Though Ireland’s selection of great, lovingly assembled festivals is nothing to sniff at, the pilgrimage to the continent to take in slightly more leftfield or uniquely regional events is an important part of considering the summer calendar for any music obsessive. For those who like their music repetitive and bleepy, the main draw has long been the Amsterdam Dance Event, less a festival or conference than a glitchy mist that descends on the entire city. With over thousands of acts playing over five days, it can easily become overwhelming, a good time perhaps missing the personal touch that makes a festival truly special.
Though there’s no lack of intriguing alternatives, a collective that very quickly staked a claim for underground crossover success has been Dekmantel. The collective have been running parties for a decade and have maintained a consistently interesting record label with a wide variety of musical styles and a colourful, bright sense of design. In 2015 they also started a DJ-Mix podcast that became appointment listening remarkably quick considering how suffocatingly huge and dentproof the online mix marketplace is.
Since 2013 they have been holding the Dekmantel Festival in Amsterdam Bos, a woodland near Schipol airport. It’s smaller in scope than other festivals – roughly 75 acts spread across four stages – but it stands out because of the team’s keen curatorial eye. A festival with thousands of acts can’t possibly stand behind each one with authority. With Dekmantel, however, you know each act was chosen carefully because of a sincere love. What’s more, a large portion of the performances are shared online thanks to partnerships with Boiler Room and Resident Advisor, so it’s as easy for the intrigued to explore as it is for the returned to relive memories.
2017’s edition runs the full gamut and is unafraid of contrast and risk – friends of the label, up-and-coming DJ’s and producers, living legends and pioneers, a commitment to diversity and gender equality and a few opportunities for things to get fully weird and question the common expectations of what an ostensibly “dance-music” festival can be. What’s more, acts usually used to primetime sets and big finishes are given opening slots, giving them a new challenge while opening the spotlight for smaller, potential-filled acts. The aim of this article is threefold – to suggest to readers to keep an eye on Dekmantel’s future when they consider hopping on a plane for their festival plans, some suggestions on how to think over hard calls, and a selection of the kind of exciting, boundary-pushing and fun artists and DJs the electronic scene offers at the moment. Even if you are unable to make it, these artists, especially the more under-the-radar or less-hyped, are well worth your time.
Before the camping begins in earnest, Dekmantel kicks things off with a few separately-ticketed shows in the city centre. The big draw is the minimalist icon Steve Reich, whose legacy and influence is hard to overstate. Though his work mostly involves composing for percussionists and orchestras, its emphasis on repetition and hypnotic atmosphere is integral for what makes the best dance music so interesting. A show that’s set to be huge for those who aren’t big tech-heads, it’s a testament to the organiser’s respect for history and the potential to make audiences rethink what they require from music.
Marina Rubenstein (pictured) has been making her name over the past few years purely off the positive word of mouth surrounding her sets – she has no productions to her name yet. What she does have is a forceful, no-nonsense DJing style that favours the futuristic sounds of early Warp and IDM – like early Autechre zapped with an electric current. She is no nostalgist though – her Resident Advisor mix zips from spacey IDM like I-F’s 1998 “Theme From Murdercapital” to the latest in sinister, abrasive acid house from Ruhig or Vril. Rubenstein’s timeclash with Nina Kraviz is bound to tear some away, but given Kraviz’s move towards turning her sets into a showcase for the insanity of her labels and friends (which is no bad thing given her finely tuned ear for the bizarre), Rubenstein is a solid bet for something a bit more unexpected.
Whether under his own name or with Cobblestone Jazz, Mathew Jonson specialises in live techno that sticks to the mind long after the rush of dancing falls away. His set-up is grand and unwieldy, but his skill ensures the audience is in good hands. Tracks like “Northern Lights” and “Marionette (The Beginning)” are as suited to big speakers as they are for leisurely strolls or a pleasant accompaniment to a long flight. His recording for the Fabric series is a stunner, but there is a litany of live-show recordings, such as the below set for the Resident Advisor podcast, that shows off his talent in full force.
Robert Glasper Experiment
The festival is for the most part a heads-down-lights-up deal, but the lineup isn’t without its diversions. Robert Glasper’s jazz is as luxurious as it is prickly, folding in a love of sampling and hip-hop culture along with its virtuoso musicianship. Perfect for a break away from near-constant drum machines.
GE-OLOGY & Reg Greg
Friends of fellow obsessive over rare-soul records Floating Points (also playing the festival, both DJing and with his live band), GE-OLOGY and Red Greg are a perfect combination. Both have made their names slowly but steadily through their skill in finding the forgotten and unloved and breathing new life into them. GE-OLOGY’s podcast for the label was as likely to fit in infuriatingly catchy gospel as it was percussion from North Africa. The unpredictability is likely to make Shazam’s servers go haywire as audience members try to figure out what their new favourite song is called.
