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Dekmantel 2015: Review

Dekmantel, which means cloak in Dutch, started as a series of underground parties in Amsterdam, run by two music-obsessed friends called Casper Tielroij and Thomas Martojo. In a few short years, the Dekmantel name has grown to include a taste-defining record label and what has become one of the world’s best techno and house festivals.

This year’s edition, the festival’s third, saw the event continue it’s upward trajectory with a stellar line-up backed by tight production and a lush, sun-dappled venue in a forest on the southern edge of Amsterdam. At a time when there seems to be a new music festival emerging every week, Dekmantel has managed to succeed by keeping the focus relentlessly on the music. Everything at the festival- the closely linked stages, the ubiquitous (and expertly-placed) Funktion One rigs, the duration of the sets- has been planned to allow festival goers to make the most of seeing some of techno and house’s most accomplished exponents.

In the run-up to the event, co-founder Tielroij said that he and the rest of the core team more or less stop working during the four days and three nights the event runs. This is a crucial detail. They do this in order to enjoy the festival they spend much of the year organizing. As you walk into the venue, you can feel that this is a festival run by people who really care about the music. Too often, festivals are a byword for poor sound quality and rushed sets by headliners who are on the bill just to draw more punters. At Dekmantel, there’s none of the guff and gimmickry that pervades lesser events like Melt. It’s a world removed from the nauseating clusterfuck associated with EDM mega-raves such as EDC and Tomorrowland.

This year’s festival sold out months in advance. Despite it’s growing popularity, the organizers have resisted the temptation to scale up massively, meaning the forest venue comfortably accommodates the 10,000 people who managed to get tickets.

Many of them are locals, and I joined them in cycling through the Amsterdamse Bos to the venue. After a perfunctory pat-down for drugs (people seemed genuinely surprised this was happening in Amsterdam), I walked towards the main stage to get a hit of one of electronic music’s most intoxicating characters- Ricardo Villalobos. Accompanied by Perlon boss and minimal figurehead Zip, he had the crowd swaying to the bleepy slow release of tracks like Axel Boman’s Nokturn. Villalobos has always been a respected but divisive figure, and he’s got a lot of stick recently for not keeping it together on stage at the Cocoon open air in Leeds. I always suspected this said more about the expectations of a crowd raised on the likes of Jamie Jones than Villalobos’ skills behind the decks, and now I had a chance to test my theory. Villalobos was in a similarly loopy state, but the selection was top-notch and honestly, it’s difficult to hate on a man who’s so obviously having a good time. As he ended his three-hour b2b with a tribute to Detroit (and a lot of boozy waving), a voice from the stage informed us that following Villalobos would be ‘the man who fucking invented techno!’


DVS1 at the UFO stage

Enter Mr. Juan Atkins, performing live in his Model 500 avatar. This early moment- it was the first afternoon of the weekend- summed up just how obscenely well curated the programming at Dekmantel is. First Villalobos and Zip, now Juan Atkins, and I hadn’t even moved two hundred meters from the entrance. If there’s one major complaint I have with the festival, it’s the constant state of FOMO it induces in attendees. There’s always more than one stage you’ll want to be at- quite often, I wanted to be at all six at the same time.

As Model 500 got going, I forced myself to move towards the thump emanating from the UFO stage, a massive tent-like structure packed with heaving bodies. Good choice too, because Robert Hood was launching full-pelt into what would turn out to be one of the weekend’s best sets. The energy inside the tent was electric as Hood expertly mixed driving techno with gospel-tinged bangers. It makes sense that Hood doubles as an ordained minister- he was unleashing a storm of biblical proportions on the ecstatic crowd.

I somehow wrenched myself out of the UFO tent just in time to catch the last parts of iconic funk and R&B master Roy Ayers live set, across the festival at the Lab stage. Though much slower, the music continued the tone of cosmic bliss set in place earlier by Hood, and from then on, I stumbled eagerly across the festival’s six stages, trying to catch bits of Ben Klock, Blawan, Joy Orbison and Shed, performing live as Head High. However, this scattergun approach was less satisfying and with the day’s programming peaking, I threw my lot in with Marcel Dettmann on the main stage.

The Berghain resident is best known for the relentless, pummeling techno that fills up that club’s legendary big room but I’ve seen him at a few festival stages this summer and been consistently impressed by his ability to switch to a more expansive, almost ethereal sound. It was a tough ask to crank up the gears in a day filled with so much musical intensity, but Dettmann duly obliged and worked the crowd to a state of pounding euphoria.

When the set closed the festival’s first day, large parts of the crowd were left hanging for more. Last year, the festival organized after-parties with secret line-ups at Amsterdam institution Trouw. But with that club’s closure, the night programming has shifted to Melkweg, a large four-room venue in the heart of Amsterdam. The line-ups were also announced in advance, and Friday’s program included Omar S, Surgeon and a 5-hour b2b with Mark du Mosch and DJ Overdose.

Saturday saw the festival crowd swell considerably, and this coupled with stricter policing at the gate saw hour-long queues at the door. The festival staff tried their best to make the wait bearable, but free bottles of water didn’t exactly make up for missing Anthony Naples or Magic Mountain High, the synth-heavy collab between Move D and Juju & Jordash. When I finally got in, it was to the sound of Mano le Tough playing DJ Koze’s main stage staple, XTC. It was some scene- security staff frisking festival-goers, while Koze’s pitched down sample intoned ‘Many people are experimenting with the drug ecstasy’.


