For whatever reason, I felt busier than ever before at Fuji Rock in 2017. Rather than soak in full sets, I was constantly running from one thing to another, partially for blog-related responsibilities and partially because I wanted to catch at least a little of every act on my list. So making a best-of feels especially daunting this year, and apologies in advance to Bjork, The xx, Shugo Tokumaru and Jun Togawa, artists who I could catch a couple of songs but then had to bail. More might have gotten you on this list. But here are my top five:
5. Death Grips
Full disclosure: I have to be in a very specific mood to enjoy the music of Death Grips, and that mindset isn’t one I’d prefer to be in. Luckily for the trio on Saturday, my day had been rough, so the chance to watch their scream-heavy mutant hip-hop sounded perfect, and all the better if the crowd turned into a Royal Rumble. I didn’t drop any ‘bows on anyone, but seeing MC Ride command the stage and Zach Hill pummel his drum kit boosted my spirit, even if only for a few songs. Sometimes, you just want that violent release.
One constant theme over the three-day festival was the importance of visuals, with every Green Stage headliner leaning heavily on biggie-sized images, and with many of those appearing on smaller stages relying on some sort of eye-ball-grabbing hook to get people captivated. Keigo Oyamada is a master at this sort of stuff, having created intricate live shows built around synched up images for his Cornelius project back in the 2000s. A handful of these backdrops appeared during his set on the Green Stage Saturday, and they sounded (and looked) just as solid as ever. What pushed it over the top though was the new songs from this year’s Mellow Waves, which find the Shibuya-kei godfather reflecting on his life and looking towards tomorrow. The visual matched up well with these new songs, but it was the free-wheeling feel of these songs that really made him one of the highlights on the Green Stage all weekend.
3. De De Mouse
Sometimes, energy is all you need. Tokyo-based electro-pop maker De De Mouse played one of the first shows on the Red Marquee Friday around noon, and it ended up one of the most memorable of the whole three-day stretch. The key was how he dove right into his twinkly dance numbers, raising the pace of the whole show by fist pumping and jumping around the whole time (and launching his glasses off his face in the process). His live band added extra punch to these songs, and turned it into one of the biggest rave-ups of the weekend.
2. Wednesday Campanella
The performance I’m still thinking about days after the festival finished. At the time, Wednesday Campanella’s set at the Red Marquee forced complete attention, as whirling-dervish-incarnat KOM_I turned the crowd into her stage over the course of her kinetic and at-times avant-garde performance. She pulled a parachute over our heads, shined crystals around and at one point lifted a baby into the air and sang to it in one of the weekend’s sweetest moments. Not everything went according to plan, but even in the miscues Wednesday Campanella held our attention — and forced everyone to point their smartphones in KOM_I’s direction to record her latest move. It was the most left-field performance of the weekend, which should always be lauded at a time when it is so easy to phone things in, and seemingly designed to highlight her resume as a legit pop star, the sort who can demand attention regardless of what she does. This is the one I’ll remember the most a few years down the line.
1. Aphex Twin
At one point relatively early in Aphex Twin’s headlining set, it felt like the end of the world. As Richard D. James played something approximating a bass drop, the sky over Naeba opened up and poured down worse than it would all weekend. Rain drops smacked against jackets harder than at any point over the three days, and the ground went from sorta slippery to pure soup. During it all, the stage erupted in strobes and lasers. I didn’t even think twice of taking shelter — if anything, I felt a little let down when the elements let up every so slightly.
Nothing came close to matching the spectacle of Aphex Twin taking to the Green Stage Saturday night at Fuji Rock 2017, both visually, sonically and contextually. That rainstorm was pure coincidence, but felt a fitting addition to a set full of disorienting and downright creepy touches. Aphex Twin’s light show went from captivating to chaotic at a seconds notice, while the accompanying videos included spiffy facial-mapping technology that allowed someone to merge those in the crowd with various filters. And there were Japan-specific touches, such as popular celebrities and internet memes turned monstrous, and a portion where cuddly mascots such as Hello Kitty and Doraemon had James face graphed onto their own while breakdancing. Not a ton of children watched Aphex Twin, but every single one that did will start therapy in the near future.
Just as wonderfully jarring was the music, which managed to both be very Aphex (drum ‘n’ bass snippets! sliced-and-diced mayhem!) and also a bit of an electronic music history lesson, grazing acid to EDM over the course of 90 minutes. Yet this wasn’t the sort of music out to please anyone specifically. It teased collapse throughout — and the entire final stretch was pure noise — and was ultimately as strange and downright bewildering a Fuji Rock headlining slot could get. It was overall a strong year, but it was Aphex Twin serving as a reminder of how wonderful Fuji Rock can get when something left-of-center gets the chance to do their performance how they want, regardless of how people react. The end result — a stunning and attention monopolizing set that was the high point of my weekend.