Melt! Festival 2017: Five key performances

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  • Melt! began in 1997 as an open-air techno party by a lake 90 minutes north of Berlin. About 2,000 people attended the first edition. 20 years later, the festival has moved site a handful of times and expanded exponentially, growing to a capacity of 20,000. It started booking bands and rappers as well as DJs, and gained a reputation as a destination for music fans with varied tastes. Slowly, over time, it became one of Europe's must-see festivals. But despite its transformation, Melt! has kept its original spirit intact. Sleepless Floor, a large, sandy, colourful stage that sits outside the main grounds, is basically an open-air techno party by a lake for roughly 2,000 people. (The only difference is the site—Ferropolis is 90 minutes south of Berlin.) The music at Sleepless ran non-stop for a mind-boggling 90 hours, hosting a range of up-and-coming (Dan Beaumont, Julia Govor, Volvox) and more established (Ellen Allien, Fatboy Slim, Radio Slave) acts. The sound, which blasted from all four corners, was up there with the best I've ever heard, while the atmosphere, at its peak, was spine-tingling. I spent the early hours of Saturday there dancing in the rain, and I can honestly say it was as rich a night of music as I've recently experienced. This same feeling of wild abandon didn't quite extend to the site proper, but it wasn't far off. The larger stages—Melt!, Medusa, Big Wheel, Gremmin Beach, Meltselektor—were all loud and impressive in their own way, while Sisyphos At Forest—essentially a treehouse in the woods—offered a more mystical and low-key alternative. In line with Melt!'s MO, the bookings varied enormously, running the gamut from Ben Frost and Warpaint to Bonobo and Sonja Moonear. Match this with Ferropolis's awe-inspiring machinery and a crowd that gave their all, and you had a party unlike any other, where everything felt geared towards showing people as great a time as possible. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Courtesy The threat of rain loomed large over Resident Advisor's Sleepless Floor takeover on Friday night. By the time Najaaraq Vestbirk, AKA Courtesy, stepped up around 1 AM, a light shower had begun to fall, sending most of the crowd ducking for cover. Those who stayed donned ponchos and gritted their teeth. You couldn't say the music was feel-good—Vestbirk lead with a handful of bassy workouts, before rattling through three hours of richly-textured techno, electro and rave—but there were flashes of soft-hued colour throughout, like on Schacke's "A Future Not Materialized." The beats were fast and slamming and the transitions quick and unfussy, which kept energy levels up. Just before the end, she slipped in a radiant slice of UK rave, all sparkling stabs and glossy vocals. It was a moment of euphoria, and for the first time in a while everyone forgot about the rain.
    Richie Hawtin presents CLOSE The one upside of a downpour is you're able to arrive five minutes before a headline performance and find a good spot. On Friday night, it took the scattered crowd at Melt! Stage a minute or two to register that Richie Hawtin had even started, so obscured was he by the lashing rain and billows of yellow smoke. It's possible, too, that he didn't even know it was raining—the techno artist looked totally consumed by the army of hardware surrounding him, his eyes darting from synth to drum machine to sequencer. After some brooding ambience and percussive fills, the music jolted into action with a slick barrage of pounding kicks, stinging claps and wiggly synth lines. The audience let out a muffled roar. Perhaps the weather played a part, but it wasn't until 50 minutes in that the visuals kicked into gear. The images, which relayed and enlarged Hawtin's deft flicks in real time, were bitty, reminding me of a pin art toy I used to own. Still, they heightened the music, which at times was excellent. During rhythmically exciting passages, CLOSE demonstrated the value of live techno, of the thrust of energy that comes only from manipulating three or four tunes at once. At other times, there was maybe too much going on, rendering the end product compressed and lacking in depth. (Tad Tietze made a similar criticism in his review of the Syndey show.) The moment Hawtin wound down his final squiggle, the crowd immediately dispersed and several fireballs streaked from the tops of the looming cranes.
    Skatebård Playing the sunrise slot might seem like an easy win, but there's a lot at stake. Get your timings wrong or fail to read the crowd and you could ruin what should have been the high-point of everyone's night. Skatebård, playing after Courtesy to a much fuller Sleepless Floor, absolutely nailed it. While it was still dark he rolled out dusky cuts with plump basslines, edging ever more upbeat with every new track. As soon as first light broke through, an elegant piano line crept into view, the Norwegian miming along to the chords with his hands. From thereon in it was a masterclass in rocking a dance floor. Kraftwerk's "It's More Fun To Compute" and DJ Dove's "Illusions" were easy highlights, but the track of the morning might have been Skatebård's own "Sgnelkab (Mental Overdrive Remix)," a dreamy techno bomb that erupts into a volley of rave stabs. His infectious grin, combined with the sunrise and the impeccable tunes, made this one of the most enjoyable partying experiences I've ever had.
    tINI I arrived onsite at around 5 or 6 PM on Saturday to glorious weather. Punters shook off their hangovers with dips in the surrounding lake, while on the dance floor at Sisyphus a man in rag-tag fancy dress splashed ravers with mist from a makeshift spray bottle. Big Wheel, the festival's dedicated stage for dance music's heavy-hitters, got going a couple hours later, just as the sun was at its most golden. tINI was tasked with opening. One of the tenets of festival DJing is to play to the weather. Earlier at Sleepless Floor, an artist I didn't recognise was banging out doom tech house tunes while the sun beat down. The atmosphere was lively, but I couldn't help feeling that a brighter selection might have got more out of the occasion. tINI, on the other hand, read the mood brilliantly, rolling out warm groovers with roomy basslines and subtle, honey-sweet sounds. Below the stage, a solid swarm swayed along, waiting for the right track or moment to ease back into full-on dancing. "I'm so nervous!" I heard tINI tell her tour manager. You wouldn't have thought it.
    Denis Sulta RBMA's Meltselektor stage sat tucked away off to one side of the main drag, the rectangular dance floor sandwiched between two towering stone walls. This lent the space a more intimate, closed-in feel than the other main stages. The sound, as it was everywhere onsite, was flawless, reaching right to the back. From where I was standing I could only make out Denis Sulta's whirlwind fist pumps as he raced through 90 minutes of retro dance hits and newer big-room tracks. Phantasia's "Inner Light" is an indisputable classic in anyone's hands, but Sulta's gift is making cheesier bits like Mark Knight's "Second Story" (which samples Johnick's Henry Street bomb "Play The World") and Lock N Load's "Blow Ya Mind" work in the moment. He digs out cuts that are fun, a little silly and feel weirdly familiar, without leaning on the obvious numbers. It's a smart schtick that in the right environment—like Saturday night—can work wonders.
    Photo credit / Stephan Flad - Lead, Richie Hawtin, Crane, Sleepless Floor, Die Antwoord, Girls Kasia Zacharko - Courtesy, Skatebård Johannes Riggelsen - Denis Sulta, Group, Balloons Christian Hedel - Silver hat Steve Klemm - tINI, Big Wheel, Sisyphos At Forest