsettling. Their music seems to be organised into songs in the same way that William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is organised into chapters (i.e. arbitrarily), and share that novel’s disjointed, hallucinogenic absurdity, lack of continuity and shifts in time and context.

They flick through sweet surfer harmonies to squelchy 80s saxophone (“Hot Body Rub”), from creepy falsetto to the kind of growly grunge of Bleach-era Nirvana (“Butt House Blondies”). The audience is polite and eerily silent between songs but seem somewhat bemused. Finally a song raises a cheer: “Round and Round,” the first single to be professionally produced, in contrast to their earlier work, which sounded so tinny they could have been committed to tape via a paper cup and string. Although it’s the one song that takes up residence in my head after the gig, I can empathise with the ambivalence that seeps from the crowd as they exit the stage.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Ariel Pink performs at the 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter mystifies the Tokyo audience

Deerhunter, being both less loopy and more melodic, are easier to enjoy. Melding cheerful West Coast melodies, Conor Oberst-esque shoegazer pop, and layered cacophonous jams, last year’s “Halcyon Digest”, their fourth album, has warranted some pretty heavy rotation. They blast the haphazard noodlings of Ariel Pink away with a solid sound, anchored by driving guitars and big drums. The runaway highlight, “Desire Lines”, begins with a riff suspiciously close to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”, and finishes with an extended triumphant jam punctured by the ever more strident twangs of guitar that ring out like a bell. Their sound is punchier, more expansive than on record, and bounces around the room to a beautifully synchronized light show. The intensity is raised on “Nothing Ever Happened,” a fast and punky thrash, and the poetic “He Would Have Laughed,” eight minutes of a hypnotizing guitar riff and plaintive vocals. A dozen different strands of melody interweave and cleave apart like a rainbow exploding. They finish on “Little Kids” from their previous album “Microcastles,” which crescendos on refrain of ‘to get older still’ , until it erupts, the smoke machine chokes the stage, and they walk off triumphant.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

Now up with Blonde Redhead, for whom tonight’s gig is somewhat of a homecoming–the lead singer, Kazu Makino–is Japanese. I had found their music a little too frothy and ethereal on record sometimes, not being deep enough to entrance nor catchy enough to remember. Live, however, they are completely compelling. Makino, a spectre in a white dress and hair-covered face, literally vibrates on the stage, sheathed in shifting footlights. Her fragile yet seductive demeanour is thrown into contrast by the more boisterous and determined backing provided by Italian brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace, giving their sound an interesting dynamic. Along with the kind of thick, complex jams popularized by Sonic Youth, patches of minor-key melancholy seep through. Much of the latter comes from after 2002, when Makino was trampled by a horse and sustained severe injuries. She alludes to the incident when she says, “for months I couldn’t sing–nothing came out. Finally… someone helped me to get my voice back, and I want to thank them.” The latest album, “Penny Sparkle,” sounds like she has finally fully regained her strength and positivity. “In Particular” is a high point, with its Gallic-tinged refrain of “Alex, Alex, X X”.

Like Deerhunter, their sound is much bigger and gutsier than on record, and a massive swathe of sound assaults us from the speakers. Makino’s voice is also higher in the mix, and she sounds angrier, even desperate in the closer “Not Getting There”. When they play last year’s single, “Here Sometimes,” her sparse and breathy vocals could pass for Medulla-era Bjork. The audience is evidently captivated, and scream loud enough to win an encore.

Was I won over though? Well, it’s fair to say that I “get” Ariel Pink a little more now, although I still find them too distracting for background music. Deerhunter made me want to scrabble through their back catalogue a little more, and I was so charmed by Blonde Redhead that even their meeker sounding songs are more interesting now that I can hear echoes of their live performance through it. It’s a credit to the venue too that for all three acts the lighting was perfect, augmenting the atmosphere of each act and creating a great visual spectacle. If only every gig was as convincing as this one.

For more information, go to the Contrarede and 4AD Site.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Poor Japan. With its yen soaring and its global relevance in free fall, its hulking neighbour to the West is suddenly getting all the girls. China, like a tubbier younger brother whose discovery of Clearasil and lifting weights has cured his acne and stunted growth, has dramatically emerged out of its commie slumber to swipe his elder brother’s economic crown. Yet while its new muscles might justify its swagger, it has all the petty combativeness of an adolescent. To cap a recent string of diplomatic disputes with Tokyo, it abruptly withdrew all of its films from the festival in protest at the Taiwanese delegation not being introduced as “Chinese Taiwan”.

