For what will likely be XLR8R's final festival-oriented field trip during 2012, we hopped across the Atlantic last week to check out Club to Club Alfa Romeo MiTo, a long-running music festival based in Turin, Italy and lovingly referred to by the locals as simply Club to Club. Spread over four nights and 14 different venues around the city, there was a lot to take in, including a line-up featuring the likes of Flying Lotus, Jeff Mills, Kode9, Scuba, Disclosure, John Talabot, Teengirl Fantasy, Actress, and many others whose names are likely familiar to XLR8R regulars. The festival was full of highlights—and yes, a few lowlights—but with so many things to catalog, we've elected to put on our schoolteacher hats and evaluate Club to Club with an old-fashioned report card. In the spirit of keeping things simple, we've elected to grade on a very straightforward scale: pass or fail. Thankfully, the weekend's festivities featured a lot more of the former.
PASS: John Talabot
It's difficult to write about John Talabot without slipping into full-blown gushing, but his live performance—as always, with the assistance of his right-hand man, Pional—was brilliant. Playing in the Red Bull Music Academy-sponsored Sala Rossa as part of Saturday night's Gran Finale—a smallish space which undoubtedly stole the show from the party's absolutely massive main stage—the duo began at midnight, and immediately entranced the crowd with its hypnotic brand of house- and techno-informed electronic pop. Talabot and Pional have been touring almost constantly since the early summer, a run that's included a number of dates opening for The xx, and that experience was readily apparent at Club to Club. The pair confidently manned its small fleet of gear while working through a playlist that included numerous cuts from ƒIN, worked in a couple of new selections along the way, and closed with a reworked rendition of 2009 single "Sunshine" that segued nicely into Talabot's remix of Teengirl's Fantasy's "Cheaters." The track offered a triumphant end to a stellar show, and offered further proof that Talabot is not only one of 2012's most exciting acts, but is also an artist who's poised to break out in a major way in the years ahead.
FAIL: Nina Kraviz
Nina Kraviz performed live at Club to Club, and did herself no favors in the process. The Russian-born DJ/producer has long been the target of (occasionally unfair) criticism, but the decisions that went into her main-stage show at Club to Club's Gran Finale were absolutely baffling, at best. Taking the stage more than 20 minutes after her scheduled start time, Kraviz didn't DJ. She didn't press buttons on a drum machine or any sort of equipment. She didn't even man a laptop. What she did do was pose and prance her way around the stage for the next 40 minutes, flanked at times by two marginally talented dancers, not to mention an obsese man who occasionally provided back-up vocals and appeared to be dressed as an S&M cherub. XLR8R usually makes a point to focus on the music and ignore artists' appearance, but it was so blatantly obvious that Kraviz wanted people to focus on what she looked like and the general "spectacle" of her live show. Amazingly, she even left the stage for a costume change during the middle of her set. From start to finish, the whole thing was bizarre, not to mention disappointing for those who are actual fans of Kraviz's music. After all, she's spent years building a semblance of artistic integrity; despite having a stamp of approval from trusted veterans like Jus-Ed and his Underground Quality crew, she's had to battle for respect against the perception that she's only gotten ahead because of her looks and her gender. Now, Kraviz seems content to completely jettison that credibility for what seems like an attempt to mimic mainstream pop stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga. It's unfortunate, because it's not only a waste of her talents—which do not include cooing or seductively writhing on stage—but moreso because it reinforces the notion that attractive women can only get ahead in electronic music by exploiting their sexuality. Kraviz could—and should—do better than this; in the future, she'd be well advised to stick to DJing, or at least craft a more musically oriented live set.
PASS: Flying Lotus
The final night of Club to Club—which happened, interestingly enough, on Sunday, the night after the Grand Finale—was headlined by Flying Lotus, who performed a stunning audio-visual live set. The music was certainly enjoyable, but the LA beatmaker's visuals stole the show. Situated between two screens so that he was only partially visible to the crowd, his silhouette was illuminated by a series of constantly morphing and brightly colored animation clips. Intricately detailed and captivating to watch, they certainly diverted attention from the fact that FlyLo wasn't actually doing all that much, although that didn't stop the audience from wilding out to his mix of hip-hop (both avant garde and club-oriented), electronic explorations, and banging bass. Combined with his engaging stage banter during the few instances when he came out from behind the screen, it's fair to say that he thoroughly succeeded in charming the crowd.
