Dimensions Festival: Hits and Misses
Last week, XLR8R was invited to trek all the way to Croatia for the inaugural edition of the Dimensions Festival. Put together by the same folks behind the massively successful Outlook Festival, Dimensions featured a remarkably refined line-up, one focusing mostly on house, techno, and various strains of UK-flavored bass music. Taking place in an abandoned fort in the coastal city of Pula—the exact same location where Outlook happens each year—Dimensions presented dozens of artists over the course of four sunny days and three long nights. In terms of the musical talent on hand, the festival organizers left little to be desired. That said, the festival was far from perfect, and some major kinks will need to be ironed out if Dimensions is going to continue and be truly successful in the years ahead. In an effort to impart our readers with a sense of the Dimensions experience, we've cataloged some of the highlights and lowlights.
Before cataloging the highs and lows, it should be reported that despite all the good things that happened at Dimensions over the weekend, an attendee apparently died at some point on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Rumors told different tales of what happened, and official details are still nonexistent, but signs posted around the festival grounds on Sunday referred to an "incident" as the reason that some of the Sunday line-up, including an appearance by John Talabot, was cancelled. Oddly enough, DJs continued playing throughout the afternoon and into the evening, so it's not entirely clear what festival organizers were thinking. (UPDATE: Resident Advisor did some digging and found this police report [in Croatian] that confirmed the death and stated that the victim apparently drowned.) All that being said, Dimensions didn't actually feel unsafe, and a police/security presence was certainly visible—but not obtrusive—throughout the festivities. No matter how many precautions are taken, sometimes deaths happen at festivals, a probability that increases exponentially when drugs, alcohol, the dark, open water, the wilderness, and thousands of people are mixed together. Dimensions may not be to blame, but a death during the festival certainly marred what was largely a pleasant weekend. (Editor's note: This paragraph was initially listed as a "Miss," but has been altered slightly out of respect to the victim's family.)
As the festival came to a close and the various attendees took stock of their favorite performances, it felt like everyone was talking about Mala. The dubstep don continues to command attention, even from those who have largely abandoned the genre, and his set on Thursday demonstrated why. Simply put, the man is a master of his craft, and knows how to unleash seriously heavy basslines without veering into cartoonish or obnoxious territory. Opening his set with a five-plus-minute ambient cut, he seemed to have a clear understanding that dubstep works best when there's a push-and-pull dynamic. In Mala's hands, the genre feels vibrant, as he recognizes that his patience behind the decks ultimately intensifies the low-end wallop of his music. Make no mistake though; for all of his restraint, Mala certainly wasn't shy about bashing everyone over the head when the time was right. When he played "Anti War Dub," the crowd simply erupted.
MISS: Festival scheduling
Unfortunately, seeing an amazing set like Mala's often came at a cost. Granted, most festivals suffer from this problem, but the imbalance was particularly pronounced at Dimensions. For instance, watching Mala's one-hour set meant missing all or major parts of sets from Nicolas Jaar, Four Tet, Shackleton, Surgeon, Benji B, George FitzGerald, and Visionist. It would have been nice to see at least some of those artists. Thursday night was particularly stacked with big names, as the vast majority of the festival headliners performed that night. Friday was not much better, with "bass music" being overrepresented as stages hosted by R&S (Space Dimension Controller, Lone, Pariah, Untold), Hessle Audio vs. Swamp 81 (Ben UFO, Boddika, Loefah, Pearson Sound, Zed Bias, Pangaea, Midland), and Leisure System (Machinedrum, Jimmy Edgar, Gold Panda, Addison Groove, Objekt, Nathan Fake) all happened simultaneously. With that kind of competition, it was nearly impossible to see even a sizable fraction of the acts one might like to see. Most attendees either resigned themselves to a single stage, or bounced around, usually landing on whatever stage had the shortest line.
In contrast, Saturday night's line-up, which featured a pronounced house/techno slant, was surprisingly weak. While this made choosing the night's itinerary a much easier task, it also meant that certain stages, particularly the Decibel stage with Theo Parrish and Moodymann, were uncomfortably crowded and very difficult to enter. As mentioned in the intro, Dimensions wasn't short on talent. Unfortunately though, the organizers' poor programming made seeing all that talent a challenge, to say the least.