Fortunately, even with China gone, Tokyo is still hanging onto the coattails of the zeitgeist with its theme of “Ecology” for the third straight year. Despite not commanding quite the same reputation as the big gun festivals- Venice, Sundance- the verdant carpet does differentiate them from the other T.I.F.F. in Toronto. Which is how there were more than a few high-profile films and Hollywood actors in attendance. In addition to the usual Japanese suspects of Tadanobu Asano and Kyoko Koizumi, Catherine Deneuve was there with Potiche, while other premiers featured Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore (Bunraku), Jeff Bridge and Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, and Wesley Snipes (Brooklyn’s Finest), with Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer) and Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) representing the Brits.

I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

“It’s trauma, it’s… the loneliness of being seen by a big crowd.” So says director Saverio Constanzo of the recently released, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The adaptation of Paolo Giordano’s hit novel, tells the story of two misfits, Alice and Mattia, whose traumatic childhoods push them together in an awkward and compulsive relationship. Mattia is a mathematic genius who rather pretentiously described their relationship like that of prime numbers either side of a non-prime: close, but forever apart and destined to solitude.

Differing from the linear narrative of the novel, the film flits between three different time periods, and aims for a more dramatic, highly-strung atmosphere than the quietly contemplative prose in the book. “We mixed everything to make something more like a rock opera than a silent book.” said Costanzo, adding, “I go to the cinema to be shocked, surprised, to lose my orientation. Not to see what I already know.” It is beautifully and poetically shot, but at times the tension feels inappropriate and somewhat forced.

And Peace on Earth, based in a suburb of Rome, also fails to live up to its pretensions. Although its press release claims the protagonist is a recently released convict who whiles his day away on a bench, more time is spent following a trio of thoroughly unlikeable layabouts, whose mutual contempt for each other is almost as repulsive as the crime they eventually commit. They get into fights, sniff coke, laze in the sun and insult each other. The director is at pains to reflect Rome’s heritage, with long sweeping shots of architecture, a classical score and textbook cinematography that admittedly does throw up some artful shots. But the characterisation is lacking, and the plot so aimless that the central event- a rape- feels tacked on rather than being the crescendo, and one feels little empathy for any of the characters. Despite the director’s professed desire to make a film that reflected the city as they knew it, the mafia scenes are as cliche as it gets: pushed up tits, knuckle dusters, and lots of smoking.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Hot young silhouettes in LED Track Suits: Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

The gap between the makers’ aspiration and achievement is much narrower for Dog Sweat, an enlightening look into the private lives of young people in Iran. With most people’s impressions of the country formed by mainstream media, from the nefarious President Ahmadinejad and his devious grin to the apparently Twitter-powered “green revolution” last year, director Hossein Keshavarz said “We wanted to do it underground so we could make a film that was authentic, because we wanted to show the energy. There’s such a great energy in Iran.” Yet while politics have an inevitable influence on daily life (the director discloses that making the film after the contested elections would have been impossible), it is also clear that young people are much the same anywhere else in the world. At one point, a guy suggests to a girl that they make a film about Iran. She snorts derisively at the suggestion that they focus on villages, which would merely perpetrate the misapprehension that Iran is full of camels, and suggests that they make it about “what’s really going on- the writers and intellectuals”. No doubt the director was putting his thoughts in her mouth here, although Dog Sweat actually delves into even more controversial topics, such as homosexuality, extramarital affairs and illicit premarital sex.

Keshavarz and co-writer Maryam Azadi vision amounted to, “Well, we’re not all villagers… 80% of Iranians live in cities, 68% of Iranians are under 30 years. So we just wanted to show that there’s a big range of different people in society. And we feel like only a certain range, only a specific range, has been seen of our society.” Shot on handheld cameras, the film is dynamic and energetic, although when obligations begin to encroach on desires, the tone turns melancholy. The lack of freedom and harsh penalties suffered by the characters left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I was also cheered to see how intelligent, eloquent and energetic modern day Iran is compared to the media’s projections.