Martyn was tasked with opening up for Flying Lotus, but the veteran Dutch producer was up for the challenge. Performing live, he served up a sleek session of bass-infused techno, his songs often propelled by clacking organic drum sounds. Even when he moved into a brief drum & bass interlude toward the end of his set, Martyn sounded sharp, and properly primed the floor before wrapping things up in euphoric fashion with "We Are You in the Future."
PASS: Kode9 and the Hyperdub crew
Kode9 has been hitting the festival circuit hard in 2012, something the Club to Club organizers must have noticed, because they truly put him to work over the weekend. On Friday night, they scheduled a special Hyperdub night at Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Kode9 played twice. The first set came early in the evening and was actually a surprise, as he jumped on the decks and played 30 minutes of nothing but Burial records. Few artists' catalogs can support an entire set, but a half hour of Burial, especially when mixed by a pro DJ like Kode9, was sublime. Later in the evening, he headlined the party with a marathon three-hour set, one that found him continuing his recent tendency of connecting the dots between various strains of "ghetto" sounds from around the globe. Hip-hop, footwork, Baltimore club, grime, and vogue were all represented, as were bits of garage, house, techno, jungle, and dubstep. After so many years in electronic music, Kode9 has a rare breadth of vision, and it's something that he smartly puts to use when playing. He also utilized this formula when playing a third time on Sunday night, as he was the night's surprise guest who officially closed out the festival. Let's put it this way: his last two songs were Warren G's "Regulate" and Rhythim Is Rhythim's "Strings of Life," and nobody appeared to be unhappy about either one.
Kode9 might have been the most visible Hyperdub representative at Club to Club, but he wasn't the only one. Friday night's party also included sets by Scratcha DVA and Laurel Halo, and both artists delivered. Ever the prankster, DVA not only came on stage in a pair of bizarrely futuristic rectangular sunglasses, but also added a traditional Southeast Asian rice farmer hat to his ensemble, apparently in a tribute to famed Mortal Kombat character Raiden. (He also commissioned special Mortal Kombat-centric visuals to accompany his set, which included some frames/animation with his own face superimposed on vintage graphics from the arcade classic.) In terms of the music, DVA served up of bouncy mix of UK funky, bleepy house, and wonky bass, all of which livened up the dancefloor considerably. It was definitely a change of pace following Laurel Halo, who was perhaps even better, although she performed live and offered music which was, at the very least, more contemplative. Weaving between distortion-laced techno and more experimental creations, her set was potent, particularly her closing number, which appeared to combine both jungle and footwork rhythms with soaring, sunny melodies.
UK upstart Vessel performed live on the first night of Club to Club, playing in a room dubbed The Cube inside the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (which served as the festival's official headquarters). While the lighting bathed the space in a sort of bright, neon glow, the music was undeniably dark, as Vessel unfurled an hour of churning rhythms and driving, almost tribal percussion. As those familiar with his debut LP, Order of Noise, might expect, the music was intense. Part techno, part dub, and several parts sounds that eluded easy classification, Vessel's creations were hard to pin down in terms of genre, but they were undoubtedly captivating, as the full floor inside The Cube could attest.
FAIL: Evian Christ
Less successful that night was Vessel's Tri Angle Records associate Evian Christ, who faced the uphill battle of being one of Club to Club's first acts and performing inside a seated auditorium. It wasn't an ideal setting for the young producer, although it should be said that the crowd responded fairly enthusiastically. His skill with an MPC was undeniable, as his fingers nimbly pounded out hip-hop beats, which he then combined with ominous, goth-tinged melodies and seemingly endless rap acapellas. In terms of execution, Evian Christ left little room for complaint, but his music came across as gimmicky, particularly as the random hip-hop vocal snippets increased in frequency. In the end, the whole thing felt too easy, and came across more like a novelty than a genuine artistic statement.
