Moogfest: Kelela, Author & Punisher, Jon Hopkins
Downtown Durham
Thursday, May 17, 2018

Moogfest is a land of circuits and loops, so I guess it’s apt that I got stuck on a track between The Carolina Theatre and The Armory all night, as if I too were a digital packet or analog wave spinning in some machine’s brain.

After whiling away too much time with wristband-less friends at Accordion Club instead of seeing music, I finally made it to The Armory at ten to see San Diego noise auteur Author & Punisher, a good get in the experimental-music part of the Venn diagram (with dance music and electronic pop) that defines the festival.

Tristan Shone builds occult analog synthesizers and adds an overlay of mechanical horror with stylized casings and controllers. Trussed up in menacing devices, he churned groaning, growling low frequencies into industrial music without drums, doom metal without guitars. He had these silver tubes he played with his fingers, like wineglasses, but evil. He muttered obscurely into a weird microphone that looked like a Saw movie trap that was going to rip his jaw off if he didn’t slay. So he did, though his noise is more severe than harsh, more ominous than dangerous. The festival’s vaunted immersive A3 sound system sounded like, I don’t know, some good speakers. I didn’t see holograms or anything.

Before it was over, I rushed off to catch Kelela at eleven, which turned out to be a mistake—the rushing, not seeing Kelela perform her protean art-pop. After basically dog-paddling through the flooded streets, I sat in The Carolina Theatre with many other 100-percent soaked people, lightly steaming and waiting. And waiting. And waiting, listening to Jurassic 5 songs on the PA all the while. Men kept appearing on stage as if to tell us something and then just rearranged cords. But about forty minutes later, all was forgiven when Kelela strode out, offering no explanation (you don’t need one when you’re standing in front of your name in ten-foot-high letters), dressed in a voluminous white garment that gave her stylized movements a priestly import. “This is about to go off, OK?” she said as the staccato chords of “Blue Light” began to pulse; we also got to hear “LMK” and other Take Me Apart standouts, with their fine balance of mystery and intimacy.

I had planned to check out Valgeir Sigurdsson and Liam Byrne’s “sleep concert” after Kelela, but before she finished, I was already antsy from being in Fletcher Hall for so long. It’s a good venue for sit-and-watchy shows, but not for pop you want to dance to, which Kelela, despite her artful abstraction, definitely is. (Moogfest has always done this; when it was still in Asheville, I remember seeing M.I.A. at a large seated auditorium, with everyone gyrating awkwardly in the aisles.) So I swam back to The Armory, where U.K. techno sorcerer Jon Hopkins was well into deejaying a pristine, savage acid-trance set, plunging over rugged crystal cliffs and valleys. Then Aurora Halal matched it effortlessly with her live-hardware jams, her sound as burnished and globular as Hopkins’s was grungy and angular, and perhaps even more epic.

Can I say, I kind of like rainy Moogfest? There’s something freeing about just planning to get drenched and bedraggled and then dance it off with other drenched, bedraggled people. The Armory dance floor, while lively enough, didn’t rise to the level of ecstatic communion Hopkins and Halal were offering; the crowd stayed atomized in small groups and deeply focused individuals. This matched the slightly cloistered feeling of the festival overall. Without a central outdoor stage, it feels discreet on the street. But I’m not going to complain about knowing I can find well-attended dance parties thrumming in spacious, sound-focused rooms basically anytime in Durham, at least for these few days.