Rock to a rising sun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong isn't blessed when it comes to music festivals, but just a four-hour flight away are two of the world's best. This year, there will be sombre undertones at Japan's Summer Sonic and Fuji Rock, but the quality of music and intensity of the partying should still be strong.

After March's earthquake and tsunami, hundreds of cultural events were cancelled, including the Kabuto Metal Festival and Punkspring. But the twin peaks of Summer Sonic and Fuji Rock are going ahead, even though ticket sales have been slower than usual.

The festivals offer contrasting experiences, but both have line-ups worthy of any festival bill in the world. Summer Sonic, held over two days in Tokyo and Osaka, is the traditional favourite for the biggest acts in rock and pop and is held in a stadium. Fuji Rock's line-up isn't always as commercially stellar, but it offers an unbeatable three-day experience in the mountains of the Naeba Ski Resort and attracts the hippest indie acts on the planet.

For bands with sheer pulling power, this year it's hard to look past Summer Sonic, which boasts the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes as headline acts, but Fuji is offering more than enough to whet the appetites of the most ardent music fans, with Coldplay and the Chemical Brothers leading the charge. The previously announced Queens of the Stone Age and The Avett Brothers were late cancellations.

Here's our guide to getting the best out of the festivals, and the highlights for each day.

Fuji Rock Festival

July 29-31, Naeba Ski Resort

This year's headliners - Coldplay, Faces (yes, Rod Stewart's Faces) and The Chemical Brothers - seem slightly disappointing. But the smart festivalgoer can avoid those stages and enjoy a wealth of lower-profile acts spread over smaller stages throughout the three days.

The great thing about Fuji is that it takes place in a resort. You can wander around aimlessly - through an enchanted forest, inside a chilled-out paddock, even take a cable car to the peak - and stumble upon a life-changing musical experience on the way. When planning your schedule, build in plenty of flexibility so you can soak up the atmosphere of the place and make some discoveries worth writing home about.

Friday: See Coldplay if you really have to, and, sure, drop in on the Arctic Monkeys and maybe even CSS, just for old times' sake. There will be more excitement, however, to be found elsewhere. The Vaccines, an indie rock group from Britain, have been setting tongues wagging at festivals in the US and promise to be one of the highlights, while San Francisco's Deerhoof will provide a brilliant screechy rock clash in the middle of the day. In the lovely, lazy Field of Heaven, check out Ron Sexsmith's melancholic folk pop and Noah and the Whale's laidback indie folk. For dancing, Four Tet and Jamie XX offer the perfect excuse to get your groove on. Also on Friday, Kaiser Chiefs, Manu Chao, Lee Scratch Perry, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and Big Audio Dynamite.

Saturday: because the bill doesn't pack as much big-name punch, Saturday is a good day for exploring new acts at Fuji. But when you're not roaming the mountains, make time for the layered inventive pop from Battles, the cool indie pop of Ra Ra Riot, and the Passion Pit-esque electro pop of the Naked and Famous. Digitalism, Asian Dub Foundation, and Steve Aoki head up the dance-friendly options, and the power pop of Fountains of Wayne and Incubus offsets the surf pop of Los Angeles indie act Best Coast.

Sunday: unquestionably the best day of the festival. Wilco's alt-country on the White Stage will be the biggest draw for many, but dance lovers will also be primed for the Chemical Brothers on the main stage at the end of the night. Anyone who saw British Sea Power play at Grappa's Cellar a couple of years ago will know they are not to be missed, while the fuzzy pop of indie darlings Beach House and the spiky rock of girl group Warpaint will keep the indie torch burning brightly. Scotland also has a strong presence in the form of post-rock kings Mogwai (who should be great in a Fuji setting) and hot indie rock act Glasvegas. Meanwhile, German digital hardcore group Atari Teenage Riot continue their comeback with what promises to be a frenetic performance on the red marquee stage. The searing two-hand rock of The Kills rounds off a huge day.

Summer Sonic

August 13-14, Tokyo, Osaka

Split over two days and between two cities, Summer Sonic crams in the mega acts for two exhausting days of arena rock and pop. While not as dramatic a setting as that enjoyed by Fuji, Summer Sonic competes with its ability to attract a diverse array of big-selling acts as well as a fair swathe of rising indie acts.

Saturday: many fans will buy a Summer Sonic ticket purely on the strength of Saturday's headliners, The Strokes. Which Strokes show up on the night will determine whether or not that is a wise decision. In their comeback year - Angles was the band's first album in five years - The Strokes haven't really changed much about their act: they still look bored on stage, they still lean heavily on debut album Is This It, and they are still producing the angular, disaffected rock that made them the apparent saviours of the genre in the early part of the millennium. Still, this is The Strokes, and if they're not too drunk on stage you can expect fair bang for your buck courtesy of timeless hits Last Nite, New York City Cops, and Someday.

A more novel proposition for the main stage is to be found in Beady Eye, which is basically Oasis without Noel Gallagher. The band are fronted by brother Liam, who of course claims he is once again in the world's best band. Critics don't really agree with him - Beady Eye's full-throttle rock has been described as lacking groove and creativity, and Liam's deliberate lack of theatrics can make for rather uninteresting stage dynamics. Put a tick beside Beady Eye anyway, just to see how Liam behaves.

There are a couple of yawns in the Saturday line-up - The Ting Tings, Simple Plan, Ne-Yo - but appearances by The Mars Volta, Death From Above 1979, and These New Puritans promise to blow any cobwebs away. Korn will keep nu-metal fans (are there any left?) happy, while the psychedelic rock of Canada's Black Mountain could well be the sleeper success of the festival. If you have to see just one act on the day, it has got to be Odd Future. The collective of young hip hop phenoms are the baddest asses on the US music scene, mixing intelligent and sometimes repulsive lyrics with dark themes and darker beats, as well as putting on limb-risking live shows that come with blind leaps into the crowd and verging-on-violent on-stage contortions and exhilarating physicality.

Sunday: no doubt about it, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are alone worth the price of admission for Sunday. Even if you manage to catch them at the AsiaWorld-Arena, seeing them in a stadium setting with tens of thousands of screaming fans will be tough to beat. The Chilis will take the opportunity to bust out a few tunes from new album I'm With You (due out on August 30), but their biggest hits will likely form most of the set list. This is going to be huge.

The rest of Sunday's line-up looks a bit wan in comparison. But The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and James Blunt will draw big crowds. Much lower-profile indie essentials include the wispy rock of Deerhunter, and Melbourne's electro-pop duo Gypsy & The Cat, who will be opening for fellow Summer Sonicers Friendly Fires in Hong Kong on August 16. Japan's glam rock heroes X Japan will provide an only-in-Japan visual spectacle for their masses of fans. Perhaps most intriguing will be The Village People, playing on one of the smaller stages with gay abandon.