- Until recently, Seattle was a rather sleepy corner of the world for electronic music. But every year in the last week of September, it comes alive for Decibel, a spectacle of music and networking now in its tenth year. Curated more like an inner-city European festival than other events in the growing US scene, Decibel offers the Pacific Northwest a rare chance to see some of the world's best electronic music artists. And more importantly, it puts these performers in intimate nightclubs with custom-made sound systems, meaning you get the hubbub of an international festival with the comfort of a regular night out at your favourite bar.
In the past, Decibel has had some pretty heavy-duty special events—the US debut of Amon Tobin's ISAM show in 2011, for example. Its tenth anniversary didn't have quite the same wow-factor, but it certainly had its moments. Machinedrum strapped on a guitar and brought a drummer along for the world premiere of his strong new live set, The Orb made it a stop on their reunion tour, and Moby made his second appearance at Decibel. And, as usual, there were a few things for the kids, too: electro house bigwig Zedd had his own showcase, and "Royals" artist Lorde, one of the year's biggest success stories, belted out her mesmerizing singer-songwriter fare over a crush of screaming teenagers.
Early evenings at Decibel were devoted to the calmer Optical audiovisual showcases. Nils Frahm played a beautiful set that lived up to the buzz he caused last year, and easily overshadowed his tourmate, Olafur Arnalds. Sunday night's event at the ritzy Triple Door dinner theatre featured a stunning set from Raime and an appropriately dirge-like turn from local act The Sight Below, but flight woes meant that headliner Oren Ambarchi was replaced by a last-minute set from Nosaj Thing, whose graceful beats felt at odds with the blackness that preceded them.
Decibel delivered equally well for the late night dancers. Seattle nightclub Q held down the house and techno: Ben Klock dropped bombs on a packed Wednesday night dance floor, and Henrik Schwarz closed Friday night with an emotive finale. Natasha Kmeto was a highlight, standing out amongst headliners at The Crocodile with powerhouse vocals anchored by her own sensual rhythms. Neumos, again boasting an incredibly loud Avalon System for the week, hosted Hessle Audio's broken beats for an afterhours where it felt like the trio (Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea) were deliberately trying to blow the speakers—at least three Kowton tracks sounded revelatory over that PA. The afterhours were included in the price of admission, meaning they were more like extended club nights than the separate events they were last year.
Because there are upwards of seven things happening each night, Decibel is a customizable festival experience: the kind of music you hear is totally up to you. (It's worth noting that this year's mobile app, armed with set times and a scheduler, was very helpful.) And in terms of sheer numbers, 2013 felt much bigger than last year. Many showcases reached capacity as early as 10:30 PM, and most were full right from 9. For the first time in my Decibel history I was turned away from an event—in this case, Peter Hook's New Order nostalgia trip.
Owing mostly to the wide variety of venues, Decibel isn't without its flaws. The festival's map has changed a little: this year it was split more evenly between downtown and nearby Capitol Hill. Going between the two required a cab ride or a 20-30 minute walk, which could occasionally make the shows feel too segregated. Some of the dance venues were concert halls more than nightclubs, like the Showbox Market, where pushy security guards prodded revelers to stay behind an arbitrary taped line at all times. And eating pad thai while watching Raime was an incongruous experience to say the least.
After Raime's set on Sunday, Decibel director Sean Horton brought nearly every member of his team onstage to introduce and thank them. It had clearly been an emotional week. When you get down to it, the festival is about their community more than anything. Later that evening, KiNK's boundless energy meant that the closing event didn't feel like a wind-down, with a sizeable crowd still dancing enthusiastically after five nights in a row. Taking it all in and knowing that Decibel was coming to an end for yet another year, it was hard not to feel some of their emotion.