Actress is known for many things, but compromising is not one of them. The shadowy UK producer performed live on Friday night in the second room at Hiroshima Mon Amour, and immediately launched into a set of hard, grimy techno. Those expecting some of his more experimental selections may have been disappointed, but Actress clearly wasn't concerned with anything but assembling a collection of punishing rhythms. Even so, the music sounded great and the dancefloor was stuffed throughout his set. Truth be told, the most curious thing about the whole experience was the fact that even with the little room's steadily rising temperature, Actress kept his jacket, scarf, and beanie on the entire time. Logic dictates that the guy must have been suffering under all those layers, but then again, he's never seemed like someone who's afraid of bucking convention.
UK producer Lone was one of Club to Club's biggest surprises; unfortunately, that surprise was due to the fact that his live set on Thursday evening was such a disappointment. He played at Lapsus, a tunnel-shaped, subterranean club that may have been partially to blame for the show's shortcomings, as it looked cool, but suffered from a grossly inadequate sound system. Still, Lone's performance left something to be desired. He appeared to be playing on Ableton, and put together his set so that very little live composition or mixing was involved. Each interlude did include two or three tracks, but the transitions were basic and it just looked like Lone wasn't really doing much of anything, a situation that wasn't helped by the show's lack of visuals. More importantly, the sound was just terrible; perhaps Lone was overmodulating, because everything sounded badly distorted. His trademark melodies and synth gymnastics could barely be heard, as a murky, low-end crunch was the only sound really coming through. Again, it's totally possible that not all of these things were Lone's fault; ultimately though, he was the artist on stage and the man responsible. Hopefully, it was a one-time slip, because we've thoroughly enjoyed his music over the years.
PASS: Teengirl Fantasy
Truth be told, we were completely ready to blame the venue for all of Lone's shortcomings, but then Teengirl Fantasy came on stage and not only played well, but sounded okay in the process. Yes, the sound was still muddy at times, but that didn't stop the youthful pair from constructing compelling, jam-heavy slices of house- and techno-inspired sound. Of course, songs like "Cheaters" and "Dancing in Slow Motion" were highlights, even in their reworked forms, but Teengirl Fantasy remained engaging throughout its hour-long set, even when dropping a few new tunes into the mix. As always, the duo was a bit sloppy, and there were several points in the set where certain elements went out of phase and it seemed like the whole thing might fall to be pieces. Yet Teengirl Fantasy always managed to recover and re-establish the groove. In truth, this process has always part of the fun of watching the group play live. We'd like to think that seeing a totally polished version of Teengirl Fantasy wouldn't be quite as entertaining.
PASS: SBTRKT's mask
SBTRKT was another member of the stacked line-up in the Sala Rossa at Saturday night's Gran Finale, and although we were a bit lukewarm about his DJ set—he played plenty of great tunes, but his set-up (which looked like Traktor) led to a sort of overly clean presentation—his trademark mask looked alright. In terms of unusual adornments, it was certainly light years better than the ensemble worn by our next subject.
FAIL: Nina Kraviz's sidekick's mask
Somehow, we all live in a universe where Nina Kraviz decided that this fellow—in this outfit—would be great as a key element of her live show. It was not a good choice.
Scottish producer Rustie didn't do a whole lot during his set on Saturday night inside the Gran Finale's Sala Rossa, but that didn't stop the crowd from going absolutely mental. In a way, he's assumed a status as a sort of socially acceptable Skrillex. That's not meant as an insult, as Rustie is in our minds the (far) superior artist, but some definite parallels can be drawn, particularly in the sense that both producers make tunes that are brimming with manic, hyperactive energy and teeter on sonic overload. Rustie's productions are stuffed with details, but the tunes aren't exactly subtle, particularly when it comes to his penchant for thunderous bass tones. As a result, his audience—many of them young, hip-hop-loving dudes—often go nuts, especially when the proverbial "drop" hits, and this was certainly the case at Club to Club. All that said, the music sounded great, things never got overly bro-y on the floor, and it wasn't a bad thing to see a little bit of raucous, carefree fun at the festival.
