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Fuji Rock 2017 Festival Review: Top 10 Sets

A little rain couldn't slow down a lineup touting Björk, Aphex Twin, and Gorillaz

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You’ll hear it again and again from anyone who’s been: Fuji Rock is a special festival. Nestled in the mountains of rural Niigata a few hours outside of Tokyo, this three-day festival is as much about the music as it is about soaking in all the gorgeousness that rural Japan has to offer: towering, cloud-capped hills; a burbling river to wade in; glowy nighttime pathways with disco balls scattering light across the trails. And festivalgoers really did soak it in: as seems to be the tradition, it was a rainy Fuji Rock this year, drizzling all three days with a downpour on Saturday. But that didn’t stop the hordes of Fuji goers from having an awesome time — one that, in many ways, is markedly different than most Western festival experiences.

For one, the trash carpet that typically accumulates on the ground throughout the course of a festival was amazingly absent (replaced instead by a nice, goopy mud flooring known for claiming unsuspecting flip-flops). Indeed, Fuji Rock holds itself to high environmental standards like much of Japan, including a rigid recycling system complete with staff ready to guide you through the process should you get confused as to where to toss your chopsticks.

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Along with the impressive lack of litter, there was also stark lack of smoke clouds among the crowd given that Fuji Rock is a strictly drug-free affair. Actually, Fuji Rock seems to be a more wholesome festival than many might be used to. Trendy couples decked out in proper hiking gear roamed the festival with strollers and children in tow, and to keep kids entertained if Björk wasn’t really their style, kids were welcome to climb around “Kid’s Land” in the woods, an eco-inspired playground that even adults would be jealous of.

And though Fuji Rock boasted some huge names this year — Björk, Aphex Twin, Gorillaz, and Lorde, to name a few — many Fuji Rockers seem to be regulars, making the trek to the hills every July no matter the lineup. Just looking at the abundance of camping gear, it was clear that many attendees were pros at the whole festival camping thing. Save your Summer ‘17 festival collection — the look for Fuji Rock consisted of hiking boots, oversize ponchos, and the ever-ubiquitous bucket hats. But despite donning gear fit for climbing Fuji’s namesake, many festival pros took the more lax route and staked out in chairs and tarps during music sets, scattered about the hills overlooking the massive Green and White Stages. In the states, you can bet your chair would be gone or your tarp trampled upon if left out for hours at a time, but at Fuji Rock this is a regular occurrence, and like most things in Japan, things surprisingly work out and faith in humanity is restored just that little bit.

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This year’s Fuji Rock was a rainy three-day marathon, the brunt of which was reserved for Saturday nighttime festgoers. But to keep the chill away, the festival’s tasty warm ramen was just a stone’s throw away at any given moment, along fire dancers and fireworks, because it’s not a Japanese festival if you don’t have fireworks. Yes, Fuji Rock is too special — and expensive — to waste sitting in a tent, rain be damned! And so, here are the top 10 acts of Fuji Rock 2017.
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10. The xx

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The xx at Primavera Sound by Philip Cosores

English indie group The xx took the stage Friday night, opening appropriately with “Intro” and transitioning smoothly into “Crystalised”. The xx cast a moody feeling across the stage, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft’s breathy, dark vocals intermingling. But as nicely as the duo vocals go together, Madley Croft introduced “Performance” with a pause, saying, “This next song I’m going to do on my own, and I’d like to dedicate it to anyone who finds it hard to say how they feel.” Her performance was honest while avoiding sappy clichés — stripped down and subdued without being boring. If The xx were colors, they’d be black and blue and the Fuji Rock sky — gray for miles but still beautiful.
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09. LCD Soundsystem

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LCD Soundsystem at Shaky Knees by David Brendan Hall

It’s hard to explain how exactly New York pop punk group LCD Soundsystem managed to pull it off, but for those who left Aphex Twin’s slightly overlapping set and made the trek out to White Stage, the rain seemed to fall a little less hard out there. Maybe it was just the crowd, but approaching LCD Soundsystem’s set felt kind of like walking into a party with all your friends, with music you used to hear bumping in the dorms. Songs like “Yeah” — simple, you know? “Yeah, yeah, yeah, hey, hey, hey, hey…” Don’t think too hard about it, just dance. They did play some newer material off of their yet-to-be-released American Dream, but nothing quite beats the old stuff, like the somber and hypnotic “Someone Great”. And maybe LCD frontman James Murphy was trying to be funny for his choice in encore music given the fact that the entirety of the crowd at this point was drenched and mud-soaked, but he finished the set with a pounding round of “Dance Yrself Clean”. Well, we’ll sure try.
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08. Cornelius