In contrast, Sketches of Kaitan City only told me everything I already knew about Japanese families: they don’t talk much. Made up of short vignettes focusing on the lives of inhabitants of Kaitan, the film is set by the sea in freezing Hokkaido. The word “sketches” suggests a poetic sensibility, but I found the quiet desperation in each of the stories simply painful to watch. Dissatisfied with his job, a man beats his young wife and berates her stupidity; a young man loses his job and takes his sister up to see the sunrise at New Year, only to disappear afterward; a married woman works in a bar and sleeps with clients when drunk, provoking her husband’s rage. In all, there is a chronic lack of conversation, which made me wonder how anyone can get through life with so few words and so much pain.

The family members in Hospitalité are almost as uncommunicative, but the entrance of a stranger into their lives gets them- and the neighbours- talking. Filmed almost entirely inside a cramped house in a sleepy part of Tokyo’s traditional district, it brilliantly communicates the claustrophobic atmosphere of urban Japanese life. Kobayashi, who lives with his young wife Natsuki and his daughter from a previous marriage, runs a printing business out of the front of his house. One day, an unusually forward stranger, Kagawa, invites himself into the house and deftly inserts himself into their spare room, their business and love lives. It is hard to tell whether his nonchalance is supreme confidence, a hideous lack of perception or simply insanity, but whichever, he manages to ride roughshod over his hosts’ feelings. Using secrets about his hosts’ lives to coerce them, he invites a string of loud, boisterous foreigners into the house, who cause interminable queues for the bathroom, ruin Natsuki’s birthday with a raucous party and generally intensify the petty fears of the gaijin menace in the neighbourhood. While this image does little to dispel the image of foreigners as terrifying, noisy giants that are a threat to social peace, they are portrayed as such from the small-minded perspective of the local anti-crime group. To his merit, Kobayashi scolds one particular busybody for “bad-mouthing our friends” later on in the film, and the end suggests that the alien intrusion actually brought a little excitement and light into their suburban lives.

a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Waterlife (Kevin McMahon, 2009)

Catching one ecologically themed movie- Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, which examined the ecological disasters unfolding in the five Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada, was a good choice. Although most people view these expanses of water as benign sites for boating and fishing, sinister health risks lurk in their depths. From the menace of the zebra mussel, which pushed out other species and unbalanced the ecosystem in just a year, to the toxic industrial sludge dropped into Erie by unscrupulous industry, it’s a horrifying story of how gleefully and ignorantly mankind has destroyed nature. With the residues of half of America’s medicine cabinet swilling around the seaweed, deleterious plant estrogens are also wreaking havoc. While the image of hermaphrodite frogs (70% have testicular deformities) might be somewhat comical, it reveals the devastating effect that plant estrogens wreak on the environment, and the food chain. Sure enough, it goes up to humans as well; the ratio of girls born to boys in areas around the lake stands at 2:1. After watching the amount of toxic sludge, both faecal and chemical, and the repeated assertion by scientists that the water we drink, bathe in and cook with is a “soup” of chemicals, I was pushed to question my faith in tap water and consider that “bourgeois” bottled mineral water might just be worth it.

Despite all the seriousness on show, the stand outs for me were all centred around children. Like Iván Noel’s ¡Primaria!, a charming semi-autobiographical look at a primary school in Seville that features the same children that the director actually taught for a year. “Everything in the film is something that happened.” Inspired by his experience, Ivan Noel wrote a script and brought in adults to play the teachers. When asked about the direction of the children, Francisco Alfonsin, who plays Jose Maria, quipped, “Actually, we didn’t have a script at all.” The new art teacher encounters chaos in the classroom, but eventually manages to both control and inspire his new charges, even “curing” one boy’s hyperactivity with art. Another teacher warns Jose Maria that another boy, Carlos, “knows more about you than you know about yourself,” a prophecy that becomes evident later on in the film. Some of the children’s perceptions are communicated with cute Michel Gondry-esque hallucinations (such as toy bugs scurrying across the floor or a group of ignorant parents devolving into monkeys and stuffing their faces with bananas). “[Ivan’s] aim was actually…the celebration of childhood and the celebration of teaching as a profession.” It is hard to describe the humour and joy in the film without coming across as cheesy or contrived, but suffice it to say that it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] (Saverio Costanzo, 2010)

