Wednesday, September 24, 2008
tales from the labyrinth...
labyrinth. it is hard to know where to start in describing the few days i spent there. i am not at all religious or spiritual, but this was about as close i have had to that kind of experience. it was a unique, special couple of days. i have been listening to electronic music and going to parties since around 1997 and this was by far and away the best party i have been to. the artists, the sound, the environment, the people - all were amazing. saying this, there were still a number of major hiccups (including move d's late cancellation, which was a major disappointment) and the whole party was on a very slippery and muddy knife's edge for a period time. but things were worked out and everything came together just right.
a few of general remarks and observations, before giving a more detailed account:
- the sound system was simply incredible. i have never heard anything like it. it was a funktion one, but with a lot more muscle and clarity than others i have heard. talking to the artists there was a general consensus that this was one of the best sound systems they had played on. so when i explain how good the music was, you need to keep in mind that it was on a sound system that is most likely far superior than anything you have heard.
- most of the artists there were very friendly, warm, cool people and i spent a lot of the weekend hanging out and talking to shit with them. also, the crowd was equally nice and good natured, which all made for an excellent environment to enjoy the party in. speaking with some of the artists, they were all very positive about what we've been doing with mnml ssgs, and this really gave me some extra motivation to keep working hard and trying to do my bit. also, i think i managed to convince some of the guys there to do ssg mixes for us...
ok, onto what happened. i arrived in japan on the friday morning (my birthday), and headed up to the campsite in gunma early evening. it is located about 2 hours north of tokyo. it is set on the side of the hill, with a really nice view. we got there just in time to see dj pete from scion open proceedings. after about 20 minutes of ambient sounds, he moved into the sound he is most closely associated with, and despite the mixing sometimes not quite being there, he put together an enjoyable set filled with rhythm and sound goodness. it was a treat to be able to hear these records on the sound system. next up XDB played. really nice sounds again. before this i didnt know XDB that well, but now i do, and will be keeping an eye out. i was impressed with his set. and also with his musical knowledge. this guy really knows his shit. missed the end of his set, though, as i was delirious from lack of sleep and passed out for a bit. i woke up to caught the last half of peter van hoesen rocking it out with an impressive livepa. given that peter has not been putting out records for too long (to my knowledge), his live show is already at a really high standard. rocking stuff. after that MLZ dj'd for a few hours. he pulled it back quite a bit and focused on deeper, more dub based sounds, as you'd expect someone from modern love to do. i know he played some really bomb tracks, but i am not even close to remembering what exactly they were. supposedly he finished with 'spastik', which would have sounded amazing, but i was passed out again by that stage, having given up about 2 hours into his set. after sleeping for a few hours got around 11am to see deepchord play a semi-live ambient set. donato dozzy was supposed to be doing an ambient set in this slot, but his records had yet to make it to japan, so deepchord got moved there. despite most people being sitting around or sleeping by this stage, the deepchord guys put together a lovely set of lush, ambient sounds. again, a privilege to hear it on the sound system. they finished off around midday (i think) and that was the end of day one. not bad at all. after that, we headed off to the hot spring for some relaxation, before trying to get some more sleep.
on waking up around 9pm, we heard that it had begun to rain. this was not good, since deepchord were on at 10pm, and well, it is an outdoor party. and then it starts raining harder. and harder. we made it down to the main indoor area near the dancefloor, but when 10pm came around the music was yet to start. and soon the word going about was that the police had made a few arrests, they were now searching the campsite and were threatening to shut the whole party down. meanwhile, still no music and the rain had turned into a torrental downpour. to say things were not looking good would be an understatement; there was a sense that the whole thing might come to a very, very premature end. but then, somehow, things started to turn around. deepchord started playing around 11.30 (i think) despite the rain continuing to bucket down. they even had about 20 or so crazy people out there dancing to them. we were not that devoted/stupid and stayed undercover. i think deepchord were good but hard to say, the rain and the chance of the party being shut down basically destroyed their set. a big shame for everyone, as they were undoubtedly one of the most anticipated acts there (on a side note, spent a lot of time talking to the deepchord guys. really really cool individuals. what is hilarious is that for people that make some of the most relaxing, calm music, these guys talk non-stop. anyway...). somehow (perhaps a combo of rain and smooth talking) the cops left and didnt shut the party down and then the skies cleared up. things were going to be ok. and what better way to celebrate that fact than the hose knocking out a killer dj set. if anyone has heard his ssg mix, you know this guy can really play. he put together a great set, with the highlight for me undoubtedly being when he dropped 'positive education' by slam (which he also plays in the ssg mix). hearing that in such an environment caused me to almost go into meltdown, but i survived. just. wow. what a track. much respect to peter for both of his sets and for playing that. next up was fellow ssg mixer mike parker, who provided an impressive set of deep, dark and twisted sounds. what really grabbed me about mike's set - and this was something that many of the artists there shared - was a very distinctive sound. mike played some serious headfuck techno, which was perfect for the setting. from memory, mike dropping an old school jeff mills track was the highlight of his set for me. also, keep an eye out for a couple of new releases from mike. definitely capable of serious damage. on another side note, chatted with both peter and mike a lot of the weekend. not only are they great musicians, but they are also fantastic people - very genuine and warm. after that, it was time for more sleep.