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Japanese oddball Cornelius kept it classy as he approached the Green Stage on Saturday, donned in sharp white button-ups, black pants, and sunglasses as “Welcome” flashed across the screen in cursive. His band played a mix of experimental, genre-bending tunes, including the more subdued “Sometime, Someplace” — a lovely electronic rock song that offered an upbeat start to the set. “Helix/Spiral” marked another spacey, robotic hit, followed later by the bizarre mix of heavy rock and robot pop on “Count Five or Six”. As expected, the set offered a delightfully diverse mix of music, and no matter what Cornelius played, the crowd seemed to absolutely revel in it, one girl in front furiously shaking her hips as she yelled “Tanoshinde!” (“Have fun!”) to her friend while two bucket-hatted guys in the back spun in circles. Perhaps the most pleasant track was the “Star Fruits Surf Rider”, a chirpy song that sounds like it belongs in the Super Mario universe rather than within a ski resort outside of Tokyo. But perhaps that’s the beauty of Fuji Rock’s unique location and vast mix of talents: it is as much of a sonic escape as it is physical.
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07. Rhye

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Rhye at Festival of Disruption by Heather Kaplan

Cool kids Rhye performed on Friday out in the Field of Heaven, the most remote stage in Fuji Rock, but somehow appropriate for this group. There was something really special about the crowd that ventured out there to see them. The group eased with care into the set, snapping along to the beat as they opened with “Verse”. An understated dude in an oversized black sweater, Canadian singer Milosh delivered an impressive live performance. His voice is untouchable — smooth and decidedly feminine — crescendoing effortlessly over the Fuji crowd. Accompanying Milosh were string players who likewise delivered their parts with grace and precision. It was a carefully executed performance, yet appeared effortless. Of course, the hit of the show was the more upbeat “The Fall”, a song just as seductive as it is melancholic. At one point during the set, the microphone apparently couldn’t handle the silky vocals of Milosh, uttering a massive shriek of feedback across the crowd, but Rhye recovered quickly, demonstrating their truly unshakeable smoothness.
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06. Lorde

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Lorde at Coachella by Philip Cosores

Lorde knows how to get a crowd crowing! As usual, Fuji Rock was graced with less than ideal weather for this set, but despite the gloom and doom, the young New Zealand songstress came onstage dancing in her white trainers and gothic lace dress, gushing with an infectious sense of energy and charisma. Taking note of the mist-covered greenery of her surroundings, she casually mentioned the fact that she’s a witch, lowering her voice to note, “We might conjure the spirits tonight.” But honestly, the real magic was Lorde’s ability to get almost every audience member near the head of the stage up and dancing. She played some nostalgic nods to teenage longing, like “Buzzcut Season” and “Melodrama”, pausing to explain that the latter harks back to that time when you were a teenager, “throwing your whole heart into everything you do,” when everything was “psychedelic and fluorescent.” She expanded further upon youth later before playing “Ribs”, explaining, “This is a song I wrote when I was 15. I was afraid of getting older.” And it’s in that moment that you remember that Lorde is only 20 years old. If she’s exhibiting such a powerful stage presence and remarkable vocal range — at times strong and throaty, other times sweet and coquettish — it really is exciting to think about how she’ll continue to progress and develop in the upcoming years.
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05. The Avalanches

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The Avalanches at Governors Ball by Ben Kaye

Australian mix n’ match champions The Avalanches took the stage on Saturday when the rain was really starting to pick up, but it didn’t stop this colorful crew from radiating good vibes across the rain-soaked crowd. While the majority of Fuji Rock had mud up to their ankles at this point and grim, dripping faces shrouded by hoods, The Avalanches’ crew looked great in flashy sparkles, camouflage, cheetah print, and toothy grins to accompany it all. The group decided to kick off with a bold move, not only starting their set with their 2016 hit “Because I’m Me”, but asking the nearly silent crowd to sing along. To tell you the truth, The Avalanches might have had a bit more energy than the Fuji Rock crowd could handle at that rainy moment, and at one point rap diva Eliza Wolfgramm picked up a baseball bat, swinging it around stage as if to whack some momentum and energy into onlookers, before eventually admitting that they didn’t realize how bad it was raining out there. Still, good vibes were all around. They killed it with “Subways” — a disco dream-pop hit with an accompanying ’60s-style video all about cartoons just trying to figure out the big, bad world of public transportation. But of course, “Since I Left You” stole the show with its fizzling burst that got everyone grooving. Despite the slightly sleepy nature of the 5:00 p.m. Saturday crowd, there’s no denying that the Avalanches delivered an uplifting and dance-worthy set.
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04. Slowdive

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Slowdive at FYF Fest by Philip Cosores

English shoegazers Slowdive played a Sunday afternoon set, another gloomy day but markedly less soaked than the previous. Their set felt right given the weather and the general hungover mood of Fuji Rock that day, and as they approached the stage, all dressed in unassuming dark clothing, a palpable sense of relief seemed to settle over the crowd. The group opened with “Slomo” and followed with “Catch the Breeze”, a fitting inclusion given the cool breeze blowing into the Red Marquee stage as rain drizzled on outside the awning. It was clear that there were some longtime Slowdive fans in the crowd, as people of varied ages whipped out phones to record their set as soon as they began. They played all the hits — “Souvlaki Space Station”. “When the Sun Hits”, and “Crazy for You” — and genuinely seemed to be really enjoying themselves up there, including a smiling Rachel Goswell who swayed along in between singing breaks. But the show-stealer was the finale, a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, complete with hammering drums and shrieking guitars worth ripping out your earplugs for. “You guys are quiet,” Goswell remarked, but we’re only trying to hear what you’re saying over the ringing in our ears, okay?
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03. Aphex Twin

