July 18th, 2012
As the crowd filtered into the festival grounds for Pitchfork Music Festival’s second day, two opening acts sent rumbles across the still-sodden earth from opposite ends of Union Park. It seemed inevitable that the crowd would turn to that keenly Chicagoan staple of conversation: the weather. Yes, the sun was shining again and it seemed to power the psychotic guitar-driven assault coming from the Psychic Paramount on the Green Stage and the Atlas Moth on the Blue Stage.
It was hard to choose between the two acts, which each had their own brand of distorted rock fantasies. The Psychic Paramount offered up their own sound — a harsh amalgamation of feedback and pounding drums, harnessed in a whirlwind of meth-and-mescaline fury. It was the sound of turbo junkies watching white paint lines streak by at unfathomable speeds.
The Atlas Moth, however, had a much slower tempo and a crushingly heavy timbre. For this native Chicago group, the blasts of sound came in tandem with throbbing forehead veins and cathartic howls. It was given a strange but welcome twist by the mid-set addition of gray-maned saxphonist and a stout female trumpeter, whose horns were sent into nosediving spirals by phase and delay effects.
At 1:45 Cloud Nothings took the Red Stage and offered their signature brand of pop punk, instantly transporting the slightly older members of the crowd to the Vans Warped Tour 2003. In the press tent, which was adjacent to the stage, the shift in sound was immediately apparent. “When’s NOFX coming on?” asked F Newsmagazine’s photographer Patrick Putze jokingly.
Soon the Blue Stage was occupied by Lotus Plaza, who launched into their own dreamy compositions, layered with shimmer and gleam and bolstered by a solid backbeat. LP frontman Lockett Pundt kept his trademark cool behind dark sunglasses throughout the set, relying more on the maelstrom coming from his guitar to illustrate his mood.
Pundt’s childhood friend and fellow Deerhunter bandmate Bradford Cox took the Green Stage as Atlas Sound, just as rain clouds crawled in from the south skies once again. Cox effortlessly assumed the role of irreverent prankster as he appeared onstage wearing white face paint and a straw hat. It looked as if he was attempting to make a statement by casting himself as the “straw man” of the Pitchfork scene, though the joke never seemed to click with the crowd as they shivered, wet and ragged. Even as he offered bizarre alternatives to his planned setlist — calling out obscure genres and offering (some would say threatening) to play them for hours on end — Cox’s coy sense of irony and self-awareness didn’t trigger any recognition from the crowd, which was glad to cheer at any statement he made.
The hypnotic loops that Cox created with effects pedals and a single guitar didn’t disappoint, however, as muddied feet continued to dance about in dazed glee. Each song built itself up one riff at a time until the fabricated storm of chorus and delay mirrored the actual one, splashing around back and forth hitting the whole crowd all at once.
Still, Cox never dialed down his role as the merry trickster when he appeared at the media tent for a post-set interview. He was seen poking holes into the lids of VitaminWater bottles before mounting them to his crotch and squirting a lucky/unlucky photographer. How’s that for product placement?
Cults flooded the main field with rays from a million Spector-esque sunbursts, and once again, the skies followed suit. As a group with a strong vintage sound, their timing could not have been more spot on, cutting through the heavier undertones of Brooklyn-based metal outfit Liturgy playing on the Blue Stage and the mind-melting acoustic clusterfuck of Atlas Sound with the bubbly pop of a proper summer. The dedication and energy level behind vocalist Madeleine Follin’s performance as she danced about on stage and belted out line after line of bouncy teeny-bopper gospel.
As a music producer whose alchemical wizardry of samples is enough to render one totally confused and utterly powerless to his beat, Flying Lotus did unsurprisingly well at the blockless block party that is Pitchfork Music Festival. What did surprise were FlyLo’s bold choices for samples — fellow PMF 2012 performer Clams Casino’s “I’m God,” the Jay-Z/Kanye West anthem “Niggaz in Paris” and Beastie Boys staple “Intergalactic” among others — which sent the crowd into a certifiable frenzy.
