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Low numbers mean small-stage successes

A year of tough choices at Fuji

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

Wandering around on the opening day of this year’s Fuji Rock, I got the impression that numbers were down on previous years. Of course, anyone who has ever been stuck in the event’s seemingly never-ending lines for the portable toilets — or who’s been shut out from seeing their favorite band as the tent-like confines of Red Marquee filled to the brim — will be able to tell you that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, overall attendance clocked in at a cumulative 111,000 — the festival’s lowest total since 2004. There was a drop of 10,000 from last year’s edition on both the Friday and the Sunday, down to 30,000 — a loss of nearly a quarter each day. Of the three days, only the Saturday came close to selling out for headliner Björk. Perhaps the “Abenomics” spending push hasn’t quite extended its influence as far as Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture, or perhaps we can blame last week’s weather forecast.

Friday headliners Nine Inch Nails kicked off their performance in the midst of torrential showers and lightning — perfect conditions for listening to the somber industrial rock that Trent Reznor excels at. In fact, it was reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ Summer Sonic appearance in 2009, which also featured a mood-setting thunderstorm. Coming after a four-year live hiatus, the group showed no signs of ring rust, debuting two tracks from upcoming album “Hesitation Marks” before ending with “Hurt.”

Besides the rain, it couldn’t have helped that Nine Inch Nails were playing at the same time as divisive EDM (electronic dance music) upstart Skrillex took to the White Stage, with the two acts sharing similar demographics. Those who opted for the latter would at least have had the chance to dry off — the American DJ performed on top of a giant, spiderlike robotic construction that looked as if it had crawled out from the anime “Ghost in the Shell,” complete with extravagant blasts of pyrotechnics that were likely responsible for many a singed eyebrow in the front rows. Stagflation? What stagflation?

In another bizarre timetabling decision, the Green Stage was once again left looking somewhat bare on Sunday as the biggest draw of the night, The Cure, went up against three of their biggest fans — the members of British indie favorites The xx.

The trio closed out a packed White Stage with a mix of tracks from both their first and second albums, including “Chained” and “Night Time.” The young Londoners had the confidence to deliberately emphasize the stripped-down intimacy that characterizes their compositions and it resulted in one of the best performances of the festival. It would not have worked but for the politeness of the Japanese audience, which the band were obviously aware they could count on. Melodies hung poignantly in the air, and silences were stretched out to near-excruciating lengths, but at no point was even the slightest murmur audible from the crowd. It was only when vocalist Romy Madley Croft whispered the last tender breaths of set-closer “Angels” that the impeccably behaved spectators burst into applause. The band said it was an honor to be playing at the same time as their idols, The Cure.

Had they jogged along to the Green Stage after finishing their set, The xx would have actually found The Cure still in full swing, and halfway through an encore that was longer than most bands’ full sets. In total, Robert Smith led them through a marathon three-hour set, encompassing a selection of obscurities as well as all the anticipated hits. The test of endurance had clearly taken its toll on the fans who stayed for its duration, though, as even when they played “Boys Don’t Cry” at 12:15 a.m., it seemed like the majority could barely muster a cheer. The band eventually finished with “Killing an Arab” but “Let’s Go To Bed” might have been a more fitting choice. Of course, they’d played that earlier in the encore, too, and perhaps the dwindling audience had taken it as a hint.

Saturday night brought another tough decision between the eclecticism of Icelandic singer Björk and the feel-good rap of California’s Kendrick Lamar. Björk’s performance was focused on her “Biophilia” project, with her rendition of “Crystalline” alongside her choral entourage marking an early highlight. Tesla coils were brought out later, no doubt causing some traumatic episodes for those in the crowd who had been caught off guard by the apocalyptic thunder and lightning (and maybe Skrillex’s fire-breathing spider) of the previous night.

Hip-hop acts can sometimes struggle at Fuji Rock due to the festival’s rock-oriented focus, but Lamar, complete with a full live band in tow, won the crowd over with sing-along hits such as “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).” Also popular were Yokohama hip-hop crew Steruss, who won last year’s Rookie A Go-Go competition and were able to open the Red Marquee on Saturday as their prize. After trouble with the turntables during the sound check, engineers had to source a new pair from somewhere — the decks that Steruss ended up borrowing belonged to none other than their idols Jurassic 5, who reunited to pack out the White Stage after Lamar’s performance that day. You can bet a grateful Steruss were at the front for that set.

