Sheer violent chaos flying in the face of all reason and musicality: It was fucking beautiful.
Now in its fourth year, Greg Lowenhagen and Grayson Currin’s Hopscotch Music Festival has upped its private sponsorships (I’m pretty sure Lenovo was the improviser in residence) and taken its place among the heavyweights of the music festival circuit. Although Hopscotch hasn’t yet enlisted the homeless to be hotspots, there was a fake Hopscotch party Twitter account, so you know it’s at or near the top. The event was full of promise, and because Action Bronson hadn’t canceled yet, there was still a chance to hear Earl Sweatshirt duel Bronson in a sandwich condiment-only rap battle. What follows is my (Matthew Horne) and my colleague’s (Matthew Phillips) take on the marathon that was Hopscotch 2013.
After picking up my press pass, I commenced chilling for a bit as I figured out my schedule. I quickly found I would be missing about 10 acts I had hoped to see: Wold, Pig Destroyer, Richard Youngs, John Cale, Angel Olsen, Earl Sweatshirt, Survival, Evoken, Inter Arma, and David Grubbs. From what I can tell, at least half of those sets were excellent, and were it not for very slight preferences and sheer exhaustion, I could have seen any of them instead. Hopscotch is set up as mostly night shows, with a few side events during the day; this, coupled with the facts that the venues can be up to 10 blocks away from one another and that some of them get filled to capacity, meant that while you see a ton of good music, you miss a ton too. It ended up being fine though. By the end of the weekend, I had seen so many sick shows I could barely process it. The festival covers so much ground and enlists so many excellent performers that it’s impossible not to self-curate an excellent experience. (MP)
Boyzone: I’ve seen Ryan Martin and Jeff Rehnlund perform as Boyzone far more times than I can recall, often at Ryan’s house. I generally know what’s going to happen: the noise is going to be harsh; Ryan and Jeff will wrestle; Ryan will probably throw Jeff into the audience; and the set will likely end when something gets unplugged mid-smackdown. Despite this, I couldn’t fucking wait to see their set. That Boyzone were at Hopscotch (basically headlining), at King’s, opening for Wolf Eyes and Merzbow filled me with the warmest of thoughts and a lifetime of shit-eating grins. Boyzone performed for 11 minutes, the longest set of theirs I’ve seen, essentially their entire discography. All of the aforementioned events occurred and more. When Ryan threw Jeff, the crowd was a little too sparsely positioned to handle the heave, and Jeff smacked his head on the concrete ground. At some point, the duo walked away from their rigs into the crowd and lit firecrackers on the floor. Somehow, the sole to one of Jeff’s shoes started peeling off, so he threw the shoe at someone in the crowd. The music was pretty erotic as well. (MH)
The Dreebs: The first band I saw at Hopscotch was also the most inexplicable. I’ve been trying to describe The Dreebs’ sound, but everything that comes out is unsatisfying. Let’s break it down into basics: they’re a Brooklyn three-piece with a guitarist, drummer, and violinist who sings. Jordan Bernstein uses extended techniques on guitar, creating a sound both noisy and clean. Shannon Sigley pounds the fuck out of her drums, going more for big beats than space-filling groooves. Adam Markiewicz alternates between plucked and bowed violin, and his vocals get damn-near operatic. Sudden silences break up their songs, so you never quite know what’s coming. There are moments of great beauty and ungodly cacophony. In short, they make music that is unlike anything else being made right now. Go see them. (MP)
Pharmakon: The Dreebs and Pharmakon (and later Wold, whom [yes, I know] I missed, because they played at the same time as Merzbow and Wolf Eyes) played in a room with high ceilings and a huge space behind them; it felt more appropriate for a chamber ensemble than Pharmakon’s one-woman show. This probably killed the intensity of her set for some people. Instead of being down on the floor with the crowd, Margaret Chardiet had to get down from the stage and walk through the room’s vastness (if you ask me, she would have been better at Slim’s — a narrow shotgun bar with a floor-height stage and less room to move). This limitation did very little to affect my experience, because the first time Chardiet stepped off the stage, she singled me out in the crowd, walked over to me, and screamed in my face. She did this for a number of others too later on, though I think I was the only one who screamed back. It’s a weird thing, okay? Fight or flight reactions start firing off; adrenaline surges, too. I spent the rest of the set processing its initial moments and otherwise riding the adrenaline high. Later, when I talked to her before Wolf Eyes’ set, she said she was “glad it did something for [me].” (MP)