The ladies of Wild Flag opened up their set with a cover of Television’s “See No Evil” — a bold move for any band, which was elevated by the fact that Wild Flag is not just any band. The group, comprised of Sleater-Kinney vets Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, ex-Helium guitarist/vocalist Mary Timony and former drummer for The Minders Rebecca Cole (most of whom have multiple other projects to their name), is a veritable slice of the female indie rock hall of fame. “See No Evil” was a particularly potent choice for a cover song as Brownstein’s vocal yelp closely mirrored that of Television’s Tom Verlaine, which set the stage for a thorough punk’n'roll shakedown as evidenced soon by Timony’s playing her licks behind her head.
Loud. It’s the word on the tip of the tongue of anyone who’s ever been in the crowd at a Sleigh Bells show. The problem, however, is that aside from the obvious male-libido-driven statement that follows (“Alexis Krauss is so hot.”) there doesn’t seem to be any other common praise. At times, the group does seem to be nothing more than a gimmicky entity — Bradford Cox was seen shaking his head in the media tent as they began their set, saying, “They make me feel like I’m in a stupid movie,” — though it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a satisfying gimmick in small doses. There’s a reason Sleigh Bells songs almost never hit the four-minute mark.
Stomping around with a jagged Jackson guitar and flexing thick arms through a camouflage shirt, guitarist Derek Miller blended seamlessly into the background, which was comprised of 12 stacked Marshall speaker cabs, flashing runway lights and the endless plumes of a fog machine. If anything else, Sleigh Bells represented something to the dumb jock brother you grew up hating, but whose charisma and power you could never deny.
It’s a popular complaint to make of any festival playing band that one would “rather see them playing in a basement/club.” That’s an easy thing to wish for, especially if that band is Chromatics, a group whose entire existence suggests transient late night atmospherics, sexiness and isolation. A sharp and engaging setlist, despite the contrast of the band’s dark ethos and the 90+ degree festival setting, made Chromatics appear stronger and more confident as a band; completely transporting the audience with them to their own world instead of joining us in ours.
The group opened with “Tick of the Clock,” a subtle instrumental pitch-perfectly featured in the equally slick, distant, and brooding 2011 film, Drive. Chromatics won the crowd over by their third song, “Kill for Love” the title track from their 2012 album released on Chromatics’ own Johnny Jewel’s label, Italians Do It Better.
The simultaneous sets of Chromatics and Hot Chip offered a great view of two sides of the same coin. Chromatics presented a stolid, standoffish electronic pulse while Hot Chip gave a cathartic and personal performance. Where the former embodied a cool midnight drive through a sea of neon streetlights, latter offered a sunlit jog through a bustling city park in springtime.
The final decision of Saturday evening came in the form of two wildly different acts. On the Green Stage were fabled post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose lurching drones filled the air while Grimes was starting her set a few minutes behind schedule on the Blue Stage. Grimes, as my colleague Chris Kareska points out, has been continually heralded as the archetypal “post-internet” poster girl, mashing together every shred of input she’s received while growing up in an age of incessant overstimulation. The end results are dense nuggets of influences, presented mercilessly maximally.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, however, held the flame for distinctively pre-internet acts, so-to-speak. The group, whose mysterious sonic tableaux are regarded as canon for any present-day artists concerned with instrumental texture, seem to exist off the modern grid — apart from the bustle of press photos and interviews, separate from shameless online self-promotion, disconnected from any such outside musical influence. Their set was the labor of an artist collective in real-time and required meditative reverence from crowd to truly be rewarding.
Those who didn’t have the same patience to endure back-to-back 20-minute sessions of the same note headed the the Blue Stage, where Grimes was featuring the instant gratification of K-pop beats, 1990s-era backup dancing and spastic on-stage gyration. The level of ecstasy was high enough that even the crowd by the boundary fence, which housed a slouching skid row of strung-out teenagers throughout the afternoon, was now standing shoulder-to-shoulder and tip-toed, hoping to catch a ride on the dopamine surge coming from Grimes’ radiant stage show.
Whatever the view was for you, the evening ended on a strong note. As we all stumbled to our homes, either dazed by monolithic psalms or dumbfounded by trans-cultural fusions, there was a buzz in the air that amounted to more than just simple tinnitus.
See coverage of Day One here.
See coverage of Day Three here.