Wednesday at Decibel Festival: Best Foot Forward

Zomby does not give a fook about you, me, or anyone else.

Despite having his face carefully concealed throughout his set with his trademark customized Guy Fawkes theatrical false face (think the pearly “V for Vendetta” disguise with splashes of blue Smurf birthmark; hey, it’s better than a giant red mouse head, right?), he made little attempt to mask his contempt for his Re-bar audience at Decibel’s Opening Party. Strange that such an exalted DJ should act like DJing is beneath him. Infamous for not turning up to his own gigs, Zomby actually made it to the stage last night (how magnanimous!) and stood eerily still over the glow of his MacBook as uncompromising beats poured from the speakers while he occasionally lifted up his mask to drink and smoke. This was before he would disappear backstage for minutes at a time, leaving the music booming and the room rudderless. Nevertheless, it has to be said that while Zomby might have all the charm of a sock full of cold urine, the music he played tonight was brilliant. Bass-heavy, doom-laden dubstep. Delicate Hotflush-style beats and Scuba-esque rhythms. Even a blistering, back-to-’94 jungle set complete with Amen anthems “Lord of the Null Lines” and “Jonny Jungle”!

Later came the ill-advised gunshot samples and malevolent rap segment: the only time that the dancing halted and you sensed the crowd was starting to tire of Zomby’s attitude. But best of all, the place was packed, shuffling room only. Appreciative smiles abounded. And all on a Wednesday night! There was a palpable sense of excitement for the beginning of a very special weekend for electronic music in our city.

Before all this happened, Toro Y Moi played the Crocodile. Not strictly a dance act, Toro Y Moi shouldn’t really be on the Decibel bill, but it’s nice to have some variety. Frontman and songwriter Chaz Bundick—does no one else think this is one of the greatest names ever?—and his three-piece backing band from Columbia, South Carolina are often dubbed “chillwave”, which doesn’t mean anything. They play lazy disco beats, retro filtered guitar, and faded funk synths, all complete with indie warbling so there’s something for everyone. Last night the band started off with dancey drums, loose hi-hats, and Korg arpeggios and squelches that could have soundtracked a Balearic beach party, but over the course of their set became progressively progressive rock as lava lamp lumps traveled west on a giant screen behind the group.

Auckland, New Zealand-via-Portland’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra opened. Lead singer and guitarist Ruban Nielson wore a crumpled shirt straight out of the laundry basket and his guitar so high on his chest it hid his chin. He played without a pick,  racing his fingers up and down the fretboard while his other hand awkwardly stroked the strings, making it look like he’s been playing for years and just started playing today. The band’s recently released debut consists of nine tracks of warm, lo-fi, bedroom-recorded psychedelic soul, but unfortunately live the warmth was largely gone and what is a yearning falsetto on tape sounded indifferent and tired on stage. The guitar riff to fan favorite “How Can You Luv Me?” was still killer.

Opening act Bass Drum of Death were about as un-Decibel as possible. Three nodding mop-headed dudes thrashed a drum kit and two guitars (no bass) between them and never, ever moved their hair out of their faces, making it look like the ’90s never ended. There’s no way you could even pretend to call this particular type of disheveled garage rock “electronic music,” because it isn’t, but it sounded underground and counter-cultural enough in its own way to have something in common with the rest of this weekend’s underground and counter-cultural sounds.