Melt! 2013: Highs and Lows
XLR8R has been spending a fair amount of time on the European festival circuit this summer, and we continued our jaunt around the continent last weekend with a stop at Germany's vaunted Melt! Festival. Originally launched as an open-air party in 1997, Melt! has spent the past 15 years developing into one of Germany's most notable festivals. Known for its celebration of up-and-coming acts and diverse assortment of forward-thinking sounds, Melt! is one of those festivals that many people make a point to attend each and every year, which is why our expectations were high as we headed toward the festival site on Friday afternoon. Over the course of our three days and nights on site, we did our best to take in as much of the festivities as we could, and spent the weekend documenting the many things we liked... and a few things we didn't. In the interest of keeping things organized, we've compiled a list of the festival's highs and lows, and have hopefully constructed an accurate snapshot of the Melt! 2013 experience in the process.
HIGH: The location
Since 1999, Melt! has taken place at Ferropolis, an absolutely stunning location near Dessau, a city that's about two hours southwest of Berlin. Apart from hosting festivals and other events, Ferropolis—also known as the "City of Iron"—is an open-air museum located on the site of a former strip mine. As such, the place is home to several enormous—and unquestionably impressive—antique industrial excavators. It's difficult to explain the power of these gigantic machines, as their size alone is rather imposing; moreover, they look like real-life manifestations of the menacing industrial monsters that populated science-fiction films like The Matrix, The Terminator, or even Star Wars. On their own, these excavators would have been a sight to behold, but Melt! organizers upped the ante by outfitting them with an array of lights and fire-spewing adornments. Granted, all of this had very little to do with the music, but constantly being surrounded by these daunting creations—festival organizers placed no fewer than seven different stages and music areas in between and around the excavators—made attending Melt! a particularly unique experience.
Apart from the machinery, it's worth noting that the Ferropolis site is located on a narrow peninsula in the middle of a large lake. It's a picturesque setting; walking around Melt!, one is always surrounded by water and a lovely view is consistently just a few steps away. One of the stages—the Modeselektor-curated Melt! Selektor Stage—was even located on the water's edge, allowing festival attendees to frolic in the sand or even take a dip as DJs and live acts performed. It was these kinds of details that made being at Melt! a truly enjoyable experience, whether we were watching an artist perform, relaxing by the water, or just walking around and soaking up the atmosphere. The sun was shining all weekend, and even though the festival was sold out, Melt! organizers smartly capped the tickets at a level—we were told approximately 25,000 people were in attendance—that generally left those in the audience with plenty of room to operate.
Todd Terje and Lindstrøm
HIGH: Todd Terje and Lindstrøm
After being impressed by their joint live show at Sónar 2013, we were rather excited to catch Todd Terje & Lindstrøm on stage together once again at Melt! Performing late Friday night on the Gemini Stage, the Norwegian veterans did not disappoint. Over the course of an hour, they breezed through a live show that featured an array of hits from both of their catalogs, and of course played their collaborative smash "Lanzarote" from earlier this year. At this point, it's easy to think of their melodic, disco-flavored output as a bit cheesy, but these songs—the old ones and the new ones—absolutely shine in a festival setting. Tracks like "I Feel Space" and "Inspector Norse" may be simple, bouncy, fun, and even a little nostalgic, but they are also excellent pieces of dance music that simply happen to have a potent pop current running through them. The tunes certainly worked on the crowd at Melt!, as the dancefloor was full of smiles while Terje and Lindstrøm played into the wee hours of the morning.
Disclosure performed on Saturday night at the Gemini Stage, and the Melt! crowd absolutely loved the set. The dancefloor was rammed, people enthusiastically sang along, and a genuine sense of elation floated through the air. At the same time, there was something a bit depressing about it all, at least for anyone whose appreciation of electronic music dates back more than a year or two. (Given the preponderance of glitter-streaked girls, shirtless muscleheads, and canoodling couples in the audience, it's safe to say that Disclosure didn't pull a crowd of electronic-music lifers.)
Disclosure's music may contain trace elements of vintage house and UK garage, and the Lawrence brothers do occasionally profess their admiration for certain dance-music luminaries, but all of that is essentially arbitrary at this point. Simply put, Disclosure is a pop band, and no matter how the music and group has been marketed, the outfit is very much a product and a brand, something that has been shaped and sold to the masses by the remnants of the major-label system. In and of itself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it also doesn't make for music that's particularly interesting.
