it has taken a while, but i'm now ready to try to put into words the feelings, experiences and sounds from a very intense and powerful couple of days at the labyrinth festival in japan. i will try my best to do justice to what took place, but i am not sure if i can fully convey in mere words how powerful many moments were. before i continue, a disclaimer: i consider the organisers and many of the artists friends, and i strongly support the vision russ (the key organiser) has for labyrinth. as such, this account is unavoidably and unabashedly biased. indeed, in many ways, labyrinth is a living, breathing version of what mnml ssgs tries to do on a weekly basis online.
this was the 9th labyrinth (and my 2nd). an important thing to realise is that the festival is most definitely not something which can be taken for granted. japanese authorities have become increasingly sensitive to outdoor parties due mainly to some high profile drug related incidents, plus they are pretty conservative in general. for some time i was not even sure whether labyrinth would be on this year, or if i would be able to go. but luckily for everyone it happened, and i was able to get my ass back to japan. it was at a venue different from last year, now in the ski resort town of naeba. it was a bigger space, which had its advantages and drawbacks: it lost some of the intimacy of the previous venue, but i liked all the open space. over the years i have developed a serious intolerance to packed clubs. i just can't enjoy music when the dancefloor is overcrowded. i hate it. so all the space and ability to dance freely in the open air was a pleasure.
another point to note is that on rather late notice the organisers were forced into making it primarily a day party, though there was a smaller stage running at night. this did mess with the initial scheduling, but on the whole i thought the day format was a blessing in disguise. dancing in lovely sunny weather, and sleeping at night worked for me. actually, my preference is for it to continue as a day party in the future, regardless of whether they have to or not. i think it worked really well , especially as the venue got pretty chilly at night (we were up in the hills). on a side note, i think techno as a whole could benefit from a lot more day and evening parties. i don't see why techno can only be enjoyed at stupid hours when we should be sleeping.
in setting the scene, one major thing you need to keep in mind is the sound system they have at labyrinth. the funktion one speaker stacks are simply ridiculous. the rig was even bigger than last year, and i think it is about 3 times the size of what they have at berghain. so basically just imagine the best club system you've ever heard, and i can guarantee you it sounded better than that. despite listening to music for 3+ days, at no stage did my ears hurt or get tired. when i am describing all the amazing music i experienced, you have to remember that it was on a mindblowing sound system. the other general comment i'll make is that not only was the lineup great in terms of music, it was great in terms of people. the artists were a very warm, friendly and enthusiastic group who really understood what labyrinth was about and got into the spirit of things. they all bonded well and supported each other and i am sure this contributed to the exceptionally high standard of music. compared to last year, when there were a few weak sets (mathias kaden's 3 hours + of painful bongos especially), this year i really didn't hear a bad one. there were sets that weren't to my tastes, but no means did this make them bad. rather, they created a needed diversity and offered a range for people to choose from. the care that russ took in choosing the lineup paid off and i commend him for the thought and effort he put into it. the other thing to understand about the lineup and timetabling is that it really was an embarrassment of riches. it simply was not possible to see everything. whatever happened, you were going to miss some cool music. it was just a matter of who. pick your poison...
ok, onto the party. it started on saturday night with hiyoshi warming up the funktion ones. he played a lovely downbeat set, with the standout moment being a bvdub track - the heavy basslines sounded divine. it was great bumping into friends and there was an electric feeling in the air, everyone excited about what was going to happen in the coming days... after hiyoshi finished, we headed back to the hotel where we were staying (no point sugar coating it, i was too soft to do camping). after a couple of hours sleep, we got up nice and early to catch marcel fengler, who was starting the 1st day off. i am guessing the logic for putting fengler first was to give the festival a bit of a kickstart, but i think people were adjusting to the new timetable and still on route from tokyo, so the crowd was not as big as it should have been. nonetheless, marcel did what was expected: deliver a high quality set of techno. much like ssg mix, fengler did a great job slowly building things, gradually raising the tempo step by step. while i thoroughly enjoyed his set, i would have loved to see him with a bigger crowd to work with.
after saul was another ssg mixer, koss, playing his first of 2 livepas on the day, this being the dancefloor one. over the next 60 minutes koss show very clearly that he is presently japan's most relevant and talented producer. i think he took a lot of the crowd by surprise, i am not sure they realised just how good he is. but by the end they definitely knew. what impressed me is how koss played a sound that should have been stale - he was basically playing tribal tech house - but managed to make it feel exciting, new and fresh. koss also made full use of the magnificent sound system at his disposal. so far all 3 ssg mixers had delivered, and now it was the turn of italian debutants, natural/electronic.system. the italian boys made it 4 from 4, winning the crowd with a perfectly weighted set of deep, heady techno. my favourite moments were hearing the villalobos remix of shackleton and silent servant's 'discipline', both which sounded spectacular on the funktion ones. for me, natural/electronic.system. were the highlight of the first day. they showed a deep understanding of what labyrinth is about and their sounds were a perfect match for day turning to night.
