Emperion – at The Big Top Festival – Review


with Headrillaz, 808 State, Banco de Gaia, Loop Guru, Moby, Emperion, BT, Eat Static at The Big Top Festival
by Malcolm E

The time has come for the corporate-sponsored rave, and I couldn’t be happier, but maybe that’s because I scored some... Not to mention the fact that the sponsors decided to do it right. Eight pm to four am, like it’s supposed to be. Man, if they had done this as a day gig, it would’ve really sucked. The place where the Big Top Festival is taking place is in a hockey rink, which is little more than a large concrete box. Jesus, it’s loud. The concussion that’s currently assaulting my ears and feet is Headrillaz, and I see the first evidence of how this night is going to be. It’s gonna be rockin’. With guitar, bass, drumset, vocals and keyboards, Headrillaz knows how to put on a live set. The energy poured off the stage with a gorgeous (so said my girlfriend) rapper spewing out words and vocal rhythms like it was nothing. Thus commenced the dancing. Their disc,Coldharbour Rocks (V2) has the breakbeat down, but fails to capture the sweaty intensity that Headrillaz puts out live. Halfway through the set, I realized that what they were putting out was only Electronica by semantics. Their set was what happens when you take Rock ‘n’ Roll and send 5000 volts through it. Not that I minded. The music kicked ass, and that’s all that mattered to my happy feet. As it turned out, that’s the way the main stage was going to be for most of the night. More on that later.

After Headrillaz left the stage, a DJ started spinning, and I realized there was going to be a serious dichotomy happening. Whereas the main acts seem to have been chosen for their mastery of the breakbeat and live show, the DJs were concerned mainly with the metronomic bass drum beat (sigh). Wandering to the other room (a much smaller space) we found more of the same, so we decided to re-hydrate and wait for 808 State. More drums, a lot more, were being pulled onto stage. Congas, drumset, guitar amps… hey, whatever works. We spent the time laughing and exploring the amazing effect that MDMA has on skin sensations, when we heard a sneering English accent, shout “This is how we start every bloody show!” and what proceeded was nothing short of a tribal blast of drums. Not programmed, absolutely live, a furious Latin drum corps purging the thoughts of all who listened. This led right into the 808 State set, which included something that stopped me short: Their drummer was copping the Jungle beats! The old adage was true. Humans are infinitely adaptable. Like the three minute mile, anything that seems impossible will be achieved one day. The standing opinion of Jungle was that the sampled frenetic drums were impossible to play by a human. To this 808 State (and others that night) clearly and succinctly said, “Up Yours.” Dance, dance, dance.

Another DJ followed, and I reluctantly admitted that the four on the floor drumbeat is as much a staple of electro as the “Louie Louie” guitar riff is to rock. Time to re-hydrate again, and wait for Banco de Gaia. Much giggling ensued. Wow, he has not only guitar and drums, but a sax player, too! We tried to relax into the music, mostly off of his new album Big Men Cry (Planet Dog/Mammoth), but there was a problem. Whereas the other acts used the drums as a freewheeling, hyper breakbeat accompaniment to add energy to the live show, Banco played them… slow. And heavy. I hate to say it – it sounded like a cheeze-metal power ballad. I wanted to take out my lighter and hold it in the air (in fact, I think I did at one point). And the sax player. I know that he got Dick Parry, the guy from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to play on the album, but the guy he got live sounded like someone trying to sound a lot like Parry. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to relax just yet. One of the better elements of the set (which was repeated several times through the night) was a woman dressed as a butterfly, on stilts, walking through the audience. She dressed up as other creatures, one of which looked a lot like the Planet Dog logo, showing up during the sets, walking/dancing around, then disappearing again. It was really pretty.

