- Carlos Hawthorn travels to a small city in the Basque Country for an event more people need to know about.
- Eyes down, hair hanging lankly, JK Flesh hit start and implored everyone to "follow God." The words weren't his own—a recording of a religious sermon, likely from somewhere in the US, rang out across the room—but the message was clear: things are about to get serious. One guy at the front took the words particularly to heart. Pork-pie hat perched on his head, he stretched both arms to the ceiling and edged his head slowly back, awaiting the first grinding drop.
This kind of fervent commitment to the cause was a common sight at Mugako, a three-day techno and experimental festival held annually in the small Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, about an hour's drive from Bilbao. The 1000-strong crowd, almost entirely Spanish, wore their nerdy T-shirts proudly and danced with the energy and focus of proper music fans. As soon as a performer finished, people would scurry to the front to clap loudly. There was barely any filming with smartphones. Overall, the audience was lively and unflashy in a way you rarely see.
I wasn't necessarily expecting that. Techno and experimental festivals can be chin-stroky, especially when they're tied to cultural institutions. But Mugako, which mostly went down at the architecturally striking modern art gallery Artium, never felt stuffy. Sala Este Baja, a white rectangle with a bar at one end, a stage at the other and speakers dotted generously throughout, was the largest and main space. Most of the time it felt more like a sweaty warehouse than an exhibition hall. On Thursday, the opening night, Pye Corner Audio punctuated long passages of mellow electronics with sudden, thunderous drops. The Finnish electro duo Morphology, who stayed so long at the festival they ended up playing again, replacing Mick Harris on Saturday, were raucous by comparison, lashing out dynamic electro while headbanging like young rockers. Pervert, head of the excellent Madrid label Analogical Force, went even harder with 135-BPM acid, before Barker & Baumecker introduced some tender flourishes to finish, signing off with a gorgeous wavy track I wish I knew the name of.
Friday was a public holiday, and the city's cobbled streets were filled with beer-swilling families in green football shirts, the colours of Euskal Selekzioa, the Basque Country's national football team. As kick-off neared, boozy fans lobbed firecrackers down alleyways, sending loud bangs and plumes of red smoke into the air. (For those who care, Euskal Selekzioa won, beating visiting Venezuela four-two.) Inside Artium, the vibe was closer to a simmer, as a solid crowd gathered to catch Mark Ernestus & Tikiman shake the walls with their timeless dub techno. The pair were a trip to watch: Ernestus stone-still, hunched over a laptop, while Tikiman ducked and dived, his soothing voice brilliantly clear.
Skee Mask, clearly a fan, gave them lengthy applause before slipping into a scythe-sharp breakbeat. From there he went in every direction—techno, dubstep, hardcore, instrumental grime—and ended on Aardvarck's "Bloom 1," a cut of sloping digi-dub. The only set of the weekend to rival his followed several hours later in the same space. By that point, Sala Este Baja was popping off, with steam rising from the tops of heads as a full floor stomped to Alessandro Adriani's textured techno and EBM. Set to slo-mo visuals of wholesome natural landscapes, tracks like Westbam's remix of "Sato Sato" by DAF and Liquid Liquid's "Optimo" sounded next level.
Mugako made use of several other spaces, some within Atrium, others scattered around the city. On Friday and Saturday evenings, a second stage, half-indoor, half-outdoor, got going in Artium's sunken courtyard, offering curious passersby, most of them elderly and bewildered, the chance to peer down at the swarm below. Alicia Carrera, a rising DJ with ties to Hivern Discs, rolled out chugging acid on Friday, oiling limbs ahead of JK Flesh's distorted techno. The following day, with the air crisp and warm, another sharp Spanish talent, Parallax, impressed with a set of rude UK flavours, including Pangaea's "Bone Sucka."
From 1:30 AM each night, the action moved to one of two local clubs: Jimmy Jazz or Kubik. The latter picked up the slack on Friday and Saturday, hosting back-to-backs from Cadency (AKA Hector Oaks) and CEM, and JASSS and Avalon Emerson, respectively. Located a ten-minute zig-zag from Artium, the club was convenient if a little incongruous with the rest of the festival, with pink neon signs and roaming blue spotlights. The soundsystem wasn't great, either, and it didn't do justice to Oaks and CEM's blistering techno. It was better suited to the more lighthearted sounds of JASSS and Emerson, who giggled throughout their five-hour back-to-back, traversing Overmono, Underworld, Bryan Ferry and lots of R&B edits, including a jungle remix of Kelela. After three days of scorched sonics, it was the jovial wind-down everyone needed.
No-frills raving was the core of Mugako, but it offered more. On Saturday, I joined a dozen or so people in a small auditorium for a workshop on modular synths, which did a nice job explaining the basics. For its wider cultural programme, the festival received a small contribution from the local council (roughly 5% of the total budget), but otherwise it paid for itself. Indeed, every year since launching in 2015, it's turned a small profit, which is practically unheard of with festivals. Cofounder Jose Cabrera—who, full disclosure, does freelance work for Resident Advisor—told me this is partly because one of the team is great with numbers. But it's also because Artium gives them the venue for free, proof that they believe wholeheartedly in the festival, not only from a cultural standpoint, but also for the way it brings together fans, promoters and artists from all over Spain. Mugako is now a must-attend event on people's calendars, a chance to check out the freshest domestic and international talent in a world-class setting, and to catch up with old friends. It was this warm, convivial atmosphere, more than anything else, that made the weekend special.
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