New Forms Festival: 10 Things We Liked... and a Couple of Things We Didn't
Over the weekend, XLR8R made a quick trip to Vancouver to check out the 2012 edition of the New Forms Festival. Modest in scope but impressive in the quality of its curation, New Forms felt like a low-key affair, albeit one punctuated by a number of innovative artists (including Actress, pictured above) and cutting-edge music from a cross-section of the globe and the electronic-music spectrum. The festival's music portion was spread across three days and two nights in various locales around the city, meaning that each day offered plenty to enjoy. We did our best to catch everything, but summarizing it all would be just about impossible, not to mention tedious. As such, we've picked out 10 things about New Forms that particularly struck our fancy, and also mentioned a couple of things that didn't.
1. DJ Stingray
In the wake of his blistering XLR8R podcast, which helped kick off New Forms last week, it was no surprise that Detroit veteran DJ Stingray came correct with his set on Friday night. Taking the stage in the cavernous hangar at the Centre for Digital Media at 2 a.m.—the exact hour when alcohol sales come to a closer—the Detroit veteran faced a very real risk of scaring away attendees, many of who had been milling about for hours and were likely beginning to think about heading home. Given the scenario, some artists might have chosen to play a "safe" set in the interest of maintaining the crowd, but Stingray appeared to have no such sense of compromise. Blasting right out of the gate, he dropped one fleet-footed electro-techno hybrid after another, quick-mixing his Drexciyan selections and weaving together a flurry of cracking 808s, acid squelches, and energetic breakbeats. Even with the rash of 808 and old-school-electro worship that has permeated the bass-music sphere in the past year or two, it's safe to say that other DJs quite simply don't sound like Stingray, as few would have dared to play that hard and that fast in such an unrelenting fashion. That's not to say that his set at New Forms was some kind of punishing session; on the contrary, it was a lot of fun, and kept the crowd bopping well past 4 a.m.
The Hyperdub don has been hitting the festival circuit pretty hard in 2012, and his DJ skills, which were never really in question, have only become stronger as a result. Once again, Kode9 delivered a blistering set to close out Saturday night's festivities, one that was surprisingly focused on various strains of ghetto sounds from the US, including lots of juke, footwork, club, and hip-hop. Granted, he also mixed in bits of house, bass, garage, dubstep, and drum & bass with a veteran's ease, but much of the set seemed to gravitate away from the 130-140 bpm range. Nevertheless, that did nothing to detract from the crowd's enjoyment; if anything, all the nods to rap and R&B got people even more hyped. It's also worth noting that Kode9's involvement with New Forms wasn't limited to the dancefloor. He also put together an installation in conjunction with AUDiNT. Without question one of New Forms' A/V highlights, Kode9 conceptualized a dark room filled with smoke and fitted with a directional speakers. Attendees entered with flashlights and would have different auditory experiences depending on their position in the room. It was a unique experience, and definitely the installation that had the most people talking over the course of the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, the New Forms happenings shifted over to the Waldorf Hotel, where the festival hosted a number of panel discussions, which were followed by outdoor sets by a number of Vancouver artists. Headlining the day was LA beatmaker Teebs, whose sunset performance transformed a relatively mellow afternoon into an actual party. Utilizing a simple setup and manipulating tracks on an SP-404, Teebs played mostly his own tracks, but also mixed in a few cuts from people like Flying Lotus, Samiam, and Jeremiah Jae. As expected, the beats were heavy on the twinkling melodies and atmospheric flourishes, but they also carried enough low-end weight to get people moving. And with Teebs constantly filtering and tweaking the tracks, the set had a real sense of dynamism, one that couldn't even be extinguished when the power for the entire stage unexpectedly cut out halfway through his performance. Teebs took the mishap in stride, cracked a smile and a few jokes, and went right back to dropping quality tunes when the electricity returned.