Jeff Mills & Tony Allen
Another pairing, if a bit more unlikely. Mills is a pioneer of Detroit techno, a founding member of the Underground Resistance collective that infused party music with an in-your-face anti-corporate political manifesto. Allen is a former Fela Kuti collaborator, a drummer of limitless dexterity. Their shows, mostly improvised, are known for testing the patience of techno purists who for some weird reason have an anathema to organic instrumentation of any sort, but for the open minded it’s an exciting ride for two icons in their respective fields. Though an odd combination on paper, it’s the most exciting project Mills (whose recent work had a habit of going too high-concept for its own good) has been involved with in years.
Marco Sterk is up against techno pioneers Robert Hood and Joe Claussell, along with Germany’s goth-techno poster boy Rødhåd. That kind of clash shows Dekmantel’s confidence in Sterk. In the first few months of the year he assembled two excellent compilations: first, an entry into the Selectors series that combined early Dutch hip-hop, messing about with video game noises, and the intersections of disco and house that were unfairly stripped from memory. March’s Welcome to Paradise took on a more consistent idea: the sounds of Italian house music from the late 80s that aimed for nothing less than sonic euphoria. Given that he will be headlining the Selectors stage, Sterk’s set to camp in the sweet spot between sincerity and overwhelming cheese.
Volvox & Umfang
As great as ethereal, gentle techno can be, a blast of aggressive acid techno to the face can be refreshing, especially as a kind of hair-of-the-dog first thing on a Saturday morning. Neither Volvox or Umfang really go for breathers or moments of reflection. Distorted drums, acid lines that creep like spiders on skin, and the odd creepy dissociative vocal to throw things off are the orders of the day. It’s kind of like starting off a night out with a shot of tequila – risky and thrillingly unpleasant.
Kicking off his third decade of DJing, Berghain resident Dettmann has been in a reflective mood. His DJ-KiCKS compilation last year was patchy and lost considerable steam towards the end, but unearthed some dusty electro gems and featured Dettmann’s strongest production work in years. He’s also just released a compilation of classic industrial and post-punk that serves as a diary of a sort for his youth. A four-hour set on the Selectors stage offers the possibility for a different rhythm from his usual peak-time purview. Even if he decides to go in a more traditional direction, an average Marcel Dettmann set is enough to prove that for all of Berghain’s insularity and suffocating self-seriousness (just ask the “techno interests me” guy – http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/techno-interests-me), there are few better at it than the long-haired German with the rare but contagious grin.
Jameszoo’s goofy, unconventional jazz perked the ears of Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, combining sharp organs and speedy rhythms resembling Squarepusher in clown makeup. It’s unclear if the Dutchman will be playing live or DJing during his set – but given his set for Dekmantel’s podcast combined the loosest of free-jazz, Gil-Scott Heron and sped-up Steve Reich, it’s a fair bet that there’ll be a regular supply of middle fingers to convention.
Joy Orbison and Jon K
Peter O’Grady’s Joy Orbison project is very selective when it comes to offering recorded mixes to the internet, so pairing him with Jon K, whose podcast for the label suggests a similar kind of over-the-map selection, is promisingly unpredictable. Though Orbison’s return to production is more straightforwardly techno-based than the wonky house he made his name on, a forthcoming Selectors compilation and a studio mix that spent its second half going from Yo La Tengo to early Japanese computer music and reggae suggests he’s ready to go a bit off-the-book.
Classically trained pianist and occasional Coldplay producer Hopkins is new to DJing – he wasn’t a regular attendee to begin with and only took it up once he realised how popular his tracks were in nightclubs. Hopkins has been keeping a fairly steady DJ schedule while writing the follow-up to 2013’s stunning Immunity, and the hints of new material suggest he’s about to outdo himself. I attended his recent debut at the thankfully reopened Fabric in London, and it was an intense blend of stomach-shaking glitch-house and cavernous techno. A fifteen minute section where Gary Beck’s “Algoreal” moved breathlessly into a possible new Hopkins tune that takes the squelchy basslines of his “Open Eye Signal” and remolds it into a three-suite rave anthem was a distillation of club music that felt it could go forever. Hopkins is quite modest about his selection skills – he doesn’t consider himself a record collector – but he takes to it like a duck to water.
