When the opening notes to the Rihanna hit “We Found Love” played over the QVC Marine Stadium sound system Sunday night, the packed-tight crowd erupted louder than it had at any point in the show. Glow sticks were thrust into the air harder and bottled waters launched into the sky as the climax of the Summer Sonic music festival approached. As the beat tranced out, fireworks exploded overhead and balloons and glitter shot from the stage. Moments earlier the headline performance had featured a Sphinx firing green lasers out of its eyes, but this topped it.
This spectacle, both visual and aural, defined the 12th edition of Summer Sonic, held simultaneously in Chiba and Osaka. Though the festival featured many older groups trying to reclaim past glories, this year’s lineup stood out from the busy Japanese festival circuit by boasting many artists who are intent on creating new sounds and blurring traditional genre lines. The fans that made the trip out — two-day passes and Saturday individual tickets sold out for the Chiba leg — were treated to a diverse assortment of acts and over-the-top performances.
Green Day‘s Saturday night headlining set wasn’t as flashy as Rihanna’s, but the California trio’s energy had just as many fans hurling their bottled waters into the air. After spending the last decade as overly serious political punks, Green Day’s Saturday night set found the band embracing the slacker-fun attitude that helped turn them into one of the most successful alternative acts of the 1990s. The set leaned toward the catchiest cuts from their earliest albums, the crowd fist- pumping hardest to “Basket Case” and “Longview.” The group still played some of the poorly aged political pop-punk (lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation in “Holiday” should be left in 2004) and new songs like the repetitive “Oh Love” weren’t much better, but Green Day seemed anything but uptight. They pulled punters onstage, wore silly hats and engaged in call-and-response chants in the middle of songs. Armstrong, in particular, could get the entire stadium screaming just by making a funny face.
Rihanna‘s Sunday set, meanwhile, played out in front of the aforementioned Sphinx, which was flanked by two tall Egyptian-style statues and backup dancers. Dressed as an empress and at one point sitting on a throne, her hour-plus performance felt like a primer in the pop music trends of the last five years. It ranged from icy R&B (“What’s My Name”) to reggae-tinged singles (“Rude Boy”) and even included a medley of hits she featured on by artists such as Kanye West and Jay-Z (the latter resulting in many fans throwing up the rapper’s famous “dynasty sign” hand gesture). Portions of the set could lag and at times the vocals sounded off, but it closed with a great one-two attack. She started with her 2007 hit “Umbrella,” getting the stadium to join her in singing “eh, eh, eh” before closing the night with “We Found Love.”
“We Found Love” wasn’t the only song played at Summer Sonic imagining a world of catchy new creations. Inside the Makuhari Messe convention center, Canadian artist Grimes took Mariah-Carey-esque pop structures and bent them in weird, electronically aided ways on the Sonic Stage. Her set, dedicated to incarcerated Russian punk band Pussy Riot (“I’m really happy we can play music and not go to jail”), featured reversed vocals and diversions into the sort of dubstep popularized by Skrillex, with whom Grimes recently toured. She couldn’t match Rihanna’s stage, but she made do with two bubble machines.
New York rapper Azealia Banks‘ Sunday afternoon set, meanwhile, featured her mashing rhymes and rave on “1991″ and getting wonky on her breakout hit “212,” her music attracting a small but rabid crowd. Similarly hodgepodged artists such as SBTRKT and Foster the People played the Sonic Stage, too, the latter making a number of fans who were resting at the back of the room dash up to the front upon hearing the opening notes of their infectious hit “Pumped Up Kicks.”
Other acts evoked bygone times. Australia’s Gotye played ’80s-inspired tunes from last year’s “Making Mirrors,” pairing them with cute animated videos and solid Japanese skills. His language capabilities came in handy when he got to his worldwide hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” as he asked the crowd in Japanese to sing the part usually reserved for New Zealand’s Kimbra. Unfortunately for him, a lot of people didn’t know that verse — but hearing an audience mumble in unison is still a pretty beautiful thing.
Crowds were smaller Sunday morning at Summer Sonic, and those who showed up were lethargic. Britain’s Kindness served as a great wakeup call, as the group started out playing the mellowest disco-tinged tracks from their debut album before slowly amping up the groove. Soon, the once tired crowd was bobbing along to his cover of The Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party.”
Punters were much more energized for Japan’s Polysics later in the day. The trio played the same fidgety, Devo-inspired rock they’ve been coasting on for more than a decade, but the packed crowd swung towels around when frontman Hiroyuki Hayashi instructed them to — and, in what became the general seal of approval on the weekend, chucked water on one another.