Grouper: Within the Duke Energy Compound, Liz Harris’s set nestled itself into the seated Fletcher Opera Theater. Many complained the set put them to sleep, harsh’d their vibe, and was an overall affront to their partying sensibilities. But this set was essentially the same as every other time I’ve seen her play, very much so in the ethereal spirit of her recorded material, so what gives, people? She played all of her platinum hits, intertwining them with tape-hiss and a projection of what looked like the moon shining on water, which you could barely make out on the back wall. The venue (and really every Duke Energy-affiliated space) had no freaking intimacy; I was sitting in the third row, and I still felt like I was barely there. (MH)
Mike Shiflet: As a big supporter of Shiflet’s recorded work, this performance was disappointing. The portion of the set I saw featured none of his signature guitar work, focusing primarily on synth drones. This is not to tow the party line of the anti-drone music noise crowd or to cop to the dismissive posture that all drones are boring; they’re not, and Charlemagne Palestine’s performance later in the weekend proved even the slowest-developing music can work live. Shiflet’s set just lacked the textural complexity and intensity of records like his recent Merciless, and at a prime spot (preceding Merzbow’s solo set) on the first night, it felt like the wrong venue and time for low-energy music. Perhaps the set would have made more sense in the Long View Center (a church hall) or another seated, spacious venue. In a crowded bar, especially as I anticipated the arrival of Merzbow, Shiflet’s set leeched some energy from the crowd. (MP)
Merzbow: I saw Merzbow perform three times at Hopscotch, though I could have seen him up to five (I believe). It’s a common misconception among those unfamiliar with his extensive catalog that Masami Akita is a one-trick pony, making nothing but cacophonous static via laptop. Over the years, Akita has used many different setups, and his improvisational layout was entirely new to me: a film canister nailed to an electronics-filled handle and strapped with springs, the output of which he processed through a huge effects chain. One obvious result of such a minimal instrument is the inability to vary pitch (except via processing), which meant he mostly acted as a percussionist in the improvisational groups. Regardless of his role, he is without a doubt the most relentlessly focused musician I have seen live. The mere look in his eyes reveals an extremely thoughtful and skilled performer who listens as much as he outputs. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this show was just how many people stood watching it. Of course, few of the audience’s members will have the opportunity to see him solo again, so some were just checking off a bucket list. Others were there because they knew his work and wouldn’t dare miss it. But the most interesting group were the festival-goers who attended the show solely because they knew his name or skipped Marnie Stern because they were curious. What once shocked and appalled the common music listener about Merzbow’s music is now exciting. (MP)
Wolf Eyes: I don’t care what you have to say about it: Wolf Eyes is one of the best bands in the game right now. This set was a fucking ripper. It’s not so much that Aaron Dilloway and Mike Connelly weren’t excellent lineup members, it’s just that Crazy Jim Baljo so totally understands how the band works and adds an extra layer of instability between Young’s unhinged vocals and Olson’s synth squalls. His guitar work’s shambolic logic is the secret ingredient no one knew they needed. It frees up Young to only subtly tweak backing tracks and focus on vocals. Olson, too, can work on a more subtle level. No sax here; instead, Olson strapped on a noise box like a guitar and tweaked it from the hip, allowing him to jam more easily. They played both new and old stuff, and all of it killed. My co-writer said after the set that they “insisted” on something. Might I suggest it was the following: “Wolf Eyes are finished fucking around.” Sounds fell right into place, and yet they lost none of their horror or immediacy. The performance was both effortless and polished. While the set that followed was a great antithesis to the order at work in Wolf Eyes’ individual performance, this was the best of the night. (MP)
Wolf Eyes and Merzbow: This was one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. You know that feeling where something is so absurd and amazing that it drives you to laughter? That’s what this set was all about. The most audible sound in the mix was Nate Young’s vocals, followed by Baljo’s guitar. But it was mostly just a phantasmagoric audio spectacle, teeming with madness and discordance, sheer violent chaos flying in the face of all reason and musicality. It was fucking beautiful. (MP)
