After three years on the festival market, HORST is beginning to feel like a natural fixture. Set deep in the rolling Belgian countryside, the event, which takes place in the grounds of a 15th Century Castle in the Hageland Hills, marks the opening of an art expo that will run until early October, curated by cult duo Gijs Van Vaerenbergh.
With Northern Europe’s recent, remarkable Indian Summer beginning to beat down on Belgium, the first day of the event caught the site looking particularly spectacular. The castle, surrounded by a large lake, is unlike any other venue for a party, and attendees are invited to explore a near loop of the grounds. Along this secluded and picturesque trail, seven artists have installed a variety of light-hearted, yet thought-provoking sculpture pieces. Naturally, some had more immediate resonance than others: Belgian native Luc Deleu’s Barricade#5, a ten by ten pile of books, was quite literally stopping those who encountered it in their tracks.
After successfully scaling a piece of contemporary sculpture, Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin (creators of seminal New York party Mister Saturday Night), were gifted just shy of four hours to build the atmosphere in the courtyard as darkness set in. The pair are notably choosy about when and where they play, and despite this being a festival full of those perhaps unfamiliar with their genre-spanning New York party, they offered an unfiltered taste of their repertoire. Playing through their custom rotary mixer, as per usual, they began with hypnotic Middle Eastern traditional music, odd, dubby cuts and jazz, without ever losing pace. Any heads they might have lost early on by avoiding the trap of festival bangers were undoubtedly drawn back into the game for the second half of their set, which built an irresistible bridge between Carter’s soulful, disco-led roots on the East Coast, and Harkin’s more UK-indebted acid house edge.
"It’s notable that compared to crowds at other Belgian dance events (such as I Love Techno or the behemothic Pukkelpop), the crowd at Horst are surprisingly low-key, more focused on dancing appreciatively and chatting amongst themselves than pumping fists and gnashing teeth."
Such was the atmosphere at this stage, Carter and Harkin could easily have held the crowd for another few hours. Nonetheless, more assured performances were to follow, with Leon Vynehall carrying the baton forward towards midnight with ease. It’s been an undoubtedly golden year for Vynehall, following his Rojus EP on Running Back and an Essential Mix that’s quickly become a timeless after-party favourite. His 90 minute performance covered similarly versatile ground; relying on a few of his own cuts to spur on dancers, alongside a palette of rich, vibrant house, he sketched out a rewarding musical journey that was always classy, without feeling lightweight or wispy.
It’s notable that compared to crowds at other Belgian dance events (such as I Love Techno or the behemothic Pukkelpop), the crowd at HORST are surprisingly low-key, more focused on dancing appreciatively and chatting amongst themselves than pumping fists and gnashing teeth. However, The Black Madonna’s mere presence energized the dancers crowding the stage before she had even stepped forward to the decks. The moment she finally did, with the requisite enthusiasm she’s come to be known for, Marea Stamper delivered an hour and a half of irresistible party music, spanning disco classics, pounding techno and, of course, raw Chicago house. The response once she shut up shop was almost as fervent, as a sea of arms reached out for hugs, handshakes and simple exclamations of “thank you.” Afterwards, Deetron skillfully kept the party rolling with ease, but Stamper's efforts define the evening, continuing to earn her status as a genuine underground sensation.
Away from the courtyard, a conceptual stage known as 'The Drone' played host to bassier fare for the duration of the weekend. By day, it was a mass of scaffolding that didn’t quite compliment it’s elegant surroundings, especially compared to last year’s stylish Red Bull branded effort. By night, it became a metallic jungle gym of strobes and smoke, and a pleasure to dance in given the unseasonably warm late summer air. After performances from Mala and Machinedrum during the first night, Awesome Tapes From Africa opened things up on Saturday, playing an unpredictable and high-spirited set as usual. On the lake, the crowd relaxed, dangling their legs from a circular wooden jetty, feeding schools of delighted fish leftovers of organic burger.
Back within the confines of the castle’s courtyard (and after a quick trip up the turrets), and the crowd once again slowly came to life courtesy of selections from half of acclaimed US collective, Honey Soundsystem. Josh Cheon heated things up first off, focusing on deep house and brooding electro, before his sparring partner Bezier nudged things in a slightly more jacking direction, prior to a live performance from Soichi Terada. Following his acclaimed Rush Hour retrospective, Terada has become a crowd favourite at festivals and predictably creates relative bedlam in the crowd as far as HORST’s chilled-out standards go, with a strung-out edit of his own "Do It Again" sounding particularly anthemic in its own unusual way.
Feeling housed-out, we shot over to The Drone to catch Lapalux: moving with ease throughout a 90 minute live set of rumbling bass, RnB acapellas and woozy cuts from his back catalogue, the British producer was a welcome change. He was followed by Lone, who seamlessly fused the sensibilities of both stages into one DJ set. Previously identifying more as a producer than a selector, Matt Cutler has recently focused more on his performance within the latter field. It’s a decision that’s paid off massively, allowing him to navigate the new school of UK techno, R&S classics (when in Belgium, why not?), feverish disco, his own timeless "Pineapple Crush," and whatever else took his fancy. While not neccesarily reflecting the unabashed ‘ardcore aesthetic of recent LP Levitate, the energy didn’t let up for the duration.
"HORST could party harder, and it could reach wider. But in it’s current form, you’ll struggle to find a more pleasant, well-considered festival in Belgium and perhaps even beyond."
Despite the unusual measure of the festival finishing up an hour earlier on the Saturday, the crowd were in very high spirits indeed by the time cult hero Antal handed the reigns over to Julio Bashmore, undoubtedly the biggest name on the bill. Following his crossover success into the mainstream, Bashmore has been relatively quiet on the club circuit as of late, and his presence prompted perhaps the only raised eyebrows throughout the immaculately programmed festival. Despite the ubiquity of his hits, Bashmore is still a more than solid, if not quite revelatory DJ, and more than likely won a few reluctant fans, especially during an irresistible airing of Boo Williams' "Mortal Trance."
Aside from the somewhat limited, if no less delicious range of food options, there’s little to fault about HORST. While other festivals expand rapidly, it seems to move at its own pace. Around the grounds, the feel is that of a free party, and yet each booking and installation is clearly, acutely considered by its passionate organizers, who can all be found dancing within the crowd, rather than schmoozing backstage. HORST could party harder, and it could reach wider. But in it’s current form, you’ll struggle to find a more pleasant, well-considered festival in Belgium and perhaps even beyond.
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