HIT: Eglo Records Showcase
Despite competing with Mala and a Sub:stance showcase (Scuba, Shackleton, Surgeon, Blawan, Sigha, Locked Groove) on Thursday night, the Eglo Records stage absolutely stole the show. Offering a funk- and soul-injected alternative to the more straight-laced sounds that dominated much of the line-up, the Eglo crew put together a night where quality music and hip-shaking fun went hand in hand. Fatima performed live, her sultry and soulful voice proving just as potent in real life as it is on record. Floating Points (pictured directly above) was especially good, kicking off with some old-school funk and soul before nimbly working his way into some choice disco and house cuts. He then gave way to Detroit youngster Kyle Hall, who kept things pumping until dawn. Throughout the night, it was striking just how musical, for lack of a better word, Eglo's selections were. These artists are more than just DJs, producers, and performers; they see what they do as an extension of a long musical history, and pay homage to the past while smartly moving things forward. Seeing them put this kind of perspective into action on such a large scale was truly special.
MISS: Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock
In fairness, a whole lot of people were losing their shit when this pair of German techno veterans closed out Fort Arena 1 (which served as the main stage) on Saturday night. Perhaps it's a question of stylistic preference, but the duo's back-to-back set was not an example of techno at its finest. Granted, both of these guys have put in their time at places like Berghain, where hard, one-note techno can offer an amazing experience. But in the Croatian moonlight, even on a solid soundsystem, the set came off as boring and seriously lacking in soul. Robotic precision and subtle changes can be fine, but Dettmann and Klock chose to punctuate their set with trance-like melodies that veered dangerously close to Ibiza territory. Basically, it was big-room rave techno, and when combined with some slightly clunky mixing, it wasn't an ideal way to wrap up the Dimensions experience.
Blawan at the Data Transmission Boat Party
HIT: Boat Parties
Taking advantage of the festival's seaside location, Dimensions organizers smartly organized a series of boat parties that featured many of the weekend's top-tier acts. While the parties required an additional entrance fee and were undoubtedly too long (four to five hours, when two to three hours would be more than sufficient), it's hard to complain about an afternoon in the sunshine (or an evening in the warm summer air) on a boat in the Mediterranean with quality DJs. There were nearly 20 boat parties in all, two of which we attended. Although we're admittedly biased, the XLR8R boat party was a lot of fun, as Koreless, Dark Sky, Machinedrum, and Shawn Reynaldo (that's me) played on a Funktion-One soundsystem for an enthusiastic crowd. Immediately afterwards, we hopped on another boat for the absolutely rammed Resident Advisor party, where Ben UFO and Boddika both delivered lengthy sets.
HIT: Ben UFO
Speaking of Ben UFO, any conversation about the world's best DJs needs to include his name. Frankly, the guy is always impressive behind the decks, and that held true at Dimensions. His set aboard the Resident Advisor boat party was easily superior to Boddika's, as he recognized the need to inject some fun into the proceedings. After all, it was a boat, so his house and garage went down a little smoother than the dark pulse which preceded him. Afterwards, Ben shot over to the Hessle Audio vs. Swamp 81 showcase at Mungo's Arena. Sharing the bill with bass heavyweights like Loefah and Zed Bias (artists he most likely worshipped in his younger days), and facing a crowd thirsty for banging low end, he didn't shy away from the opportunity. On the contrary, Ben UFO took the stage at midnight and dropped a set full of hard, rinsing techno and slamming house, once again displaying his unique ability to tailor his sets to an audience without losing himself in the process. It's an impressive feat and the mark of a masterful DJ, one whose musical knowledge and confidence in his records runs deep. Ben UFO's ascent has been gratifying to witness over the past few years, and after seeing him do his thing at Dimensions, it's safe to say that his reputation with the masses is finally starting to catch up to his high regard within DJ circles.
There's no delicate way to put this. The food was fucking terrible at Dimensions. We know that quality Croatian cuisine exists, but somehow it failed to penetrate the festival walls. Instead, there was an endless array of sub-par hamburgers and assorted fried items, not to mention the worst smoothie in history. Worsening matters further, it was all exorbitantly priced and could only we purchased with special food-and-drink vouchers, the procurement of which often involved waiting in a massive line. Let's put it this way: we skipped a lot of meals, and didn't feel too bad about it.
