Synths invade C-U for Pygmalion Music Fest

Washed Out is pretty good at picking song titles.

“This song is called ‘Soft,’” said Washed Out auteur Ernest Greene. The song title is as apt as Greene’s introduction.

“Soft” begins with a one-note synth line that resonates for half a minute before drums introduce a tempo. There is little discernible bass, and the lyrics, like the band name suggests, are washed out by echo effects and synthesizers.

This year’s Pygmalion Music Festival showcased a few bands from the “chillwave” genre, which is notable for its heavy use of synthesizers and unobtrusively light arrangements that border on easy listening.

Chillwave is considered retro because of its use of synthesizers, which were used in such excess in the 1980’s that they’ve become almost as trivialized as the keytar. A few shows at the Canopy Club this weekend brought the synth back to its 1980’s heyday (but thankfully left the keyboard-guitars at home).

Two of the genre’s breakout stars played shows on back-to-back nights at the Canopy Club. Thursday’s show highlighted the sounds of Toro Y Moi, who have certainly drawn comparisons to Washed Out, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Toro Y Moi employ driving drums and extra-funky bass that make up their rhythmic backbone. In contrast, the synth and electric guitar were used as accents; the wobbly synth blurbs on tracks like “All Alone” provided the futuristic-by-way-of-1986 fillers that made the music all that more pleasant. The bass was so danceable and the guitar and synth fills were so amusing that it was virtually impossible to hate the music.

Washed Out, however, used the synth in a more melodic matter, favoring atmospheric sounds over quirky, danceable beats. It’s mood music for the Chillwave generation (sorry, Owl City), and a bill with Toro y Moi and Washed Out would have been an interesting, albeit relatively dull, combination.

1980’s overload came sometime around 9:00 Friday, when Australian rockers Cut Copy took the stage after Washed Out to keep the synth party alive. Though there were moments of African drums, dub bass and electronic guitar fuzz, Cut Copy are obviously from the Toto school of dance-pop, their lyrics being the only thing cheesier than their synth lines.

Though mostly amusing, relief from the synth attack came Saturday afternoon at The Highdive, where local record label Polyvinyl got to showcase their lineup of stellar acts.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard, once a staple in the local alt-music scene himself, beautifully encapsulated the underlying rebellion in the day’s acts in his introduction of Saturday headliners Braid.

He told a story of a wholesome band he once knew, and how they would go to school and church, drink their milk and stay away from dangerous women. “Then I meet these assholes. Here they are, Braid,” Gerard said.

Braid’s alt-punk antics lived up to the introduction and caused a stir in the college-aged audience. “So much blood, not enough set time,” one band member quipped. Not enough set-time, indeed.

But Saturday’s standout set was provided by Vancouver natives Japandroids, a punk duo whose set was a beautiful combination of unscripted messiness and unadulterated rage. Screechy-microphone feedback and faulty drum-kit stools would rattle a more professional band. But Japandroids are perfectly unprofessional, and made up for the set miscues with fiery guitar parts, screaming vocals and crisp drum fills. The band, however, did appear a bit embarrassed by the faulty equipment, so in typical punk fashion they took out their aggression on the instruments themselves by taking a guitar to the drum kit at the climax of their killer set.

It would’ve been more appropriate if they had smashed a synth instead.

_Joe Ward is a senior in Media._