- "What would we do? Usually drink, usually dance, usually babble." In "Wearing my Rolex," grime MC Wiley inadvertently outlines the prevailing game plan of summer festival-goers—though Athens may be a bit out of the way for most on the circuit. Even so, the city's fifth annual Synch Festival—which stresses "innovative music, moving image and new media"—made an impressive forward push this June with a dazzling new location and a solid lineup of electronic, rock and experimental sounds. With local talent holding their own against megawatt headliners, Athens deserves some attention for the quality and diversity of its music scenes. The ancient city pops with color, sound, light and life. Listen up, intrepid dancers: Greece is the word.
[Evening | Night]
The weather is balmy as I exit the too-clean subway (it's only seven years old) and ascend into Gazi, the former site of the Old Athens Gasworks. Housing the Technopolis industrial museum and cultural center, it serves as the main festival venue, with two open-air stages, a club space and a seated auditorium. Following a sign to Technopolis (the very existence of which must give partygoers a giggle), the open-air escalator spits you straight into the bustle of a night-blooming neighborhood.
Steps away from the boom of the festival, women in pink vinyl heels pass a lost pizza delivery guy checking his order in an alley—from the warming unit on the back of his motorbike. Hot and tired stray dogs sprawl on the patio of a chic restaurant called The Butcher Shop. (No one seems to mind the irony). Families sell soda, grilled corn and sausage sandwiches near the main stage entrance.
The gas works, which ceased operations in 1984, is now a striking playground of steel structures illuminated with red and blue light. One building, full of chimneys and cauldrons, is the artists' green room. And there are plenty to pack in there. Music filled each festival day for nearly 12 hours, making selection daunting and strategy necessary. But as I learned from reading past accounts of Sonar, sometimes the best thing you can do is scrap your plan, and follow your gut.
For my first day, that meant enjoying indie legends Yo La Tengo. After requesting patience for "quiet songs" and getting it, guitarist Ira Kaplan said, "This is great; we may never plug in again." Crowds oscillated between polite and frenzied, especially when spazzy rockers Liars warmed up the stage for a captivating Holy Fuck. Still somewhat small potatoes in their native U.S. and Canada, these bands' inclusion at Synch were intelligent organizational moves. The latest incarnation of Liars channels fuzzy Sonic Youth and the drowned, echoed vocals of old Primal Scream, and the polyrhythmic energy of Holy Fuck is built for electronic-music fans like no other band since San Francisco's (!!!-related) Out Hud. To tear away from their set to see The Happy Mondays was a feat. Thankfully, the Mondays left their latest album largely alone and played classics like 1990's 'Loose Fit.' More people than not left their place in the beer line for a closer view. Charging for drink tickets is a bastard, genius move: they get the money, and you get tired of waiting for the slowest-poured Mythos in festival history.
A simultaneous shame was Athenian icon Ion playing excellent funky tech house for less than 50 people in the club space. I went home to remove 90% of my clothes (how do they do it?) and came back in the middle of Khan of Finland's disco-informed lounge act. Channeling Donna Summer and requesting "some moonlight on the stage, please," the performance artist was flanked with a human beatbox on the left and a hip-hop styled keyboardist on the right. Festivals are filled with the easy pleasures of beats and bass, so it's cool that Synch included a few acts to puzzle over.
As The Field prepares to go on well past their scheduled time of 2 a.m. (a pattern which continues all weekend), intense hardcore is being blasted to a handful of people at an unmarked area nearby. It's music for people on friendly terms with Terence McKenna's "machine elves," and it gives me a stomachache. Inside, The Field's Axel Willner—aided on this tour by a live guitarist and drummer—begins the set with a modified version of "Kappsta 2," from last year's Pop Ambient Kompakt comp, and moves through favorite remixes (Annie's "Heartbeat") and songs from the crowd-pleasing From Here We Go Sublime. The live sounds are a bit muddled by the overall production but nobody seems to mind, as they await key points—the suggestion of a Fleetwood Mac verse, a familiar crescendo—in the tracks.
Hanging with the Field boys and Andrew Weatherall later, I come upon my first regret of the weekend: not telling the legendary producer (who performed a smashing wee hour DJ set) what an impact Screamadelica (Primal Scream's 1991 landmark album, which he produced) had on my life. A Rolling Stone reporter may have scored an interview with Amy Winehouse by ambushing her apartment at 4 a.m., but for me it's just too tough to stay in professional character—or even be a proper, swooning fan—at 6 a.m.
[Evening | Night @ Yoga Bala | Night @ Bios | Night @ K44 | Night @ Motel Club]
The day's lineup is heavy with local DJs and dubstep ambassadors from the UK—a chill reverie before Sunday's blowout schedule of mainstream headliners. The few lectures and workshops are held mostly in Greek, but I attempt to ride the public bus to the Benaki Museum to catch one. Note: knowing how to pronounce your stop isn't enough in Athens, where the timetables are—har, har—Greek to me. But I made it in time for Berklee College of Music professor Dr. Boulanger's lecture on the music-synthesizing capabilities of the "100$ laptop." "A Laptop for Every Child" was an interesting statement on what might happen if kids around the world could more easily have their own machine, and grow up with the curiosity and capability to produce music, among other things. During the demonstration, the bass of Peverelist and Headhunter in the outside atrium rattles the seats.
