The Labyrinth 2019

  • Not even a super typhoon could stop the revered Japanese techno festival.
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  • When Mindgames announced earlier this year that The Labyrinth was moving from September to October, it was rumored that this would minimize the effects of typhoon season. Ironically, this year's edition coincided with Typhoon Hagibis, leaving organizers no choice but to cancel the first day on Saturday. Still, the Japanese festival, known for its meticulous programming and deep immersion in nature, decided to push on with a truncated two-day schedule, tightening the program by dropping several artists. On Sunday afternoon, just hours after the storm had dissipated, roughly 2,000 devoted attendees entered Hodaigi Camp Site, the festival's new location in Minakami, Gunma. Despite the organizational adjustments, a steep shuttle bus ride and the typhoon's severity (not to mention a tornado and earthquake that had occurred the previous day), everyone remained calm. Upon arrival, we were greeted by an art installation composed of triangle-shaped archways. A grove of birch trees led to a central trail lined with vendors, a kind of main street for the makeshift forest village. The trail's end, marked by carnival-esque decor, opened to the dance floor: a grassy plateau at the base of lush mountains, not far from the Japanese Alps. The festival's only stage, featuring swirling bamboo sculptures, a teepee and towering stacks of Funktion-One speakers, was as striking as the mountainous spine arching against the horizon. Blind Observatory's tempered opening tracks led nicely into Sandrien's set, which hovered around 125 BPM. The only other female artist on the roster, Grand River, was noticeably dropped from the tightened schedule, in addition to Batu, The Transcendence Orchestra and Hiyoshi.
    The absence of Hiyoshi and long-time resident SO, who decided to step back from playing this year to focus on organizational changes, left DJ Nobu as the only Japanese artist on the lineup. As a brilliant moon rose behind a silhouette of pines, Nobu delivered arguably the standout performance of the evening. He perfectly bridged the opening and peak-time slots, masterfully building tension and conjuring a palpable synergy between artist and crowd. At its peak, a Plastikman track resembling some version of "Helikopter" roused the floor to an instant boil. Steve Bicknell followed with twisted strains of techno and pounding kickdrums that didn't feel quite right for the natural setting. (Granted, the adjusted programming may have been responsible for this.) Between sets, I found as much camaraderie in the woods as I did on the dance floor, chatting with Japanese locals and visitors from Myanmar, France and Australia around a communal bonfire. I returned for Surgeon's exploratory live set, which, while not entirely cohesive, was nevertheless mind-bending. It seemed very much aligned with his production ethos, as explained in his recent RA interview. A final ambient portion marked by gritty texture and glittering, harp-like arpeggiation led to an impeccable close, as trees opposite the stage lit up in violet light. The composer Jonathan Fitoussi finished the night with a spellbinding live performance that seemed to mimic the stars in a twinkling, sonic array. Day two came quick with live music from Steve Good at 8:30 AM, followed by resident Donato Dozzy, who played a rare and much-anticipated live set. Sparse percussion wafted from the well-tuned system and grew into a layered organism. A different version of Dozzy's penultimate track, one of Bee Mask's "Vaporware" remixes, was played by Nobu the previous year, lending to the overarching sense of dialogue and artistic exchange that makes Labyrinth so special. People listened with eyes closed to Dozzy's final track: a flute-tinged chant, both earthy and ethereal.
    Then, it started to pour. As the rain came down in sheets, I warmed up with some chicken paitan soup that readied me for a final dance. The crowd was courteous and spatially aware throughout the weekend, even during Eric Cloutier's set, which was one of Sunday's rowdiest. The Berlin-based DJ transitioned between house, minimal techno and gnarled acid, the dance floor exploding as he brought in Christina Chatfield's "Black Hole." This primed everyone for the weekend's final act: Peter Van Hoesen. He ripped up the mud-drenched floor with solid, hypnotic techno before switching into an unexpected breakbeat track that allowed for more fluid movement between genres. People lost it when he played his own "Trim The Facts" and stayed tethered to the floor till the end, despite the incessant rain. On my way out, I dipped into a vendor tent for warmth and pulled a card from an oracle deck while sipping ginger tea. The card read "Have faith and surrender," reminding me of the faith shown by The Labyrinth's organizers, artists and attendees, all of whom had willingly embraced the Japanese wilderness in order to share in one of the richest outdoor festivals on the planet. Photo credits / Kaz Kimishita - All except Teepees At Night Brandon Brink - Teepees At Night