dBx in Review

 From time to time, Infernal Techno publishes the reviews of community members to further share the experience of the American underground. The following review of Seattle's Decibel Festival comes from Tim Forrester. For those of you who remember, Tim also reviewed last year's Decibel Fest.

I had been anticipating Decibel Festival X since I got on the bus back to Vancouver a year ago, just after the 2012 edition. We all knew the tenth anniversary would be special, and the lineup proved to be just as diverse as we had come to expect from Decibel through the years. Big names, both young (Nicholas Jaar) and old (Peter Hook, The Orb), mixed with more underground talent (Ben UFO, Kyle Hall) to round out a seriously impressive lineup appropriate to the occasion. Arriving in Seattle from Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon, we set up in our beautiful downtown condo and everything was ready for what we knew would be a memorable, musical journey.

Wednesday: Opening Gala / Hyperdub / Ben Klock

Wednesday started things out classy with the Opening Gala at the Chihuly Garden and Glass. Los Angeles' Mileece, who seemed to be controlling the music with wired-up gloves, and supporting performers wound through a variety of soundscapes, ranging from quiet and blissful to ferocious and stressful, in a beautiful glass room decorated with intricate ornaments. The unique and experimental music was a fitting start to a week full of musical surprises.

Chihuly Graden and Glass. Photo by Chris Newman.

Running over to The Crocodile, which was consistently one of the most crowded venues, I caught Seattle local Jimi Jaxon playing a hop-hop and grime influenced set, just before Ikonika took over. Playing a more four-on-the-floor set than I expected, I loved her smooth and bass-y rhythms. It was hard to leave after seeing her play for nearly 25 minutes, but I had another party in my sights.

Q Nightclub always is an experience. The high ceilings and long, curved white walls, the elaborate light setup on the ceiling and a crowd that includes more shirtless bros than I prefer, put me off a bit. But that contrasted with my love for the impeccable Funktion-One Sound, the spacious dance floor and the always friendly staff. Whatever your opinion of the place, it's hard to argue that Seattle has a better alternative for the larger Decibel parties. Australian artist Light Year was warming things up when I arrived on Wednesday, playing a relatively restrained and almost mainstream set of techno as we arrived. He soon handed the reins over to Ben Klock, easily one of the most anticipated acts of the schedule. Klock banged out a high energy and party-rocking 3.5 hour set of techno to a buck-wild crowd, but those of us hoping for him to take us on a deeper journey were left feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Ben Klock at Q. Photo by Chris Newman.
Thursday: Optical 1 / XLR8R / Actress / Jimmy and Travis

Thursday started things off in the early evening with Optical 1: Kollaborations, in the beautiful Nordstrom Recital Hall. Peter Broderick soon had the crowds’ adoration with his quirky, folk-styled songwriting, with beautiful vocals, humorous lyrics and different instrumentation on almost every song. For me, this was one of the best surprises of the festival. Nils Frahm then made his triumphant return to the Decibel stage to join Peter as Oliveray. They started off with a gripping but intense song that featured the two friends staring each other down, as Nils went off on the piano and Peter literally screamed into the mic. The set wound through more playful compositions and extended jam sessions as the two used almost every object on stage as an instrument. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain the closing track they played was the beautiful “You Don’t Love.” After a raucous standing ovation, Hauschka took the stage. Playing a piano with certain keys rigged to hit a seemingly random assortment of percussive objects, he took us on a powerful and spell-bounding journey of virtuosic piano. Ending his set with an emotional and minimal piece as he slowly ripped objects out of his piano, the audience was captivated.

Hauschka at Optical 1. Photo by Tim Forrester.
Later on at the XLR8R Presents, I caught Shawn Reynaldo warming things up for rising star Huerco S., who has been responsible for some of the better house and techno releases of the last couple years. Although Huerco’s mixing was questionable, the youngster played an extremely solid set of selections that sounded far more mature than his years. Tri-Angle artist Vessel was sounding great as I made the difficult decision to head down to the Crocodile. There, Lapalux was rocking a packed house with his unique future beats, although we could have done without the trap. After that, the mysterious Actress – making up for his canceled performance last year – slowly built his set up from bass heavy soundscapes to some of the most unique beats that I have ever heard. Although he’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser (probably half the crowd left within the first 20 minutes), Actress continues to impress us with his ever-evolving catalog of music that quite simply sounds like no one else.

Moving onto the after-hours portion of the night, I planted myself at the Leisure System party. It was one of the tougher decisions of the festival to choose this over Sweatbox’s unofficial party with Rrose playing live, which I heard was fantastic. At Neumos, Jimmy Edgar had things moving with a bombastic bass-inclined house set, which led straight into the hotly anticipated JETS, the collaboration between Jimmy and Travis Stewart (Machinedrum). Taking the crowd through one of the best dance sessions of the festival with a pounding set that featured several tracks from their debut self-titled EP and a surprisingly funky section in the middle, everyone was having fun. My only complaint was Neumos sound system, which, although it sounded great, was simply too loud and physically painful to be close to.

