With festivals every single weekend, it’s hard to imagine that any one could be that different from the rest. But if nothing else, Chicago’s two-year old Neon Marshmallow Festival proves that assumption so very wrong. The noise/drone/electronic/generally avant-garde acts that pummeled the crowd for three nights won’t be filling out even the earliest of slots at Coachella or Lollapalooza, and the fans who filed into work Monday morning with damaged ear drums and huge grins on their faces wouldn’t want it any other way. Neon Marshmallow is, in a word, weird. In two words, delightfully weird.
After last year’s massive incarnation at the multi-room Viaduct Theater, the curators pared down the number of acts and found a smaller, more intensely intimate venue in The Empty Bottle. The constant projection of art videos on one wall, the pumping weird-dance DJ work (courtesy of a few notable names, including Tortoise/Sea and Cake member John McEntire), and ubiquitous wall-pasted prints of a cat’s head surrounding the building were just the beginning of the insanity. And while I’ve seen plenty of weird stuff at The Empty Bottle, Neon Marshmallow’s three nights of seriously oppressive noise, weird sounds, and eccentric personalities may have topped all of that.
Friday, June 10th
The first act of the weekend was Altered Zones favorite C V L T S, a duo (though I could only see one member on stage) that specializes in soaring, sea-worthy reverb and skyward looking drone. Kalimba tones and brain-buzzing synths foregrounded a video screen showing two people holding hands on beach chairs looking at a glowing triangle. Waves of melody emerged from the drone, but everything returned to murky, churning base. Spiral Joy Band, some of whose members have also worked in second day headliners Pelt, followed after, calming overtones mingling over the backyard drone produced by two violins, a bowed guitar, and a harmonium.
Zerang, Colligan, and Baker
The set from local free jazz mainstays Michael Zerang, Michael Colligan, and Jim Baker was the first curveball in the mix, their improvised mess of tones produced, respectively, by experimental snare drum, a block of dry ice, and a modular synth. Colligan heated forks and cans, scraping them across the dry ice as smoke billowed, squealing tones clipping throughout. That, combined with the squelching of Baker’s synth and the scraping produced by dragging styrofoam and the like across Zerang’s snare sounded like R2D2 being slowly and painfully shredded to pieces. This was easily one of the best sets of the weekend, all furious energy and howling insanity. Khanate member/drone master James Plotkin washed the room in rich, dark overtones and a heavy wall of guitar sound, and Brooklyn’s Mountains created lush, angelic soundscapes with synth sequencers and acoustic guitar.
Rene Hell (AKA prolific collaborator Jeff Witscher) brought the dance back into the equation, his boxy synth churning out what sounded like NES police sirens and other accompanying video game destruction, all set to danceable rhythms. The set had a frenetic energy, Hell tapping his foot rapidly with a slight smirk. A few of the stagefront fans danced along kind of awkwardly, but nothing in comparison to the grooving that came with the next set. Adam Forkner (AKA White Rainbow, member of Rob Walmart, Purple & Green, We Like Cats, as well as collaborator with almost everyone, including YACHT, Dirty Projectors, and Jackie-O Motherfucker) may have produced the strangest set of the weekend by being the most normal. His funky compositions were pure dance frenzy, and his banter was hilarious. “Welcome to the festy, bitch,” he grinned before jumping into another pitch-bent synth solo over the smooth beats. After thanking everyone for “supporting all us fuckin’ freaks and weirdos,” Forkner jumped into “From Now On Let’s” off his album of the same title, leaping away from the pressure-sensitive synth to keep things short and sweet. Even Forkner was aware that he was an odd fit on the bill, though, mentioning that he was all about “good feeling,” even though “this is a noise show.” His energy propelled things, though, pushing the typically dense room into a breezy, West Coast party.
Lucky Dragons‘ community-oriented, ethereal, beautiful ambiance is always impressive, no matter how many times you see it. Walking up into the semi-circle surrounding the seated Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rara facing each other over the glowing kit of electronic gear felt like discovering an enchanted glade, the charming, twinkling tones escaping into the rest of the world. Kalimba tones and twirling synths provided the background for the duo’s newest experimental, communal tool, a blue light beam that controlled a sonorous synth tone. Fans were handed blank CDs that, when reflecting the light or breaking the beam (apparently), changed the tone dramatically, the CDs reflecting off of each other and producing rainbow halos around the room.
