Seeing as this week’s cover package is all about Virginia’s festivals, it’s worth considering festivals happening elsewhere that outdo local ones. It was with that in mind—partially, at least—that I headed down to the Tar Heel State last weekend to the Hopscotch Festival, an indie rock-centric festival (sponsored by a newspaper very much like this one) that colonized bars within a mile in downtown Raleigh.
The Brooklyn black metal act Liturgy has become a conversation piece for releasing its latest album, Aesthetica, on the indie rock label Thrill Jockey. The conversation is one indication visible at this weekend’s Hopscotch Festival that indie rock may be emerging from a few years of sunny trends.
There are two kinds of music festivals. There’s the Woodstock kind, where people stand outside and rearrange their picnic blankets to hear music at stages on either side of them. And there’s the SXSW or CMJ kind, where fans bust their hides to run through an unfamiliar city to try to catch sets by bands they can only pretend to have heard of. Or at least, that’s what I tend to do.
The second annual Hopscotch was the latter kind, and boasted a mix of regional acts to rival the Harrisonburg MACRoCk festival, and a slate of nationally-known (read: New York) acts to rival SXSW. That makes it a welcome addition for the Mid-to-South-Atlantic indie rockers among us who want to have a good time with our brother- and sister-bands while, we hope, catching some national attention.
In its own way, that mix made things a challenge: Were people talking about a band because their friends were in it, or because they were worth seeing? Not counting trendier acts like Toro y Moi and Beach Fossils, Hopscotch was a brainier and brawnier gathering than you might have expected, given the thoughtless feelgoodery that has blighted indie rock for a couple of years now. Perhaps that’s why darker bands seemed to dominate the conversation at this weekend’s fest.
At every marathon, there is always the long-haired, bearded guy who doesn’t look like he’d be into running marathons. That guy this weekend was the drummer for Brooklyn metal group Liturgy, Greg Fox, who set a searing, all-sixteenths pace for the group that’s been described as “black metal by hipsters.” More than its music, the band has become a lightning rod in the metal community for the musings of its frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who writes about the genre as if he were a 17th-century diarist: “Black metal’s virtue is that it can, using a combination of history, sound, and audacity, activate a connection to a sort of transcendental field, the perennial occult, the Absolute,” he’s written.
The band isn’t worth its controversy, but the blast beats, Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals —have you ever heard a sobbing eagle caught in a reverb tank?—and ripping, all-in concision achieved a sort of transcendence worthy, at least, of our attention. That’s a feat in a genre as formally dense, if not emotionally, as music made with guitars gets. The same was true with another innovative New York act on the cusp of the black metal revival, the supergroup Krallice. That group looked and sounded the part more than Liturgy, and employed similar tricks, but Krallice’s lesser fanfare made you wonder whether Liturgy’s most important innovation is being a black metal band that wears normal clothes.
It was one of Krallice and Liturgy’s influences, the Michael Gira-fronted dark rock act Swans, that stole the weekend from Hopscotch’s headliners like The Flaming Lips and Superchunk. Festivalgoers seen walking through Raleigh after their Friday set could hardly close their jaws—the band came out and opened with a drawn out, droney orchestral piece that channeled Terry Riley and Steve Reich, before launching into more than an hour full of brutal, arty material. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Swans’ almost sickeningly dark sound is finding favor among a new round of young listeners.
But so has another vintage act: Guided by Voices, the home recording forerunners based in Ohio and fronted by Robert Pollard, is among a rash of vintage (from the ’80s and ’90s) rock acts to have recently reunited, in many cases as a fundraiser for their members’ bad habits. The band announced that this set, surrounded by financial buildings in downtown Raleigh, was to be the last show its “classic lineup” would perform—which means we’re unlikely to hear much from other GbV members until the prolific Pollard’s next release.
For my money, one of the best bands I saw was the Toronto two-piece Japandroids. The group occupies an interesting place in this year’s festival, and in the modern indie rock landscape, as perhaps the only group that openly channels Warped Tour-friendly pop-punk. The venue’s P.A. wasn’t loud enough to float a two-piece (guitar and drums) that relies on immersive, blown-out sonics, but when he sang, guitarist and singer Brian King assaulted a wobbly mic stand in a spirit of perseverence worthy of the festival itself: Fake it, and you’ll make it.