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Review: Dekmantel 2016

I almost didn’t make it to Dekmantel this year. I’d gone the two previous years, and they’d been golden - the festival consistently puts together one of the world’s best electronic music lineups in a sun-dappled forest outside Amsterdam. To my eyes (and ears), it can do very little wrong. But that also means it surely can’t keep on getting better, especially when there’s not a whole lot to improve on.

What’s it going to do? Take my two favourite DJs, and put them on the main stage, one after another, to cap off a weekend of peerless music?

Oh.

In spite of that, I wasn’t going this year because who flies to Amsterdam all the way from India for a bloody weekend festival anyway?

So I booked a refundable ticket and tried to forget about it.

I went to bed, two hours before my plane to Amsterdam, and almost fell asleep. And then, a searing flash, white hot, jolted my brain. DJ Koze. Motor City Drum Ensemble. Main stage Sunday, one after another. I jumped out of bed, called a taxi and made it to the airport counter exactly one minute after it was supposed to shut. They let me get on.

DJ Harvey

I won’t bore you with the details of what I did before the festival (Boerejonges, 239 Baarsjesweg) but the moment my foot hit the pedal of my little Dutch bike on the way to Amsterdamse Bos, I knew I’d made the right decision. The feeling was reinforced as I entered the familiar looking festival grounds, and headed straight to the vaunted Selectors stage. Very little about these stages has changed from the festival’s early years- save their reputations, which have grown, burnished by countless virtuoso performances. The legend of the Selector stage, for example, has grown enough for it to become a festival of its own, the first edition in Croatia this September. Opening the stage this year was none other than DJ Harvey, spinning his inimitable, messy brand of cosmic punk-disco. It was the musical equivalent of an acid hit, and a perfect way to start sampling the kaleidoscopic delights the festival had in store. I wanted to see practically everyone on the bill, and experience has taught me this is neither possible nor fun, so my strategy was to walk to a stage and stick around if I was having a good time.

I gave Harvey my first hour, and then moved next door to the Greenhouse, a glass structure full of plants and dancing people, grooving to veteran funk maestro, Amp Fiddler. Dressed in red overalls that read DETROIT, the Fiddler was singing songs about the Motor City, and it was tough not to join in, especially once he started singing the infectious ‘1960 What?’ off his new album. It was a fun workout, but with the sun blazing overhead, the Greenhouse got a little too hot for comfort. So we (I made friends!) went to cool off a little and listen to Ricardo Villalobos, playing his now customary opening day slot at the main stage. Ricardo was as loopy as ever, both in the sense of playing the same sound over and over as well as being slightly deranged, and when he’s in this form, well, what’s not to love?

Greenhouse

At Dekmantel, however, the problem is that there’s always something else to love, and at this point, I could choose between Ricardo and – Young Marco, a terse b2b battle between DJ Stingray and Helena Hauff, the charming haze of Orpheu the Wizard and you know, that Moodymann guy. I went to see Moody, and he didn’t disappoint- memorably throwing down Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and a whole bunch of funked out tunes before ending with, umm, a Ten Walls track. So he did disappoint some people.

But there was little time to dwell on that as I rushed back to the main stage to see Ben UFO and Joy Orbison play a selection of slamming house interspersed with percussive workouts. For me, the highlight of their set was Pearson Sound’s fearsome new tune XLB, embellished with what is likely the most devastating drop of the year. That song’s skeletal claps and grotesquely fun acid bleeps formed a natural transition for my walk to the UFO stage, a large tented apparatus that’s home to the harder and more experimental music spread across the weekend. The likes of Holly Herndon and DJ Stingray had already played, and I entered to the sound of Rodhad going hard, if not full pelt, given that he was playing early on Friday evening and not his customary closing slot. Just as well, because it allowed me to save my energy for the manic and thunderous Surgeon live set that followed. I’ve always been a distant admirer of the legendary UK producer’s uncompromising sound, but seeing him live for the first time brought home its awesome, visceral power. As the music climaxed and crescendoed, it seriously felt like the entire UFO tent was about to take off, such was the raw energy flowing between the dancers and the music.

Eventually, I collected my various limbs from the scattered mess of the dancefloor and fumbled back to the relative calm of the Selectors stage to see the middle of Theo Parrish’s four hour long throw-down with Marcellus Pittmann. Maybe it was one of those sets where you really had to stick around to get on the train, but I wasn’t quite feeling it. Ten large jumps brought me back to the Greenhouse to see the banging B2B between hometown heroes Tom Trago and Cinnaman, who seemed to be playing the entire back catalogue of iconic Amsterdam record shop and label Rush Hour. Try that for local flavor!