Brooklyn's Ital didn't perform badly at Club to Club, but he was the victim of two unfortunate circumstances. First of all, he had to follow Rustie, and his noise-laden, experimentally minded take on house and techno perhaps wasn't the easiest thing to swallow for a dancefloor that had just been freaking out to trap-leaning bass anthems. Secondly, the volume during his set was far too loud, an experience that only worsened as the crowd dissipated a bit while he played. Ital did bring a visual artist along for the show, who manipulated live footage of his performance with bright colors and vaguely psychedelic imagery. It was a nice touch, but not enough to overcome all the pitchy distortion and the general lack of groove in the music he was playing. We've quite enjoyed Ital in the past, even in a festival setting, but he might be better advised to hew closer to more traditional dance structures—something he's more than capable of doing—when playing at these kinds of large-scale events.
Although we just criticized Ital for being overly experimental, the artist who immediately followed him in the Sala Rossa on Saturday night, Shackleton, manged to veer pretty far away from average club fare without losing the audience. Closing out the room, he put together a live set that combined loopy, repetitive rhythms with tribal-flavored production. Although the music often lacked a traditional kick drum, the songs still felt propulsive, even as the Shackleton's dark, swirling sounds lulled the crowd into a sort of hypnotic bliss. It was heady listening, yet the dancefloor kept moving, an impressive feat as the clock crept toward dawn.
Jeff Mills and Claudio Sinatti at Teatro Carignano
PASS: Venue variety
As the festival's name indicated, one of the main features of Club to Club was that its events were staged at a number of different venues around Turin. Rather than being stuck at some expansive festival grounds, attendees actually got to experience the city as a local would, at least somewhat. In truth, Going to Club to Club did require trekking to various areas of Turin, but almost everything was easily accessible and exploring the city in this fashion was truly a fun endeavor. Granted, not every venue was a winner, but certain spots had a definite "wow" factor, particularly the Teatro Carignano, which held the festival's opening night party and played host to a live set by techno legend Jeff Mills, who was accompanied by live visuals from Italy's Claudio Sinatti.
FAIL: Italians running into us at clubs
Admittedly, this is a petty gripe, but seriously, we have never had so many people run into us at clubs before. We're not talking about the average "people pushing their way through a crowded dancefloor" situation. This was something different. It wasn't malicious in nature, but honestly, it seemed like people were making a point to push us aside or catch us with a stray elbow as they moved past. This experience was not limited to one night or one club; it happened everywhere, and it was flat-out bizarre. Maybe Italians just have a radically different notion of personal space, but we were baffled (and a little annoyed). In fairness, it didn't really detract from our overall enjoyment of Club to Club, but it did leave us scrambling for the back of the dancefloor more than once. Even there, with no one around us and plenty of open room, people still found a way to run into us. It was weird.
PASS (WITH FLYING COLORS): Club to Club
This was our first time checking out Club to Club, but after four days of witnessing what the organizers put together, it was clear that they've managed to build something special in Turin. The festival has been going for 12 years, and it was readily apparent that the organizers knew what they were doing. Italy may not have the best reputation when it comes to organization and things happening on time, but Club to Club generally ran like clockwork. Shows happened when they were supposed to happen and finished when they were supposed to finish. The festival schedule was constantly being projected at all the venues. The Club to Club staff was not only friendly and helpful, but was also numerous and always available. All of this meant that attending the festival was incredibly easy, which allowed us—and presumably, the rest of the attendees—to simply focus on the music, the city, and having a great time.
Of course, even the most organized festival will fail if the content being presented isn't up to par, but Club to Club's line-up was impeccably curated. The festival organizers are unquestionably committed to underground electronic music, and did an excellent job enlisting talent that represented all sorts of different scenes, sounds, styles, genres, and eras. Even more impressively, they've cultivated a large audience for this music in Turin. Attending Club to Club, one did not get the feeling that they were hanging out with a bunch of uber-cool tastemakers. In truth, the crowd—which appeared to consist almost entire of locals—was remarkably "normal," yet people were also incredibly open minded and seemingly up for just about everyone who took the stage. Attendees certainly let loose, but few appeared intent on merely getting smashed at a festival. Overall, the vibe was positive, upbeat, and refreshingly focused on enjoying the music. In so many other places, it seems like festival organizers are following a false dichotomy, one which dictates that these kinds of events need to either be hyper-intellectual or completely base. Club to Club has piloted a third way, one that respects and celebrates quality, cutting-edge sounds without sucking out all of the fun in the process. We're glad they invited us along for the ride.