The delights of childhood are similarly explored  in Hands Up!, in which a group of friends try to save their Chechen classmate from deportation in Paris. Despite being just into double digits, the child actors are incredibly accomplished, and turn out performances so natural it is a wonder that they were sticking to a script. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is also superb as the feisty mother Cedrine, who takes in the quietly thoughtful girl, Milana, in answer to her son’s pleas, saving her from the claws of the bureaucracy. In contrast to the dark tone that underpins the film, with suicides and a constant police presence, one can also revel in the nostalgia of an idyllic childhood- playing with bows and arrows, making dens, burning leeches with cigarettes, ducking out of chores and establishing biscuits as a main food group. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it was the best film about childhood I have seen since my own. However, behind all the charm and romance, director Romain Goupil also manages to criticise a political system that harms where it should help.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar is a less rosy view of being little, although it has its moments of innocent magic. Aharon, a young boy in a peacetime 1960s Israel, worries his parents by not growing for three years. His mother, an overbearing and unsympathetic ballbreaker, thinks he is to blame. The family is an awkward and argumentative one, with meal times particularly fiery. Aharon’s sister starts dieting, while his father’s dalliance with a neighbor (who is so obsessed with him that she pays him to knock down all her internal walls in exchange for his company) seems to further enrage and unhinge his mother. Aharon feels disjointed and adrift, stuck physically at age 10 while his peers sprout hair, develop deep voices and tower above him. Judged too dreamy and quiet by the girl he is obsessed with, he takes to bed with lovesickness until he decides to make a dramatic decision. Colourful and funny- although the mother is terrifying- Bergman’s film is slick and well put together, but I don’t think as deserving as the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix as either ¡Primaria! or Hands Up! (their matching exclamation marks seem to be of indignation here).

There were many more that I missed, including the intriguing Bunraku, which is described as a blend of “manga, spaghetti westerns, samurai films, video games” and stars Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt. Need anymore be said?

Despite not seeing any of the high-profile offerings, I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Yet while there were queues of people outside every morning, the publicity was surprisingly subdued, meaning that Tokyo has a while to go before it gains enough clout to pull a truly international audience in. Other than via the green carpet, how can this T.I.F.F. differentiate itself from the (first) T.I.F.F.? Perhaps it needs to invite more controversy. While last year saw the Japanese premiere of the dolphin slaughtering expose, The Cove, the piece of film that garnered the most column inches this year was a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed.

Fujirock – Traversing Musical Landscapes

Fujirock – Traversing Musical Landscapes

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by MDMA…”

All the festivals I have ever been to ran like modern versions of Ginsberg’s “Howl”- there were boys with dinner-plate eyes rocking back and forth in darkened corners of tents, girls wailing that they’d dropped their baggies in the mudfield outside the mobile toilets, and the campsite was like the Somme, littered with trench-foot victims and burning piles of trash. Showers? Not unless you count the spray of warm beer and amyl nitrates flying overhead. They were, in a word, messy.

Now, considering any substance harder than Suntory or cigarettes is pretty underground in Japan, I wasn’t expecting to find so many revelers comatose in front of the main stage on Friday morning, looking like they’d all overdosed on the Kool-Aid. But then I remember that the Japanese national sport is sleeping- not Sumo, as everyone assumes- and that this was an opportunity for all the card-carrying members of Narcoleptics Anonymous to recover from their punishing working hours. In contrast to the behavior I’d observed at other festivals, the aim seems not to lose one’s memory/dignity/housekeys/lunch, but rather to survive the inevitable mud-bath with panache and dry socks. Hence the thousands of camp chairs. And the fashion for head-to-toe waterproofs. In fact, the whole festival looks like the North Face A/W 2010 catalogue, as if was actually being held on its mountainous namesake, as initially intended.

I make my way through the sleeping bodies to catch Local Natives on the White Stage, eager to hear one of my favorite albums of last year-Gorilla Mansion-live. Having caused murmurs in the press following their “big break” at Austin’s SXSW, they unfortunately don’t seem to have made waves in Japan just yet- although a mention of the country in the nostalgic single “Airplanes” raises a cheer. The record’s quiet/loud orchestral dynamic translates to their live show extremely well, while the soaring three part harmonies are beautifully led by Freddie Mercury-lookalike Taylor Rice. Their sound is modish enough to have been described in terms of their contemporaries- a “cheerier Fleet Foxes”, or “a West Coast Grizzly Bear”- but their raw honesty and genuine energy punch through to make them sound quite unique.

