Last year’s inaugural AVA Festival was something of a turning point for the electronic music scene in Belfast, in that the more forward-thinking realms of techno and house were no longer confined to specialist nights, catering for the niche-tastes of the masses, in sweaty rooms and slightly sweatier halls. While historically that hasn’t been a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination – Twitch, and more recently The Night Institute have been integral in keeping the scene fresh and revitalised – the opportunity to mingle with thousands of likeminded dance music fans in a kitted-out warehouse setting was both filled with bittersweet nostalgia and a positive outlook for nightlife in the future, despite the draconian nature of our entertainment laws. The aftermath was steeped in optimism. The countless come-downs no doubt made a little less acute thanks to the positively savage time had by the attendees. The promise of a bigger and better return was tantalising.
This year’s incarnation, with returning patrons half-knowing what to expect, the carnivalesque atmosphere reverberating through the venue in the heart of Belfast’s docklands is palpable. It’s electric. Rumours abound that the legendary Juan Atkins is still in the building, having mucked about with a modular synth demo and given a closing keynote speech to a daytime’s worth of rousing seminars and inclusive music industry workshops. Though slightly scaled back with regard to the extra-curricular frills on display last year – indoor breakers, extreme sports, and various other bits of pageantry aren’t a feature today – the focus and MO of AVA 2016 is again made clear: electronic music presented in a no-nonsense fashion. Of course, the set-up itself remains as impressive, with an amble around the towering structures revealing an all-new Becks stage that we’ll later lose our collective shit in, a bigger Boiler Room area, and a more pedestrianised layout, giving the impression that Sarah McBriar and co. (the minds and hands behind AVA) have anticipated the larger crowd that begins to reveal itself, as if out of nowhere, outside where the air is sticky and the atmosphere is fizzing.
Early on in the main arena, it’s an enthusiastic but small bunch that stand their ground and offer hands in the air to the first acts on stage, but the Boiler Room has kicked-off with a host of local and not-so-local talent, and a receptive crowd that matches last year’s with rowdy appreciation and reverential hollers is growing steadily. This is the place to be, it seems, and it’s a testament to the talent Belfast has to offer that we’re standing here, amongst 1000 others, cheering on the likes of Swoose & Cromby, Optimo, Brame & Hamo, and much later, Phil Keiran, whose choice cuts incite Boiler Room amateur camera-stars to lift the DJ and producer into the air, whether he wants it or not. Thankfully, he seems humbled by the affection, and no doubt it’ll make for another interesting round of comments on the BR pages after 2015’s Belfast outing.
A return to the main arena reveals a swell in numbers, and as jaws begin to flap and eyes begin to roll, the heavier beats descend upon the gargantuan space through a notably cleaner and clearer sound system than last time around. The debut live show from Bicep is heady, unhinged and causes a mass exodus from the outer areas. A good time as any to slip out as the numbers dwindle from the Beck’s stage, Sunil Sharpe lays out arguably the finest set of the day. Bludgeoning techno with flourishes of early 90s hardcore melodies and relentless, terse grooves are offered to a crowd so wild that at one point some fuckwit throws a saturated hoody on to the turntables. No mind, as professional as ever, the vinyl assault continues, and flitting between this area and the main arena soon becomes a familiar, but necessary exercise to see Mano Le Tough and Rodhad, who revel in the delight of thousands of manic supporters.
The later hours bring darkened skies, cooler air and hordes of handshakes and hugs, as is the wont of the community whose spirit is embodied in the familial attitude of the day’s programme. The ebb and flow of the last moments are hypnotic, and the vantage point offered beside the main stage allows for an evocative vista of the room at near full capacity – the collective, writhing and in unison dance until the last beat drops and the lights come on. Panting, exhausted, but ready for more, there isn’t a disappointed face to be seen as the congregation makes its way to the exit. This has been bliss, and while the after parties will be good, they won’t be this. The after-after parties will be good too, but only in softening the impending blow of the emotional and physical attachment to a day that has had to come to an end.
Serotonin might well be in short supply tomorrow, but praise for a second AVA home-run won’t be.