Jeff Mills

But even here, in this smoke-filled hut of groove, it was impossible to avoid the fact that it was getting dark and that Jeff Mills was only a few hundred meters away, on the main stage, doing, you know, his thing. Seen it before, but impossible to resist. And rightly so - Mills was at his best: powerful, precise and potent. He didn’t just lift the roof of the place, it felt like he was lifting the whole bloody sky. With that singular workout, the festival’s first day ended. How was I going to make it through the weekend?

By being smart.

Dekmantel now has a dedicated night program, but this is best imbibed in small doses if one is to make the most of the stuff happening in the day, which is still the highlight of the festival.

I started the next day at what is technically the smallest stage at the festival or perhaps not even a stage at all. The Red Light Radio hut is the Pluto to the Saturns and Jupiters elsewhere - but man is it fun! Surrounded by food trucks and a comfy patch of grass, it had some excellent selectors pass by for a quick chat and impromptu sets. Early Saturday afternoon, one of my favourite DJs – the infectious French hairball Kosme - was holding court and playing sunshine house. It was the perfect set-up for what was possibly the happiest sounding booking of the weekend - Beautiful Swimmers mixing it up with Pender Street Steppers. I followed that up with another inspired back to back, this time between Daniel Avery and Roman Flugel on the main stage. Flugel seemed to be doing the heavy lifting for much of the set, with Avery watching with as much admiration as the crowd while the German veteran wrung out absurdly danceable tunes from a bedrock of industrial sounds.

Even in the baking sun, it was perversely fun, but my idea of fun was about to get a total reset because up next was quite possibly the most in-demand and hyped DJ in the world at the moment - The Black Madonna. She wears the tag lightly, and based on this performance, totally deserves it. She had the crowd flipping out in ways I didn’t see again the whole weekend. Or wait. Until a few hours later when she did it again, this time at the Boiler Room stage playing alongside Mike Servito, the set (and my day) peaking with Floorplan’s epic new ‘Tell You No Lie’.

The Black Madonna

Buoyed by the afterglow of a manically fun day, I decided to cycle the hour it took to get to the night venue, Melkweg.

The lineup here was stellar, but I feel that Melkweg is undone by its awkward four-room design and the uneven, predominantly male crowd. That aside, I stuck around long enough to see Kosme play a thundering open set (he got away with Strings of Life, it was that good), followed by Soichi Terada at his goofy, inimitable best. I wished I’d stuck long enough into Hunee and Antal’s set to see the shirts come off, but the vibe didn’t quite work, and with a packed day ahead, I called it quits.

Sunday. Parts of me felt I couldn’t handle more music, but there are easily available remedies for that sort of feeling in Amsterdam. Refreshed, I jumped into the festival’s final day and started with some of Vakula’s cosmic pick-me-ups, followed by the brilliantly diverse live set by the recent Dekmantel label signee, Voiski. I snuck out in time with the sun popping out behind the clouds to see Palms Trax looking slightly overwhelmed on the main stage. He just about held his own, and then went big with Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better with You’. Ballsy and quite frankly, brilliant. Every single person in the crowd danced.

He was followed by the man whose legend Dekmantel helped resurrect last year, Fatima Yamaha. It was a perfect Sunday evening set, and the groove of ‘Love Invaders’ even had the techno-heads swinging along. I didn’t stick around to hear the inevitable ‘What’s a Girl To Do?’ because, well, Robert Hood was starting his sermon inside the UFO. His music had enough sunshine to make up for the lack of light inside the tent. Joyous stuff but the only person who could drag me away from it had just started on the main stage. DJ Koze’s beginning felt a little underwhelming after the rollicking highs unleashed by Hood, but he was a rewarding and hugely enjoyable listen for those willing to stay the course. He ended with his massive new remix of Lapsley’s ‘Operator’, the perfect segue to the disco and funk-infused sounds of the main stage’s closing act, Motor City Drum Ensemble.

Digital Mystikz

There were times I was tempted to run to check up on what Digital Mystikz or Peter Van Hoesen were up to, but Danilo was mixing a corker, adroitly pitching rolling basslines with his trademark funk and disco sounds. I’d been first introduced to his music at this festival three years ago, when he played a career-making set at the Boiler Room. He’d followed it up with another classic last year at the Selectors stage and this year the organizers handed him the weekend’s main slot, normally reserved for a techno titan like Mills or a house heavy-weight like Dixon. But Danilo more than stepped up to the plate and when he played Andres’ ‘New For U’, I looked around and my mind snapped back to the moment I’d been lying in bed, somehow imagining this very moment. It was pure, unadulterated bliss, the very best bits about electronic music and the culture surrounding it thrown together in a heaving, dancing mass. Damn, Dekmantel.

Words: Vikram Singh
Image credit: Bart Heemskerk & Desiré Van Den Berg

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31 August 2016

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