Saturday, June 11th
Guitar noisenik Leslie Keffer opened day two, walls of noise as prominent in her set as vaguely pop-inflected structures. Dylan Ettinger followed immediately after, sounding like one of Devo’s Mothersbaugh brothers doing his best Depeche Mode impression. The dark, chunky 80’s synth tones provided some danceable rhythms underneath the awkwardly endearing Ettinger’s insistent bark and lunging dance moves. “This song’s about falling in and out of love with someone in the same day,” he mumbled before jumping into another jam.
Sword Heaven provided one of the purely strangest sets of the weekend, which in turn received one of the biggest responses. Aaron Hibbs sat at the center of the chaos, the bespectabled, be-handlebar-mustachioed, shirtless dude with a contact mic taped to his neck. Hibbs had some resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but only if Lewis were doing an impression of what would be born from the marriage of a velociraptor and a demon. Hibbs grunted, growled, and howled, all as he thumped on a distorted drumkit. Synth, trumpet, scratches on a metal tube, and a giant sheet of metal provided the rest of the set’s insanity, something akin to Liar’s darker percussive material, but taken a few circles deeper into hell.
The swirling, over-loud, insistent synths of Outer Space sounded like an amped up soundtrack to every late ’80s, early ’90s educational documentary shown to grade schoolers. The oppression returned for Sickness, Chris Goudreau’s noise project. Goudreau also had a neck-affixed contact mic, and shook a couple of objects, but the only sounds that came out were insanely loud, rumbling doom. Flashes of crackling noise burst apart to find deafening silence (which were occasionally filled by a crowd member’s harmonica until Goudreau told him none too politely to “shut the fuck up, please”). The harsh noise was surprisingly subtle, its rhythms and shifting tones entrancing and brain-numbing.
The destruction that preceded it made Bill Orcutt‘s set that much more refreshing, then. The noise rock legend of Harry Pussy fame wandered onstage with a four-string acoustic guitar, his gray hair, loose black t-shirt, and flip-flops suggesting a break from the insanity. After a quick warm up, he shrieked out “Shut the fuck up!” before swimming in sliding acoustic mellowness. The set sounded, at first, like a more scattershot John Fahey, Delta tones all mashed up with furious patches of rapidly picked notes. Orcutt lolled his neck over the guitar’s body, “Grandpa’s lost it” moaning and yelping into the microphone aimed at the guitar’s mic. In the middle of a particularly physical, lush section, he stopped and howled out another “Fuuuuck!” before dropping straight back into the music. Orcutt so well embodies noise music that he can turn an acoustic guitar set into one of the most visceral of the weekend.
The one-two punch night-closing of Oneohtrix Point Never and Pelt was much anticipated, and eequally appreciated. The former’s sterling silver electronics may have been the most hotly awaited set of the night, and Daniel Lopatin delivered in his swirling, shifting mass of song snippets. While many left after he finished, the crowd that stuck around for Pelt’s buoyant, glittering drone were far from disappointed.
Sunday, June 12th
Sunday’s set of artists began with a trio of musicians soundtracking silent films and animations. Robert A.A. Lowe (AKA Lichens) may have turned in the best set of the three, in purely musical terms. While in the past he has focused on acoustic guitars, gongs, and looped vocals (among other things), recently Lowe has been using a modular synth. As circles of various colors warped within each other on the screen, he built a layered groove that sounded vaguely like an eerie “Hall of the Mountain King”, eventually adding multiple layers of vocals careening over the top into an angelic choir. The circles on the screen felt like a long, unending tube, then melting like runny eggs, then bubbling out like spores, then melting into each other altogether. Sam Prekop (a founding member of Sea and Cake), on the other hand, may have best fit the films to which his music was set, though. Robert Breer’s animation short films of rapidly interchanging images (flying fish, hammers floating across the screen, nude women drifting by, and more) were perfectly set to Prekop’s intricate modular synth work. His long, airy tones calmed the manic mood of the visuals, and the jumpy, chipper, video game adventure beeps fit their more exciting moments.