The set was billed as a "live" show, and though Disclosure did bring a large rig on stage, it didn't take a keen observer to see that the boys were merely tapping out a few drum hits or playing the occasional bassline while an Ableton backing track did all of the heavy lifting. The fact that most of the vocal bits were also canned didn't help matters either. There simply wasn't much substance to the performance, even as the brothers moved through the bulk of their catalog over the course of an hour; hearing the songs one after another, the sameness of it all was inescapable—every song sounded like a polished, three-minute radio hit. A diamond-shaped video screen stationed behind the boys did add a bit of pizazz to the proceedings, particularly once an animated version of Disclosure's trademark face illustration popped up, but no amount of visual bells and whistles could prevent the saccharine levels from reaching a dangerous level. The set ended with "Latch," and once its dulcet tones came to a close, we gladly exited and sought solace elsewhere.
HIGH: Ben UFO
Ben UFO is a great DJ. It's been said before, it will surely be said again, and although it's not exactly innovative for us to be singing his praises once more, his set on Saturday night at the Melt! Selektor stage did nothing to change our already high opinion of the man. That being said, the London DJ and Hessle Audio boss did go into his set facing a unique challenge: the cold. As Saturday night bled into Sunday morning, the wind kicked up, the temperatures dropped down, and plenty of unprepared attendees (ourselves included) were left shivering in the open air. Still, the crowd persevered, and not even a 3:30 a.m. start time could dissuade the audience from sticking around the beach to watch Ben UFO do his thing. Coming on after a set of crunchy techno bangers from Modeselektor and Diamond Version—which was rather enjoyable in its own right—Ben UFO went rather hard, weaving together an array of driving, heavily rhythmic tunes that occasionally veered into glitchy and distorted territory. It wasn't necessarily the sound he's known for (although he's often proven quite capable regardless of what genres he's dabbling in), but it was actually more directly in line with Hessle's output than we've come to expect from Ben UFO. More importantly, it was expertly mixed and absolutely engaging. Being cold is rarely fun, but Ben UFO warmed things up just enough to keep us hanging around.
HIGH: The first 20 minutes of The Knife's set
LOW: The slow realization that The Knife's set was not actually a proper live show
As one of this year's major headliners, The Knife's performance on Friday night was one of Melt!'s most anticipated sets. The mysterious brother-sister duo always brings something unique with its live shows, and this was our first chance to see the outfit live since the release of the Shaking the Habitual album earlier this year.
Taking to the Mainstage just before 1 a.m., the opening moments of the set were truly wonderful. Clouded in a thick haze of lights and smoke, hooded figures slowly emerged and seemingly began performing the group's twisted brand of pitch-shifted electronic/pop experimentalism. As the music proceeded, it became apparent that an entire ensemble was on stage, many of them banging away on what looked like tribal instruments. The energy level quickly spiked, the various members of the group jumped and ran around the stage, and the set eventually became a fantastic sort of spectacle, something that was engaging to both look at and listen to.
But at some point, something changed. About three or four tracks into the set, all of the instruments were swept offstage and only a troupe of glittery dancers was left behind. The music played on, yet it was apparent that nobody was actually playing or singing any of it. (The instruments would eventually return later in the set, but only after a point when it became clear that everyone on stage was pantomiming.) Granted, the dancers were entertaining in their own right—the sheer amount of choreography that went into the show was impressive—but the crowd slowly realized that most, if not all, of the music was prerecorded and that perhaps the actual members of The Knife weren't even taking part in the show. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the various ensemble members would often swap positions and roles from song to song, so it was never quite clear who, if anyone, was the actual "singer." It was also bizarre that different members would occasionally hop on the mic—using their normal voices—and talk to the crowd. Hearing a random person say "you guys are amazing!" during a show from The Knife seemed a bit odd and out of place.
Knowing The Knife's artistic tendencies and stated desire to challenge preconceived notions about gender, sexuality, music, power, and more, perhaps all of this shouldn't have been so surprising. After all, in an era when countless artists "perform" while lip synching or relying heavily on backing tracks, it wasn't all that different for The Knife to seemingly hire a performance-art troupe to mime along and dance with the music. On an intellectual level, the show raised interesting questions about what exactly a concert is, not to mention the current state of the music industry and festivals in general. At the same time, there were a lot of people in the crowd who love The Knife's music and probably would have preferred to see a slightly more "traditional" (for lack of a better word) show. Maybe The Knife doesn't care about that. Perhaps the members of the group were there and were simply acting as part of the performance troupe instead of "playing" as expected. The truth is, we're not sure who was doing what or how they were doing it, and that was likely the idea. Still, we wanted to leave The Knife's set having been amazed. Instead, we left scratching our heads.