Elsewhere, highlights included the angular post-punk of Savages, the chaotic compositions of Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke and Dustin Wong’s earnest brand of indie psychedelica. Sotaisei Riron proved that there’s still room for innovation in J-pop, while Shugo Tokumaru — another Fuji semi-regular — impressed the crowd with his multi-instrumental indie-pop set that included “Katachi” and “Rum Hee.” Chillwave pin-up Toro y Moi did his best to inject some sunshine into what had been a mostly overcast three days, as did Australian group Tame Impala — their sun-kissed psych-rock at odds with the dreary skies.

If there was one consistent disappointment this year it was the late-night dance portion of the Red Marquee, which seemed to rely too heavily on generic and overly derivative strains of the maximalist EDM that is currently taking America by storm. One night of that would have been enough, but its presence on the lineups on all three nights was overkill, especially given that Skrillex had already taken the genre to its exaggerated extremities early on in the festival.

Thankfully, the brutally visceral Death Grips made for a much-needed palate cleanser. Silhouetted against a blank, white LED background, and armed with only the most rudimentary equipment, the trio barely even paused to breathe as they banged out their raw strain of hardcore punk and industrial hip-hop. It might not have been fashionable and it certainly wasn’t easy on the eyes or ears, but their bare-bones performance left a longer-lasting impression than any of their more profligate contemporaries. Now that’s proper bang for your buck.

  • Shaun McK

    For me the highlight was Kendrick Lamar. I don’t think he was at 100%, but it was still an awesome show. Having the full band was a bonus, too.

    • Shawn

      Having a full band definitely helped Lamar make a stronger impact. My personal highlight was Jurassic 5, but Lamar’s set was a great way to warm up for J5′s White State headlining performance.

  • MakeBelieveMeldoies

    At the time, Skrillex’s set was the most immediately memorable..your review pretty much nails the visual insanity of the whole thing (the robot spider breathing spider, geez). But almost a week on I’m struck how weird Sotaisei Riron’s set was…they were really adamant about no photos/videos, and played a really polished set…of all new material. It seemed like such an anti-festival move that seemed to make them stand out quite a bit in my mind. Their new songs are also great, so that helps

    • Shaun McK

      Yeah, describing the “no cameras” thing as anti-festival is pretty spot on. It’s better not to be on your phone the whole time during a set, but I prefer when fans come to that conclusion themselves instead of having security decide it for them.

    • Daniel Robson

      Soutaiseiriron have never allowed photos/videos – that’s part of their schtick.

      That’s also part of the problem. They’re so anti-publicity that I had no idea they had a new album out – despite being a huge and longtime fan, and someone whose job involves knowing about such releases, and despite it coming out ON MY BIRTHDAY. So yeah, I didn’t know the new songs either, and even if I did, a festival is not the place to play your entire new album, no matter how great the songs are (and they are great).

      The other problem with their live shows in general is that they tend to play energised, almost rock-out versions of their songs, but what I love about Soutaiseiriron is how quiet and tender their music is on CD. Their fans are so reverent, I’m sure the silence would add to the thrill if they played a hushed set.

      So yeah, they were one of my top draws at Fuji but I left a little disappointed.

  • upstairsforthinking

    The periodic thunderstorms certainly added some extra juice to a number of sets at Fuji Rock this year. Maeno Kenta To Soaploaders at the Field of Heaven on Saturday in particular sounded electric!

  • Ian Martin

    Savages were really intense and the rain was the perfect environment for the sort of gloomy, angry postpunk they were rocking. Bo Ningen at breakfast time on Sunday was a hell of a way to wake up too. The stuff that really set the atmosphere of the festival for me though was all the off the wall or just interesting or curious stuff happening at the far flung corners of the festival. Sparks and Mari Natsuki at the Orange Court, Maeno Kenta & Soaplanders at the Field of Heaven, Uhnellys and Mari Natsuki (again) at Naeba Shokudo, and the amazing Oni no Migi Ude at Rookie A Go Go.