In what has become a tradition we're in no hurry to see the end of, XLR8R recently headed for Bologna in north-eastern Italy for the eighth edition of roBOt Festival. Running as ever over three early October days, roBOt has grown markedly in the three years since we first went, with the second half of each night's bill (11pm to 6am) now taking place at a gigantic, Sonar-like convention center called the Bologna Fiere, in contrast to the slightly ragtag out-of-town clubs that the festival were still using as recently as 2013. The space used at the Fiere had more than doubled from last year too, and capacity had risen to around 8,000 per night. roBOt isn't anywhere near the same scale as Sonar yet, but with the move to the Fiere, guests of the stature and profile of Ben UFO, Squarepusher, John Talabot and Tiga peppering the bill, and a Buenos Aires edition already under its belt last December, it's easy to see direction the organisers want roBOt to take in the long term.
The early part of each evening's activities as usual took place at the beautiful, 11th-century Palazzo Re Enzo on the city's central square. A far smaller venue than the Fiere, the Palazzo can be a place to go for a gentle introduction to the evening (food, bean bags, and low-key art installations and musical oddities can all be found there), or something more muscular (Powell and Philipp Gorbachev's sets were as lively as anything over the weekend). We took in both of these sides of roBOt and plenty more over a weekend that was as enjoyable as any we've spent there. The festival turned up just as many new, abiding impressions as ever, and we have gathered together seven of these below.
The dark recesses of the Palazzo Re Enzo will always turn up something interesting if you look hard enough.
No matter how big roBOt becomes in the future, it is to be hoped that it doesn't ever outgrow Palazzo Re Enzo, the sumptuous setting for its activities from early evening until around 1am. The structure (the oldest building in Bologna, no less) is of course extraordinary, and its main Sala Re Enzo hall a stunning venue in which to watch music. Its nooks and crannies are where a lot of roBOt's more unique experiences are to be found, however, and that was again the case this year. Lena Willikens' bleakly atmospheric live soundtracking of the 1933 Hiroshi Shimizu film Japanese Girls At The Harbor in the Salone del Podesta area of the venue was certainly the most striking example of this that we happened upon this year.
Aside from that and, the other little bits and pieces of film and live art that we saw, stumbling straight from the airport into Chevel's abstract techno in the lesser-visited Sala Degli Atti side-room, and taking in sections of Resident Advisor's excellent program (featuring Clap! Clap! and Prefuse 73 among others) in Salone del Podesta on the final night, were also among the festival's top fringe treats. The Palazzo is a rewarding place to wander around anyway—indeed, the place isn't actually open to the public at any other time of the year—and even more so when there's something so intriguing waiting for you around the next corner.
Koreless's live set was a major highlight.
We've seen Lewis Roberts' live show a couple of times over the last few months, and it's always an immersive, cinematic experience. A relatively early slot (10pm) in the salubrious environs of the Sala Re Enzo was natural fit for his largely ambient show, even if he did have to follow the rush of Powell's noise onslaught. Very much a visual as well as audio experience, Roberts ran through a good deal of unreleased material during a mesmeric hour, all the while controlling the show's strobes from a strange contraption that looked like a miniature mixing desk with the top half of a decade-old laptop inexpertly grafted onto the top. The reverberating, subs-heavy “Love” and the inevitable strobe-flashing bliss-out of “Sun” were standout moments, but really Koreless's current live show is something to be enjoyed as a glorious single piece, and a rapt crowd in the Palazzo duly did just that.
roBOt's Outdoor Stage may need to be re-thought.