While walking down Fayetteville Street Friday night, you were equally likely to cross paths with Cary dads on the First Friday Gallery Walk, a 16-year-old debutante being introduced to the civilized world, Merzbow, a Raleigh bro earnestly saying “#yoloswag,” someone who bought a ticket to see A-Trak perform, and an awesome street performer looping the sax part to “Careless Whisper.” It was a bizarre night in Raleigh, and shit was crowded. Although Thursday was bumping, it wasn’t until Friday when I realized Hopscotch had leveled up beyond what it was a year ago. By 3 PM, most venues were at or nearing capacity, and the day shows hadn’t even ended. You had to commit to venues and bands if you wanted any chance of seeing entire sets; I struggled with this. I spent much of Friday catching just snippets of Merzbow/Thurston Moore/John Moloney, Mykki Blanco, Whatever Brains, Pere Ubu, etc. And I was fine with this. Most everything, save Thurzbow, stunk, and I had a blast listening to Dan McGee of Spider Bags talk about noise music at a not-Scotch bar anyway. (MH)
Tom Carter: Performing the guitar-hero set of my dreams, Carter kicked things off during the Three Lobed and WXDU’s day show at King’s with his solo electric guitar. The Charalambides member shredded in all of the right ways, dancing between restraint and a squalor that probably put a smile on Merzbow’s face. If Carter had any lingering maladies from his 2012 hospitalization for pneumonia, they weren’t apparent to me. (MH)
Magik Markers: I have a low tolerance for live noise-rock, preferring INC-length sets (no laptops, no droning, no mixers). I’m not exactly sure for how long they played at King’s, but I self-imposed a 10-minute set. From what I caught, Magik Markers were blistering, evoking all of the typical adjectives one might throw at the genre. I also saw a trio that was much more confident and competent with their instruments than the stories I’ve heard of the Markers’ past, with Pete Nolan taking breaks from machine-gun drumming mid-song, etc. (MH)
Caught on Tape Duo (Thurston Moore/John Moloney) and Merzbow: Thurston Moore still shreds. Their later set with Merzbow was equally excellent, if more freewheeling and unhinged, but John Moloney (Sunburned Hand of the Man) held everything together during both performances. Moore did his trademark whammy-bar improv, while Akita scraped the hell out of the aforementioned springs over the film canister. Moloney made plenty of noise in his own right, but he mostly just made sure things didn’t get out of control. Putting Moore and Merzbow on stage together is one of the most impressive uses of the “improviser in residence” idea. They’re curating once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and this one was unforgettable (MP)
Sannhet: Sannhet was the surprise of the evening (second only to Thurzbow). I went to Slim’s in order to see Vattnet Viskar and the inimitable Gorguts and managed to catch Sannhet’s entire set. I’m glad I did. Sannhet create epic instrumental metal, and they are one of the tightest bands I saw at the festival (second only to Gorguts, who have made a career out of insane, turn-on-a-dime rhythms and perplexing structures). Drummer Christopher Todd is one of those metal drummers who transforms into a force of nature when playing. Despite the lack of vocals, Sannhet only skirt post-rock territory, and as such are more brutal than a band like Pelican. I haven’t heard their record yet (it had just come out the week before the show), but if contains anything like the intensity of their live set, it’s worth picking up. (MP)
Vattnet Viskar: These dudes are catching a lot of hype for their new record, and they probably deserve at least some of it. I was skeptical of the first section of their set — major-key breakdowns and ambient intros and bridges are becoming a little tired in the world of black metal. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix himself was in attendance, and I can’t help but think his manifesto accurately predicts a certain kind of transcendental metal that is on the rise in America; I’m just not sure I like much of it. But Vattnet Viskar’s set featured plenty of brutal breakdowns and blast (burst?) beats, and by the end of their set, they thoroughly convinced me they were the real deal. Just keep that positivity away from the endless, demon-ridden abyss, and we’re square. (MP)
Gorguts: I saw a ton of metal Saturday night, and capped it off with Gorguts. ‘Guts are every bit as good as their records, and maybe that is why their records are so tough to listen to. It’s difficult to sense the immediacy of their work when you aren’t seeing them as they do it. Some might laugh at the progged-out noodling and absurd time-signatures, but those folks have already stopped listening. Within the complexity of their structures and the difficulty of their technique is not masturbatory guitar-heroism, but skilled construction and mastery. I left early to get over to the Long View Center, but as a band, Gorguts were perhaps the most technically impressive of the festival. (MP)
Charlemagne Palestine: I rushed out of the crowded dive Slim’s and crossed a park, making it into the Long View Center with a second to spare. The Long View Center is a church. This transition was a total mindfuck, and as I sat down in a pew, I realized it would take a few minutes before I transitioned out of technical death metal-mode and into gorgeous drone mode. Closing my eyes helped, but Palestine’s occasional gestures at the mic and sips from his cognac did too (the church said he couldn’t smoke his signature cloves; bummer).