next up was donnacha costello, who started his ambient dj set rather abruptly with what sounded like death metal. umm. yes. i'm not sure if this was the best move, as it undermined the vibe the italians had built up. nonetheless, donnacha soon settled into some nice ambient sounds. about half an hour into his set the offer of a lift down the hill to our hotel was too tempting to refuse, as we were tired and needed a rest before a big day 2. the only problem is that it meant we missed the rest of donnacha's set and koss' ambient livepa, which i am sure would have been lovely. after that, things moved to the smaller 'midnight lounge' stage, where 2 local djs (maxxrelax and KZA) spun, before there was a sendai dj set from peter van hoesen and yves de mey. reports on the sendai set were all very positive and i am pissed i missed them, but it simply wasn't possible to catch everyone. i'd decided to focus on the main daytime stage and rest at night. pick your poison.
hard to believe that was only day 1. we still had 2 more to go... day 2 proved to be the peak of the festival, with a veritable feast of techno, house and ambient magic. we arrived to catch the 2nd hour of eavesdropper (yves de mey), who was warming things up nicely. he finished his set with a ridiculous old LFO record, which was a real highlight. wow. what a bomb. next up was peter van hoesen doing his livepa. this would prove to be the first 10/10 set for the labyrinth. i have had a long standing respect for peter, but i must admit that i was completely shocked with how good his performance was. without trying to be harsh, his livepa last year feels almost amateur compared to what he did this time around. even his recent LWE recording does not come close to how he sounded this year at labyrinth. he started the set with very low BPMs: really trippy, pyschedelic stuff, before building it slowly and deliberately over the 90 minutes. indeed, the whole set PvH kept the BPMs down, but did so without sacrificing any of the raw power or dynamism that defines his productions. for me, peter's set was the perfect example of what makes labyrinth so special. here was someone who played last year, was deeply inspired, and came back with a set that built on these positive energies and memories. you can feel an amazing synergy here between the artist and the event. and what peter demonstrated is that he is one of the most worthwhile and distinctive voices in techno today. keep a close eye on PvH. i have a feeling he is only just getting started...
three had the difficult job of coming on after peter had just raised the bar to a remarkably high level. the question i was asking was, 'how the fuck do you follow this?' well three's answer was, 'i'm going to play the first 20 minutes of "the make up the break up"'. umm. that would qualify as a pretty darn good response (even if i don't feel this track as much as most others do, i appreciate it). to be honest, i had yet to be persuaded by three, but some people whose taste i trust suggested i give him a proper go. so i did. and i was pleasantly surprised. he delivered a really nice party set that brought out a lot of smiles and good feelings. there was a weak patch of about 30 minutes punctuated by some nasty reboot, but overall three did great and really played to the crowd. the highlight of his set was when he dropped the new cheap and deep record. cool. up next was a livepa from vince watson. i saw vince last year and while enjoyable enough, he is not quite my thing - a bit too heavy on the synths and melodies for my taste. so it was break time for chris. while i was off eating hamburgers, vince watson put together a livepa that was very well received, from what others told me. after watson was so, a local dj who is an important part of the labyrinth family. i didn't catch him as i was still in relax mode, but from what i heard in the distance it sounded like he was playing a set well fitted to the mood and time.
by the time so finished i was a bit more rested and prepared for what was an absolutely killer lineup - dan bell, function, donato dozzy. first up was bell. do i need to even bother describing his set? if you've seen him, you can guess: 3 hours of perfect minimal house effortlessly mixed together. my nickname for bell is 'mr consistent'. he never drops a beat. the mixes are always spot on. the records are always quality. i really cannot conceive of dan bell playing a bad set. that would blow my mind. hell, he even managed to play a record with a michael jackson sample and made it work. i have no idea how the fuck he got away with that. but he is dan bell and he knows. for some, dan bell was the highlight of labyrinth, but for me he was a prelude to function. at first glance having function follow bell might seem a bit odd - minimal house to serious techno - but this was a stroke of genius. bell lined them up, function knocked them down. come to think of it, function was so good, i will give him his own paragraph.
