It pains me to say this, but I've never been to a proper 'electronic music' festival. Be it geographical location or lack of appropriate funds, getting to those kinds of massive happenings somehow always skirted my grasp. So, when travelling up to Seattle, WA, for the city's annual Decibel Festival, I was brimming with an eagerness and excitement usually reserved for pre-teens on Christmas morning. And here I am on my third day of the experience, still riding that high of anticipation and the overload of a whole lot of great music.
Shortly after arriving in town, I walked into Neumos at the start of the Ghostly label showcase on Wednesday night. Had I not known the set times or names of the performing acts, I would've guessed the headliner was already on. Brooklyn's Mux Mool (a.k.a. Brian Lindgren) was warming up the crowd with the crunchy beats and Nintendo-referencing synth sounds of his Skulltaste album, but it seemed the audience was already warmed up plenty. The energy in the room was lively, to say the least, and the sound of the cheers between each of Lindgren's tracks might've convinced you everyone was there just for him. That excitement would remain a constant for every act I saw those first two nights. Obviously, this is a festival for die-hard music lovers, and they are here in spades, eating it all up.
Mux Mool shared the stage that night with two other artists from the Ghostly roster, the newly minted Gold Panda and veteran producer and local boy Lusine. Gold Panda was up next with a setup that included a couple of foot pedals along with the usual laptop and MIDI controller. With those tools, he created an overwhelming churn of audio in the club's impeccable soundsystem, which gradually gave way to the flitting sample that introduces one of his best known songs, "You." The crowd cheered in recognition, but Gold Panda didn't drop the song yet. The momentum of the sample continued to build and the layers grew thicker and thicker. It made for a dense anticipation that the producer eventually cut to silence, as he yelled "Hey!" over the crowd, and dropped the song. The room lost control.
Lusine's performance was a bit less visceral, but just as enjoyable. His austere style of ambient techno grooved with a sheen and confidence only artists with his history can radiate. Bright, shape-shifting visuals were cast over the producer while he led the audience in the most straightforward dance set of the night. The man behind the laptop, Jeff McIlwain (who we've got making a tune with fellow Seattle producer Pezzner over on XLR8R TV), remained secondary to the pristine music he was pushing through the speakers, and the effectiveness of his dance rhythms grew because of it. It was the perfect palate-cleanser before the main attraction took to the stage.
Pantha du Prince
Strangely enough, the headlining act for Ghostly's label showcase was an artist who only recently contributed one remix to the label's discography, Pantha du Prince. With very low lighting, a hooded Hendrik Weber assumed his position behind the mass of gear he would helm, and announced his arrival with the clank of a glass of water connected to a contact mic. The sound was piercing but oddly musical, and introduced the slow, cavernous swirls of "Im Bann." Weber was setting the stage for a set of earthy minimal techno from his Black Noise and This Bliss albums—one that matched subtlety and airy textures with bone-rattling bass and a distinct focus on the dancefloor. The attention to detail in Pantha du Prince's music still resonated through Neumos' blaring soundsystem, and the crowd reveled in his poignant melodies and thick rhythms. My introduction to Decibel couldn't have ended on a better note.
Rafael Anton Irisarri
The crowd on the floor during Lawrence English
On Thursday, I found I had a bit more venue hopping to do around Seattle's Capitol Hill. Australia's Room40 label was celebrating its 10th anniversary at Pravda Studios across from the FlyLo and Friends showcase at Neumos, and across the way, Clubroot was playing at the Baltic Room for the LoDubs label showcase. I started at Pravda with an early set from Rafael Anton Irisarri, Lawrence English, and Grouper. Irisarri was performing under his given name instead of his Ghostly-affiliated moniker, The Sight Below, but delivered a similar set of ethereal frequencies and droning low-end with a guitar and a laptop. The bulk of the crowd sat in chairs and soaked in the ominous sounds for the half-hour he performed. When Lawrence English approached the stage, he shouted that everyone should lay on the floor for his set. It looked like some sort of political statement or performance art piece, seeing the people on the floor while amorphous bass and ambiance blared nearby. Grouper followed English with a quietly haunting display of serene soundscapes and beautifully intimate singing. The whole room was hushed, listening to Grouper's sublime music, and I knew that it would be something completely different across the street.
I managed to see part of Samiyam's hip-hop-heavy sets before fellow BrainfeederLorn manned the controls. The two artists' performances transferred seamlessly, but the vibe was noticeably darker once Lorn came on. His gritty electronics and smashing beat work showcased the more sinister side of the Brainfeeder sound, but there was still very much a party going on in the club. In fact, his music had a certain distorted, anthemic quality to it that turned the feeling inside of Neumos into something better resembling an underground rave. I knew things were just getting started there, and that Eskmo was set to go on next, but I needed a change of visual and musical scenery. So, I walked down a ways to catch Clubroot.
Everything inside the Baltic Room was different from the other clubs I'd been in at Decibel. The room was smaller, the people were more mellow (some sat, having quiet conversations, while others on the dancefloor swayed to the music), and the performers were all DJing. Clubroot spun a tasteful mix of dubstep tunes that included a fair share of low-slung and spacey numbers that were evened out by a couple of room-shaking bangers, to which the crowd promptly "wooed" each time one came on. It wasn't necessarily a side of Decibel that I wanted to spend a lot of my time in, but it was a much needed change of pace, regardless.
Thursday night ended with the highly anticipated performance of Flying Lotus. Unbeknownst to me, producer Steven Ellison had brought along with him a drummer and the bass player of those dizzying riffs on Cosmogramma, Thundercat. It was a surprise that elevated the night to new levels of brilliance in both showmanship and experience. Ellison played the conductor of the outfit, signalling to the two men flanking him when beats would drop, songs would change, and music would stop. The band performed Cosmogramma tracks like "MmmHmm," "Computer Face // Pure Being," and "Pickled!" next to special cuts from 2008's Los Angeles, all with a flurry of live drumming and bass plucking transforming the songs into something that sounded like jazz shot down from another planet. Ellison even mixed snippets of non-FlyLo tracks into his set. Bits of Radiohead's "Idioteque" and Burial's "Fostercare" made an appearance, and the crowd went bananas when the heavy beat of Big Boi's "Shutterbug" dropped. Flying Lotus' live show was something completely separate from anything else I'd yet seen. It was a deft combination of the best in live musicianship, energetic beat music delivery, and a no-holds-barred DJ set. It's not likely to be topped.
When I was outside of the Ghostly showcase my first night in Seattle, a man asked me for a lighter before making small talk. He said, "Things are off to a really great start," and I wholeheartedly agreed with him. Not long afterwards, I saw a woman with a hula hoop milling about outside, doing nothing in particular. She came over and circled me, saying, "I think it's funny that all of these people are here." I politely grinned and thought to myself, I don't see anything funny about this, but it certainly is fun.
For Part Two of our coverage at Decibel, go here.
top image: The crowd in Neumos during Pantha du Prince