The drums/bass/saxophone trio of Mike Forbes, Andrew Scott Young, and Ben Billington (together known as Tiger Hatchery) may not be as experienced in the Chicago free jazz scene as Colligan, Zerang, and Baker, but their set proved to be just as powerful. Thumping drum rolls, furious tenor sax flutterings, and crushing bass rolled through the room like tidal waves. Whether plaintive and wiry on upright, or eerie and jumpy on the electric, the bass set a serious tone for the rest of the group. Another local, synth afficianado Beau Wanzer, took the stage next. Wanzer’s simple drum machine patterns were turned up, and his gut-loosening synths droned out pulsing patterns.
Heath Moerland goes by Sick Llama when pushing out massive, churning drones, which is exactly what Moerland did at Neon Marshmallow. His set sounded like a haunted house soundtrack with low winds howling and high synths clanking like heavy chains. Discordant tones from churning synthesizers and mournful clarinet warped their way over the top of everything, demanding attention. Mike Shiflet followed quickly after his drone somehow simultaneously bigger, and less ominous. Falling minor piano samples were washed over by white caps of white noise, all as footage of tree branches, a sepia voltometer, and close-up footage of someone’s palm laid out a calm background.
Telecult Powers made such a big impression in their 2010 Neon Marshmallow appearance that they were invited back for more. Suitcase oscillator synths and candles were scattered around the floor, and a sheet was taped along the venue’s side wall. An Encyclopedia Britannica film about photosynthesis was projected backwards onto the loose, wrinkled sheet as giant, spinning tones unfolded. One of the two musicians stood up halfway through the set, grabbed a nearby crowd member, shook a maracca around him, and covered his eyes after dipping his hand in water, a strange ritual baptism of sorts. The giant, distorted images of ’70s scientists and plant life somehow became creepy and ominous under the mess of oscillating tones.
The huge, new age-y drones of Pulse Emitter sounded like a journey through space, full of glittering, bright synth stars, wobbly orbits, and spaceship hyperdrive punches. The melody-driven world would soon be left behind though, in favor of sheer, opressive harshness, thanks to The Rita. Sam McKinlay’s noise may have been the single loudest thing I’ve ever heard, so loud that it’d be difficult to pin down an adjective to describe exactly how loud it was. Troublingly may be the closest. The rumbling howl made the room seem like it was about to crumble to pieces, my whole body shaking from the mass of it. When individuals describe things as a “wall of sound”, this is exactly what they mean. The whole thing was impenetrable, unmoveable. Some people left the room as quickly as possible, a disgusted frown on their faces, while others eagerly moved as close to the stage as they could, fists pumping. At one point, McKinlay reached for a folding chair to sit in, but the aggressive destruction of the event made me assume he was going to start smashing it against his synthesizers and pedals.
Composer/electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick walked onstage, offering McKinlay a cheery handshake before beginning his setup. 1967’s legendary Silver Apples of the Moon set a new tone for electronic music, combining the experimentality of his contemporaries with an intense focus on rhythm and structure. Subotnick deserved to headline the whole shabang, and the crowd that massed to the stage included many of the weekend’s performers. A low, unidentifiable humming sound caused an over-long sound check, Subotnick holding up his hands and apologizing, asking for just three minutes. The crowd may have been hungering for the rare treat of a Subotnick live set, but they were more than willing to accommodate his request. His set was fluid and pulsing, composed of a handful of separate segments that melted into each other wonderfully. A charming, playful segment at the beginning sounded like a mouse was running along the top of a synthesizer, tripping over whichever key happened to get in his way. Subotnick’s fingers fluttered over his setup, tapping out rhythms and tones across the table as the audience smiled on in wonder.
While other sets subtly used the room’s dimensions, Subotnick charged everything with an intense control, buzzsaw synths spinning from the left of the room around in a circle. A busy melodic section sounded like it could be played against a ’50s cartoon about busy city life, until sputtering spaceship engine sounds forced things into the Jetsons. Roaring whirs and stomping clacks pounded their way in, adding some atonality to the mix, before heavily percussive melodic lines closed everything out. The warm, glowing applause and smiling faces that looked on as Subotnick stood and bowed were just right, the at times cold and oppressive room suddenly a cheery place. The legend that made room for most, if not all, of the other acts on the bill stood happily, clasped his hands together, and smiled as he looked around at the thoroughly pleased crowd, closing out one weird weekend of music on a conventional note.