before labyrinth i questioned russ' decision to book function solo instead of sandwell district with regis. i am glad i was not listened to. russ 1 - chris 0. with no disrespect to peter, dozz, or any of the other artists that performed, function totally owned labyrinth. i've been listening to techno for a long time now, well over a decade, and i've seen plenty of amazing performances. and this was right at the very top. without thinking too much about it, this would be in my all time 5-10 best sets. function was given the dusk slot, and this was the perfect setting. in addition to his laptop, he had a 909, 808 and a bunch of other gear. this was clearly not just another gig for him, he was ready to create something special. and that is exactly what he did. over the next 3 hours function put together an intense and powerful set of techno that totally destroyed the place. within the first 15-20 minutes he'd already dropped DBX, plastikman and kraftwerk. not a bad start... by no means was this a retro set, however. it was a deftly blended mixture of the old and new, demonstrating the depth and breadth of this man's understanding of music. for me, function's set was similar to dozzy's closing set at last year's labyrinth: a revelation. like dozz in 2008, this was a master at the very height of his powers, compiling years of musical learning and thought into a perfectly conceived set. respect.
where do you go from there? function just delivered the hammer. it really felt like a big ass techno bomb had been dropped on labyrinth. donato dozzy was given the difficult job of cleaning up function's mess. of course, donato was up to the task and created a beautiful ambient journey. he began with more beats and slowly removed them as the set progressed. unfortunately about half way through his set i was falling asleep while standing, feeling completely and utterly exhausted after function's onslaught. luckily, though, i was there long enough to experience one of the highlights of this year's labyrinth, which was donato playing for the first time his unreleased track, 'rudeboy'. dozz introduced me to 'rudeboy' a couple of months ago, and since then it has come to occupy a very special place in my heart. while having that unmistakable dozzy trademark, it differs from his usual output by having vocals through most of it. dozz goes pop... leading up to labyrinth i had been unsubtly encouraging him to play it, and i'm so happy he did. he dropped it at just the right moment and the reaction was fantastic. i really think this is going to be a big record when it comes out. fortunately someone recorded a bit of it and posted it on youtube:
definitely keep an eye out for 'rudeboy'... alas, fatigue kicked in and i didn't get to enjoy all of dozz's ambient set, which you could feel was something special. the good news for me and all the other ssgs is that he has provided us with a 3 hour ambient mix that recreates the vibe of his labyrinth set. we'll be posting it on wednesday. not only did tiredness cause me to miss the 2nd half of dozz's set, it also meant i didn't catch any of the midnight lounge, where eric cloutier, the natural/electronic.system. boys and dan bell played tag. fuck. how could you miss something like that? i know. 2 days of non-stop techno. pick your poison. pick your poison.
everybody had been waiting a year for this. anyone who has listened to dozzy's set from labyrinth 2008 understands just how mindblowing it was. now it was time for dozz to step up and do it again. and of course, he did. and then some. he played for 7 hours, but it felt like half that. music flowed, time disappeared. what impressed me most about dozz's set is that not only did he manage to recreate the vibe and feel of last year's set, he actually improved on it, and did so using completely different records and sounds. well, there was one record he played again. plastikman's 'consumed'. boom. and again for about 10 minutes i was sucked into a big techno vortex...
as for his set, to be honest, i dont even know how to fully describe it. he traversed a lot of territory (and vinyl) over 7 hours and basically provided a blueprint for what we've been calling 'headfuck techno'. deep, warped, powerful machine music that hit your mind, heart and legs all at the same time. the mixing was super tight (even dan bell commented on it), the track selection was flawless, the energy was electric. this set confirmed what i'd already decided quite a while ago: dozz is one of the very, very best in the business. there might be people as good, but i am not sure if there any/many better than him. he has such a deep understanding and feeling for the music, and it shows in every record he selects, every mix he makes: donato just knows. just like peter's livepa, and function's dj/live, dozz's performance was as close to perfection as you could imagine, the ultimate synergy between the artist and the event. and so, as expected, an amazing festival finished on an incredible high.
so, all in all, labyrinth lived up to all the hype and expectation. again it went far beyond the norm and created something special, unique and worthwhile. what separates labyrinth is its purity. there is no bullshit, hype, egos, corporations and crucially, no compromises. this is techno enjoyed at its most basic and elemental. the result was a deeply inspirational and motivating experience for everyone involved. labyrinth showed very clearly how powerful and beautiful this music can be. i came away from these few days with a great sense of happiness and appreciation, mixed with motivation and energy, ready to keep pushing things forward with mnml ssgs, and life in general. i would like to express my sincere appreciation to all the artists involved and to the organisers for their hard work. in particular, i applaud russ for his dedication, vision and belief. to finish, all i will say is this: next year will be the 10 year anniversary of labyrinth. it is going to be special. if you care about techno as much as i think you do, start saving. now.
see you next year...