Walking onto the wrong travelator at Schiphol and booking accommodation without realising it was in the Red Light District notwithstanding, my experience at this year’s Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam was marked by its smoothness. Short queues, barely noticeable security, an easily navigable site unburdened by sound bleeding from one stage to the next, the fifth year of the festival is remarkably well-organised for such a young institution growing in dominance with each passing year.
Befitting an event where one of the stages is monikered “UFO”, it felt, more than other festivals, like being on another planet for three days – one where even silence is pummelling and endurance is key. Lord knows I’ve sucked countless hours away listening to and seeking out this stuff, shedding a genuine tear or two to Autechre tunes on the way, but even I found full 12-hour days of nonstop dance music to be a challenge, if not a highly enjoyable and rewarding one. Though the high quality acts tapped for the festival year after year may suggest otherwise, this is not quite a heads-only show, and each stage would really much rather you pay no attention to the selector behind the decks and just move.
But Tomorrowland this isn’t, and one need only look at the opening shows on the Thursday for proof. Sadly, I missed the opening show by minimalist legend Steve Reich, leaving it up to Wolfgang Voigt’s recently resurrected GAS project to kick off the weekend. The concert hall at the Muziekgebouw was stripped entirely of chairs, leaving the audience to sit, sprawl and relax to Voigt’s moving, deceptively morose soundscapes in what resembled a room primed for Star Trek’s Holodeck. Later in the evening Factory Floor once again proved their mettle as one of the best live bands going, knocking over drums and monitors at a regular basis without missing a beat.
As for the weekend itself, Dekmantel programmed several factors so idiosyncratically that, in an attempt to share the spirit, in lieu of a more traditional review I’ll pinpoint several occasions where I witnessed middle fingers to dance-festival convention that paid off fruitfully.
Headliners don’t have to be headliners
The likes of Nina Kraviz, Marcel Dettmann and Motor City Drum Ensemble can probably do a reliable peak-time set in their sleep at this point, so it was a canny move for Dekmantel to throw a challenge their way in the form of opening up the Selectors stage. The Selectors concept is a vague and malleable one, but in this case gives seasoned, distinctive pros a chance to show another side of their personalities. For Dettmann, this meant an exhilarating blend of post-punk, industrial and EBM, while Kraviz started off with sumptuously cheesy Italo (Charlie’s “Spacer Woman”, the best Italo song ever made, was an early highlight of the weekend) before flecking the high energy finale with dubby hip-hop. This move, which gave punters more than enough reason to arrive early, also worked in reverse – it’s hard to imagine the likes of Ben UFO, Antal or Hunee being given headline slots on the mainstage otherwise, the team-up of the latter two being a particularly pleasant surprise.
Do no harm, take no shit
I got to the Greenhouse stage as quickly as I could on Saturday night, convinced that Arca’s set was gonna be packed. It wasn’t, and his uncompromising performance definitely caused some confused heads to scarper early. You know that concept DJs often trumpet, the one about a performance never being the work of the individual but rather the result of a wordless communication between DJ and audience, a true act of communion? Well, this wasn’t that. We were in Arca’s world, with no concessions to normality. Popping champagne bottles into the audience, mashing cue buttons like it’s an MPC, lewd dancing probably too close to expensive equipment for insurance’s comfort – it was as thrilling as any festival show I’ve seen. Much like Jeff Mill’s performance with drummer Tony Allen, there was some grumbling on the edges of the venue about it not being a straightforward DJ-set, which I take as a sign of their quality. There’s never anything better than annoying the 4/4 obsessive who claims to have been into Underground Resistance since they were 12 but can’t handle Mills experimenting or a performer having a personality.
Don’t take yourself, or anything, seriously
A small moment, but one of my favourites: after a pleasant morning of easy-going disco and house, San Proper announced “I know you all came here for techno, so here’s one of my favourite electro bands… they’re from Germany”. The crowd geared up. People leapt from the scattered beach chairs generously provided by the festival organisers. Which song would it be? “Numbers”? “The Robots”?
Proper put the record on. “Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky” by Jimi Hendrix. Maybe it’s childish of me to laugh and applaud, but I don’t care, and the chap I had been chatting to for the past five minutes slowly backs away.
Quiet starts are overrated
Though the aforementioned San Proper and the woefully under-attended set from Resom made for friendly welcomes to the day, there’s nothing like going all-in. The UFO stage, a dark, foggy warehouse set where it’s next to impossible to see the performers, perfectly matched the no-holds barred, intense techno played from noon to midnight. Rodhad, Unforeseen Alliance, Donato Dozzy & Peter Van Hoesen all offered excellent sets (another highlight was seeing stage headliner DJ Nobu losing his mind over Dozzy and Van Hoesen near the sound engineers), but the crowning glory came from the acidic, brutal team-up of Volvox & Umfang. If hair-of-the-dog were music, this would be it.
The weird will inherit the earth
If I had to figure out a unifying theme between my favourite sets of the weekend, it would be the lack of fear to use the otherwise-constraining quality of a DJ set to be as weird as possible while keeping feet moving. Arca and Jeff Mills, as already stated, were challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Lena Willikens, Helena Hauff, Tijana T and Resom provided sets that sound like nothing else you’d find from any other DJ, and all are on the cusp of becoming stars on the same level as the headliners and the acts opening Selectors. Seeing them at this stage in their careers has been one of the biggest pleasures of Dekmantel 2017, and I hope they continue their support of such promising talent.
Dekmantel 2017 photographed by Niels Cornelis Meijer, Bart Heemskerk, Yannick van de Wijngaert, Tim Buiting