Plenty of classic acts dotted the lineup as well. New Order and Tears for Fears held it down for the ’80s, while alternative rockers Garbage played a set rich with their ’90s output.
“Some of you have grown up since we were last here,” lead singer Shirley Manson told the crowd after playing “Queer” before ripping into more crunchy rock, the crowd for her band growing with every song. Before them were Sweden’s The Cardigans. The advertising in advance of the festival said that they would play their 1998 album “Gran Turismo.” The first two songs were off that moody LP, and energy at the Mountain Stage seemed to be lacking, as fans seemed more appreciative than excited. But the band moved away from playing the record in its entirety and instead pivoted into songs from across their career, punctuated by a sunny rendition of “Lovefool” that got the once quiet crowd hopping.
Outside of Makuhari Messe, the weather dictated a band’s drawing power. Although the conditions in Osaka ended up being more severe — heavy rains Saturday caused the festival to reschedule many of its acts — the weather in Tokyo jumped between intense heat and rain showers. One of the stages impacted by this was the Island Stage just outside the stadium, which featured bands from across Asia. When the weather was good, groups such as South Korea’s Glen Check or Taiwan’s Fire EX. drew decent crowds, but when it started drizzling outfits such as Thailand’s Yellow Fang played to small numbers.
South Korean pop acts fared better, this year represented by Infinite and Team H. The latter, featuring Korean drama star Jang Geun Suk, drew a particularly enthusiastic audience of mostly female fans. Team H mixed pop structure with thumping electronic beats that had the devoted fans in the front dancing. They also played to the crowd by taking their shirts off (cue huge applause).
Domestic pop acts also appeared, highlighted by two Yasutaka Nakata-produced projects. Harajuku-blogger-turned-model-turned-singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu attracted a large crowd for her Saturday morning show, one of the largest at the Sonic Stage, which was possibly helped by the gloomy weather outside. Joined by a gaggle of Day Glo-clad dancers, she put on a fun and inclusive show, talking to the crowd often and taking the time to teach them dances for each of her songs. Some people already knew them, while one fan ignored them in favor of thrusting an inflatable doll in a pink dress into the air during “Candy Candy.” At about 30 minutes, the set was a good length for a festival, but you have to wonder how Kyary will deliver a longer set at venues like the Budokan (where she plays on Nov. 6) when 30 minutes seems to be a stretch. Electro-pop trio Perfume played the Marine Stage early Sunday afternoon and attracted a large crowd. As a chance to experience Perfume songs such as “Polyrhythm” and new single “Spending All My Time” live, it was excellent. As a festival set — watching the group dance in front of a plain black background — it was poor compared with their headline arena shows.
Both acts should have taken notes from an unlikely festival highlight — Ke$ha. Her music itself wasn’t particularly memorable, and sometimes her abrasive crunk-pop was downright intolerable. But this was a music festival, one where spectacle is just as (if not more) vital to a good show. Ke$ha pretended to torture a half-naked man before ripping out his “heart” and then pouring fake blood over her face. She dressed in the American flag and showered the audience in glitter, which they happily accepted. Kyary and Perfume would be wise to adopt similar attention-grabbing visuals … well, maybe not the simulated torture.
Rivaling Ke$ha and Rihanna in spectacle was Japanese pop group Momoiro Clover Z, who headlined the Rainbow Stage on Sunday night. Momoiro shirts and towels were inescapable during the day, and its show was one of the most crowded indoor sets of the weekend. Fans came prepared with glow sticks (one model was more like a glow tambourine, featuring a small stick for each color worn by the five members of the group) and chants. Momoiro embraced the “summer” in Summer Sonic by wearing swimming costumes complete with flotation devices. The members sang their hyperactive J-pop numbers in front of various bright-colored videos and sometimes fired gifts into the crowd using two cannons. The glow sticks never stopped moving along.
What also stood out, though, was how complex some of their songs could get. Momoiro isn’t all that different from current pop idols AKB48, save for the extra attention they give to their music. Songs feature different segments, such as “Mirai Bowl,” which jumps from showtune pop to acid-house freak out to Queen-like ballad all in four minutes. Momoiro took the visual ridiculousness so common in contemporary J-pop and applied it to the music, imagining a future where songs can be as out there as music videos. Despite sticking out on the bill, Momoiro’s intricate J-pop fit in well at a festival full of similar forward-thinking acts.