Next up are Broken Bells, the unlikely collaboration between The Shins’ James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse, which produced some addictive pop gems last year. Mercer’s unmistakable reverb’ed vocals stay intact, while Danger Mouse provides diverse backdrops that veer from neo-psychedelia to the ethereal, spliced with a little old fashioned indie. “October” is the stand-out, with its violin intro, squelchy guitar and spooky chorus of “Does one want to get more used to/The mall and the misery, the dead mouths it costs to be alive?”

The weather gods must have known that the XX were up next–a band best listened to in damp weather, under the covers, suffering some form of heartache–for the rainstorm suddenly worsens, thundering down on the Red Marquee as dozens huddle by the edge. Yet even the uninitiated are pulled in with the hypnotic “Intro,” which is all ‘80s revival synth and jangly guitars. Vocalist Romy Madley Croft stays rooted to the spot for the whole of their atmospheric and minimalist performance. Having lost one band member last year, I thought they might sound sparse- yet the sound emitted from just the keyboard and guitar is enough of a foil to Croft, who seeps emotion with every syllable. The somber mood lifts for a jazzy “Basic Space” before they close with a subdued, but quietly powerful “Infinity”.

With the rain having receded, it’s time for some dancing. I head over to the most un-google-able band in the world, !!!, who sound as close to an aural equivalent of exclamation marks as one can get. Nic Offer struts around in his tiny shorts like a spaniel with ADHD, licking glow sticks, jumping off the stage to get intimate with the audience, and pulling dance moves camper than a row of tents. Shannon Funchness holds fort at the front of the stage shaking her tambourine like a woman possessed, as Offer bounces around her like a pinball. The other band members are infected with the same energy, thrashing around to their distinctive mélange of disco/punk/funk/jazz to the delight of the revved up crowd. The banter with the crowd is hilarious, music impossible not to move to, and the visual spectacle the highlight of the day’s acts. Ending with a cover of Saturday headliners Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” they bowed out, leaving everyone hungry to get their hands on the upcoming album, aptly titled Strange weather, isn’t it?.

Maybe it was the rum, but staring at the pertest ass this side of Havana, I suddenly realize that when I grow up I want to have a day job where I can wear nothing but feathery plumage, satin heels, and a sassy smile. Click To Tweet

Fujirock – Traversing Musical Landscapes

Saturday’s line-up was simply a good reason for sleeping in late, taking a leisurely three hours to queue for a shower, and having a gin-induced nap in the most distant field. The festival is rather irritatingly arranged linearly, meaning that it takes a good half an hour to traverse even when the human traffic is good, and prevents much spontaneous flitting between the stages. It does mean, however, that the Green Stage’s sound system, possibly the loudest I have ever heard, is inaudible by the time you reach the boardwalk. Glinting with disco balls and swaying decorations, the passage way provides a pleasant respite- until it gets bottle-necked in the evening, meaning I miss MGMT and get shunted around like cattle in the thick crowd.

Wet weather in the afternoon brings about the day’s highpoint in the Cabaeret Fiesta tent, where I get wasted on mojitos and fall in Sapphic love with a salsa dancer named Carolina with the Willie Martinez and Mambo Loco band. Maybe it was the rum, but staring at the pertest ass this side of Havana, I suddenly realize that when I grow up I want to have a day job where I can wear nothing but feathery plumage, satin heels, and a sassy smile.

I come crashing back down to earth when I venture back to the Green stage, where John Fogerty, a relic from Creedance Clearwater, is blasting out his dad rock dirge. Never have I more wanted to unhear something- or felt more envious of all the oblivious camp-chair dozers. Fortunately, a few slices of the superlative pizza from the Niseko Pizza van brings my mood up again.

Another curious choice for the main stage was “special guest” Chris Cunningham, whose spastically dark electronica and macabre visuals gave everyone the heebie jeebies, prompting a mass exodus, bar a hardcore few raving it up. As a fan of his Aphex Twin-esque brand of nightmarish noise, I kind of relish the shuddering, apocalyptic beats as they boom around the valley. The night ends in the Vegas and Milk bar with a hefty amount of gin and the barmaid distracting everyone from the human cannonball by going all Coyote Ugly with a blond wig and PVC catsuit.

