Jas Shaw, left, and James Ford of the electronic music duo Simian Mobile… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
When the British electronic auteur James Blake tried to play his delicate, piano-rooted pieces at FYF Fest on Saturday, one particular sound kept intruding on the mood. It was a kick drum, from an adjacent tent, where the duo Tanlines pumped out spritzes of charming, easygoing dance-pop.
Onstage, Blake laughed uneasily at the overwhelming volume disparity — it’s hard to cover Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” while next door’s raging dance party bleeds into your monitor mix. But those crossed wires summed up the electronica-heavy night shift at Saturday’s FYF. No one could quite decide on the right proportions between pop, noise and danceability — and that posed a question for how this punkish fest plans to compete with the scads of profitable electro carnivals in L.A. and beyond.
FYF has become a home for bands dabbling in dance and beat music that would still be out of place at a more orthodox rave fest. Acts like Chromatics, Purity Ring and Nite Jewel are all disco and beat-influenced, and brim with drum-machine claps and creative sampler-wrangling. But after sunset, while post-hardcore acts such as Quicksand and Refused jockeyed for mosh-pit supremacy, the dance bands fought for their own terrain.
PHOTOS: FYF Festival 2012
On record, the NYC duo Tanlines comes off like a slightly more cynical Cut Copy — all bouncy Moog basses and shaken-soda-can synths, with a bit of an ‘80s deadpan delivery. At FYF, their spare live lineup — stand-up drums, an electric guitar and a whole lot of backing tracks — hit the crowd more like a rock band, and they had an endearingly amiable rapport. But one wonders why they even took the trouble of acting like a live band with just two people. Either fill the lineup out with more players or just DJ — the kids don’t mind today, and you’ll save a ton on van costs.
That question — how does a band interested in dance music play it out in a way that respects sound and live presence alike? — got a much more convincing answer from Tycho. The project from the San Francisco graphic designer Scott Hansen earned raves for its narcotic and celestial album “Dive.” But while most electronic artists flounder as live performers, this is where Tycho actually excels.
Framed as silhouettes in front of ambient film footage, the group’s three-piece lineup accomplished much more than their numbers suggested. They drew from trip-hop, jungle, post-punk and the dreamier ends of trance for a sound that defied cliché yet achieved something totally affecting. Perhaps it’s the band’s sheer musicianship – Tycho’s songs brim with evocative contrapuntal melodies, ferocious drumming and exquisite dynamics – or their knack for using visual obscurity to seduce a crowd. But Tycho was a league apart from almost anyone else playing electronic music at FYF, and clearly won a huge new audience Saturday night.
A much, much smaller audience had a similar reaction to the Suicide of Western Culture. The Spanish noise duo already showed some gumption by being, well, in a noise duo with word “Suicide” in their band name. But even though their tent set (to their credit, they were up against new hometown heroes M83) was maybe one-fifth full, what they lacked in attention they made up for in volume, viciousness and a knack for sneaking sad sampled melodies into the distortion maelstrom. Occasional moments nodded at danceability, and if they can find a way to harness their more populist impulses, they might be a powerful act to watch.
As synth-heavy headlining nightcaps, M83 and Simian Mobile Disco lived up to well-established expectations. M83’s set of widescreen electro-rock wasn’t demonstrably different from their recent Coachella turn, but they’ve adapted nicely to arena-sized crowds and have refined their set to almost all high points of romance and rave-ups. Simian Mobile Disco remain some of the best sound-designers in the hipster-house microgenre. Though the duo lost their wind on some collaboration-heavy, mid-career records, they found it again on their recent “Delicacies” singles comp and this year's “Unpatterns.” Each album goes spare and meticulous where other house and techno peers lean on the gas pedal full-time.
Sunday's dance card features some excellent contenders in the Field, Nicolas Jaar, Gold Panda and dance-punk revival-forebears the Faint. But the wild mood swings of FYF’s electronica raises a curious question going forward. Does the fest have any interest in taking on more dance-inclined and profitable peers like HARD for their demographic? Do all their dance acts have to come pre-approved by indie-rock-leaning tastemakers like Pitchfork? Or can they be a lone bastion of experimental sanity in a world of seven-figure DJ gig salaries? Whatever the answer, the drumbeat of dance music is getting louder, and FYF would do well to plan out its long-term strategy for how to best mix it in.
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