got up around 10am to discover that the clouds and rain had been replaced by a beautiful clear, hot, sunny day. around 11am convextion started and proceded to deliver what would be the first of 3 sets i heard that i would describe as 'perfect'. for a long time, i used to constantly talk about the 'best set i've heard', but a while ago i realised that this just doesn't work, because i have seen quite a few perfect sets, ones which would score a full 10 out of 10 (if i used a points system, which i don't). anyway, convextion. wow. i haven't heard any of his live recordings before so didnt know quite what to expect. his livepa was incredibly tight, carefully structured and well put together. pretty much everyone was losing their shit while he played. i am still kind of in shock by it. he finished the set with a track (which i'd later discover is untitled and unreleased), which was well, i dont even know quite how to describe it, but fuck me it was good. to finish procedings for day 2 was donato dozzy doing the ambient thing, as his records had arrived. given that the crowd was still very much up for it when convextion finished, dozzy did a very good job of handling things and slowly bringing the tempo down. the set begun with beats under the ambient sounds, but these slowly disappeared as he continued. supposedly he played a bit of old school aphex twin from SAW 2, but by this stage we were again at the hot spring trying to recover from too much dancing and mud. after that, we went back for some much needed sleep.
onto the final night/day, which somehow managed to top the 2 excellent nights that had come before it. pendle coven kicked things off with a livepa. perhaps because of a limited amount of releases, and being overshadowed by their bigger name labelmates claro intellecto and andy stott, i think these guys tend to fly under the radar a bit. i have to admit, i only chanced upon their productions reasonably recently. well my advice would be to make the effort to keep an eye on them, as they have definitely got something good going on. their sound has the modern love feel to it - deep, dubby soundscapes. you can find a recording of a livepa they did earlier this year at samurai.fm. i would recommend heading over there and giving it a go. anyway, a very nice opening to the last night by the manchester guys. respect. next up was oliver ho. i used to love ho's tribal stuff on meta back in the day, but havent really been following his raudive releases. i was still keen to see him, though, as he has always put in a good performance when i have seen him. well, not that night. to be honest, of all the major artists, oliver ho was the one guy who really came up short in my books. his set was ok, but even that might be a bit generous. it lacked coherence and focus, with a collection of big tracks but not much linking them together. shame, because i know he is normally much better. and there was a really strange moment when he played dubfire's stinky ass 'ribcage' but then mixed DBX's 'losing control' in. of course i was excited to hear DBX, but it somehow felt tainted by being mixed with dubfire. once ho had finished it was time for the scion boys. i had been waiting a long, long time to see them, and they were who i was probably most excited about seeing. despite me having incredibly high expectations, they still managed to exceed them. scion's 2.5 hour livepa would prove to be the 2nd perfect set of the party. it was exactly what you'd expect from scion. again, a very distinctive sound signature. the whole set had this kind of infinite feeling to it, like it could just go on and on forever. the best description i can come up with is that it felt like a spiral looping round and round, with each loop being simultaneously similar but different. it was at this stage that the hose provided us with one of the calls of the weekend: 'this is fantastic. ... but if you didn't get it, it would sound so fucking boring and repetitive'. luckily we got it... there was no roof, but had there been one, i am sure scion would have brought it down. immediately following was pete playing as substance. i missed the first half of his set having a break, but was back to enjoy him closing his short set with a pretty serious remix of monolake's 'alaska melting' (i think). to be honest, after scion i would have been happy to pack up my bags and go, but there was still more to come, most notably the closing set from dozzy. but first i needed some more sleep.