The expansion of roBOt's capacity at the Fiere meant the addition of a third stage, the Outdoor Stage, in the central area separating the RBMA and Main Stages. The first of the two nights at Fiere was warm and dry, and the Outdoor Stage an attractive option on which we enjoyed Lena Willikens and Powell, both of whom were playing their second sets of the evening having previously played at the Palazzo. Saturday night was a different story, however, with a downturn in the temperature and intermittent rain making it somewhere to go only if you really had to. This knocked out WSR and Prostitutes as potential options, though a scarf-and-jacket-clad Helena Hauff did manage to tempt us out into the sparsely populated crowd for a while. We would undoubtedly have lingered for longer if it hadn't been for the cold, though. Northern Italy in October is frequently delightful, weather-wise, but it's probably too unreliable to have a significantly sized outdoor area be part of roBOt's long-term plans.
The RBMA Stage was very often the place to be at the Fiere.
Red Bull Music Academy has a stage at the vast majority of the European electronic music festivals worth bothering with these days—and boy, do they make it difficult to object to that trend. With Lee Gamble and Sherwood & Pinch having been among the Friday highlights, Saturday's RBMA bill was more mouthwatering still, with Dâm-Funk and Nathan Fake putting in early sets that were excellent if a little sparsely attended, due to the two-hour overlap between finishing time at the Palazzo and starting time at the Fiere. Things really got going when John Talabot hit his stride (Henrik Schwarz's remix of Emmanuel Jal's “Kuar” may have been the precise moment), and the momentum carried through as a packed crowd enjoyed the heavy artillery of Clark's live show. Most were carried off to the Main Stage for the last couple of hours for Daphni and Floating Points' closing set, but RBMA's Stage as usual held the attention more than any other over the course of the weekend.
Ben UFO and Jackmaster's taste in Italian music had everyone smiling
Ben UFO and Jackmaster's b2b set on Friday night at the Fiere was just the parade of bangers that you'd expect, but there was one moment that seemed to stick out in everyone's head. That moment was when they dropped Koto's insanely catchy 1980s Italo/space-synth hit “Jabda,” The combination of what is by any measure an irresistible earworm and a knowing wink towards a very specific corner of Italian culture had the huge Main Stage crowd reduced to a grinning frenzy. Also, it may have been our imaginations, but at least one or two locals around us appeared to be recreating the bizarre dancing of the karate suit-clad frontman in the song's exquisitely cheesy video. Ten out of ten for both arcane popular culture knowledge and self-deprecating physical comedy if you were, guys.
Sometimes roBOt's heaviest sounds were its most enthralling.
Nothing about roBOt's settings or atmosphere evokes the threatening clank of heavy industry, but on several occasions the most bleak, pounding sounds of the festival were also the most memorable. Diagonal label boss Powell's grinding, ultra-noisy live show at the Palazzo was matched in intensity by the sounds explored during his DJ set a few hours later at the Fiere. Clark's blistering live AV show did all sorts of damage at the RBMA Stage on the final night, and if you wanted you could go straight from that to the Outdoor Stage and subject yourself to the jackhammer delights of Helena Hauff's thumping techno set. We've all luxuriated in the perverse pleasure of bleak sounds in equally bleak surroundings, but sometimes there's just as much to enjoy in hearing them in a setting more suited to a night at the opera.
Daphni and Floating Points are just as great when they're not mining their disco collections.
The last time we saw Dan Snaith and Sam Shepherd go back to back, they spent six hours delving into their seemingly endless collections of top-drawer disco and soul. Shepherd's recent solo sets have been along much the same lines, but he and Snaith went for much trackier territory for the bulk of their show at roBOt, with the euphoria of Four Tet's remix of Eric Prydz' “Opus” topping off a long run of relatively grainy techno and house. That's not to say there wasn't room for some of what we were expecting—Mr G's "Hope Reprize" of “The Struggle Of My People by Mike Grant, and the soul classic “I Can Deal With That” by Dee Edwards were received with their usual fervor—but the pair's show generally confounded expectations. A timing change meant Daphni and Floating Points closed out the festival's Main Stage on the last night instead of the originally scheduled Trentemøller. Without wishing to denigrate Trentemøller, it's anyone's guess why Snaith and Shepherd weren't scheduled to close the festival in the first place, but they stepped up in fine fashion, finishing the eighth edition of roBOt on just the right note.