Outside the Fort
HIT: Sound quality
With acts spread across as many as eight stages throughout the day, Dimensions is to be commended for maintaining such a high level of sound quality. As stated earlier, the festival took place inside an abandoned fort, meaning that many of the stages were erected in locations that were less than ideal in terms of acoustics. Nevertheless, festival organizers went out of their way to bring in massive systems and tune them properly, which made all the difference. As such, the weekend was full of big, clear sounds and gut-rumbling bass. The music was loud, but never piercing, and even after long nights of raving, we woke up each morning without our ears screaming in protest.
HIT: Levon Vincent
The great sound certainly boosted our enjoyment of nuanced artists like Levon Vincent, who performed at the Fort Arena stage on Saturday night. Following a lively outing from Ryan Elliott, Vincent began his set in surprisingly banging fashion. It was an unexpected move from an artist who usually treads in deeper waters, but it sounded great and kept the area packed, even as Theo Parrish's much-anticipated set (which was happening simultaneously at another stage) threatened to lure away the crowd. Of course, Vincent wasn't going to simply bang it out for nearly two hours, and he gradually downshifted the energy and brought a lot more drums into the mix. Even as things got really deep, Vincent kept control of the floor, and skillfully proceeded to put together one of Dimensions' standout performances.
Fort Arena 1
After years of successfully running Outlook on the exact same site, one would think that Dimensions would run like clockwork, particularly given its significantly smaller crowd size. Unfortunately, it often felt like the opposite was true. Perhaps the staff was tired, grumpy, or simply run-down after going through Outlook the week before, but Dimensions suffered from a myriad of minor gaffes that affected everyone's festival experience. For instance, the XLR8R boat party was listed at the wrong time on some people's tickets, which meant that half the crowd didn't show up for a sold-out event. Similarly, the Resident Advisor boat party, arguably the most anticipated boat party of the entire festival, happened on a boat with a notably sub-par sound system, which was unfortunate given the overall stellar sound quality of the rest of Dimensions. There were several last-minute line-up changes that weren't well publicized, meaning that many attendees missed artists like Todd Terje. Granted, Dimensions often announced these changes on Facebook and Twitter, but with most people coming from other countries to attend, they were not going to be checking their online social networks too often, if at all. Some additional signage would have been a huge help, particularly when it came to stage schedules, which were virtually invisible on the festival site. Instead, festivalgoers were forced to purchase schedules or programs, which felt like an unnecessary gouge.
Behind the scenes, artists, journalists, and other other industry folks were consistently swapping stories about a lack of communication from festival organizers, which meant there was a whole lot of confusion about basic things, such as where people needed to be and how they were going to get there. Add in the numerous reports of problems with travel and accommodation, and Dimensions was a bit of a mess for the professionals working there. In fairness, these kinds of things rarely affected the experience for the average attendee, so perhaps Dimensions is to be lauded for prioritizing the masses over the VIPs.
As we've said, Dimensions literally happened in an abandoned fort, one that's located right on the Mediterranean Sea. Yes, the surroundings were a bit rustic, and urban dwellers may have found trudging around the festival's rocky terrain a little more laborious than the average concertgoing experience, but anyone who couldn't find some enjoyment in Dimensions' unique environment wasn't taking a good look around. Attendees could easily hop down to the beach, or simply stop and take in some incredible vistas around the site. Apart from the natural wonders, Dimensions also featured a fair share of impressive man-made highlights, most notably the various stages and performances areas. Most were enclosed by stone walls, but several of the rooms were open-air spaces, the night sky adding an extra sense of wonder to the proceedings. The area denoted as Outside the Fort probably had the best overall sound, but spaces like the Mungo's Arena and The Moat were solid as well. The latter was also Dimensions' most innovative space, as massive sound cabinets were staggered throughout a rather narrow passageway. Whether attendees were two feet away or 200 yards away, the sound in The Moat was exceptional, and the entire stage offered an interesting alternative to the more typical "big sound in a big room" experience.