Arguably the most anticipated act of the entire festival, Actress performed at midnight on Friday to a packed hangar at the Centre for Digital Media. His sets are known to fluctuate wildly, but the shadowy UK producer came with the dancefloor in mind on this night, focusing much of his set on hard, churning techno rhythms. Performing live with his laptop and a MIDI controller, he did occasionally venture into more introspective and experimental territory, which was great, but many of the tunes he selected wouldn't have been out of place at Berghain. The audience wasn't exactly ready for this—there was a lot more swaying than all-out dancing—but the music sounded excellent, and fit the space's stark, industrial vibe rather well.
5. Sinjin Hawke
After tabbing him recently in our Bubblin' Up series, we were definitely excited to see Barcelona-based producer Sinjin Hawke at New Forms, especially because he was slated to perform one of his infrequent live sets. Hawke is often lumped in with the world of bass music, but his set—which impressively did not include a laptop—showcased a real love for hip-hop, even if the music wasn't rap in the strictest sense of the word. Let's put it this way: his set featured a lot of 808 drum sounds. In less skilled hands, this might have been a problem, but Hawke enthusiastically lept around the sonic spectrum, offering melody-rich, R&B-infused bass sounds one minute before unfurling some frenetic footwork the next. Undeniably youthful in its orientation and appeal, his set nonetheless offered proof that the current generation of SoundCloud-reared, internet-savvy producers is capable of doing more than regurgitating whatever sounds have been deemed trendy at the moment. With its flurry of rapid-fire kicks, dramatic synth melodies, and liberal usage of hip-hop and R&B vocal snippets, Hawke's set may not have been "deep," but the music presented a real depth of purpose and a coherent artistic outlook. It also happened to be a whole lot of fun.
Last year's Severant was one of our favorite albums of 2011. As such, the recent announcement of Kuedo's first North American tour was met with much rejoicing in the XLR8R office. As it turned out, his first performance on this side of the Atlantic took place at New Forms, and the former Vex'd member did not disappoint. Performing with a laptop and a MIDI controller, his set combined heavy, gut-rumbling low end with euphoric washes of synth melodies. That may be a simple description, but the music was truly potent, threatening to overload the crowd's auditory (and emotional) inputs, but never quite going too far over the edge. His sound palette was familiar, yet it's hard to compare Kuedo to other acts, as he's carved out a distinct musical niche, and continues to extract its maximum potential. Plainly said, his set sounded big, and we—along with most of the crowd in the hangar on Saturday night—were happy to let ourselves get lost in it.
7. The consistent quality of the music
Although we've highlighted a handful of performers that truly stood out, it needs to be said that the weekend was more or less devoid of performances that we'd refer to as "bad" or even "not good." New Forms was obviously curated very carefully, and while artists like Daniel Bell, Legowelt, Canblaster, Pilooski, Kangding Ray, and Veronica Vasicka perhaps didn't have the same "wow" factor as the acts we've described above in more detail, all of them were solid, if not downright enjoyable. Most festivals fall prey to the temptation to book a few stinkers, often in an effort to boost the draw of the overall line-up, but New Forms organizers clearly knew better, and let quality, rather than popularity, guide their curation.
Centre for Digital Media: Hangar
8. The venue
As stated previously, the bulk of the festival took place at Vancouver's Centre for Digital Media, and the New Forms organizers' usage of the space is to be commended. The venue has a post-industrial feel, one that lent the proceedings a sort of gritty aesthetic that recalled rave's glory days, particularly in the main hangar room. That said, the space wasn't simply some abandoned warehouse. It may have had exposed fixtures, high ceilings, a concrete floor, and a stripped-down vibe, but the place wasn't sketchy or unclean. On the contrary, being at New Forms each night felt like being in a cool gallery, one equipped with booming—although admittedly not always clear—sound, top-flight DJs, and cool visuals that transformed the space without being intrusive. And when attendees wanted a break from the main hangar, there was the more intimate second room, which belonged to Vancouver's eatART. Interestingly enough, although the music wasn't quite as compelling in there, the room's cramped quarters probably helped foment a vibe that was arguably more upbeat and fun than that found in the hangar. On Saturday especially, attendees often had to wait in a serious line to get into eatART, as the room continually was at capacity. Clearly, something was being done right in there.