Palms Trax at The Lab

With a smile on my face, I headed straight to the greenhouse-like Lab stage to see one of the rising stars of the Dekmantel stable, Palms Trax. The young Englishman’s funky, hazy selections were the perfect recipe for an afternoon workout, and more or less justified the decision to forego- hold your breath- John Talabot, Shackleton, Young Marco and Vakula, playing on the other stages at the same time. I caught the beginning of Jackmaster, who followed Palms Trax and predictably amped up the tempo, before moving across to the Selectors stage where a mammoth three-man, five-hour showdown was starting. The three men in question? Floating Points, Hunee and Antal. This slot sums up what makes Dekmantel exceptional- not only does it invite some of the world’s best DJ’s to play, it also gives them the right kind of time and platform to showcase their skills.

I would have happily watched these three swap tunes for days on end, but by now I’d developed a hard-nosed sense of discipline, a determination to absorb as much as possible of the amazing music playing out across this small patch of Dutch parkland. I passed the main stage where Four Tet was working the tear ducts with Oni Ayhun’s timeless OAR003-B. It’s the kind of tune that makes you stand still and just gape, and that’s exactly what I did before being drawn by the monster thump of DVS1 in the UFO tent. The energy in this closed space was markedly more intense than the rest of the festival, and somewhat similar to the peak-time vibe in large clubs.

It’s a testament again to the festival’s organizers that they manage to accommodate so many different musical experiences in such a compact, intimate space. I snuck out eventually to catch a little more of the ridiculous threesome at the Selectors stage, as well as Tom Trago, Mr. Ties and Jeff Mills before returning to the UFO, where Rødhåd was closing. He went for the kill. It’s difficult to describe the frenzy in that space, but if you’ve seen the effect that expertly selected big room techno can induce, you should have an idea.

It was an invigorating set, and as I cycled back towards the city with the hundreds of other festival-goers, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all peddling a little extra fast to the echoes ringing in our ears from another incredible day of music. I entered Melkweg to find Dopplereffekt starting his cerebral live set, and slowly moved to the main room and the analogue funk of hometown heroes Juju and Jordash. They were followed by one of electronic music’s most enduring and swashbuckling figures, the Dude himself, DJ fucking Harvey. As he set up his rotary mixer, you could feel the energy in the room rise. When he finally took over, we held our collective breath. And then- bang! Off we went, a kaleidoscopic, crazy ride through a landscape of hyper-sleazy disco mixed with absurdly groovy techno, with blues, funk and a smattering of obscure psychedelica for company. Harvey’s cult status has been earned through decades of ballsy DJing, and it was glorious to see him in his element. But every choice at Dekmantel is a sacrifice- and watching Harvey meant I missed out on one of the festival’s most-talked about sets, a 5 hour b2b between Livity Sound’s Peverelist and A Made Up Sound.


DJ Harvey at Dekmantel's night stage

By Sunday, the festival organizers had smoothed out the bottleneck at the door, greatly reducing the wait. In what was another day of brilliant programming, one slot stood out above all others- Motor City Drum Ensemble’s three-hour session at the Selectors stage. I was lucky enough to have witnessed MCDE’s now mythic Boiler Room set at last year’s Dekmantel, and I was curious to see how he’d cope with the added expectation. Danilo Plessow (MCDE) is one of electronic music more vulnerable characters, and though this heightened sensitivity undoubtedly feeds his emotionally rich music, it’s also led to questions about his ability to deliver under pressure. Well, he answered the doubters with a heady, inimitable mix of funk and disco that had the stage packed for the three hours he played. It was sunshine music at it’s very best, and the crowd exploded when he dropped Kerri Chandler’s ‘You’re in my System’. The rest of the set was filled with an expertly balanced selection of obscure Afro funk such as Papas’ Got’s ‘I Wanna Love’ and well known classics such as Roy Davis Jr and Peven Everett’s gospel hit ‘Gabriel’. The mixing wasn’t flawless, but with MCDE, you come for the selection and he more than delivered.

Avoiding the stale, predictable sound of Recondite and Tale of Us on the main stage, I followed up with Helena Hauff’s dark, acid-inflected sound experiments at the Lab. Excellent stuff, and Sunday afternoon saw a rare concentration of women on the program. Hauff was preceded by Veronica Vasicka, and followed by Panorama Bar residents Steffi and Virginia, with Nina Kraviz playing the UFO at around the same time. The lack of women in festival lineups is a complaint that’s only getting louder and louder, and while Dekmantel have acknowledged this and made some efforts to correct it, there’s still a long way to go.

A late-night bus back to Berlin meant I had to leave the festival slightly before the end. But before leaving, I did manage to sneak in one last session with Dixon, with quick glimpses of the Hessle Audio boys (Ben UFO, Pangaea and Pearson Sound) and Italy’s finest, Donato Dozzy.

As I pedaled furiously to get back in time for my bus, I caught a glimpse of the orange band on my wrist from the 2014 edition. I’d kept this on as a reminder of the amazing time I’d had during my first visit to Dekmantel. Needless to say, I’ll keep the yellow one from this year. And I’ll be back to collect my third in 2016.

Words: Vikram Singh
Image credit (all): Vikram Singh. Main image features Ben Klock on the main stage.

 

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10 August 2015

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