What followed was an hour of the most harmonically rich drone textures I’ve ever heard. The space was perfect; the natural reverb caught and held the tones of Palestine’s grand piano and laptop, precipitating them into nearly visible harmonic nebulae. All this from a slow-droning computer and two notes on the piano, struck rhythmically so the sound waves combined in a rich whirr. Exhaustion took over me; I closed my eyes and fell into a hazy state (not sleep, but something like it). Time slowed, and the whole building rung with the deep sonic structure that flowed from the piano strings.
Palestine closed the set with another of his trademarks: his whimsical stuffed animals. I briefly recalled I was missing Pig Destroyer as the plushes offered their goodbye (literally, they were programmed to say “goodbye”). What the hell kind of festival was this, where I could step in one door and find some of the most beautiful minimalism I’ve had the pleasure to experience, and into another that held some of the most brutal grindcore and an insane mosh pit? There was no way I was going to make it to that show. My brain was not ready for another foray into the type of instinctual, savage consciousness it would require. I banked my energy for Sleep, who closed out the festival on Saturday night. (MP)
By Saturday, I think many of us were pretty blown. As MH details below, The Paradise of Bachelors’ day show was perfect for easing you through your hangover and calming your aching eardrums. I made it to Pelt and The Black Twig Pickers, then headed over to the panel “Does the album still matter?” The discussion was surprisingly fruitful, parsing both the economic and aesthetic concerns of the album structure. (Dr.) Drew Daniel of Matmos, Alan Sparhawk of Low, Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family and Cy Dune, and Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz all provided excellent points, but I can’t help but think it was a loaded question at a festival that featured The Breeders playing Last Splash in its entirety. As the latter questions about piracy indicated, what seems to be changing is the industry, not the art. It’s not fair of me to take the last word, so I won’t, but as all the panelists agreed, no one thinks the album is going away any time soon.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around Raleigh, eating and chilling in the warehouse district. The break felt like a necessity, and I appreciated it later when I was watching Sleep’s monster set. (MP)
Pelt and Daniel Bachman: It was sweltering, I was sitting in the grass, and everything about Pelt and Bachman’s collaboration was magical. Pelt’s harmoniums provided an exquisite backbone drone that the band’s gongs, fiddle, and banjo explored. Bachman’s guitar probed with a thoughtfulness one would seldom expect from someone performing with an act like Pelt for the first time. Before their set, I was relayed three relevant stories. First, I was told Bachman was nervous to be performing with Pelt, since, you know, Jack Rose and all. Second, apparently the last time Daniel saw Pelt perform, someone threw up. Third, on the stage, one of the co-owners of the Paradise of Bachelors imprint dedicated Pelt and Bachman’s performance to the late Rose, describing Rose as the past, Pelt the present, and Bachman the future. Although no one barfed during the set, Bachman seemed completely at home with Mike Gangloff and crew. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to remember Rose than through a performance of this caliber. (MH)
Horse Lords: Hailing from Baltimore, Horse Lords are a rhythmic brain trust. Their two drummers Sam Haberman and Andrew Bernstein keep perfect time through difficult polyrhythms, while guitarist Owen Gardner and bassist Max Eilbacher roll their custom-fretted strings overtop. By this point in the evening, I was fully awake, and Horse Lords’ energy pushed me deeper into the ecstatic state that was to follow. The Contemporary Art Museum unfortunately had terrible acoustics, but despite it, Horse Lords managed to stay tight, even through their call-and-response spirals and roto-tom solos. Various members played part in Matmos’ set later, though Eilbacher managed to sneak off to see Sleep before they were done. (MP)
Richard Youngs: From what I could gather afterwards, experiences of Young’s set varied wildly depending on where you sat in the massive Memorial Auditorium, which Youngs described as “half the size of a football arena.” I was fortunate to be sitting front and center, with several Youngs-initiated friends, and experienced what was by far my most memorable set of Hopscotch.
Youngs was alone with his acoustic guitar, music stand, and songbook, amid what I presume was John Cale’s equipment. The set began with a few guitar-accompanied cuts off of Youngs’ new “country” album Summer Through My Mind, which were equally as lovely as they are on record, if not a little tame. But after this soft opening, things got progressively stranger, when Youngs paused for a second to fumble around and gulp down some water, which he intently mic’d so the whole auditorium could hear him putzing around.
