We conclude with our friend Primus Luta this series on the Decibel Festival, both a compelling portrait of that event and a slice of the world of electronics and computer music today. Be sure to catch the other three portions of his series:
Beneath the shadow of Seattle’s Space Needle, a tent has been erected in front of the open park green, which is enclosed by a fence. This isn’t the first time that Decibel has brought the festival to the park, but it does mark the first time that the public is being charged for it. In the early afternoon, while tourists flock to the landmark’s everyday attraction, around the perimeter, more than a few have found spots to lay down blankets for the afternoon free of charge.
Inside, divisions continue. The “dance floor” is in the front of the stage, under the tent. Behind the dance floor, artist Eric Orr is doing a live painting in front of couples and families picnicking with Decibel in the park, and behind them, in the beer lounge, Guinness is being served on tap. In spite of the partitioning, the speakers act as a uniting force, by way of the heavy dubstep being spun by Mat the Alien.
The sound in the park is big. Tourists travel to the top of the Space Needle only to discover the bass is traveling the 520 feet up to rattle windows. Matt is working the system to his advantage, allowing the volume to grow dynamically, coaxing a physical response out of the audience. Latecomers make their way in, filling out the lawn and invading the dance floor. As Mat’s set comes to a close, NastyNasty takes his turn at the controls, bringing a palpable energy the crowd almost instantly reflects back to him.
The heavy brostep is infectious; the dance floor is alive. It’s a strange lead-up to the more ambient hip-hop sound to follow. Some artists in a similar situation might find the setup a bit unnerving, but as Nosaj Thing sits in the wings rather than worry he enjoys himself, headnodding to the beat. As he sets up his laptop, the crowd packs in tighter. Then, with the press of an MPD pad, Nosaj shows why his peers consider him a true Ableton master.
While Bluetech takes the dB in the Park stage, other festivalgoers are packing in for the second Optical concert at the Benaroya Concert Hall. This evening there is noticeably more gear on stage, and apparently Noveller has it in her mind to throw as much as she can into her set. Loopers and pedals modify her guitar that is voiced using everything from scissors to packing bubbles. Behind her, the projection screen is filled with moving images that add a creative and intimate touch.
Between their onstage interactions and the way in which their two mediums are work together, one might think that musician Fennesz and visualist Lillevan were a touring act. The truth is that they just met at the festival and yet somehow developed a synergy bringing their work to its full potential.
Oneohtrix Point Never wears a headlamp while standing in front of his mixer and controller rack in complete darkness. His face is spotlighted, and glare from the headlamp on the equipment makes for an interesting effect on its own. Paired with the stunning visuals of Killingfrenzy, however, it all starts coming alive. Faces and figures pop from the screen with an eeriness pulled from scenic noise of Oneohtrix.
As people file out of the second Optical show, the doors are opening at the Baltic Room where Scuba has brought the Hotflush heavy weights to get the intimate dance floor going. Incyde gets things started with a seamless mix of the label’s signature melodic dubstep. As his set moves into Untold’s, the energy builds. A little harder, but no less melodic, the mood shifts from showcase to party. When label head Scuba takes to the decks rocking a Run-DMC style “Bro Step” t-shirt, the place is rocked into a frenzy. The small venue is now packed to the gills with people dancing. It sets a fine stage for the latest addition to the label, Sepalcure, who come ready to throw down a live Ableton duet session. Unfortunately the Baltic system is still recovering from the previous night. They manage to work their way through the set, but there’s an obvious sense of something missing throughout: the bass.
At Neumos, the system is keeping up with the heavy bounce as electronic music legend Kevin Saunderson traces techno back to its Detroit roots for the D25 Showcase. He’s jet lagged from a flight earlier in the day from China, but takes to the stage with the professionalism of a globetrotting superstar, because he is one, and whether the crowd knows this or not, they can feel it. The dance floor is packed, filled with smiles and slippery with sweat, as Saunderson spins a soulful set that does not give one’s legs one seconds rest.
If you never associated Detroit techno with big drums, Carl Craig sets things straight from the first needle drop. Easily the hardest hitting kicks of the entire festival, they never let up their pounding the whole time Craig is at the helm. Like Saunderson before him, however, the drums serve as a characteristic not the emphasis. The emphasis is a shared between the melodies and grooves, which keep the crowd screaming in approval while the kick holds them to the beat.
A misty rain starts as staff ushers people out. Traffic is headed toward afterparties on the edges of the city. The rain lingers with the crowds outside the Motor afterparty where Pezzner, Soul Clap, and Theo Parrish are keeping the four steady on the floor. Further down the block at Monkey Loft, beats are being slung by Dibiase, Devonwho, XI, and Lorn.
The sky has cleared by the early afternoon of the final day for Decibel. The faces in the park show signs of appreciation, for the sun, the music, and the festival for making it come together. On stage, Praveen of Sepalcure shows his credentials with a DJ set filled with grooves perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Mary Anne Hobbs picks up where Praveen leaves off and then shifts into next gear to the heavier side of dubstep. Finger guns are shooting and wings are taking flight as she takes Decibel through a set of bangers she helped make popular. The energy of the crowd matches her own, and she rushes onto the dance floor for her last track. With the crowd well warmed up, Hobbs passes control over to Rinse FM staple Plastician, who keeps the brostep knocking hard in the late afternoon sun.
As dusk sets in, the Triple Door invites festival goers into the seated dinner venue for the final Optical performance. It’s a beautiful room with relatively comfortable seating, but as a dinner venue, the “white noise” of waiters poses a challenge. The delicate balance between the stage and the kitchen becomes obvious during the first set by sanso-xtro. She sits on her knees before an array of electronics and other instruments and then carefully loops sounds from them into ambient melodies.
Decibel favorite Tim Hecker takes the stage next with Lillevan, who finds a way to breathe new life into his visuals through the emotive textures being inspired by Tim Hecker. From vivid colors to stark duality, the descriptors actively work on both the sonic and aural experience.
For the final Optical performance, Tycho begins solo with his ambient sound. The visual backdrop, which silhouettes him, works as moving graphic design, as calculated and precise as the modes within the music. He introduces the festival to his four piece set, which fills out the music with more organic textures.
At Neumos, the crowd for the Decibel Finale looks like they have been partying for five days, but they still have a little life left in them. Fax wastes no time getting them going with deep techno grooves. The soulfulness caresses while the beats force hands to clap out the steady rhythm.
Robert Henke is joined by Tarik Barri on visuals for a Monolake set for future Decibel Festivals. His crisp drums are split into surround sound so that kicks are coming from behind while the snare cracks in the front. Behind him the visuals of collaborator Barri are an animated portrait of Henke’s computerized soul, starting and stopping into a multimedia dance personified on the dance floor. It speaks to everything Henke said in his earlier lecture as well as the type of convergence Decibel is trying to exemplify with the festival.
Pepe Bradock plays the final set for the evening. It is up and lively, but after five days, well past midnight hour on a Sunday bodies are telling festival goers it is over before the staff can put them out. They go back to their everyday lives with what they were able to extract from the densely packed portrait of electronic music in 2010. It is broad in scope, with an audience that continues to grow, and sounds that continue to evolve into different forms, honoring the history and embracing the new, so that it may continue, as strong and stronger, in the years to come. Is that a description of the festival or the music it represents both? It works for both, and for that reason Decibel Festival 2010 can be seen as a success.