Wait, what time is it? Shit! To the second room! Loop Guru‘s about to go on! Run to the second stage, and there they are, three, count `em, THREE drummers, banging on all sorts of shit, from pots and pans to cowbells to some real drums. A bassist, looking imposing and clown-like simultaneously and a pixie of a woman, keening and laughing and jumping around. Rush to the front and dance furiously, exuberantly, ecstatically. The samples are flying, the sticks are flying, the whole crowd is flying. I thought their new disc,Loop Bites Dog (Mammoth) was amazing, but this is fuckin’ INCREDIBLE. The connection the band made with the audience was stunning. The singer would see someone, look straight at them, and start dancing like them. She would see someone not dancing and do everything in her power to get them moving. She ran over to the monitor stacks and embraced them, letting the music soak into her bones, her face one of orgasmic bliss. The bass player pulled out a guitar, and started playing some riffs, and then launched into a wacked-out solo, calling up the dusty gods of Rock and mocking them at the same time. The singer started imitating him, they went back to back, and then she ran to the monitor again. The guitarist fell over and started making these incredible feedback noises, squirming around on his back, kicking his legs in the air, and all the time the drummers keep going, and going. I never stopped dancing. I was transported. Are you getting this? Loop Guru, bar none, is the singularly most amazing live band I have ever witnessed. We here at Lollipop are reluctant to say such things, but I will stand my ground. Any band that can make me dance maniacally, like an enlightened Sufi, for 45 minutes after previously dancing for a good three hours deserves the status of “Best Live Band On The Planet.” Got it?

Now, back to the water booth, and then to the main stage to see how the great contender, Moby was going to hold up. I had my doubts about the validity of the guy who had the nerve to cover “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” and not change anything but the chorus (although `BCN came up with a better line, “That’s when I bitch slap Alan Alda”), and his intro wasn’t promising. Low strings, looming, ominous… kinda like the opening to Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge.” The strings got heavier, and I pictured a voice over like the commanding God he supports… “I – am – MOBY!!!” But then he did come out, ran out more like, wearing his own shirt (tres tacky, but wait – it gets better), and leapt on his keyboard. He slammed away like he had something to prove, and I guess he did. He ran around like a demented schoolboy, to the drums, to the keyboard, to the mic, back to the keys… And then he pulled the Elvis. After three songs, he stripped off his shirt, wiped his face with it, and threw it into the audience. Laughter burst from our little area, but Moby launched into another one, and we had to go down and dance again. He had drums and guitars, too. Funny how the festival supposedly devoted to “Electronica” had so many trappings of rock. I guess we’ve come into a Second (maybe Third) Wave of Electronic Music. In the Beginning (Back in the Day), Techno had to establish itself and create an identity. As a result of the “no guitars” policy, ravers were a little snobby about their music. Now, the sound is firmly established, and the artists can branch out into other areas, namely live drums and guitars. Sorry to all the diehards, but those guitars are gonna stay.

We realized exactly how tired we were, so we wandered over to the other room and checked out Emperion. Not bad, but after all the manic energy we had seen emanating from both stages, the two mixer boys twiddling knobs didn’t really cut it, although their album Advanced Technology… (Wanted) is pretty damn good. Decent breakbeats and the usual knob-twiddling, enough to stand them above the rest, but put up against groups that had set out to play a live show, they paled. Back to the front room to see BT.

Yeah, he’s the one who did that thing with Tori Amos, but damn if we didn’t have to start dancing again. Using no guitars, no drums, nothing but a series of ELP-stacked keyboards (is the acronimity a coincidence? I think so), BT rock us with driving, heavy beats. When he took off his shirt (he didn’t throw it into the audience), my girlfriend started drooling again. Surfer-boy haircut, completely toned body, jumping around… even when his bouncing caused one of his keyboards to fall over, he didn’t seem to care. The music didn’t falter, he didn’t freak, he just smoothly moved to a different key patch, and continued the thump. His new disc,ESCM (Perfecto/Kinetic/Reprise), is much more diverse, bringing tempos up and down, throwing in some rather odd sounds mixed with gentle piano, always trying something new.

