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Decibel Festival

(29 Sep 2011: Paramount Theater — Seattle)

Photo Credits: Joe Lambert

Since 2003, Seattle’s Decibel Festival has been providing the people of the Emerald City with electronic music of all forms, styles, and movements. The festival, which lasts just shy of a week, is held in multiple venues throughout the city, offering a zealous appeal to countless audiences.


Even as a fairly new bonanza, Decibel has catered to fans seeking high talent from both world-class international and underground local electronic acts and audio/visual artists. Decibel rides upon the coat-tales of the influential, multicultural and multi-media Bumbershoot Festival, which happens several weeks beforehand, and of which Decibel this year held a stage. Ultimately both events round out and capstone the end of the summer and represent the switch to the rainy anti-season that follows for months to come.


Names as diverse as Flying Lotus, Diplo, Simian Mobile Disco, Eluvium, and the Field have been only a few to grace the many stages in the many venues that showcase what Decibel has to offer. Every year the critical message of the festival’s ambition widens, and this year was of no exception.


The two most-anticipated shows in this year’s lineup featured Moby and Amon Tobin. Moby, whose appearance was considered by many as a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of him, was by far the largest attraction. The Brazilian-born Amon Tobin, whose current tour highlights the new album, ISAM, drew attention from the rave-review, projection-based light sculpture operating in full throttle on the stage. Other artists in Decibel 2011 included AraabMuzik, Bonobo, Depressed Buttons, Holy Fuck, Ladytron, Toro y Moi, and Zomby.


Amon Tobin performed at the classic Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle on Thursday, September 29th. Before the show began the periphery saw all manner of music aficionados young and old occupying the venue’s exterior. There were the drug peddlers and the neon-donned, the middle-aged with their monotone rain coats, young suburban couples displaying stale culture, and the stylistic elite sporting designer and DIY outfits. It was a mixture both welcome and surprising, a kind of “anything-goes” rigor fairly usual to the Seattle live scene.


The show opened with the renowned digital songstress TOKiMONSTA who, based out of LA, recently joined Flying Lotus’s BRAINFEEDER label.  The audience at this point was few and far between, offering the necessary introduction a level of profound intimacy. Taking to the stage, TOKiMONSTA proved a personal, far-from-pretention personality. She battled a few minor technological hazards out of the picture, and the visual backdrop opened.


The visual projections—whether full animations or stop motion, remain the single quality that separates Decibel from a traditional concert setup to a promoter of experience. While TOKiMONSTA plays challenging beats that are as much collage as strict revision, one of the most exciting elements of the set was the harmony between audio and visual. The video narrative opened with an illustrated space-time continuum and moved to vector-graphic deer as the set, a mixture of original material and DJ-mix, evolved the bass to a melt. As cartoon animals morphed onto the screen, the hollow, archaic Paramount Theater ceiling, haunted and arching from above, it was clear that this set centered around the unexpected.


While roughly two hundred people stood on the main floor watching in awe, a good portion sat on the balcony, removed from the reality of the show and in their worlds—whether the worlds were created for them through the visualizations or through their own cell phone use and conversations depended on the person. But it was clear that the experience of the show was about getting lost, getting enveloped, and finding the niche as a viewing, listening member of a collective whole.


Imagery of ink explosions were completely in sync with the percussion and yet neither mode of art acted dependent on the other. These were two adjacent playing fields representing inebriation, absurdity, and subtle abstraction. The triangular chakra coming up through the diagramic human as breath, seemingly live-action slugs rubbing into each other in vibrant, sexual colors and postures, and the progression in “scratches” on the video as rearrangement were only a few of the visual surprises offered.


TOKiMONSTA’s music fit the projectiles of imagery perfectly. The sound could only be described as galactic. With its liquidous mystery, deeply-reverberating tones, and vaguely hip-hop lyrical samples, each track was identified by the audience, hailed, and moved away from. The energy’s intensity and minute focus related to the powerful concentration of early dubstep, and yet could not be remarked even as a close cousin of the genre.


Having left the stage with nearly an hour’s set behind her, TOKiMONSTA also left with the audience content and charged for the next act. Eskmo (Brendan Angelides) of San Francisco was quick to follow-up. While he didn’t include the stunning visual elements of his predecessor, and while his name, being slightly less mainstream, didn’t do much to increase the size of the crowd, the performance was impressive.


