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The Highs, Lows, and So-Sos of Eastern Electrics

In its first year as a large-scale festival, the 2013 edition of Eastern Electrics was certainly an ambitious undertaking, one which presented three days of music across six stages and championed a line-up that combined some of the most worthwhile names in both European and Stateside dance music (such as Masters at Work, pictured above). Over the past weekend, XLR8R did its best to catch everything that was happening in the UK's Knebworth Park—located just outside of London in Hertfordshire County—and now that the dust has settled, we've compiled the festival's many highs, along with a handful of lows and so-so performances from the three-day event.

High: The Opening Day
Friday, the opening day of Eastern Electrics, by far boasted the strongest line-up of the three-day festival. Scheduled from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following morning, the festival organizers did a nice job spreading the talent throughout the entire day and night. After Huxley, Bicep, and Deetron started things off right on the festival's main stage—it was hard to argue with that opening trio—Theo Parrish, Ben UFO, Levon Vincent, and DJ Koze also turned in excellent sets, making it a busy day for those who wanted to see as much as they could.

While much of Friday's success was surely the result of good booking, there also seemed to be a palpable energy and excitement amongst the crowd on Eastern Electrics' first day. After a bit of a slow turnout in the afternoon, in the evening the after-work crowd came out strong and was clearly ready to let the week's frustrations go. Every dancefloor seemed not only absolutely ready to get down, but also attentive and willing to follow each DJ along unexpected paths. Friday's selectors certainly rose to the occasion.


Levon Vincent

High: Maya Jane Coles
Along with the list of talents mentioned above, Friday also delivered some truly outstanding performances from a few DJs, Maya Jane Coles being one of them. Coles landed the festival's first major dancefloor victory when she took to the main stage—admittedly quite early—around 7 p.m. Her 90-minute set was everything one would expect from the London DJ, as she strung together dense, billowing house tracks while mixing in flecks of machine-made techno and a number of vocal-led bits. In her hands, this made for a particularly entrancing combination, as Coles drew in listeners with subtle waves of buildup and breakdown, mostly moved the energy of her mix in gradual, understated steps, and reserved her grand mixmaster gestures for only those key moments when the dancefloor was about ready to burst from all the carefully built tension. When her 90 minutes were up, it was clear that the British DJ had plenty of legs to keep on going, and that the crowd would have stayed with her for much longer, but unfortunately, the festival had a schedule to keep.

High: Dixon
We should probably preempt this statement by acknowledging that we have no idea what Dixon's particular stance on drug use is, but—with that said—judging from his set on the festival's opening night, there are few DJs who could better accompany a (happily) drug-induced dancefloor. On Friday, the German DJ led the party down an evolving path of tech-minded house tracks, usually bolstered by alluring percussion loops and slow musical movements. Occasionally, stranger elements would find their way into the set—songs featuring extremely dry synth runs or neverending organ drones would sneak in but never feel out of place. This may have been why Dixon was so perfect for Friday's night druggy atmosphere; he was intent on taking the crowd to the outer regions of meditative dance music, but he was also certain to get them there safely, remaining calm and in control the whole time. Basically, the audience had an open invitation to continue burrowing into their own heads, and Dixon took care of the rest.



Top: Joy Orbison; Bottom: The festival grounds

High: Joy Orbison
Joy Orbison deserves the reputation he has. The man is just an excellent DJ, and he had no problem proving it late Friday night (or, rather, early Saturday morning). Joy O has a way of playing to both sides of the DJ coin—first, he is a technically sound jock, one who is able to make sharp twists and turns work just as well as methodical blending; and secondly, he knows what the crowd wants to hear, and he doesn't shy away from giving it to them. During his 90 minutes at Eastern Electrics, he showed off his prowess in both fields, playing a number of recognizable tracks—his collaboration with Boddika, "Swims," for example—for brief moments as he pummeled through a bass-loaded set that found the Londoner moving at a brisk, but never jarring, pace from track to track.