Following this interlude, Youngs furiously flipped through his song book, then launched into an a cappella performance of a song I couldn’t pin down. It was harrowing, and he didn’t take his eyes off of the songbook throughout. Youngs then explained he’s made a lot of very different music throughout the years, all of which is essentially the same. He told the audience that, since he had traveled so far, he packed lightly and only brought his guitar, which was unfortunate because he wanted to a play song off of Naive Shaman, and it required a bass and drums. Therefore, he needed audience participation — a “wowow” noise for the bass during the verse and the sound of a drum kit falling down stairs during the chorus. It seemed like he was joking, since before starting he ranted about how to pronounce “Raleigh,” but once the song began, he insisted on participation. Fortunately, everyone around me was game, providing Youngs his bass and drum; the best contribution was from Ben Trueblood (a.k.a. Feltbattery), who “drummed” by throwing his skateboard repeatedly on the floor.
This collaborative effort was both exhilarating and peculiar, and yet the weirdest moment of the set was forthcoming. After another song or two, Youngs paused for what felt like an eternity, standing silently on the stage and getting his John Cage on. As suddenly as Youngs’ silence began, he dove into another a cappella track, again staring at his songbook. He then abruptly ended his set.
It seemed like Youngs had some theme in mind, possibly some Black Mountain College content, and did all he could to wring every last bit of shtick out of it. And, as a result, his set was profoundly entertaining, in every dimension possible. I should mention that I’m pretty sure the songbook was blank. (MH)
Holly Herndon: They used to call it braindance or IDM, but Herndon is on another level. Her live set is a simple laptop and controller setup, but it included bizarre visuals, patched by a Japanese programmer whose name escapes me (and who couldn’t make the festival). Herndon’s vocal processing sculpts her voice into a huge variety of forms, using it more traditionally as a kind of hook without words, or sampling and re-pitching it for other purposes like rhythm or bass. The purity of the tones she uses is almost clinical, but despite this coldness, there was a huge group of kids rolling and throwing around glowsticks, so obviously it works. There are whole theses to be written about control interfaces and the abstraction of the human voice, but for now, I’ll just say I enjoyed dancing to it. (MP)
Matmos: I missed so much of this set because I’m from Baltimore and can see Matmos regularly, but I will say M.C. Schmidt and Dr. Drew Daniel are consummate professionals, comedians, and some of the world’s cleverest sculptors of sound. I caught “Very Large Green Triangles” and a metal cover (which Daniel dedicated to Sleep), but had to run shortly thereafter or risk missing the beginning of the stoner epic. It’s a shame the venues were so far away from one another. (MP)
Sleep: The crowd was full of testosterone and Monster Energy for Sleep, and I stood at the precipice of the bro-pit. Although I was following the smoke toward the riff-filled land, I couldn’t handle the aggressiveness of the crowd; I just couldn’t get on that level, though seeing the above-reviewed Bachman shimmy to the front and mosh was a treat. (MH)
This show was crowded as fuck (of course), and Sleep were planet-crushingly loud. Matt Pike even blew out an amp head, which they managed to replace in a matter of seconds. Unlike my colleague, I embraced the savagery and dropped out of life, bong in hand. I had a ton of energy by this point, and despite the violence (all good-natured, though admittedly sweaty), I entered the pit behind Bachman. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, but I couldn’t help but think that this was an ideal environment to see such a legendary band perform. Their huge sound filled the entire theater, and every single note of their hour-and-a-half set felt right. Despite the sludge, all three members seemed to be riding the crowd’s energy like a bongwater dragon breathing kush smoke. I can think of few bands more capable of closing out a festival experience this packed with amazing acts. (MP)
From the moment they announced the lineup, I knew I’d be attending Hopscotch. And while it was totally impossible to see everything, I saw more music than I can remember. You’ll notice huge gaps in this review; we’d need a team of at least five people to cover every big-name act. Without a doubt, this is worth the five-hour drive from Baltimore, ticket price, and lodging. It’s hard to imagine a better-executed club-based festival. Even in the traffic on 95 on the way home, I was basking in the afterglow. (MP)
It’s been a pretty brutal summer in North Carolina. So it was nice to get away, even for just a weekend. And although Hopscotch isn’t without fault, it’s by far the hardest festival in the game. Where else are you going to see Merzbow perform with Wolf Eyes, then Thurston Moore, then Big Boi and Kim Gordon? I doubt I’ll ever consciously choose not to see John Cale play again or overhear Lonnie Holley kvetch about how people need to keep diaries. And I certainly won’t be able to see Spider Bags play 20 times in three days again. (MH)