Friday: Boat Party / Optical 2 / Nico / Hessle

Friday started things out early with the RA boat party. Although the skies were threatening, the weather worked out great with not a drop of rain. Axel Boman started things off with a bouncy and fun house set before Ben UFO took the reins. His set, while full of great house and garage tunes, could have been a bit more appropriate for the afternoon “I’m on a boat” vibe.

Ben UFO on the Boat. Photo by Chris Newman
Immediately cabbing it over to Optical 2: Erased Tapes, we barely got inside before the place was at capacity and the show started. Nils Frahm took us through another incredible journey using multiple pianos and synths. The always charming and cheeky performer, joined by ├ôlafur Arnalds for a rousing piano duel, left the audience yearning for more as the hour-long set felt far too short. ├ôlafur, performing with two string players, continued the show with his patient and restrained music, drawing heavily from his recent album, “For Now I Am Winter”. Starting the show out by asking the audience to sing a note, he recorded that and then incorporated the audio into his first song. Later the wonderfully talented singer Arnor Dan (appearing on only a few dates of the tour) joined him and they went through beautiful renditions of the album title track and “Old Skin”. The second optical could not have been a more blissful experience.

Finding a bit of time to rest, we eventually headed down to the largest Decibel venue, Showbox Sodo. Mount Kimbie, evolved from the last time I had seen them into essentially a full band, were playing mostly material from their latest album. The highly anticipated Nicholas Jaar was up next, with the brilliant Tarik Barri running the visuals. The heavily percussive set sounded like it would fit right in at Burning Man, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, although it felt too short and probably not up to the hype that follows the young artist wherever he goes.
Nico Jaar. Photo by Cinderela Krux

Heading back up to Capitol Hill to continue the night, an absolutely massive line outside of Neumos prevented me from getting into the start of the Hessle Audio after-hours. We decided to catch part of Max Cooper while letting that line die down, finally able to head back over to Neumos and get in around 3:30AM. Pearson Sound was playing his unique brand of rhythmically complex bass-heavy house, before switching to Ben UFO and then back to himself. Thankfully, the sound at Neumos was toned down from the night before. The real highlight of the night came when Ben UFO returned to the decks for a roughly 1.5 hour portion of the night that turned out to be one of my top highlights of the festival. The young DJ showed why he is consistently ranked one of the best in the world, playing a totally next-level set of house and heavier material, and the Neumos crowd was screaming for more. Pangaea finally took over for a brutal journey through subterranean heavy techno, by far the most ferocious part of the night, before all three of them had a short and fun tag session to end the night at 6:30AM. Running back over to Q, Derek Plaslaiko was being his usual goofy self and playing some less than serious vocal material to round out the night around 8AM, ending what was an 18-hour day of music for myself.

Saturday: Home Bass / Mixmag / Kompakt 20 / Yagottawantit

After a much needed day of rest, I started out once again at Q. One of my more anticipated acts, Midland, had the dance floor grooving hard as we arrived. Responsible in recent years for some high quality releases on AUS and Graded, it was a treat to hear his tunes on that F-1 system. Dusky was up next, and played a solid, if not rather predictable, set that included their feel-good hit “Nobody Else”. After seeing the lines outside of the afterhours the night before, we choose this show over The Orb in
The Orb. Photo by Cinderela Krux
fear of not being able to get into Q in time for Kyle Hall. Luckily, we didn’t miss a second of him. The youngster from Detroit churned out an absolutely pounding set of house and techno that wormed its way in and out of acid synth lines. His set felt like an education for many of the younger crowd that had stuck around after Dusky, and without a doubt was one of the highlights of the festival.

Derrick Carter’s set after that was fun, but just came off as flat after the dynamic KMFH set, so we left to check out Matias Aguayo. His unique live set, featuring plenty of vocals from himself, was certainly entertaining, but perhaps was more suited to earlier in the night. Soon after, Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb was up to finish the night, which turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the festival for me. Playing a set of completely funky material at a relatively relaxed BPM, it was clearly just what the crowd needed, as I don’t think I ever saw more smiles than at this special dance party, which will remain a fond memory for all in attendance.

Although many undoubtedly called it a night after that, I headed over to one of my most anticipated parties, Sweatbox’s unofficial “Yagottwantit… More!”, at the Electric Tea Garden, running from 6AM to 6PM. I love everything about Sweatbox. They consistently bring in some of the best dance music to Seattle and always seem to nail the vibe of their parties. The ETG is also probably my favorite place to see smaller shows in Seattle, with an unpretentious and stripped down vibe, low ceilings, friendly staff, loads of fans to keep it cool, and a surprisingly powerful sound system. While I understand it’s probably too small to use for many Decibel shows, I would have loved to spend more time there. Friends and myself are mourning the recent news that it will be closing.

