[Morton Subotnick; photo by Mike Shiflet]
By Max Burke
It's been three years since Chicago implemented a smoking ban in bars and restaurants, and it's a miracle that it has taken such a short time for the tobacco stench that surely once permeated The Empty Bottle to flee. The venue is located in the Ukranian Village, an enclave that retains its ethnic namesake despite the signs of gentrification's steady creep. Across the street from an upscale “heavy metal bar and grill,” where surly waitresses serve $13.00 burgers and the menu implores you to “unhinge your jaw," The Empty Bottle embodies that coveted rarity of a dive with a killer sound system. For the second annual Neon Marshmallow Festival, curated by Acid Marshmallow's Matt Kimmel and Neon Blossom's Daniel Smith, the pool room has been converted to a merchandise empire, with various acts and local aficionados plying their wares. Both Reckless and Permanent records proudly displayed banners while CHIRP Radio, a local volunteer effort, was on hand for outreach efforts. Tables were overrun with limited vinyl, cassettes, art books, and t-shirts, etc. Musicians, friends of musicians and volunteers manning the tables were happy to chat.
On-stage, the trio of local free jazz perennials Jim Baker, Michael Colligan, and Michael Zerang were working through an uncompromising electronic set, highlighted by Colligan's manipulation of dry ice with various implements including tea kettles and oversize coffee can cylinders. The magic moment between the close of a set and the silence of a room at rapt attention passed, and the crowd erupted in appreciation.
The phrase “Mastered by James Plotkin” will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in current underground music. Discogs lists 250 production credits for Mr. Plotkin, and more than 25 in 2011 alone. Aside from his in-demand mastering skills, he has played with high profile projects like Khanate. Less well known is Plotkin's solo work, sporadically documented throughout the years. With a black-on-black visual milieu and his guitar running into a laptop, Plotkin delivered a low-key, high-volume performance that located the sweet spot between the over-determined lurch of the “doom metal” genre and the forward-thinking manoeuvres of European improvisers like scene godhead Christian Fennesz.
[Mountains; photo by Mike Shiflet]
I felt a twinge of anxiety as Koen Holtkamp and Brendan Anderegg of the New York-via-Chicago electronic duo Mountains hoisted their table of gear onstage, visibly straining under the weight of the equipment. The rig included the recent addition of a patch that synchs up the electronic elements of their sound, leaving the duo free to explore its more organic elements. With their use of shimmering synths, processed acoustic guitar, vintage electronics, and laptop, the group touched on a dazzling variety of techniques that define the current experimental electronics scene, while playing on the strength of the chemistry between them.
[Rene Hell; photo by Mike Shiflet]
Jeff Witscher has been in the noise game for a long time, cycling through solo monikers every few years and participating in a variety of projects; Deep Jew and Secret Abuse are just two of the more well known. By all appearances, his latest incarnation, Rene Hell, has upped his visibility by some measure. His latest full-length, The Terminal Symphony (Type), turns the underground scene's continuing fixation on analog sounds on its head, resulting in a sound closer to classic IDM. His live set married throbbing techno with noise proclivities, perhaps most closely recalling Carlos Giffoni's recent No Fun Acid project. After years of playing out, Witscher understands the power of brevity, his brief but engrossing performance leaving the crowd wanting more.
[Lucky Dragons; photo by Eric Newmiller]
Seated in the dark, their sole light source a Theremin-like device that reacts to the reflected silver of a stack of CD-Rs as they are manipulated by various audience members, Lucky Dragons felt like the perfect summation of the first night of Neon Marshmallow. This Los Angeles duo operates on the line between sound art and traditional musicianship; sonically, the result was surprisingly coherent, an undulating wave of blissful ambiance.
Saturday night offered arguably the most diverse lineup of the three days, swinging from the relaxed, arpeggiated synth-scapes of Dylan Ettinger to the uncompromising scree of Sword Heaven (here expanded to a three-piece, including trumpet and metal sheet). Sword Heaven's set the scene for an aggressive and confrontational evening, even by the standards of a left-field festival like Neon Marshmallow.
Following a headbanging synth set from John Elliot's Outer Space, Chris Goudreau took the stage. Goudreau, who has been performing under the moniker Sickness since the 1980s, was the second artist of the night to mic his throat for a growling effect (the first was Sword Heaven's Aaron Hibbs). Unfortunately, the fierce intensity of Sickness' harsh noise set was undercut by the presence of a harmonica heckler, a misguided individual who would toot from the audience during the breaks within Sickness’ avalanche of sound. He was quickly silenced by Goudreau's brief exhortation to “Please punch that motherfucker.” Goudreau concluded the set with a middle finger to the audience.
[Bill Orcutt; photo by Mike Shiflet]
In an interview I conducted with guitarist Bill Orcutt before he went on stage, I mentioned that his solo material seemed much less confrontational than the infamous performances of his previous band, Harry Pussy; he told me to wait and see. That threat was fulfilled when Orcutt opened his set by instructing the crowd to "Shut the fuck up," and then dived into a brief but mesmerizing series of bluesy, atonal tunes-- punctuated by his signature, sub-verbal, yelping vocalizations. This sparse, entirely acoustic interlude provided a nice contrast with the next act.