So-So: Moderat
Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian "Charlie" Szary (a.k.a. Modeselektor) and Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat) debuted their new live show together as Moderat on the first night of the festival, taking to the main stage as the grounds had officially transitioned into night. With each member behind his own tabletop of equipment, the trio delivered a set which sounded mostly composed of material from the outfit's new II LP, and so waded through a wide range of pop-flecked bass music with rich chords and, when called for, Ring's lush vocals. As part of Eastern Electrics, Moderat's live performance provided a refreshing breather from the slew of DJ sets which had already taken up the day. The group's songs were just that—songs—complete with elongated arrangements and often straying from straight-up dance music, which may have seemed like a drop in energy to some, but for most provided a nice palate cleanser from the rest of the festival.

When the group hit its stride, the results were beautifully immersive. Moderat was able to conjure a larger-than-life sound from the interlocked layers the group manipulated on stage. Still, there were a few bumps along the way; the first time Ring attempted to sing into the microphone, his vocals were inaudible throughout the entire song. (The problem was fixed by the next time Ring stepped to the mic.) In the end though, it was sometimes hard to comprehend exactly what the three members of Moderat were doing on stage, and despite the show's exquisite visual accompaniment—a multi-projector setup in an "X" pattern that allowed for an incredible depth of presentation—it was difficult for the large audience to feel a concrete connection with the performers.



Moderat

Low: Cigarette Smoke
XLR8R is going to put on its old-man hat for a moment and complain about people smoking cigarettes at festivals. In 2013, it seems that the debate about whether or not cigarettes are good or bad for one's health has surely been settled. Of course, everyone is allowed to smoke if they please, but the simple courtesy of not doing so in the middle of a crowded dancefloor goes a long way toward helping others enjoy the experience. Granted, this is not a problem specifically with Eastern Electrics, as ostensibly every large outdoor festival around seems to suffer from this same carcinogenic omnipresence—and is rather powerless to stop it—but it's hard to argue that unless you're the one smoking, the constant presence of second-hand smoke in the middle of a dancefloor is just plain shitty. Perhaps non-smokers need to walk around festival dancefloors spraying Febreze in everyone's face; maybe then we could get our point across.

High: Roman Flügel
Taking over the early-evening reigns on what ended up being a muddy Saturday—due to some light rain here and there—in the dependable Igloo tent was German DJ/producer Roman Flügel. The veteran selector did not take his task lightly, beginning with about 45 minutes' worth of acid-tweaked tracks, 909 beats, and assorted DJ tools; the results were hypnotic. Grabbing mostly from his vinyl bag, Flügel favored tracks with upfront percussion and extended periods of repetition, allowing his transitions to run long as a new bassline or percussive loop would slowly bubble up beneath the previous cut's snare or clap pattern. Eventually, Flügel moved towards slightly more soulful territory, but still kept his set adventurous with loads of quirky synth lines and space-age FX. After 90 minutes in the Igloovision tent, the man went and did it all again as a special guest on the Boiler Room stage just an hour or so later, and although those who caught both sets may have heard a few repeats, these songs somehow felt new in this fresh environment.



Top: The Igloovision tent; Bottom: The main stage crowd

Low: Maceo Plex
Appearing on the main stage for the festival's second day was Dallas native and Crosstown Rebels affiliate Maceo Plex, who delivered one of Eastern Electrics' more predictable sets to a very large, but somewhat ambivalent audience. Choosing to mostly focus on the deeper and more sun-glistened side of house, Plex's constant back and forth between build-up and drop worked to get those in the back of the crowd to say "Ohhhh!" over and over again, but offered little in the way of momentum for those interested in more than just hearing a kick drum go away and come back in regular intervals. The result was an uncharacteristically lifeless and indistinct set from Maceo Plex, whose taste as a selector just may not be right for a "big room" crowd at 7 p.m.

High: Planetary Assault System and Surgeon
The last three hours of the Igloovision tent's Saturday run proved to be the standout of the festival's second day. Starting around 3 a.m., Luke Slater's Planetary Assault System project jumped into a live set that was immediately fixed on pummeling, machine-made techno. Not appearing alone on stage (it looked like Slater was joined by another knob twiddler, with both of them using laptops and a bevy of controllers to perform, though the room was too packed to tell exactly what they were using), Slater rarely picked out a chord, melody, or even a proper bassline, instead focusing on dense rhythmic structures, unruly FX, and screeching drones to keep the crowd intensely involved.

