The first annual Neon Marshmallow Music Festival, which was held at the Viaduct Theater in Chicago last year, featured over 100 performances from experimental artists from around the globe over a four-day period. For its second go-around, curators Daniel Smith (Neon Blossom/Red Electric Rainbow) and Matt Kimmel (Acid Marshmallow) moved this year’s event to the Empty Bottle and shaved off a day and a good 70 sets. This noticeable shift in quantity, however, was more than made up for by the sheer quality of artists on this year’s bill. While the bar brattle of The Empty Bottle may be better suited for your average rock outing, it also boasts a noticeably clean sound system that music of this type demands and its dark confines provided a certain intimacy to the event.
The first evening’s festivities got under way with two zoned-out performances from CVLTS and Spiral Joy Band. SJB squeezed out an intense set of heavy harmonium and string drones to total mind–erasing effect. This set the stage, or maybe the table, for the local improv trio of Jim Baker, Michael Colligan, and Michael Zerang, who performed one of the more entertaining sets of the festival. Setting up a veritable kitchenette on stage, Colligan played off of Baker’s modular synth gurgles and Zerang’s percussive tinkering using contact-miked tea kettles, coffee cans, and silverware over dry ice. Whether or not it was out of relief that Colligan didn’t burn himself horribly, the crowd gave an enthusiastic response to the trio’s performance.
The subsequent sets from James Plotkin and Mountains brought things back into the ambient/drone domain to markedly different results. Plotkin, who’s likely best known for his mastering duties, used a laptop and electric guitar to coax out a slow moving, bottom-heavy piece that offered hints of his doomy past. Mountains, on the other hand, melded acoustic guitar work with analog synth and assorted electronics into an almost suite-like composition. Both artists displayed an attention to detail and clarity that separates them from much of the current drone herd.
Jeff Witscher took to the stage next under his most recognized moniker, Rene Hell. Tonight he threw down a brief, weirded-out version of techno that sputtered off in multiple directions, which is heard on his latest release The Terminal Symphony, but sounding quite a bit more forceful in a live setting. His rhythmically-charged set spilled nicely into White Rainbow’s somewhat surprising r&b/g-funk dance throwdown, where Adam Forkner ditched his new age-leanings in favor of his, dare I say, comedic “Dr. Pizza” party-starter persona, which was sort of refreshing to see at often times stuffy experimental music gatherings. The evening came to a fitting close with the hunkered-down interactive ambiance of Lucky Dragons.
Saturday’s line-up was definitely the most varied of the festival, with John McEntire’s all-over-the-map DJ sets, that swung from Scott Walker songs to obscure dance tracks, accentuating the evening’s overall vibe quite nicely. Leslie Keffer kicked things off with a noisy, beat-driven set, followed by Dylan Ettinger, whose synth-pop songs sounded particularly great this evening, especially his lengthy version of his recent Not Not Fun single “Lion of Judah” with his mustachioed sax blower to close out his set.
Sword Heaven provided what had to be arguably the most visceral performance of the entire festival. Like a cackling, feral animal, drummer Aaron Hibbs taped a contact mic to his throat and launched the trio into a totally uncompromising blast of pummeling noise thud. With ear-piercing synth, amplified sheet metal, and other homemade noise generators, it made for a glorious racket that must be witnessed live in order to fully appreciate. John Elliott’s Outer Space project followed suit with a headbangin’ set of his own, which I’ll have to admit looked a tad bit comical when positioned behind his burbling analog synths. But it’s cool to see a guy really jammin’ this style of music without the stern-faced seriousness one generally associates with it. As fellow attendee, Sir Roaratorio, quite fittingly described, “It’s like Philip Glass on gas station speed.”
By this point in the evening, the attendance swelled to its largest of the weekend and with it naturally came more bar chatter. This diminished some of the intensity of Sickness’ set, whose Chris Goudreau relies on a great deal of negative space within his overloaded noise constructions, and unfortunately led to some tension within the room itself. Bill Orcutt bluntly told the audience to “shut the fuck up” before laying into his unique deconstruction of the Delta blues, where on this night his gutteral blues moans were more prominent in the mix. Oneohtrix Point Never, clearly one of the festival’s biggest draws, likely rankled a gearhead or two by flipping open his laptop amongst his pared-down set-up. But Daniel Lopatin certainly did not disappoint, delivering his customary shimmering soundscapes with, perhaps, a bit more blur around the edges.