Eskmo’s “genre-splitting” tracks only formed the tip of the set’s iceberg. Presenting both a mix of prepped material and direct-to-PA performance, including a wide-array of impromptu sampling, Eskmo was far from traditional. The most notorious button pressed evoked a pitch-bended “BLOOD” bursting forth from the speakers.


Stage antics included the utilization of a wide-variety of “instruments”. Eskmo continuously built his tracks in an organic, procedural manner involving a large box located next to his board. Reaching over every few measures, he would pull out instruments from what looked like an endless supply. From tin-foil chip bag to ceramic coffee mug, from strange baton-like cylindrical bashing tool to all manner of things shakable, Eskmo instilled an element of surprise within the viewers.


To top the “magic” of the performance off, Eskmo drew upon the power of his voice. This involved singing, coughing, and hushing the audience to remarkable degrees. There was a captivation devoid of genre, spirit, or mentality. Unfortunately, just as the audience was filtering onto the floor and the Paramount was beginning to actually fill up, Eskmo got the poke on the shoulder from someone with authority. He had to cut the song short and break the equipment down. This was just as he had finally reached that point of significance where the audience understands the flow. It was a nonplussed moment. A moment of disappointment. Yet schedules had to be kept.


The big finale of the night was actually the only part of the night that felt like a show at all. The precursors, while utterly enjoyable and intoxicating, had been simply ignored by the majority of the crowd, for whatever reason. Amon Tobin has taken on this cultish figure in electronic music and more importantly in his current hyper-experience tour that everything aligned must pale in comparison. It’s a strange concept to think about with this niche of music, and yet superstars must exist in every culture. And that’s what Tobin strives for—superstar status, unforgettable experience. To be the best, to never be less.


The Paramount filled up almost instantaneously following Eskmo’s closing. Rows upon rows deep, the audience throbbed and swayed as a singular body, a singular entity. The back of the floor offered a wide synopsis of the room: countless bodies all staring forward in anticipation. There were those who were getting as stoned as they could as quickly as they could. There were those others who were simply trying to find adequate vantage points. And of course, there were those on the balcony, encroaching like birds in the attic.


First the red curtains parted. Everyone was privy to the massive semi-transparent, cubic structure implanted on the stage. Everyone was in awe, in cheering ecstasy. The 25’ x 14’ x 8’ pile of bricks slowly received its electric charge and was “booted up”. The idea behind the structure: a large digital projector, perhaps the most powerful you can imagine (think laser cannon in some futuristic video game) blasts light onto these abstract, semi-rotated cubes, causing an ultra-dimensional viewing experience for the viewer.


Each song of ISAM, which is the epic and utterly difficult seventh album, was appropriated by a video artist. The artists then created their own thematic visual track to accompany the live performance of the already-experimental song. What resulted were entire visual worlds created to entirely compliment their auditory partners.


From machines and gears churning and pumping, to explosions of raw resources, to the flanks of mega-alien-spacecraft, to liquidous bubbles and trapped air—the possibilities and imaginative perspectives continued and continued. They kept on expand without stopping for pause or breath. The album is long indeed but the live performances tended to extend the original cut even further.


And the audience, for the most part, loved it. Some people kept falling all over themselves, probably in response to the amount of substances they were making use of; others stood still, almost drone-like, but undoubtedly in awe of the project in front of them. It felt genuine, memorable. And yet not perfect. The biggest disadvantage for some was the anticipation of the experience. Many I’m sure expected a larger structure that would allow a complete immersion even thirty rows of people back. Those who expected this were the ones who left after three songs, realizing the experience was perhaps not what they envisioned. Others had short partners and had to move to cater to them. Most shows deal with similar problems, but the entity of Tobin’s masterpiece had established itself as flawless, and so when blows like audience dissatisfaction presented themselves, it was a highly and virally-noticeable dissuasion.


That being said, the music was on point. The album was played without hiccups, and the sound was never beyond its means. While some variation existed to each track, the differences were so minute that they didn’t make a difference.


It should be noted that at various times throughout the album, the central housing cube turned from opaque to translucent, opening up a grilled-vision of artist as homunculus. Tobin sitting within the chamber of the heart of this project, pounding away on his machinery, his equipment, he as creator, he as internal within the system. It was thrilling and remarkable image and yet perhaps too ahead of its time, too conceptual, to make a big enough impact for its cost. In fact, had Tobin not been present within the structure at all, or if he had had an alternative location where he performed, such as within the audience itself, the experience might have been a bit more surreal, otherworldly. Instead, a strange and strangely strong performance was left for curiosity and contemplation, but perhaps only a vague understanding of appreciation.


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