The Wire SEPTEMBER 2001 - by David Elliot


With no Glastonbury and not much else in its stead, serious UK festival-goers have had to look further afield this summer. And while few would have been able to make it all the way to Japan, the Fuji Rock Festival nevertheless confirmed its status as one of the world's major music events. Brainchild of Masa Hidaka of Smash, the festival spreads along a valley in the Japan Alps and has the kind of audience Glastonbury's Michael Eavis would give his right arm for: no drugs, no trouble, no arrests. If that sounds boring, then ninety-thousand punters would disagree. But politely.

While the names of Eminem, Oasis, Neil Young, Manic Street Preachers, Asian Dub Foundation, New Order, Alanis Morisette and others will be the ones reported elsewhere, there was more than enough alternative talent over the three days to warrant coverage here. Sensitive, staggered programming over the four main stages meant that there was a minimum of difficult decisions, although the walk between the Field of Heaven, which showcased most of the Japanese groups, and the Red Marquee, which hosted many of the dance acts, could take as long as half an hour.

Friday warmed up quickly (literally - it was 35° by 10am when the gates opened), and provided an early highlight with an astonishing set from The Boredoms, billed for the occasion as VOORE!!!!!!!DOMS. Two years ago they had played a relatively (for them) straight rock set with two drum kits, guitars and Yamatsuka Eye upfront roaming free and screaming like a madman. This time they went for no less than six drummers, no guitars and with Eye anchored, as much as anyone can anchor Eye, behind an altar of turntables and FX. The result was one long seventy minute piece that was truly symphonic in scale. It built slowly, revealing itself in vaguely discernible 'movements', sometimes propelled by a unified, demonic pulse, other times led by Eye's electronics, with the six drummers switching from kit to timpani. It would reach intense cymbal crescendos before abruptly careering, Magma-like, into a quite different groove. The longer this went on, the less likely Eye was going to remain tethered, and sure enough, during a period of startling vocal pyrotechnics, he jumped onto and then over his console, lost in a world which not too many people would want to visit.

Shortly after this, while Oasis were lacklustrely headlining the main (Green) Stage, a large throng had decided to check out Tricky on the White. With hardly any lighting and his back to the audience for almost the entire set, Tricky's performance was both intense and removed. The new songs went down well, though, with his narcotic drawl countered by a more melodic rapping of his co-conspirators. And Overcome is still one of this eeriest songs this side of Bristol.

Saturday opened with one of the most interesting of the Japanese acts: Rovo from Tokyo. Their combination of violin, guitar, bass, keyboards, effects and two drummers (one just isn't enough for the Japanese) made for a heavily rhythmic, retro sounding affair that, like The Boredoms previously, built slowly and peaked frenetically, but unlike Eye and Co, they kept their mouths shut and their feet firmly on the ground. The crashing, doom-laden guitar sound of Mogwai was next up: so thick it was like being wrapped in a blanket, and so intense it was difficult to bear more than half an hour of its sad, earsplitting beauty. A nostalgia trip with Echo & The Bunnymen preceded a deeper delve into the past with Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Having successfully transformed himself into a kind of 'godfather of Grunge', Young continues to live up to his name rather than his age and, with hardy perennials Crazy Horse in tow, he performed a searing set. While hats must be duly tipped, the reluctance to end each song without ten minutes of distortion and false climaxes grew tiresome, leaving you longing for more acoustic, measured songs like Needle And The Damage Done or Only Love Can Break Your Heart.

With New Order meanwhile making a patchy comeback without Gillian Gilbert but with, for some reason, With Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan guesting (not very effectively) on guitar, the interest shifted to the dance tent with a DJ set by Luke Vibert as Wagon Christ and a live set by Dub Squad, Vibert continues to flit from one style to another, but tonight he played it straight with some serious breaks which ensured a happy, heaving Red Marquee. Tokyo's Dub Squad have been slowly building up a reputation over the years, consolidated by this year's Versus album and the fact that they can recreate their complex dub'n'bass live. Keyboardist/guitarist Masuko Tatsuki is also a member of Rovo, meaning he was playing his second set of the evening. Two guys dressed as large skittles danced either side of the stage. The crowd was bowled over. Doubtless Rei Harakami, Fumiya Tanaka and Richie Hawtin would have been noteworthy, but some people have to sleep.

On Sunday the action was mostly on the White Stage with a roster of alternative dance acts from the UK. Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood's Two Lone Swordsmen played an excellent set of subtle rhythms and live electronics while Warp labelmate Squarepusher pumped up the volume and intensity with his jazz-tinged, heavy drum'n'bass. With Autechre having pulled out at the last minute, festival favourites Orbital were drafted in and gave a decent enough performance. Illuminate and the Dr Who theme from the latest album and old favourites Satan and Chime were crowd pleasers but the brothers rather seemed to be going through the motions. And so it was left to Coldcut to provide some much needed stimuli. Jonathan More and Matt Black have long had a affinity with Japan: their Ninja Tune label was dreamt up while on a visit and their Vjamm programmed visuals have much in common with the sample-and-hold imagery of downtown Japanopolis. At any rate, they performed a storming audio-visual set of urgent beats and syncopated, cut-up images. Certainly more interesting than the Blair Witch-style camcorder intro to Eminem which had just started on the main stage.

And so the last act of a long weekend: Brian Eno's Drawn From Life project with J. Peter Schwalm was a strange but inspired choice. Strange because, bar the odd cameo and Drawn From Life's only other appearance (in Portugal) earlier this summer, Eno has not performed live since the '70s; inspired in that this was a genuine coup and a perfect wind-down to the festival. With five other musicians, from the UK and Germany, they launched into what could loosely be described as Ambient funk, heavy on percussion and chopped guitar. Eno and Schwalm played keyboards and sample center stage and were obviously enjoying themselves, with the former having even learned some (pretty impressive) Japanese for the occasion. The slow, cool rhythm of Like Pictures kicked in, with its beautiful, arabesque violin melody, followed by some new material and even a slick version of No One Receiving, from 1977's Before And After Science. No sooner had we gotten used to the fact that Eno was actually here, live, in the flesh, then it was all over. A bewitching finale to a magical weekend.