after about a 2 hour power nap i got up for pier bucci playing at 10am. about 15 minutes into his show his mac laptop completely died and that was the end of him. shame, i had been looking forward to seeing bucci. from what i have heard he has a seriously impressive live show. ah well, much respect to bucci for being so chill about it all. he took it incredibly well... when bucci's set came to an unexpected finish, mathias kaden got on the decks a bit early and started doing his thing. he barely managed to walk a tightrope between enjoyable tribal house and bog standard german minimal. the set was enjoyable enough, but it suffered in comparison to what came before and would soon come after it. also, i am not particularly sympathetic to the sound he was playing. still, he did played 'higher state of consciousness', which was pretty fucking cool. but. but. i dunno. i think others liked him more than me. and then dozzy. dozzy dozzy dozzy. i wondered why they had him closing the festival, surely they could have put him on earlier? well once he started playing i knew why. he took things to a different plane and created the perfect, intimate vibe to close out a very special couple of days. with no disrespect to the other djs that played at the party, donato's set was totally next level shit. it was incredibly deep, warped, mindfuck music. i barely recognised anything he was playing, though much of it sounded old. what was really impressive was the way he managed to forge a completely distinctive and unique sound. every record had a 'dozzy' stamp on it. considering he was not using a computer at all it was amazing the sound signature he created throughout the set. i know we have been pushing donato for a while here, but let me simply say, keep a very, very close eye on the man. he truly is something special. without doubt the highlight of the set was when donato dropped 'consumed' by plastikman. this would probably be in my top 10 alltime records and it evokes very strong emotions in me. i had never heard it out before, and i never expected it to. but when donato put it on, i recognised it from the very first bar. and i then proceeded to go into complete meltdown. while this record was playing the whole festival was crystallised and condensed into 10 minutes of complete perfection and bliss. i can honestly say that this represented not only one of the high points of my techno career, but my life. it was a strong reminder of how incredibly powerful and elemental this music we listen to can be. donato, if are you reading this, thank you. that moment - and indeed the set as a whole - was the perfect statement of what this music is about and should be about. as dozzy continued, fog rolled down over the mountains and reality became even more distant and removed. it felt like you were in a different realm, totally separate. no one wanted it to end, but eventually around 7pm, the party finished and slowly reality begun to return as we left the music and campsite behind for the metropolis of tokyo. normally something like this would feel like a dream, but the whole experience was so powerful and inspirational it remained with you long after the funktion ones had been shut down.
i could keep on going, but i shall stop. much respect to the organisers, artists and everyone there for all contributing to such a unique, special event. i have never experienced anything like this. and doubt i will. at least until next year...
*edit*: one of the organisers of labyrinth asked me to clarify that the rumours about the police on the saturday night were just rumours: 'no arrests had been made, and the officials never threatened closing the event. the officials who showed up at that time were making a scheduled appearance to see what the music of the event was like.' cool. given the propensity for japanese police to be a bit heavy, the organisers did a great job of making sure that there were no problems. actually, that reminds me of one thing i forgot to mention in my review - something which was really obvious was how much care and attention to detail had been put into the whole event, and the different it made was huge.
I'm a man who likes his creature comforts. I don't like camping, and I feel distinctly uncomfortable in the great outdoors. And yet, for the third year running, I've enthusiastically made the trek up into the forested mountains of Gunma, Japan, for a three-night outdoor electronic music festival (or a "bush doof", as we'd say in Australia). And I'll do it again next year. That's because I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that when it comes to techno the experiences I've had at Labyrinth have been some of the best I've had in my life.
Labyrinth isn't your standard "let's just throw some speakers into a field and see what happens" set-up. The organizers have an incredible eye for detail, and it's this attentiveness and care that's poured into even the most minute of details ('cos they know that's where the devil lives) that transforms the event into such a special experience. For starters, there's the location. The site itself is gorgeous, nestled in the forested mountains of Gunma, with an almost magical mist that rolls in some evenings. The natural beauty is subtly augmented with some candles and some tasteful lighting (and a bonfire or two) ... no lasers or cheesy strobes here. It's wonderfully soothing and relaxing place to be.
Then there's the sound system. Special mention needs to be made of this. The sound system takes a beautiful location and turns it into audiophile heaven. It is, quite frankly, the best sound I have ever heard in my life. The organizers bring in a truckload of Funktion-One speakers, and then very carefully calibrate it (the festival gets a special mention on the news page of the Funktion-One website). To hear (and feel) some of the world's best electronic music on such a beautifully clear system is an absolute joy.
Did I mention some of the world's best electronic music? Yes I did. The last few years have seen some stellar acts at Labyrinth, but this year was an embarrassment of riches, with some sets that were nothing short of utterly brain-melting. Both of Peter Van Hoesen's sets (live and DJ) were fantastic, as was Mike Parker's super deep/dark DJ set. Deepchord's daytime ambient set was lovely, with waves washing out over the forest. Pendle Coven's live set was a great evening starter, with some great ambient dub gradually giving way to more and more beats. And XDB is now on my radar after a really nice set.
And then there was Convextion, Scion, and Donato Dozzy. These three sets were absolutely amazing ... each of them filled with countless moments when I looked around me to see people with their mouths open in awe, the words "sweet Jesus, what the fuck is this" written all over their faces. And each of these sets was a perfect example of an artist taking a style/sound, making it their own, and then diving as deep and as far as they could possibly go. Convextion and his precise dub-tech with a hint of IDM, Scion and their surging spiraling loops of metallic dub-tech, Dozzy and his deep headfuck techno ... All three acts totally and utterly owned their sound ... and as a consequence they completely owned the festival.
After all of this, coming down from the mountain and returning to reality was hard. Everything seemed dreamlike up there ... looking back it seems even more-so now. I think it's because Labyrinth is more than just a "music event". Even the word "festival" doesn't do it justice (although if you're thinking more along the lines of "festive" you're on the right track). It's a celebration, a ritual, a ceremony ... a place where nature, sound, people and artists come together to create something truly special.