By now it was getting to be about 3 am or so, and we were all beat. but we had one more set to get through, and although our bodies were tired, our minds were blisteringly awake, so when Eat Static came on, we were ready. Exhausted, but ready. Playing in front of a giant brain (at least I think that’s what it was supposed to be; to me it looked like a large hunk of back-lit plastic. Kinda cheesy), Eat Static tried to charge us all up again, sounding almost industrial-dance. The beats were hitting hard, the need to dance once again strong. Their album Science of the Gods (Planet Dog) is highly representative of their set (from what I can remember of it. To tell the truth, I was busy making out with my girlfriend for much of it), using some Jungle feels, and then tweaking it a bit, very in-your-face, but I suppose you’d have to be if you were the last band of the night. We all agreed it was a satisfying conclusion to the evenings festivities, and we headed out of the glorious Hockey Rink, ears ringing and feet throbbing.

I know it’s tacky to go to a concert for 8 hours and then listen to the same stuff on the way home, but nothing else seemed to work but a compilation by Virgin called The Morning After. Besides. They didn’t have a chill room, and we needed to ride out the rest of our trips. The Morning After was especially designed by Mixmaster Morris for the post-club experience. Ambient electro, mellow drum ‘n’ bass, and soothing trip hop, courtesy of groups like Innersphere, Budd & Zazaou, Spring Heel Jack,P hotek, and Dub Tractor, lilted over our heads in the early morning light, soothing our overactive brains, coaxing us into taking a break.

Waking up the next day in my love’s arms was a comfort, but my brain was already picking apart the previous night. “Wait,” I thought, “not all elements of the elusive `electronica’ were represented.” For example, where was the digital hardcore? I had just been introduced to Shizuo, and I’m convinced that he kicks Atari Teenage Riot’s ass all over the board. Instead of screaming incoherent and trite political slogans over a sped-up “Funky Drummer,” on Shizuo vs. Shizor (Grand Royal), this kid takes it from a standpoint of music. “Sweat” has to be the most chaotic, ultra-distorted, psychotic-over-the-top-raging- Jungle-meets-the-concrete-of-Berlin mind fuck I’ve ever experienced. Not content with just screaming “start the riot,” Shizuo is the riot. From the ultra annoying “Punks” to the rather creepy “Blow Job,” Shizuo travels to the extreme of aggression.

And speaking of extremes, what of serious Drum ‘n’ Bass? Sure, a lot of bands that night paid homage to ultra speed rhythms and throbbing bass, but I wanted to see someone like Photek take control of the electric waves. On Modus Operandi (Astrelwerks), you can find out what happens when Jazz goes to the electric chair. Percussion is scattered around the songs, while a bass (most likely an upright) is thoughtfully plucked out, adding the needed anchor while keyboard washes caress the frontal lobes like an early morning ocean wind. I’m not sure how I’d dance to it, but I’d sure like to give it a try.

And what about someone like Plug? Drum’ n’ Bass For Papa (Nothing) is incredibly dense and complex, pushing the envelope (filter) as far as it can go, adding some cheese, throwing in goofiness for good measure. I heard him spin in between a set of Sneaker Pimps and Aphex Twin, and he was by far the best thing that night. These guys need more recognition. Maybe the next Big Top.

As it turned out, the Electric Highway Tour was the next day. There’s a silly sense of timing for ya. I didn’t have enough drugs to make it a whole weekend, and I don’t think my body could have taken it. Instead, my girlfriend and I spent the day trying to seduce this lovely little raverette who we offered a ride home to. Her cousin, who came with us, was not amused. Anyway, one of the featured artists that day was The Crystal Method, and after hearing Vegas (Outpost) I kinda wish I had the money and the hospital coverage for extended Electronic Festival Reviewing. In a nutshell, they stand toe to toe with the Chemical Brothers, and hold their own. USA! USA! USA! Heh. I’m sure you’ve heard “Busy Child” on a slew of comps, and they also did a remix with Filter of “Trip Like This” for the Spawn soundtrack. They kick butt, okay? Long live the breakbeat! But still, nothing compares to Loop Guru’s psychic assault, so I called ’em up. Unfortunately, I just ran out of space, so I’ll wait ’til next month…