Surgeon followed and closed the night out with just as much energy. Though not billed as a live set, a laptop running Ableton Live appeared in the booth with the veteran UK talent—perhaps it was a hybrid DJ/live set—but, regardless, Surgeon had no trouble using the tools at hand to flex his sonic muscle. While his sound was equally as mighty as Planetary Assault System's, Surgeon did offer a few more musical twists, incorporating runs of tuned percussion and sheets of noisy chords to the robust kicks and unruly snares and claps which rendered his set utterly absorbing. The two acts together took the festival into its darkest regions, which only made it more jarring when we exited the Igloo tent and realized that the sun was in the midst of rising.



Top: The Switchyard Stage crowd; Bottom: Inside the Igloovision tent

So-So: MK
Marc Kinchen (a.k.a. MK) seemed to take his reputation as the man behind the "MK Dub" to heart on Eastern Electrics' closing day, as he spent most of his two-hour set offering up garage-infused remixes of everything from The xx and Blondie to Chris Malinchak's "So Good to Me" and Waknelmut and Emma Louise's "My Heart Is a Jungle." While his selections were certainly catchy—MK's basslines and swung drums went over well with the sizable crowd—his set as a whole played it a little too safe for someone of MK's stature. Performing on the main stage, perhaps he felt the need to go for a larger appeal, but in doing so, he took away some of the excitement from those who sought out MK based on his history as a genuine house pioneer. In the end, his set was pleasant enough but still surprisingly pedestrian.

So-So: Skream's Disco Mix
Once one became comfortable with the fact that he or she was watching longtime dubstep kingpin Skream play a disco set, it became clear that the man was not some fly-by-night disco fan—he definitely knows his stuff. Utilizing the mixing talents he's honed over the years, Skream put together a set that was fun yet smartly arranged, dropping a number of more familiar tunes—Duke Dumont's "100%," Krystal Klear's "Addiction," Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger," and some Prince among them—but only in short glimpses before moving on to deeper disco cuts. Still, technical ability aside, the question is, do we really need Skream—or anyone for that matter—still putting these types of sets together for us? The dancefloor at the festival's Star of EE Pub tent seemed to think so.


MK

High: Prosumer and Gerd
While it was hard to choose where to spend the closing hours of the festival's final day—which boasted such talents as Kyle Hall, Kerri Chandler, Masters at Work, and more spread around the grounds—the Igloovision tent again proved to be the best place to end the night (which wrapped up around 10 p.m. in anticipation of most attendees having work the next day). Taking to the decks inside the Igloo before the sun had set was former Berghain resident Prosumer, who began with 45 minutes' worth of mangled house anthems, all of them ripe with tweaked melody lines and enticing patterns. As his set progressed, Prosumer even managed to splice in Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" before moving on to jazzier territory, and the dancefloor happily followed him the whole way.

When it came time for Gerd to step up, the Dutch DJ moved the party into beefier house territory, throwing in a number of cuts that laid into garage-indebted swings and muscular basslines. Even so, Gerd's selections were not so serious, as he smartly combined a fun and inviting vibe with a solid sonic framework. The crowd knew the last hours were approaching, and Gerd used this energy to great effect, breathlessly piecing together irresistible tunes before at last resting with his kickless edit of NY's Finest's "Do You Feel Me," a song that despite its lack of kick-drum punch still had the floor moving as if Gerd was operating at full speed.



Top: Bicep; Bottom: Maya Jane Coles

Some Final Thoughts
After operating as a warehouse party and throwing a much smaller festival last year, this was Eastern Electrics' first year operating on a very large scale, one that, according to its Facebook page, included "tens-of-thousands of music fans, hundreds of staff, and 140-plus [acts]." Considering this, there were hardly any bumps in the road or real issues that arose. Each stage's sound was adequate (though the Igloovision tent may have taken the crown for "Best Sound"), and the different locales all presented a unique atmosphere for festivalgoers to take in the various performances. Furthermore, the festival's curation did a smart job of not trying to reach into every pocket of electronic music, but rather focused on a few that were both appealing to partygoers and of a certain artistic value. With the exception of the live sets from Moderat and Hot Natured, the entirely DJ-driven festival did lack a bit of musical diversity, but the line-up nonetheless insured that those who came to festival were indeed fans of the brand of electronic music being presented, and—perhaps in part because of this—the audiences were attentive and a good time was easy to find. In short, America would be lucky to have a dance music festival of this size and musical quality; the UK is lucky to have another.

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