Arca & Jesse Kanda
The closing hours of the Saturday is probably the toughest choice for its attendents to make. While button-pulse enthusiasts will probably be staying still for Hessle Audio boss Ben UFO on the mainstage, the other three stages have a much healthier variety of the sumptuously weird. Tokyo’s DJ Nobu has a patient, spacious style of techno DJing that’s particularly inspirational to the likes of Artefakt and Stockholm’s Northern Electronics label. Belgrade’s Vladimir Ivkovic has been dripping off studio mixes that don’t bother with any pretence of satisfying clubbers, ignoring the influence of house in favour of the infamous Nurse With Wound list.
The crown jewel of the evening, however, is the recent recipient of a five-star review from us, Arca. He is listed as a DJ, so it’s unlikely he’ll bring out a microphone to sing his meditations on identity, love and anxiety, though a peek into Arca’s influences is a tantalising prospect. The addition of his close friend and collaborator Jesse Kanda on audiovisual duties makes the set even more exciting. Kanda’s visuals of contorted bodies and soul-infused grotesquerie is a perfect match for Arca’s music, and a welcome infusion of visual elements into a style of music that’s usually not especially focused on giving dynamic physical performances.
Earlier I recommended Volvox and Umfang for an opening slot because of the adrenalin rush their set can offer after a struggle to leave the tent. Resom is likely to be friendlier to fragile bodies and minds – judging from the handful of recorded mixes to her name, Resom prefers leisurely mixing perfect for a Sunday morning slump. But don’t mistake supine for easygoing – her Crack Mix from earlier this year starts off with the ominous soundscapes of the recently-departed Mika Vainio and Dead Can Dance’s clattering post-punk before moving into solidly electronic fare. Even with a drum machine and catchy bassline Resom is not averse to some portention – Erika’s ‘Metachrosis’ is like Gesloten Cirkel’s ‘Twisted Balloon’ returning from a dark night of the soul. One to watch.
Resident DJs used to playing for up to seven or eight hours in one go understandably are challenged by trying to condense the arcs and sounds of an average night into one CD-length mix, but Belgrade’s Tijana T has been giving it a good whack. Three or four tracks can be playing at once, and even the most well equipped ears can find it hard to parse when and how her transitions work. Around forty minutes into her set for Mixmag’s DJ Lab, she mixes Surgeon’s ‘Fixed Action Pattern’ – about as austere as steely techno can get – into Stardust’s luscious classic ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. In less skilled hands, this can easily be an unlistenable trainwreck, but it’s the kind of unexpected surprise she pulls off with aplomb.
Those who perhaps require a warmer atmosphere to start off their Sunday are probably better placed for Motor City Drum Ensemble’s (who also played Forbidden Fruit in June) Selectors set of rare soul and sumptuous house, but a Sunday in Amsterdam is well fit for some dark sounds, especially as a warmup for what’s the come.
That said, even the most hedonistic need a breather, and Baris K is the perfect opportunity. In a landscape where it’s easy to settle oneself with the scenes and artists coming out of Western countries, the Istanbul DJ brings some much needed diversity. Bridging Eastern disco and stomping folk and funk, his afternoon set is a perfect salve in a timeslot mostly focused on pulsing techno.
Hauff’s rise to one of modern electro’s absolute best DJs seems sudden, but it’s less surprising when you see the exhilarating work she leaves in her wake. Look no further than her recent debut in the BBC’s Essential Mix series. It establishes a tempo – very fast – and does not let up, and never once does it get boring or repetitive. She likes to drop a classic or two – Drexciya and Underground Resistance make appearances – but her ear is finely tuned to forgotten acid and EBM as well as the up-and-coming artists who tout their influence. Crucially, even at its darkest and most propulsive she’s capable of planting her tongue in her cheek (AS1’s “Speaker Sex”). It’s easily up there as one of the most impressive mixes I’ve heard all year, and a slot at Dekmantel will likely kick off the next stage of her world-conquering sound.
Objekt & Call Super
The Sunday night is again a set of difficult choices. Larry Heard will be performing live under his Mr Fingers alias, and I-F, mostly known for his Italo-disco compilations, is bringing a rare acid set as Beverly Hills 808303. However, the Selectors stage looks most promising for sheer skill. Longtime close friends TJ Hertz and Joe Seaton are making their back-to-back appearance off the back of two excellent mix CDs – Objekt’s technically sophisticated IDM rumble Kern Vol.3 and Call Super’s techno dip-in-the-ocean fabric 92 – that showcase their ability to go off the beaten track without a whiplash in mood. Hertz especially has a reputation for treating the DJ setup like an ambidextrous painter, flitting between several tracks, tempos, decades and styles in the time an average DJ gives to one.
Though their friendship means the partnership is unlikely to be strained, their differing styles means both will have to stretch to keep up with the other – the kind of risk born out of intuitive hunches that have made Dekmantel stand out.