Jets is the collaborative project of Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, and although the duo has only a single EP to its name, its live show at the Melt! Selektor Stage on Saturday night was an hour of riotous, drum-machine-driven fun. Though it was difficult to tell exactly what the two artists were doing on stage, they appeared to be playing a sort of hybrid live/DJ set and used their hour of stage time to blaze through an energetic session that combined elements of techno, hip-hop, Baltimore club, ghetto house, and more. The music was fast, propulsive, and seemingly fueled by vintage clap sounds. There was definitely a raw—and undeniably American—sensibility to it all, but that was also a big reason why the set was so much fun. Admittedly, the music was a little rough at times (some of it had a definite demo feel) and the frequent transitions in tempo and style occasionally made the show feel a bit scattered, but the crowd response at the beach was enthusiastic nonetheless; Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum certainly got into the spirit, as the two were bopping around the stage and clearly having a good time. Given how well things went, we couldn't blame them.
LOW: James Blake
Judging by the enormous crowd that showed up to watch James Blake at the Mainstage on Friday evening—not to mention the widespread shrieks when he sang his first notes—it was clear that he was one of this year's biggest Melt! draws. At this point, Blake is effectively a crossover act, an artist who's arguably more of a singer/songwriter than an inventive electronic producer. While his fans would likely claim that he's nimbly walking a line between those two roles, his set at Melt! found him struggling to find a balance, and felt a bit uneven as a result.
Part of the problem may have stemmed from the fact that much of Blake's output (especially from his two full-lengths) is rather quiet and introspective. As such, it's not exactly booming festival material. Still, much of his set found Blake—with the assistance of his two-piece backing band, which happens to include fellow R&S artist Airhead—tweaking and/or beefing up the tracks, particularly in terms of low end. The extra blasts of bass may have elicited cheers from the crowd, but they didn't necessarily suit the music, and older tracks, in particular "CMYK," lost some of their potency as a result. In fairness, the audience continued screaming in delight throughout the performance, but it was hard to shake the notion that Blake's live set was a bit stiff, and may require a bit more tinkering to properly shine on the festival circuit.
HIGH: Mount Kimbie
UK duo Mount Kimbie also performed on Friday night, albeit at the Melt! Selektor Stage. As another act that incorporates both electronic and pop elements into its music, the duo has suffered from uneven live shows over the years. However, upon completion of the group's second full-length, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, Mount Kimbie worked to reimagine its live show—a process detailed in our From Studio to Stage feature from a few months back—and based on the band's set at Melt!, the effort appears to have paid off. Performing with a drummer, the group was confident and its music soared. Listening to the music, it became clear that Mount Kimbie has done its share of adjusting and experimenting with tracks new and old, as many of the songs sported new arrangements or additional elements. The music was still detailed and nuanced—Mount Kimbie still sounded like Mount Kimbie—but the compositions had been thickened up a bit, allowing the music to transition more smoothly to a big stage.
LOW: Big Wheel Stage
From a booking standpoint, it was hard to argue with the Resident Advisor-sponsored Big Wheel stage at Melt! Over the course of the festival, it played host to an almost absurd amount of talent, including the likes of Joy Orbison, Scuba, and Bicep. And those were just the DJs we saw on Friday; the stage also played host to Function, Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, Michael Mayer, Eats Everything, James Holden, Solomun, Simian Mobile Disco, Damian Lazarus, Maceo Plex, Jamie Jones, and others over the course of the weekend.
Heading into the festival, we expected to be spending a lot of time at this stage, but that ultimately wasn't the case, and it had nothing to do with the music on offer, which was obviously quite good. The problem was the stage itself. First of all, the soundsystem simply wasn't up to snuff, at least during the first day or two of the festival. Not only was it too quiet, it was also quite muddy, which meant that DJs' sets sometimes came across as an endless loop of slightly fuzzy thuds. In the process, the nuances were lost, as was the vibe of the dancefloor. In fairness, the sound quality did improve as Melt! wore on, but only felt properly dialed in on the festival's final night.
Apart from the sound issues, the set-up of the Big Wheel Stage itself was a problem. Throughout the weekend, we often jokingly referred to the area as the "Bottleneck Stage," as the surrounding zone was a sort of triangle that became more narrow as one moved away from the stage. Furthermore, a major walkway was stationed just to the right of the front of the stage, meaning that attendees exiting the area or simply passing through would frequently walk right through the dancefloor. Melt! rarely felt crowded or uncomfortable, but the Big Wheel stage was the major exception. Whether we were dancing or simply trying to relax and take in the music, being at the Big Wheel required putting up with a constant barrage of party people pushing their way past. Given that, we often kept our distance.