HIT: Kassem Mosse
Germany's Kassem Mosse may have performed at an early hour (he took the stage around 9 p.m. on Saturday night), but he nonetheless dropped one of Dimensions' most thrilling sets. Performing live with a small bank of gear in Fort Arena 1, he quickly riled up the relatively sedate crowd with his hypnotic house rhythms. Working primarily in the lower registers, he gradually unfurled layer after layer of percussion and bass, building intricate and complex tunes that were heady without sacrificing their suitability for the festival floor. Fans of his music were likely already familiar with his penchant for subtle changes and aesthetic restraint, but Kassem Mosse put that formula to work on a grander scale at Dimensions, and it worked to perfection. Allowing the crowd to percolate for lengthy stretches of time, Mosse would periodically bring things to a boil with a flurry of energy or a particularly thick drum sound, at which point the appreciation of the audience would become palpable. In short, he was excellent.
Even after the explosion of the juke/footwork sound on an international level, it's usually safe to assume that most DJs (in particular those who aren't from Chicago) aren't actually capable of playing an enjoyable footwork set. Following his perfomances at Dimensions, we can vouch that Machinedrum is an exception to the rule. As mentioned before, he performed at the XLR8R boat party, and actually held the headlining slot. He immediately started playing juke and footwork, and the crowd ate it up. But it wasn't just the music; Machinedrum tours constantly and plays a lot of shows, and that experience was evident here, as he displayed a real familiarity with his tunes and equipment, one that allowed him to playfully tweak the music with filters and effects and drop in edits (most of which were his own) of pop, hip-hop, and R&B cuts. Anytime the dancefloor began to lose steam under the weight of the rapid-fire 808 sounds, Machinedrum would play one of those edits, and the crowd would be bubbling all over again. Even his forays into jungle sounded great, the rapid-fire breakbeats providing some nostalgia-based enthusiasm without taking the tempo below 160 bpm. Interestingly, the boat party ended up being about 30-40 minutes longer than scheduled, which meant that Machinedrum unexpectedly had to play a longer set. Once his juke and footwork resources had been exhausted, he changed it up, moving into old-school R&B, disco, acid house, and what he got on the mic and referred to as "proper boat jams." It was all fun, and a great way to wrap up a sunny afternoon on the water. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to Machinedrum's set that night at the Leisure System showcase, but based on the number of dudes we overheard saying,"Whoa, did you see Machinedrum?" on Saturday and Sunday, we're guessing it was similarly impressive.
MISS: Garage bros
In the US, fans of UK garage think of the genre as something special, this innately British sound that doesn't really exist in America, at least not on a grand scale and certainly not on any sort of pop level. Hell, most Americans hear the word "garage" and probably think of garage rock. As such, it's easy to fantasize about the UK garage scene as a world full of sophisticated music fans who truly appreciate the genre's combination of syncopated rhythms with bits of light-hearted R&B. Well, being at Dimensions proved that theory dead wrong. The crowd here was stuffed with Brits, many of them dudes in their early to mid '20s. Let's put it this way; once we heard a couple of shirtless, sunburned bros in cargo shorts screaming "I FUCKIN' LOVE GARRRIDGE!!!" into each other's faces, all of our UK garage sentimentality came to a screeching halt. Apparently, jockish dudes can ruin just about anything, including UK garage.
HIT: The crowd
Rowdy bros aside (and quite honestly, the list of festivals that aren't plagued by bros is a short one), the crowd at Dimensions was rather tolerable, even pleasant to be around. (There was an alarming amount of face paint happening, but we're willing to let that slide. It was certainly preferable to all the candy-raver-meets-stripper nonsense happening back home in the US.) As one might have expected, there were plenty of people getting fucked up and partying excessively, but it never felt like the bulk of the audience was there specifically to go on a bender. Furthermore, with a line-up like this one, it's no surprise that a lot of genuine music fans made the trek. It was also an older crowd than one would usually find at a European festival, which made a big difference. As such, the entire weekend had a relaxed feel; the air was rarely sullied by indiscriminate screaming, and many attendees appeared to be more focused on relaxing and having a good time than seeing every single artist who struck their fancy. When lines for a particular stage got too long (a frequent occurrence and one of Dimensions' most frustrating aspects), most attendees (ourselves included) simply shrugged and moved on. The sunny weather and coastal setting certainly helped, but Dimensions was permeated by a distinctly mellow vibe, a refreshing change from the usual mania that surrounds large-scale music events. Following the mixed bag offered by the festival's first run, it will be interesting to see if the organizers try it again next year. Dimensions may not be a great festival yet, but it does have plenty of potential.