Eddie “Flashin” Fowlkes, the old school Detroit artist who always seems to fly under the radar, had a 3-hour opening slot, and played a variety of techno and jacking old school house. Absolutely nailing it, the stage was set perfectly for Decibel veteran and one of my personal favorites, Derek Plaslaiko. The next 3.5 hours from Derek turned out to be one of the most incredible musical journeys that many of us had ever experienced. Slowly building up his set, every single tune felt like it was something out of the future, a new style of techno that I had never quite heard before. Forgoing any type of traditional buildup and drop formulas, the music seemed to snake its way in and out of itself, and just when you thought you could predict when the beat would drop back in, you would be surprised as it took you in just the opposite direction. I cannot emphasize enough how next level this set was. Mass Prod took things in a bit deeper afterwards, and although his set never gained the momentum of Derek’s, everyone there was happy. After roughly 16 hours of straight dancing, it was finally time for me to call it a day around 2:30PM, but many others stayed until the end.

Seattle from our condo. Photo by Tim Forrester.
Sunday: Archie Pelago + KiNK / Lorn + Nosaj Thing / dBx Finale

Somehow managing to drag my haggard body out for one more night, I started out at Neumos with Archie Pelago, the unique live act featuring three people playing all types of equipment, a saxophone, and a cello. Although the music wasn’t totally my thing, it was entertaining to watch and the Neumos visuals were the best of the week. KiNK was up next with one of the most fun and interesting live sets of the week. I cannot even begin to describe all of the equipment he used, but he had many wireless gadgets that he seemed to control the music with by waving them around in the air. Although the music bordered on cheesy at times, it was a truly impressive and innovative set. As Tiger & Woods got their signature disco going, I left to run down to the Crocodile one last time. Lorn was playing his slowed down hip-hop infused bass music as we arrived, including an older favorite of mine, “Until There Is No End”. However I was there to see Nosaj Thing, who stepped up next. After seeing him several times years ago, I renewed my interest in him after his excellent 2013 album “Home”. He seemed to have matured his style, starting his set off slower, expertly winding through different styles. Eventually building it up, he had the crowd going wild with his older classic “Coat of Arms”. Moving into a drum ‘n’ bass inspired section, I was grinning ear to ear as I heard him mixing in Burial’s “Kindred”. Although the set felt too short, I was satisfied knowing that Nosaj Thing is continuing to progress his unique sound.

Although the official Decibel parties ended here, the traditional private closing party was my last hurrah. Festival organizer Sean Horton (aka Nordic Soul) played a banging set that included “It’s Time For The Percolator” a nod to Decibel artist Cajmere. Watching Sean play felt triumphant and just right for the moment, like a shepherd watching over his flock of loyal followers. Mano Le Tough, Kenny Glasgow from Art Department, and Maxxi Soundsystem tagged to wind the night down as familiar smiling faces from the past five days shared one last dance floor.

It’s hard to talk about Decibel in words that haven’t been said before. It’s a festival that is not meant for one-genre purists. It’s meant for people with open minds who are willing to go in and experience something they may have never before… and the rewards are great. Inspiration and surprises lay around every corner. Beautiful music previously unfamiliar is there to make you dance, tug at your heartstrings, or simply blow you away. Dance floor companions become friends. Friends from around the country converge and reconnect. It’s a test of mental and physical endurance, but its always fun beyond belief. I heard many people say that their favorite parts of the festival weren’t actually festival events. Perhaps an unofficial party discovered at the last minute, perhaps simply meeting and connecting with new friends, perhaps sharing a laugh at how your legs can barely hold you up after a marathon dance session. Decibel means something different to everyone who attends, from the people who check out one event to the troopers who are there from start to finish. We have so much gratitude to everyone in the Decibel staff and of course to the countless volunteers that make it all happen. Congratulations to you all on ten years of music and art!

We love you Decibel. Photo by Chris Newman.
My top festival moments:

- Derek Plaslaiko at the Electric Tea Garden
- Ben UFO at Neumos
- Kyle Hall at Q
- Thomas Fehlmann at Neumos
- Both of the first two Opticals

My suggestions to improve the festival

- Enforce stricter set times for artists. I had to miss several artists because one show was running late. In a festival jam packed with artists you want to see, set times are important.
- Figure out the after-hours situation at Neumos and Q. It was quite disappointing to miss the first hour and a half of the Hessle Showcase because of the massive line.
- Keep the volumes at a somewhat reasonable level. The sound at Neumos on Thursday was totally overkill and was painful for all without ear protection.
- Make a formal announcement when artists cancel their performance. Several times before the festival I went to check the schedule only to find an artist that I was looking forward to was no longer playing. The unexplained cancellation of Diamond Version was particularly heartbreaking, especially after the mind-blowing performance by Byetone last year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with your suggestions. There is a serious problem in Seattle when it comes to quality sound, with the exception of ETG, re-bar, and Paramount (none of which are used for official db shows). Neumos is the worst. Even Q, boasting F1s, tends to not be dialed in accurately for every show. With all the tech industry in Seattle, you'd think there would be somebody that could do it right.