On Sunday everything perks up. I wake up to bright sunlight and manage to sneak into a friend’s room in the Prince Hotel for a luxuriously hot shower. On the way out I discover the best souvenir I have ever seen- Niigata Bust Pudding. Unhooking the cardboard bra strap reveals two pert breast-shape custard puddings, complete with nipples and sauce to splatter- I mean pour- on top. I still can’t bring myself to eat it.

I kick off with Yeasayer in the Red Marquee, followed by Vampire Weekend; two bands who both simmer their eclectic influences into their own distinctive sounds. Even those who gave a lukewarm reception to Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, went as crazy for the single “ONE” as the crowd do here. Singer Chris Keating over-emotes just a tad- scrunching up his face and beating a tightly gripped fist in the air- but between songs, he’s supremely bouncy and enthusiastic, telling us all how excited he is to be in Japan for the first time, “Four minutes until my vacation starts, people!” The holiday vibes continue with Vampire Weekend, whose afrobeat-indie brings out some magical California feeling, just as the sun comes out.

I’m glad it dries the ground enough for a little dancing, as Foals provide possibly the most electric set of the weekend. There isn’t any banter with the audience, with the band breathlessly jumping from one song to the other, seemingly bent on driving themselves to exhaustion. Incorporating a few songs from their first album, including the high-octane “Balloons”, which builds from a wiry beat up to a furious crescendo, and the fidgety, spiky “Cassius”, the crowd is the most animated I’ve seen all weekend. Spent from running at full gallop, the fivesome then slow the pace for a few of the more expansive and emotional numbers from the second album, Total Life Forever. Yannis Philippakis’ heartbreaking falsetto on the standout track, “Spanish Sahara”, sends shivers down my spine.

Matching them for intensity is a more unlikely rock star: James Murphy. Tubby, stubbly and kind of shy, it is easier to imagine him as a shoeless drunk instead of fronting LCD Soundsystem, one of the greatest dance/punk band of the noughties, but then he’s always been a kind of outsider within the genre. Despite making his name with hits that scorn the hubris of the hipsters and poseurs that populate the “scene,” one wonders whether the fans actually understand that the joke is on some of them. Here, the language barrier means most certainly don’t, but he still manages to manipulate the audience with aplomb. While his backing band seem calm, even bored at first, he turns it up to 11 from the get-go, upping the energy generated by Foals by screeching into a microphone that he clutches with the desperation of a drowning man. Soon the whole band is swept up in his buzz, running through each of their funky, beat-driven hits as Murphy throws himself around the stage with masochistic glee. “I can change! I can change!” he screams to the audience, who look like they’d like him to stay exactly as he is. Darkness falls as an impressive light show begins, and they close with the explosive and epic “Yeah”.

Wrapped up in LCD, I forego the first half of much-hyped Atoms of Peace, even though the second half suggests Thom Yorke’s sartorially challenged performance seemed to be worth catching. Having assembled a supergroup to reinvent his solo album The Eraser, he seems to have made a break with his Radiohead stage persona (sullen, static) to take on that of a crazed, skinny P.E. teacher. Dressed in a head band, vest and white shorts, he dances like a bullied twelve year old alone in their bedroom. I had no idea how the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea might fit in with Yorke’s surreal, epileptic vocals and muffled beats, but somehow he does.

While my friends made for the bar, I stuck it out to see Scissor Sisters. The first show to offer more eye-candy than aural pleasure, their uber-camp theatrics were received well by the audience, who completely fail to catch the innuendo flying around. It’s easy to dismiss the Sisters as fluffy pantomime, yet they are far more than their stage schtick. Their hits- “Tits on the Radio”, “Laura”- are pure manna for the disco fan, and their gutsy cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, complete with Beegees falsetto and taut guitars, is a masterpiece. Best of all is the chemistry that ripples between Ana Mantronic and Jake Spears, who bounds around looking like a kinky Nureyev in his chestless leather man-tard.

As the torrential rain threatens to dampen their proverbial fireworks, I retreat to the Vegas and Milk bar once again to drown myself in a different liquid (gin). It’s quiet, with all the day trippers having left and a Sunday mood creeping in like the mist outside. The North Face raincoats aren’t so box-fresh any more, and there’s probably a few sandal-wearers still trying to extricate their feet from the mud soup- but the most civilized festival in the world has left the best minds of my generation intact, and content.

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