Decibel Festival, like many other contemporary festivals that straddle the dwindling line between underground and overground forms of dance music, was heavy (to say the least) on four-on-the-floor house and techno. In fact, the festival’s adherence to technical linearity was so strong that one could posit that the steady pulse of a kick drum defined Decibel 2014. From the late night Ostgut Ton showcase at Q Nightclub to Phuture’s TB-303 jams, house and techno from the world over could be found at Decibel, but the respective genres’ British and German constructions took center stage. This created something of a dilemma for a team looking for more rhythmic variance and, shall we say, a global purview than your standard techno bro fest. Fortunately, the Decibel lineup provided pockets of brilliance in the form of jungle, footwork, grime and kuduro, allowing us to indulge in gaudy, kick drum-heavy performances from T. Williams, Wolf+Lamb, Nadastrom and more.
On Wednesday night, Arca and Total Freedom, with music video art auteur Jesse Kanda providing visual accompaniment on a huge LED screen, took to EMP’s Sky Church with a vengeance, weaving syncopated kuduro and dembow rhythmic patterns into a number of contemporary pop hits. The Sky Church, a massive room in a corporate music mausoleum, is an odd venue to hold a genre and gender bending performance from three prodigiously talented artists, but a small, dedicated crowd, equal measures repulsed by and smitten with Kanda’s Vine compilation-meets-high concept body art, was up for the challenge proffered by the CDJ wielding deejays. A percentage of the crowd was even made up of holdovers from Max Cooper’s technically proficient, but disappointingly linear performance (the following night’s dancer-assisted showcase featuring Cooper was supposedly far superior) that preceded Arca’s takeover, a less surprising development than one might expect considering the breadth of interests and knowledge among the Decibel crowd.
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And that’s what made certain portions of Decibel 2014 so disappointing. With a Northwest crowd ready to eat up whatever the festival organizers delivered, Decibel 2014 trended towards the safe and solid; the Richie Hawtins and the Pete Tongs taking center-stage. After all, it’s not like Seattle is much of a proving ground for the electronic avant-garde and despite some wonderful year round booking from key characters, the city is rather dry as far as experimental dance music goes. Despite the lack of curatorial risk taking, several other showcases, the Modern Love affairs in particular, stood out as exemplars of left-field verisimilitude, cutting through the deluge of solipsistic house and techno.
The Modern Love showcase, at EMP’s unfortunately named Level 3 stage, saw the Manchester label bring out an all star roster including Demdike Stare, Andy Stott and Millie & Andrea. Jungle was the dominant sound of the night, but in between Demdike Stare’s horror movie-evoking noise blasts and Stott’s true-as-ever techno manipulations, the showcase touched a number of pleasure nerves to adumbrate the requisite beard scratching. We left for the Ninja Tune showcase before Millie & Andrea, Stott’s collaborative project with Miles Whittaker, could really rev its engine, but Stott’s solo set featured exactly the sort of chugging techno, bisected by thrashing breakbeats, to drag us out of our slumber.
Saturday night’s Hyperdub showcase was always going to be a Decibel highlight and despite a 9:30 set time for UK funky survivor and bedazzled sunglass madman Scratcha DVA, it was an unrequited success. Gathering source material from contemporary house, techno, garage, grime and beyond, DVA opened up The Crocodile with a smattering of ambient cuts before delving into an hour of hip twisting material from across the ‘nuum spectrum. The producer’s own “Walk It Out” demarcated a peak in energy for the crowd, but DVA’s quick cut mixing style and effervescent stage presence was enough to bring the early crowd into a rapturous fervor. Next, the legend Kode9 took the stage to a packed house and quickly progressed into a grime and rap heavy set, full of recent hits from Novelist, Skepta and Young Thug, before finishing out with half an hour of jungle-tinged footwork. Mumdance’s “Take Time” and Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” brought a chorus of yells and gun fingers from the young crowd, a welcome site considering Seattle’s usual grime-averse crowds. Unfortunately, the Hyperdub boss also felt the need to slip in a few unnecessary ~trap bangers 2012-2014~, but despite the brief dalliances with more overt sounds the set was eagerly digested up by the crowd.
DJ Spinn & Taso finished off the night to a reverent audience with style, drawing on the experience of an endless touring schedule to rain down Teklife classics. And while the crowd wasn’t quite footworking, reverence for the culture was readily apparent. It’s only been a few months since DJ Rashad’s tragic passing, but the love is still in the air. Later on, Kode9 and DVA took the decks at several after hours parties, bringing ice rink sounds into the early morning.
Despite our misgivings about Decibel’s lack of an adventurous spirit, the rest of the festival brought more than a few highlights. Starting off the whole event with two of Phuture’s original members was a treat any dance music fan would savor and their live 303 drills ratcheted up expectations for the next week at large. Oneohtrix Point Never’s suitcase-born new age was another highlight at the Sky Church, providing a mesmerizing counterpoint to the no-holds-barred break beat madness of the Modern Love showcase upstairs. Martyn provided a prime example of just how beautiful a proper, melodic techno set can be, lessening our regret over leaving Millie & Andrea early. T. Williams finished out the festival at Re-Bar, proving his doubters (myself included) wrong by bringing out a roughhewn set of house numbers that left the drug-addled Monday morning crowd in a veritable heap by its end.
Decibel’s issues beyond our issues with the lineup are obvious and largely revolve around Seattle’s lack of suitable electronic music venues. Despite the jaw dropping LED screen, EMP was largely a flop, lacking the requsite energy of true music venue. The Sky Church often felt vacant while the Level 3 stage was essentially positioned in a hallway. On the other hand, the festival’s one tried-and-true club, Q Nightclub, was consistently filled with the bro-ey flotsam most Decibel fans look to avoid when attending a self-described experimental festival.
Nonetheless, Decibel 2014’s sprawling nature provided a cornucopia of stylistic options, and despite the festival’s relative lack of curatorial spirit this year, its organizers can still pride themselves on developing one of the more progressive American electronic music festivals. Achieving that feat in the relative dance music backwater of Seattle, far from the bright lights of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, makes it all the more impressive. See you next year Decibel.