Headhunter's set closed on a techno-laced but still dubbed-out aesthetic, and Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound legend Moritz von Oswald's blossomed with classic tunes. Local collective Black Athena later told me the afternoon's jams were some of their favorites of the fest. "Maurizio (played) an astoundingly eclectic set of rare and deep dub and reggae—then one of the new breed, Bristol's Pinch, stepped up and took the influence of that sound into the future by way of dubstep, ambient and dubby techno and beautiful bass-driven soundscapes. They united two faces of the same music and beyond, that seemed to create an energy that enlivened everyone," said BA member Jo.
The evening's events were spread throughout four clubs reachable along main streets, with great views of the Acropolis and hundreds of motorcyclists buzzing by. A walk to the venue Bios for French rappers DSL (their initials, apparently, although it brings to mind a bad grade-school joke) resulted in only a DJ at the venue. The person working the door said they'd go on "soon," but nobody seemed stressed. Similarly, at K44, which was curiously devoid of any festival advertising, it was a mob scene of locals more concerned with their caipirinhas than delayed sets. I spent the night running back and forth between it and the swankier Motel around the corner in Gazi, where a South Beach-like swarm of people drinking and eating tapas in the street blocked traffic indefinitely.
Highlights of the night included Urban Disco's midnight set of Studio 54-referencing house, and fellow locals Serafim Tsotsonis' live set evoking Aphex Twin and Ulrich Schnauss in the best possible ways. But my best discovery of the weekend was Fantastikoi Hxoi (pronounced Fantastiki Ichi) or "Imaginary Sounds." As the last act at K44, the renegade producer lit it up with reformations of Greek pop music from the '60s and '70s, which come out on his end like blissed, psychedelic krautrock. "At first I enjoyed giving a slightly different twist to known tunes, but then my sound evolved with the original pieces used more as an aura than the basis of the tune," says FH, whose Masters of the Universe LP is free online. "I've never released commercially, and never will, unless I get sued or something…I don't want to have anything to do with copyright, money or big labels. I just want to express myself and make people have a good time."
They also were for Finnish producer Luomo, a busy dude who performed Synch as Vladislav Delay and in a trio with Von Oswald, and who rocked Motel before Chicago's DJ Pierre. During Luomo's icily sexy techno tracks like "Present Lover," I notice a man shaking his head and raising a lighter. "Too sentimental! If I want to hear stuff like this, I'll go to the opera," he says, before ripping off his shirt and bouncing off the walls for two hours straight. Synch volunteer and Wire contributor Sophia Ignatidou looks at me in confused, but pleased, solidarity.
[Evening | Night]
My major complaint with Synch is I felt it a shame that so many young local acts went on in the late afternoon. After two days of all-night dancing, I missed out on some promising artists, like the unusual singer Monika, in the interest of downtime. In the interest of tourism, I spent the day roaming the neoclassical architecture of the Plaka, the flea markets in Monastiraki and the gorgeous Anafiotika, where whitewashed houses among the rocks mimic Islanders' homes. After some mincemeat pies with Cretan gruyere (drool), I was ready to tackle Stereolab and Roisin Murphy.
Both were lovely, but I left them to the masses dancing on platforms to try and uncover some more rough gems. Also, I finally gave in to fatigue, choosing to sit through the ambient band Elica's entire set. With a stoic Kraftwerkian stance, they stripped from white Hazmat suits and masks to button-downs and ties, maintaining a visual presence as pervasive as their elegant aural one. Their eccentric efforts didn't overshadow the sound, like a thumping, more layered Arovane.
Outside, and further connecting Synch's dots between live and electronic genres, Four Tet's Kieran Hebden and jazz drummer Steve Reid were locked into their groove with obvious delight. "I'd love to see techno move toward live-sounding instrumentation as in the Ringer EP," says Fantastikoi. Each artist has found a way to push their music on, and Hebden fades his guitar loops and synth bleeps in and out over Reid's long drum rolls, bringing the songs full circle over and over again.
In the auditorium, Carter/Tutti, of Throbbing Gristle fame, held listeners in a dark, glacial grip, which only deepened with the acutely experimental Angel (featuring members of Pan Sonic, Mum and Schneider TM) later. My body demanded movement, though, so I ended the fest in the club space with French DJ Pilooski and Hyperdub's Kode9.
Pilooski began the most raucous club set of Synch with that Wiley track, followed by LCD's "Get Innocuous," Mark Ronson's "Valerie," etc., giving everyone a break from the cerebral and a chance to dance like total nutbags. He went long due to the last-minute, disappointing cancellations of Jamal Moss and Juan Atkins. Following him in almost total darkness, Kode9 got hundreds writhing and stepping. Dubstep's sultry bpm—a cousin of Miami bass and dancehall, and on frequencies you feel more than hear—seems to guide people into new and more sensual ways of moving. It's powerful sound. "It seems very throwaway to call people like him (and Pinch) dubstep DJs, as they do so much more with the sound, referencing about 3 generations of dub and techno-related music, and making it all make sense in one melting pot," commented Black Athena. Fitting last words. The locals' savvy and Synch's cultural intuition should help grow Athens's status as a sweet destination for drinking, dancing, babbling—and learning.
Photo credit: Michael Gandy