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Aphex Twin at Primavera Sound by Philip Cosores

Irish electronic artist Aphex Twin took the stage Saturday night, by far the rainiest day of Fuji Rock, and delivered a performance that can only be described as a welcomed assault on the senses. Frenetic laser lights pierced audience members from the stage while rain poured down from above. This wasn’t a set that you could watch from your folding chair on the hill. That would have been downright unpleasant in the pouring rain. Instead, he delivered heavy beats that hit firm and cold, so if you wanted to stay warm during this set, you had to move. Despite Fuji Rock’s reputation as being a relatively tame festival crowd, people went mad for Aphex from song one, “Acid beat test (Mad Zach)”, with the night and music eventually blending together in a mash-up of rain, lights, and bodies. The crowd pounded through the thick mud with the beat, dancing among strobe lights and hammering rain, ponchos swaying like ghosts in the dark. Despite the unfavorable conditions, Aphex Twin kept the momentum going deep into the set.
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02. Gorillaz

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Gorillaz in Chicago by Heather Kaplan

English virtual band Gorillaz took the stage Friday night, making their appearance with an ominous “Fuji Rock…” uttered by their infamous cartoons, followed by a panicked shout: “Hello! Is anyone there?” The group kicked off their set with a bumping “M1A1” from their 2001 self-titled album, followed by “Ascension” off their latest. Gorillaz have a fascinating stage presence, songwriter and man-behind-the-magic Damon Albarn leading much of the show, singing and creating melancholy tunes from his melodica, while the Gorillaz’ virtual band engaged in various hijinks in the background. Also joining the band included ultraglam rapper Zebra Katz, who marched around stage in a silver jumper shooting dagger eyes, threatening to steal the show as he sang one of their new songs, “Sex Murder Party”.

It was tons of fun getting to revisit the universe of Gorillaz’s music videos. They’re a band that tends to create a sense of reveling in the grime, as greasy cartoons with missing teeth and sunken eyes romp around urban decay generally wreaking havoc, racing down streets and roaming under towering apartment buildings and occasionally shooting down pirate bastards while dreampop accompanies, as is the case with “On Melancholy Hill”. The cartoons seem to be having a blast, actually, and it’s clear Albarn was having an interesting time back in Japan, describing his recent state of affairs — arriving in Tokyo, getting on the bullet train, and feeling “very wavy.” Like several other musicians at Fuji Rock, he did comment on the somewhat subdued nature of the crowd, asking the crowd to disprove the stereotype that Japanese audiences are quiet. But ultimately, this show was a captivating, awesome time, despite the fact that the group neglected to play “Feel Good Inc”. After an expected encore, Gorillaz returned to the stage to play a dreamy, notably more somber ending with “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” and “Demon Days”, a giant flickering sun casting a glow over the stage.
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01. Björk

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Bjork at Ceremonia Festival by Philip Cosores

Seeing Björk in the flesh, you get the feeling that you’re witnessing some brief alien appearance, and you don’t want to move or say anything for fear that you’ll disturb them and they’ll leave. The Icelandic experimental goddess approached the stage in typical Björk gear, as martianesque as expected — a poofy, pink bell-bottom getup with platform boots and a translucent, white mask halfway between Phantom of the Opera and skin graft. Also accompanying Björk on stage was a string orchestra, which delivered a rich, warm accompaniment to her vocals. She opened the show with Vulnicura’s “Stonemilker”, delivering a touching performance with her singular vocals that sound straight from the record. Throughout the show, Björk remained enigmatic as ever, only occasionally uttering “arigatou” — albeit the cutest “arigatou” at Fuji Rock. Her personality, instead, shone through in her voice, in her fidgety little dance moves as she paced about the stage, in her drink of choice (champagne), which she sipped while nodding at the audience.

While one may expect a Björk show to come just short of a voyage to Venus, her set actually felt deeply personal and near intimate. There was a simplicity to her performance — just strings, electronics, and Björk. That said, for many songs, Björk’s set included some truly captivating and transformative visuals, some of them steeped in fantasy, others realistic and awe-inspiringly down-to-earth, like the mating dance of a superb bird of paradise or a hive of bees being infiltrated by hornets in slow motion. She finished her show with an encore — unexpected for an artist who seems to have cut all the frills and unnecessary banter out of her performance. For her final song, she performed the hypnotizing and ghostly “Hyperballad”, complete with a frickin’ fireworks show, because it’s Björk. “There’s a beautiful view from the top of the mountain,” she sang, and looking around at the sparks and colors and the hordes of soggy humans coming together in the Niigata night, one would have to agree.

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