Daniel Lopatin's prolific solo project Oneohtrix Point Never has come to define a sizeable scene in its own right. When he plays in his home environs of Brooklyn, Lopatin has been known to haul a portion of his vintage synth gear with him. On tour, however, it becomes impractical to employ such a cumbersome setup. Using a laptop and a variety of mixers and processors, he managed to recreate some aspects of the OPN sound that his quietly enthralled listeners were craving. The set reflected the harsher and more dissonant approach Lopatin tends to take live in contrast to the bright, glistening sonics of much of his recorded output. There is no question that an aspect of his warm, vintage sound was lost in this setup. But the onlookers didn’t seem to mind, and the crowd swelled to its largest size of the evening for his penultimate set.
Closer, Pelt, offered an easy contrast with many of the previous acts. Beginning with their trademark singing bowls drones, they progressed to gongs and various other percussion implements. Following a brief personnel shuffle, the groove by now long established, Pelt shifted into maximal mode. Six members crowded the stage, including three fiddlers, and two players on harmonium. The group's swell of sustained drone seemed to slow time, leaving the crowd to quietly find their way in the wee hours of the unseasonably cool night air.
[Sam Prekop; photo by David Perron]
Sunday's activities began early with a matinee set of experimental film with live accompaniment-- a special presentation by Northwestern University’s studio-run radio station, WNUR 89.3 FM, as part of its Sonic Celluloid series. The Empty Bottle had the unmistakable odor of last night's stale booze as punters slowly drifted in, clutching coffee cups as a guard against inevitable hangovers and exhaustion. Outside, the air was as crisp and clear as one could hope, while inside David Daniell (a last replacement for cancellation Zac Davis) inaugurated the final day with a set of processed guitar, played to Ralph Steiner's 1929 abstract study of flowing water, H20. By coincidence, I had seen Text of Light (Nels Cline, William Hooker and Alan Licht) improvise to this exact piece in Brooklyn just a few weeks earlier. While that group had taken the film as a starting point for a wailing, dissonant set of unhinged jamming, Daniell hewed closer to the film's literal flowing quality, a relatively soothing approach to ease listeners into another full day that would grow steadily harsher over time.
The afternoon program concluded with the first ever live performance for modular synthesizer from Chicago experimental fixture Sam Prekop, perhaps best known for his work in The Sea and Cake. Prekop soundtracked the animations of Robert Breer, whose work marries a whimsical aesthetic with an attuned sense of the personal and political, and reflects the tumultuous years of its creation (selections ranged from the late ’50s through the 70s). Breer's animations often incorporate delirious jump cuts that re-contextualize what has come before-- a cut from actual film footage of a railcar, for example, to a crude line drawing of the same thing. In like manner, Prekop would let a melody progress to the point of banality then distort and re-incorporate it into the next movement. He delivered on these surprise changes again and again, and was rewarded with a rousing ovation at the conclusion of the set.
[Telecult Powers; photo by Mike Shiflet]
The final night of the festival held a lineup as diverse as the previous two, but was noticeably skewed toward the harsh end of the experimental spectrum. Long-time Columbus, Ohio operator Mike Shiflet's delicate guitar manipulations, accompanied by a projection of a static shot of a single flower, cast a wistful and lonely spell over the venue. Following Shiflet was the New York/New Orleans modular synth duo Telecult Powers. While projecting a vintage science film about photosynthesis onto a hung sheet, they recruited an audience member for a brief ritual as their precise, droning sound filled the ears of eager onlookers. Having seen the group a number of times in their native locales play to an indifferent audience, the set was a revelation in flickering candlelight to the rapt and attentive set of onlookers. Genuinely strange and understated, it is the obvious chemistry between principals Mr. Matthews and Witchbeam, as well as the seriousness of their commitment to the "occult kitsch" dimension of their aesthetic that sets Telecult Powers apart.
If there was one word to describe Morton Subotnick's set, it was "busy." Clusters of barely-perceptible melodies panning between the speakers, abrupt intrusions of atonal distortion cutting off just as it sounded like something approaching a traditional structure was cohering. Subotnick expertly shifted between the Buchla and his laptop, triggering wave after wave of iridescent tones in equal measure with a discordant din that would undulate in and out of the audible field. As the set built to its conclusion, the easy and expected "release"-- a rush of harmony or warm, enveloping feedback-- was nowhere in sight. A brief jolt of pulsing oscillations and then silence.
As the stragglers and artists nursed beers at the bar, recounting their favorite moments over a 72-hour period which was a catalog of highlights, it was clear that Neon Marshmallow has answered as many questions as it had posed. Yes, Columbus, Ohio has a surprisingly fertile scene. No, old hippies can't appreciate The Rita (as one remarked after Sam McKinaly's brutal harsh noise set : “He should be shot.”). As voices lowered and the crowd trailed off only one question still hung in the air, unspoken: What's Next?