Centre for Digital Media: eatART
9. The crowd
When it comes to festivals, the thing that most people tend to complain about is the crowd. After all, who wants to be surrounded by thousands of obnoxious kids and rowdy assholes? Thankfully, neither contingent showed up en masse to New Forms. The weekend's events attracted a noticeably older crowd, and one that was generally quite music savvy. Granted, given that the festival's biggest headliners were Actress and Kode9, it wasn't exactly surprising that a more refined audience would turn up. It also helped that the crowd size was generally in the hundreds, not the thousands. Even calling New Forms a festival is a bit of a misnomer; that's not meant as a slight to the organizers, but the events were small-to-medium sized and clearly curated with a very specific, educated, and open-minded audience in mind. Being at New Forms was not dissimilar to the experience of a festival like MUTEK (albeit a scaled-down version), which is likely why the weekend attracted a similarly excellent group of attendees. This approach may have led to a little mellow reflection and laid-back enjoyment on the dancefloor than one might have expected, but when compared with most festivals' wealth of people simply going apeshit, we don't think many folks at New Forms were complaining.
10. Sunday in the park
The festival's final day took place in Vancouver's New Brighton Park, a spot situated in a picturesque location right on the waterfront. Free and open to the public, the park was full of people from all walks of life, and New Forms kept them entertained by curating a quality line-up of DJs of performers. Arriving later in the day, we only managed to take in the last few acts, including a live performance from local duo Larry James, a tag-team effort from Kevin McPhee and Ronnie Falcon, and a closing set from DC duo Beautiful Swimmers. All dropped various strains of house, but generally kept things groovy, which fit the mood perfectly as the sun went down. Honestly, it's almost always hard to go wrong with sunshine, drinks, BBQ, and good music, but New Forms definitely wrapped up its festivities in a highly enjoyable fashion.
Teebs at the Waldorf Hotel
… And the things we didn't like
All in all, New Forms ran smoothly, and most people in attendance seemed more than pleased with the results. In truth, the festival had an intimate feel, which often meant running into the same attendees day after day and comparing notes. While most of the commentary was overwhelmingly positive, no event is perfect, and a couple of critiques kept popping up.
In fairness, the sound at the Centre for Digital Media wasn't bad. However, it also wasn't great. The eatART room definitely could have used some additional volume. Over in the hangar, volume wasn't really a problem, but clarity was. Perhaps the room itself was to blame, as industrial spaces aren't exactly designed with acoustics in mind. Nevertheless, with so many quality artists jumping behind the decks on Friday and Saturday night, the festival experience would have been even more excellent if the sound system had been better.
While New Forms' nighttime activities were happening at the Centre for Digital Media, the daytime events were located at the Waldorf Hotel and New Brighton Park, two spots that aren't especially nearby. Granted, Vancouver is relatively small, so going from place to place in a car never requires a long trip, but people without automobiles either faced paying for a taxi, embarking on an hour-long walk, or attempting to navigate the city's not-always-convenient transportation system. It was a small inconvenience, but something that presented a bit of a hurdle for those looking to attend everything. Plus, as New Forms continues to grow in the years ahead, this issue will only become more important.
Overall though, these complaints are admittedly minor, and it would be hard to deem the 2012 edition of New Forms anything but a success. This is a festival that has been going for more than a decade, and while its scope may remain small—the organizers might prefer to say "focused"—it's readily apparent that New Forms has a clear vision, one centered around bringing together an assortment of boundary-pushing electronic artists with similarly forward audio-visual installations. It was refreshing to attend an event where the promoters recognize that the correlation between "bigger" and "better" is tenuous at best. New Forms knows its limitations and plays to its strengths, which goes a long way toward explaining why it's so good.
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