rural 2019: Five key performances

  • New date, new site—would the beloved Japanese festival retain its magic? The answer is a resounding yes.
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  • At a time when Japan's electronic music scene is facing serious issues, rural festival remains one of its shining lights. This year, the team, having lost their last venue due to noise issues, were forced to find a new site, a particularly daunting task given how breathtaking the last location was. But, testament to the beauty of the Japanese countryside, the team discovered the stunning Sutakako Camping Ground, a remote, 1300-metre high mountain next to a scenic hot spring town. Situated right by a lake, which functioned as a natural fog machine, the festival was a celebration of both Japanese and global electronic music culture, combining domestic DJs like Akiram En, DJ Yazi and Wata Igarashi with numerous international artists, including Slikback, Black Merlin and Jane Fitz. Rural illustrated why Japanese festivals are still among the world's best. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Sapphire Slows Sapphire Slows has had a great year. Maturing as both a live artist and DJ, with an increasing number of bookings across Europe and East Asia, she was tasked with opening Forest Stage on Saturday. I was curious how she'd approach it. She began gently with tracks like Forest Drive West's remix of "Vurstep" by Appleblim, shifting between ambient and trippier sounds. In doing so, she showed why she's among Japan's most versatile and interesting DJs, able to play across genres and at different times of day. Tracks like Clotur's "Hyperspace Travel" and "Kosovo" by Loose Change resonated with the early afternoon throng, which swelled slowly throughout her set. With the stage bathed in sunshine and the crowd fully awake, smiling and ready for the weekend, her set was the jewel in Saturday's crown.
    Black Merlin Booked for two sets and making his Japanese debut, Black Merlin was among the weekend's main draws. After a hard techno DJ set on Friday, he returned the following night to play live. Darkness had set in and fog covered the stage. Minimal lighting ensured that the focus was entirely on the music. Playing on a perfectly calibrated soundsystem, his performance was intense—halfway between a rave and what you'd expect to hear in a high-end listening bar. A chunk of the opening section was centered around his Kosua album, which features field recordings from Papua New Guinea. Bird sounds, spooky voices, speeches and subtle beats created an atmospheric soundscape. For the final part, voices switched to kick drums and the tempo crept up towards his clubbier tracks, though a general sense of calm persisted. When he finished, the crowd remained silent for a good while, processing what they'd just heard.
    Ena The Japanese DJ Ena closed Lake Stage on Sunday. Situated directly at the water across from the camping site with a magical crystal light installation, it was the festival's afterhours spot. Ena's slot, 10:30 AM till noon, meant that most of the crowd were fresh-faced, having only just woken up. He lent heavily on the bassier and darker shades of ambient. Mixing extremely skilfully, he blended multiple tracks at once, many of them his own, including some of his releases on Horo. This sound is often associated with night raves and industrial locations, but Ena showed it works just as well during foggy, fairytale mornings high up in the Japanese mountains.
    Interstellar Funk Taking over from Chris SSG, who delivered a wicked ambient set, Interstellar Funk set off in a similar direction. Starting with a few atmospheric tracks, including one by Susumu Yokota under his Ebi alias, the Rush Hour affiliate gradually ramped up the BPMs. His three-hour set was a cosmic trip, with DJ Solar's new cut "Unless, Of Course, You Have Wings Like A Bat" among many highlights. At one point, he dropped Philipp Gorbachev's "I Am Saved (Main Mix)," which fell silent midway through. Everyone—crowd, sound engineers, DJs on the dance floor—looked up puzzled. After what seemed like an age (roughly five seconds), the beat dropped back in, sending the place roaring. This kind of unpredictability made his set the perfect start to a blissful Sunday afternoon.
    Wata Igarashi From well-received releases to performances across Europe and the US, everything that Wata Igarashi touches at the moment turns to gold. His set at rural was yet another example. Playing at prime time on Sunday night, straight after Function, he delivered three hours of flawlessly executed techno, trippy, spacey and groovy, with consistent energy and drive. It was held together by a selection of his own productions, including some killer unreleased tracks. This set demonstrated why he's emerged as the latest star of Japanese techno.
    Photo credits / Ken Kawamura - Lead, Black Merlin, ENA, Wata Igarashi, Sky, Sutakako Camping Ground, Slikback, Lights Yumiya Saiki - All others