- Jacob Faulkner
Despite the fact that electronic music has gone hand-in-hand with dazzling light and production shows for an almost uncountable number of years, it's often a partnership tied to some kind of traditional stage. But with a mind for futuristic aesthetics and world-building narratives, local duo Conquer Monster is changing that standard. For the past three years, they've been involved with the Illuminate Light Art & Technology Festival, a multidisciplinary art event that spans the first weekend of November and takes over The Gateway with light-oriented installations, art and performances.
Conquer Monster's first festival go-round occurred during its inaugural year, when they produced a 90-minute visual show projected onto a giant wall on Regent Street. Last year, though, they made the move to Clark Planetarium's dome theater. Although that theater is usually reserved for educational videos about stars and planets, Conquer Monster's unique Illuminate the Dome performance challenges their own approach to performances—and perhaps inspire a whole new use for dome theaters.
Conquer Monster is an ideal act to take on a stage usually reserved for cosmic materials and surreal visual experiences. The duo of Joshua Faulkner and Daniel Romero have been putting out their cosmic jams—made up of analogue and digital synths, with plenty of vintage fuzz and glitching to round things out—since 2011, with the release of their first self-titled EP. It, like much of their work, spins nostalgic yet fresh '80s synth-pop inspired electronic dance songs that ebb in and out of narrative arcs. Sound bites straight out of the likes of an Isaac Asimov novel provide a pulpy, moody atmosphere for music that feels primed for adventurous undertakings—like attempting to transport their fans' attention skyward.
As Romero and Faulkner prepare to do a full run-through of their program one evening at Clark Planetarium, they describe how that first time around, they made their elaborate music video in just a few months. "That sort of proved to Illuminate that we could come up with material if asked," Faulkner says. "I think they were gonna put up a random visualizer they had, but we wanted to do our own visuals." The next year—as Clark Planetarium was rolling out a new program called DomeLab, where local artists are welcomed into the dome to learn the software and programming to make their own art—the big domed ceiling seemed the perfect spot to test their audio/visual experiment.
No strangers to multi-disciplinary projects—including their 2015 album Metatransit featuring an accompanying comic book that follows a classic space hero of their own invention, and with a past collaboration with the Municipal Ballet Co.—taking on the Dome was just another new, exciting format. The performance they dreamed up last year goes beyond normal musical performance. It has evolved into a narrative, theatrical experience where the duo almost act as characters, guiding the audience through what Romero terms "outer-dimensional exploration."
"It's like a how-to video on how to use a new type of technology," Faulkner explains. "So the scientists are telling the audience how to use the equipment, and when we're using the equipment, that's how it fills out." He remains mysterious, however, about what the "equipment" is. Romero says only that it's the "secret sauce" of the performance, meant to take audience members by surprise. These moments of narrative assistance give the audience a break from the "eyegasm" of the massive screen and visuals.
The dome performance has inspired them to take it elsewhere, too, including a recent performance at the Ott Planetarium in Ogden. "The big dream is to do a big dome tour, just go from planetarium to planetarium," Faulkner says. Romero elaborates that once a year, planetariums across the country gather at a convention called IMERSA, where they share their goals and work—because, it turns out, most planetariums create and engineer their own dome films and programs, and send them to one another to share. With the help of Clark—one of the biggest creators of dome content in the country—they hope to license their performance (after they've spent some time reworking visual aspects they initially created under tight time constraints), distribute it nationally to other domes and gain enough recognition to embark on live tours to perform their immersive set.
Leave it to a true sci-fi-aligned band to push the boundaries of what can be done on a technically-challenging stage like the dome theater, and what future artists can hope to achieve under similarly arched ceilings—not just here, but everywhere.