- A few minutes after arriving at my hotel in Brest, I ran into a photographer friend on the stairs. Even though Astropolis hadn't officially started, he looked in a rush and without stopping told me to meet him down by the port. I knew the festival was throwing a boat party to welcome guests, but by that point it had already set sail. So, with no idea of what to expect I headed towards the city's docks, ending up at a dead end with 150 people dancing to an impromptu set from local hardcore legend Manu le Malin. The performance was part of an event set up by production company Sourdoreille, whose director recently crowdfunded a documentary on the relationship between le Malin and France's oldest electronic music festival, Astropolis.
Astropolis's birth year is symbolic. In 1995, Interior Minister Charles Pasqua passed a law banning raves and free parties in France. Many of the dance music collectives of the early '90s started disappearing as a result, but Astropolis slipped through the net of repression and has run annually ever since. This year was its 21st edition.
For the opening night, the festival took over two venues in Brest: the city's music hall, La Carène, and a night club called La Suite. Both were examples of where France's club circuit so often goes wrong. The first was a soulless concert venue with DJs playing on a stage, while the second felt better suited to student debauchery than clubbing. Maybe there was some fun to be had in the irony, but generally I found the atmosphere depressing.
The night's expected highlight was the premiere of a new live / AV show from Madben, an artist on Astropolis Records. Standing semi-hidden behind a transparent screen, the northern French producer presented an hour of epic electronica set to visuals of geometric shapes, insects and black and white fantasy images. If I'm honest, the whole thing felt a bit lame. A stone's throw away in an overcrowded nightclub, John Talabot didn't once raise his head during his set, throwing down thumping beats to a delighted and sweaty audience. Recondite followed with his accomplished live show, before DVS1 took to the decks for the last two and a half hours, bringing some acid flavours to the floor.
Astropolis' main event took place the next night at Manoir De Keroual, a manor in the surrounding woods of Brest (the festival relocated there in 2001 after outgrowing its former site, Château De Keriolet). The organizers showed a precise understanding of the space, with five stages spread across the manor's ruins and its surroundings. I arrived early to catch a rare set from Koudlam, though the volume was so loud I had to stand outside the tent. Inside, his auto-tuned incantations held the crowd, which went particularly crazy for his major hit "See You All" and gabber anthem "Negative Creep." Later at another stage, a similar reaction met Kowton when he dropped ""Glock And Roll". At the opposite end of the site, local artist Upwellings turned out a flawless live dub set at the expansive chill-out stage. I was so gripped by his richness of texture that I ended up staying right to the end, before heading back to La Cour to catch Robert Hood deliver his techno sermon.
On the Astrofloor, Torb received a warm welcome from the Brest audience. The duo, who met in Philippe Zdar's (of Cassius) studio where they work as assistants, improvised for an hour on their homemade modular machines. Boys Noize then played acid techno, while back at the chill-out stage, huge basslines and reverberated organs echoed together. An impassive Mark Ernestus was at the controls, upping the tempo and throwing in some vocals to end his set. As the sun rose over the forest, Lil Louis took over from Paul Woolford, while on Manu le Malin's hardcore stage, Elisa Do Brasil channeled the free party sound and spirit. These last few hours clearly illustrated what it is that has set Astropolis apart all these years: it's a festival in the woods where people of all ages come together to celebrate many different kinds of electronic music.
Photo credit: Raymond Le Menn (Lead), Alban Gendrot (Madben, Festival scene), Souenellen (Lil' Louis)