Photo by Keiko Hirakawa
“Pleasant” didn’t cut it at the 20th anniversary of Fuji Rock. Everything that has stuck with me nearly a week after returning from the wilds of Naeba either delivered the absurdity I expected or caught me so off guard in its goodness it pushed out every happy-to-be-here set, the type of performance where you wish Fuji Rock a happy birthday and then give them the aural equivalent of a gift card. But my favorite acts from the 2016 edition of the festival made me stand mouth agape. In order:
Context: I’ve seen the viral teen trio do their thing at other festivals before, so I knew exactly what to expect: pure spectacle. Babymetal provided just that, from their energetic stage show — moving from cutesy pratfalls to locked in screaming and headbanging, natch — to the diehards up front, who formed an impressive circle pit. Ultimately, the absurdity of simply seeing something like Babymetal on the White Stage really elevated this one up, but the pure energy and plain fun of it made it a highlight.
4) Years & Years
Olly Alexander, man. He could make nervous between-song laughter and pink rabbit backpacks seem like the coolest stuff in the world from the Red Marquee stage Sunday night, and the energy he brought to Years & Years set elevated it from bop-worthy electro-pop to one of the finest pop performances of the entire weekend. The trio’s anthemic numbers had the crowd jumping…the many 20-somethings around me reacted to even deep album cuts like they had been waiting their whole lives to hear it delivered by a thin singer with a habit of spinning around…and hinted at the big-time potential Years & Years have. Definitely expect to see them on an even larger stage in the near future.
3) Mura Masa
My first out-of-nowhere surprise of the fest came at midnight, when Mura Masa got the Red Marquee bumping with frantic female vocals and bass rumbles that literally send shivers across your body. Part of the charm was going into it not even really knowing who Mura Masa was, but pure eye-opening shock sells short just how polished and danceable it all was. This was the performance that really got the weekend going for me.
2) Oomori Seiko
A few years ago, Oomori Seiko topped my “best of” list, so I went in to her Sunday set at the Red Marquee with high expectations. And the confrontational artist delivered, but in a way I didn’t expect. Seiko fronted an energetic band, and whereas before she charmed by feeling out-of-place at a fest like Fuji Rock, this year she showed she could play the big-speaker game just as well. Critically, though, all the characteristics making her an intriguing artist — her unpredictable vocals, her wild movements, SCREAMING — came through clearly, and were simply amplified.
Really, it’s my fault for going into Battles’ White Stage set Sunday night not expecting something amazing. It’s not like this was my first time seeing the American trio…I’ve seen them multiple times over the past decade, and have come out of all those shows feeling like “whoa, that ruled!” But maybe that familiarity tricked me a bit. Something something math rock, something something precision, locked in and ready to write it up! I forgot just how much goes in to a Battles show, how the three performers generate every noise up there regardless of how long it takes them to fiddle around with knobs to get just the right tone. But all that attention and care leads to a great tension, and incredible moments of release that had the White Stage audience moving frantically to the at-times disjointed music. And, of course, no drumming sounded fiercer at Fuji Rock. Battles weren’t surprising or a spectacle…they were just a locked-in band who have perfected their live show, and let their music dominate.