Who impressed at Russia's best electronic music festival? Chal Ravens finds out.
For a city festival, you'd be hard pressed to find a better location than Sevkabel Port, a semi-rejuvenated industrial site on the western tip of St. Petersburg. With five stages scattered in and around a huge, mural-covered factory right on the waterfront, there were views (and photo opportunities) galore at Present Perfect—one stage looked directly out towards the Gulf Of Finland. The old factories are gradually being transformed into a hipster playground of bars and cafés in the familiar post-industrial aesthetic, the stylistic opposite of a city famous for its manicured neoclassicism and exuberant church domes.
Present Perfect's fifth edition was broken into cleverly organised chunks: an opening concert, a marathon centrepiece and an intimate Sunday afterparty for anyone who managed to summon a second (or third) wind. The setting was enhanced by brilliant production design (the organisers' former trade), with each stage bringing its own style. There was a waterfront dance floor bathed in pink light, a dark and sweaty room kitted out like a boxing gym, and an outdoor stage rigged up with retro TV sets. The attention to detail also helped offset the multiple brand activations, which ranged from low-energy sculptures of alcohol bottles to an entire two-storey house selling vape pens.
The music mostly orbited house and techno, but there was space for DJ Storm's drum & bass and Mr. Mitch's polyglot rhythms. Sadly, the '90s shoegaze-electronic outfit Seefeel got scratched out last-minute, along with Helena Hauff, due to missed travel connections. (Without Hauff, the gender ratio of the lineup looked shaky.) On a brighter note, I should mention the extremely creative looks in the crowd, where individual style trumped fashion rules almost across the board. Not that clothes are that important at a festival, but in such a visually stimulating setting, it felt good to see the punters raising their game accordingly, especially in St. Petersburg, inarguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
The Garden stage hung right over the Neva River, backed by trees and a two-storey wall of hot-pink lightboxes (we were so close to the water that a single lifeguard had been put on patrol, paddling up and down all night in a dinghy). It was just the kind of intimate, vaguely tropical setting in which to present the Brazilian outfit Azymuth, who were the most incongruous booking on the lineup. Whether their jazz-funk-samba fusion, born in Rio de Janeiro in the early '70s, has a dedicated following in Russia is moot; this trio of silver-goateed groovers (minus their famed keyboardist José Roberto Bertrami, who died in 2012) were welcomed like heroes. The more complex jazz sections posed a challenge for an audience eager to dance, but when the band hit a funky stride, it became clear why they were booked by the stage's curator, Move D. They represent the musical foundation of his own record crates.
Given how spectacular and high-tech audiovisual performances can be in 2019, it's notable that you rarely see straight-up filmed footage onscreen. The latest iteration of Demdike Stare's live show perhaps suggests why. No matter what they unleashed through the speakers—caustic ambient mulch, echoes of jungle with rhythms askew—the audience's eyeballs were glued to the IMAX-sized screen, their feet stuck to the floor. The mood was made stranger by the footage itself, with clips of vogue dancers, drag queens and tourists at Niagara Falls, subjects that could barely have less relevance to the Manchester duo. That said, it was still one of the weekend's most memorable sets, posing interesting questions about the ways that sound and music can interact in a moment.
The Main stage came into its own for Gesloten Cirkel, who ditched moving visuals for an austere slab of grey geometry that was somehow subtly mind-bending, like an optical illusion from a '70s school textbook. The crowd immediately settled into a stomp, enjoying a live set that struck just the right balance between graceful and pummelling. It was exactly what some wide-eyed foreign visitor would want in this situation—an enigmatic Russian artist smashing out techno in a decrepit factory—but even so it exceeded expectations.
Amsterdam's Red Light Radio was behind the most theatrical stage, a replica boxing ring complete with chunky ropes and punching bags lining the entryway. Why? Who knows, but the room was brilliant. Dark, hot and loud, it housed the perfect conditions for a turbulent set of electro, techno and acid from Abelle. The Moscow DJ was a cofounder of ARMA17, known as the city's best club until its closure in 2014, and it's high time she was better known outside of Russia. Her taste hovered somewhere between classic and chaotic, as demonstrated by one of her final tracks, Underground Resistance's fiery call-and-response jam "I Am UR."
Move D b2b Jus-Ed b2b DJ Nobu b2b Telfort b2b Dolan Bergin
Present Perfect has a Sunday night tradition for the committed few. With the rest of the festival already dismantled and packed away, the Garden stage rolled on with an oversized back-to-back that felt more like a house party round at Move D's place. He was joined by Jus-Ed, DJ Nobu, Telfort and Dolan Bergin—an all-male lineup, it must be said—whose record collections overlapped just enough to offer continuity without conformity. Deck-hogging was a no-no, so everyone drew for their most effective belters right away, mixing a few classics ("Sueno Latino" will never die) with Sade-sampling groovers, Italian dream house and wonky techno. As KiNK prepared to take over, Move D cued up Layo & Bushwacka's "Love Story." Smiles in the booth confirmed it as the perfect selection.
We've compiled a YouTube playlist with some of our favourite tracks from Present Perfect Festival 2019. Check them out here.
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