It’s here that I’d love to recount the evening’s final performance from Pelt, who I was eager to see, but I have to confess that I ducked out before their reportedly brilliant hour-long set. Hours of Art Institute gazing and record browsing at Reckless and Permanent (that I’m pleased to say yielded a decent copy of The Shadow Ring’s Lindus), along with a belly full of beer and fish tacos from the adjoining Bite Café had done me in. I needed to regroup if I was going to take in the additional events that were on-deck for the last day of the festival.
Sunday’s festivities got underway early in the afternoon with a presentation of WNUR’s on-going Sonic Celluloid series that offers a forum for experimental musicians to perform live over experimental film. Being a big fan of San Agustin, it was a pleasant surprise to arrive and see that David Daniell was playing as a last minute fill-in for Zac Davis. He performed his beautifully restrained, effects-laden guitar work to Ralph Steiner’s water imagery in H2O. Positioned in front of slowly unraveling circular patterns that were projected on the screen behind him, Lichens followed with a truly mesmerizing set. Robert AA Lowe worked the patch cables and knobs of his modular synth unit until he found that perfect warm groove and began belting out spine-tingling, androgynous-sounding vocal chants. The afternoon portion closed with what was reported to be the debut live performance of The Sea and Cake member Sam Prekop’s modular synth work. He patched together an ever-evolving stream of highly melodic sounds that kept pace with Robert Breer’s animated film snippets quite nicely.
After a brief break, things got back underway with a powerful set from Chicago free jazz trio, Tiger Hatchery. The group is clearly well-steeped in jazz tradition, but play with a sort of punk rock tenacity that sounds quite fresh in fact. The same could be said of the following act Beau Wanzer, who offered an updated version of electro dance music, which, I’m guessing, had this been performed later on a Friday night would have gotten more than a few asses movin’.
The middle section of Sunday’s line-up worked the audience into an almost trance-like state starting with a short tapes’n'clarinet soundscape from Michigan’s Sick Llama. Mike Shiflet followed with his drifting processed guitar and static-filled compositions filling the space, offering a moving reminder of just how damn good his recent Llanos album was. Set up on the floor in front of a makeshift projection screen, Telecult Powers performed their ritualistic take on drone music to the spellbound audience that surrounded them. There’s obviously a performance art aspect to what they do that clearly distinguishes them from many of the other current drone practitioners. Pulse Emitter rounded out this section with his skillful synth manipulations that took on various shapes and forms.
If you were beginning to feel that things were bordering on the meditative, The Rita pretty much shattered any notion of that within the first few seconds of his near-deafening set. I’ll openly admit that the brute force of his harsh noise, which I could feel rattling my innards, sent me ducking out of the room with fingers firmly placed in ears. In some respects, this had a nice “cleansing effect” before taking in headliner, the festival’s real coup, Morton Subotnick. How fascinating it was to see the audience so attentive while Subotnick was merely setting up his gear and sound-checking. His influence is undeniable within this festival’s circles and people were clearly there to see this early pioneer of electronic music perform. Using modular synth and laptop/samplers, Subotnick laid out blibs and blurbs of Silver Apples before settling into more rhythmic passages and at the closing of his set the crowd erupted in a boisterous applause, bringing the proceedings of the weekend full-circle and offering a fitting conclusion to the festival.
So, the second annual Neon Marshmallow Festival was on paper a paired down affair from the first year’s, but the curators have clearly upped the ante. I’d say, be prepared to reserve the dates for next year’s festival.
And on a personal note, I’d like to extend a sincere thank-you to my generous host, Polymer Slug, whose place provided the ideal crash pad for this action-packed weekend and whose lovely music on Overland Shark has since filled our home on a daily basis.