on Decibel Festival:
Decibel Festival is an annual electronic music festival that occurs in Seattle. This year made for my 10th (I missed the first one), though it was more condensed for me than years prior.
My time was centered around the evenings, which meant attending Opticals (experimental/performer/video-centric showcases) and non-afterhours showcases. I missed Sunday entirely. I never stepped foot into Neumos, Q, Showbox or The Crocodile (or off-festival venues like the fantastic Kremwerk). Unfortunately, for the first time, I did not attend any of the conference (daytime classes and panels).
Like any festival review, mine will be different than others, which is on of the things I love about Decibel Festival.
… a.k.a, how a Hill becomes a Hole
This year, however, there are a few constants. No matter what experience someone had, they are likely going to talk about the growing, changing nature of the festival as well as, and perhaps in the context of, the growing and changing nature of Seattle. The festival and the city are both in continuous flux. With Decibel happening largely “off the hill”, the level of change this year was felt by many.
My preference for enjoying music tends to be towards more intimate, perhaps DIY, and even gritty venues. While I appreciate clean sound and good drinks, I feel most comfortable in a dimly lit club filled with a crowd that is just as dressed down as they are dressed up.
This is perhaps why I am happy I made the decision, shortly after buying my ticket late Wednesday night (thank you will-call for hanging out for just a little longer), to run away from EMP ( fancy and museum-ish ) to Rebar ( < fancy ) to catch a huge chunk of Rrose’s set. This meant missing Max Cooper’s set, but my mindset was just not gelling with the sterile environment of EMP (the reports of Max Cooper’s set, for what it’s worth, have been overly positive, if not phenomenal.)
RROSE has a wonderful ability to appeal to a variety of people with dark, acidic techno… just the right combination of mind and body. Not surprisingly, her opening set was the high of the evening.
VATICAN SHADOW. I had been most excited to see Vatican Shadow that night. While I tend to not be a fan of his noise project, Purient, I very much enjoy his techno side. Unfortunately I could not get a good feeling for the set, and while it started off interesting, it did not hold my attention. Based on his production though, I expect I will give him another chance.
For me and many folks I talked to, Decibel was stacked heavily with amazing artists in the first two days. Thursday was the most evident, where Kangding Ray, Atom TM, and Oneohtrix Point Never were scheduled against Demdike Stare, Andy Stott, and Millie & Andrea.
KANGDING RAY sounded and looked amazing, but again I was having a hard time settling into the large, sterile EMP (I will say though, his music is a reasonable match for the space). I grabbed a drink in the alcohol petting zoo located far off to the side, then scurried off to catch Demdike Stare.
DEMDIKE STARE are one of the most interesting bands around right now. They combine an obvious love for 70s horror and rave culture in a way that appeals to both the Nurse With Wound and breakcore fan in me. This is the third time I have seen them live, and while each time is different, they have all been awesome. This time, they had a moment of distorted, acidic intensity that broke my head a bit… it was perhaps one of the nicer bits of music I have heard in a very long time. I may have been the song ‘Past Majesty', but I feel like when they performed it, it there was less metal and more acid; it’s a good listen anyway.
ATOM TM, with the exception of Richie Hawtin, was likely one of the more influential acts to play the festival. His history of making music since the mid 1980s (Discogs.com has him listed with well over 50 pseudonyms) and running the successful label Rather Interesting (largely releasing his own material) is immense. Awesomely, he managed to represent the feel and legacy of this history in his set - both musically and visually, though he focussed on material largely from HD. In a way, I think his music and visuals were a nice companion piece to the recent Kraftwerk tour, though arguably a bit more drenched in acid. He managed to seamlessly mesh pop, politics and an obvious love of sound (the "atomic" portion at the end, with giant mushroom cloud visuals, could have been its own stand-alone noise performance). The audience was captivated, though I recall one girl drunkenly and (over?)enthusiastically yelling “Senior Coconut!!”. A nice representation of the set can be found in his song "Stop (Imperialist Pop)”.
ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER. I am very glad I was able to catch a bit of his set. I will confess that I am not the biggest fan, but when I walked into the room and found a good portion of the listeners sprawled out on the floor, soaking in a heavy syrup of sound and sight, I could not help but be taken. My immediate thought was “this is doing it right, 'lie down and be counted' indeed”…
ALESSANDRO CORTINI performed a simple, though engaging synth set. The video work from LEO MAYBERRY, largely consisting of layered sound waves, was a perfect compliment. Overall, the word elegant comes to mind. I heard several people make comparisons to Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’, which seems reasonable.
ASC. When I walked in the room during the start of ASC’s set, I was shocked not to find techno, but long, beat-less washes of sound and the audience sprawled out on the floor. The set was incredibly mellow, which was great, but certainly a stark contrast to the manic environment of folks watching Simeon Mobile Disco next door; I ended up popping over to check out Simeon Mobile Disco’s set, but the shift in atmosphere was a bit much for me, as fun as it seemed, so I went back and found a cozy space on the floor. The experience left me relaxed and curious about hearing more of ASC’s work.
Saturday was a one-showcase day for me, and I of course opted for the Optical showcase at the beautiful Triple Door with the solid lineup of Jacaszek, Loscil, and Christopher Willits. The showcase overall seemed to be a refection on nature and our environment.
JACASZEK performed, I believe, music from his recent release ’Catalogue Des Arbres’. The album is a collection of songs devoted to trees and "their forms, atmosphere and mystery”. He was joined by a Bass Clarinet (?) player. The music, presented in surround, was lovely, natural, complete with shifting field recordings, and a bit dark. In hindsight knowing the subject matter (trees), the sound was certainly fitting.
LOSCIL created a very comfortable, warm environment, set against natural, coastal imagery, obscured by an overlaying circle. The video work reminded me a bit of Magritte’s ’The Banquet’ in grayscale. After seeing his set, I was compelled to listen to some recent work from him, which led me to the song ‘Helluland', which seems a bit darker than what he performed at Decibel but is so very nice.
CHRISTOPHER WILLITS performed his new album (and film) ‘Opening’. The music was calm and quite thoughtful, as was Willits when he addressed the crowd. It was the perfect set to close out the festival early.
MORE ON CHANGES & GROWTH.
While I am certainly more drawn to intimate venues, I also recognize the changing nature of not only the festival, but also of the city it is set in.
Decibel Festival is continuously growing, trying to accommodate the growing number of people who want to hear electronic music, even the headier stuff.
Walking around Seattle, and especially Capitol Hill, over the last year has often brought to mind the nightly-changing city in the film ‘Dark City’. Nothing is sacred, especially not music venues.
Decibel Festival has always been remarkable at its ability to grow and adapt. For the last few years I have been impressed with the range of artists the festival presents — even when the headliners collectively start looking a bit too mainstream, there is always a significant balance of the lesser-known, and often more difficult listening, artists.
I look forward to witnessing the festival as it navigates this 'Dark City’ landscape, hopefully finding the time to contribute in that effort (I have volunteered in the past, and hope to again).