HIGH: DJ Koze
Despite the shortcomings of the Big Wheel Stage, we couldn't stay away when DJ Koze stepped up on Saturday night. The veteran German producer piloted the decks for three hours, and used the opportunity to showcase both his eccentric nature and his mastery of house and techno music. Whether he was unexpectedly donning a wolf mask or dropping music from Jon Hopkins, Koze kept things light, but the music itself never got too silly. Though his mixing was occasionally a bit rough around the edges—the soundsystem may have had something to do with that—Koze's willingness to assume the role of the merry prankster kept the dancefloor moving and prevented anyone from getting too critical.
HIGH: Melt! Selektor Stage
We've already mentioned the Melt! Selektor Stage multiple times, but it worth noting that the stage consistently served up quality dance and electronic music on both Friday and Saturday night. (It was closed on Sunday.) Apart from the acts already mentioned, stage highlights included Benjamin Damage's session of melodic and propulsive techno, Diamond Version's undeniably challenging but oddly compelling set of glitchy, techno-esque sounds, Otto Von Shirach's wildly manic showcase of reggaeton surf-rave, and Bambounou's attack of drum-heavy, highly rhythmic house and bass music. Although Modeselektor has been around for quite some time, the duo clearly still has its ear to the ground and a real knack for curation. Especially in a festival setting, it was refreshing to see that Modeselektor was capable of putting together a stage that was both intellectually stimulating and unabashedly fun.
HIGH: Flying Lotus
It's been nearly a year since LA beatmaker Flying Lotus first unveiled his "Layer 3" live show, and although we've managed to catch his audio-visual wizardry a few times before, it once again didn't disappoint. Performing on the Mainstage as the sun went down on Sunday evening, FlyLo churned out glitchy, off-kilter hip-hop beats—and also managed to take a few forays into other stylistic zones—while stationed between two giant screens that displayed a dazzling array of images around him. Despite that fact that only his silhouette was visible during most of the set, Flying Lotus had a real electricity about him, and regularly charmed the audience by hopping on the mic and saying things like, "I know it's not techno, but you can still dance to it." He also frequently grabbed the mic to do a bit of rapping, as at least 20-25% of the set found FlyLo inhabiting his Captain Murphy rap alias and letting his words flow right along with his beats. These songs were also the main instances when he stepped out from behind the screens and engaged the crowd on a more personal level.
During the run-up to this year's Melt!, a sizable chunk of Sunday night's Gemini Stage line-up was marked simply as "TBA." Eventually, it was revealed that the block was being turned over to Riton and Mark Ronson, who would each play individually before spending the last half of the three-hour block performing a special tag-team set as BCK2BCK. This was a bad decision. The notion that two trendy London producers should get together to mostly play radio-friendly American hip-hop and well-worn oldies for a European festival crowd might be intriguing for someone, but the whole thing was incredibly flat, not to mention rather corny. Focusing heavily on commercial rap anthems and rapidly shifting from one track to the next—we heard two Kanye West songs played within 10 minutes of each other—BCK2BCK was more like a hyperactive iPod in shuffle mode at a college rager than it was any sort of serious undertaking. And while Melt!'s party-non-stop contingent was up for BCK2BCK's pandering parade of hits, we found the pair's set rather bland, and quickly escaped to other areas of the festival grounds.
HIGH: James Murphy
After fleeing the party-rocking antics of BCK2BCK, it didn't take long for us to return to the Gemini Stage, as James Murphy was the next act on the bill. As it turned out, he was also the last artist we saw at Melt!, and there truly wasn't a better note to end on. Assuming his place behind the decks at 11 p.m., he quickly demanded that the lights directly on him be turned off, and once the lights went down, he began building a dancefloor while ensconced in darkness. Starting off slowly with an assortment of low-key digger disco, some of it vaguely Balearic while other tunes veered closer to funk or psychedelic rock, Murphy established a pleasantly groovy vibe; the music wasn't over the top, but it was certainly suitable for dancing, and the crowd watching him work gradually swelled. As the set proceeded, Murphy eventually ratcheted up the energy, dropping bouncier fare like the piano-driven John Talabot remix of Teengirl Fantasy's "Cheaters," Todd Terje's summer anthem "Strandbar," and the pumping psychedelic techno epic that is Carl Craig's remix of Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom's "Relevee." Things never got out of control, but the music was generally excellent, the crowd was in good spirits, and people were dancing.
On the whole, Murphy's set was a good metaphor for the entire weekend, and a great way for us to wrap up a long weekend. Melt! 2013 may not have been perfect—no festival is—but our few days at Ferropolis certainly included plenty of highlights. Even when the music dipped in quality, simply being at Melt! felt pretty good. The crowd was happy to be there (and generally well behaved), the weather was just about perfect, the views were amazing, and the overall atmosphere was quite pleasant. It was easy to see why Melt! is an event that so many people love, and despite our quibbles with a few of this year's performances and logistical details, it's a safe bet that the festival will soldier on and sell out again next year.
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