Dekmantel occupies a pretty unique slot on the festival calendar; more focused and affordable than bloated holiday festivals like Outlook or Dimensions, and makes a more assured statement than the new breed of boutique events which are, to be honest, pretty interchangeable. Also pleasant is the incorporation and celebration of its wonderful host city. The assortment of proud cultural nodes Amsterdam possesses plays host to a day and a half of conversation, screenings, and live performances leading up to the festival itself: the Musiekgebow Aan ’t IJ and attached Bimhuis, the Tolhuistuin, and the EYE Film Institute are amongst an assortment of beautiful buildings lining the banks of the IJ — built of a precariously balanced assemblage of elements, they are ideal vessels for the Thursday offerings, forward thinking and smart.
For the second year running Resident Advisor occupied the EYE, hosting a series of discussions and interviews for the Dekmantel Festival Conference. 2017 saw Steve Reich discuss his distaste for synthesis and hallucinating harmonies, with Hunee and Nina Kraviz later talking ID’ing culture in a live edition of the art of DJing; rounding off the talks were Nik Void and Lorenzo Senni ruminating on the role of technique in creativity. Beyond this, the EYE screened of a careful selection of films and live performances, with Jonny Nash live-scoring of ambient Sky Over Holland and Tarik Barri performing Versum.
Further afield live performances from the realms of ambient and avant-garde began to stir, from Robert Henke (performing an insanely immersive Lumiere III in the pitch black Musiekgebow) and Wolfgang Voigt as GAS, to the off kilter industrial/post-punk of A Certain Ratio. Most impressive however was Lorenzo Senni, who appeared at Shelter to ricochet his perpetually inclining euphoria, phrased in the straining tones of gabber and rave. Senni performed almost entirely with a gurning frown and eyes screwed tightly shut, fearful in its ecstasy, sporadically launching into repeated dance throws. Occasionally he’d step off to the side of the stage just to relish the relentless, Escher-like trance-loops, overwhelmed by the sounds.
Actress appeared before a packed Tolhuistuin floor later on. Despite ostensibly having sound problems (continually batting away the hands of sound techs throughout) he delivered an outrageous performance which veered between signature melancholic and sinister hues, each track being swallowed by the next. Keeping his backpack on for the entirety of the performance, Cunningham drew out rude, chaotic UK rhythms coloured with strained 8-bit swathes. Factory Floor and Optimo followed: Nik Void and Gabe Guernsey of the former setting their modular synths spiralling from a deep, oddly soulful starting point, gradually ramping into the more familiar, pounding, industrial groove with which they’re synonymous; the latter closed off the venue, sending volts of their obscure new beat, post-punk and techno through the crowd until 3am.
The team behind the leviathan that is Dekmantel really understand of the importance and impact of environment, encouraging festivalgoers to zig-zag between the waterfront’s striking architecture on Thursday before drawing them through Amsterdamse Bos to the main site over the weekend. Cruising through the park you dive in and out of clutches of dense forest, breaking suddenly onto wide, verdant clearings. A sense of pilgrimage is added, a mission driving you out of the city to a concealed happening deep within the woods. During this journey the festival’s potential is at its peak. And come the end of the night, trying to make sense of the bike and the kaleidoscope of shifting red tail lights ahead of you is pretty hilarious, especially if you have only half a working brake and no lights.
While it’s not particularly novel to point out the amount of care and consideration put into giving each of the stages very simple, distinct identities – the willow tree in the centre of the Selectors’ stage dancefloor, the giant greenhouse, the static tunnel in which the Boiler Room sets unfold – it’s unlike any other festival of its size and sound I can think of. The hypnodelic strip of LED’s behind the main stage, the ominous techno abattoir which is the UFO stage, all so simple but loaded with character.
And, importantly, the sound is good too. Loud and clear, some of the stages are bolstered with subtle considerations helping to distribute the crowd more evenly, which discourages the crush; an external speaker stack placed outside the greenhouse provides extra sound for those unable/unwilling to jostle inside the space, really making all the difference. Similarly, over at Boiler Room the four giant stacks are positioned at each corner of the clearing facing inwards, towards the tube where the DJs perform — super simple, but effective. Strong sounds here, especially during Volvox and Umfang’s back-to-back, and later during I-F’s criminally underpopulated set, where he made Mr Flagio and Depeche Mode sound anthemic.
The old guard was well represented and didn’t disappoint, with an especially emotional set from Larry Heard — ‘Missing You, Mystery of Love’ and ‘The Sun Can’t Compare’ received huge responses from the amassed Sunday evening crowd. Omar S and Masters At Work didn’t disappoint either, doling out big, vintage, bouncing basslines and sultry vocals. Ostentatiously eq’ing each track, Joe Claussel was a lot of fun too, slamming the volume up and down and dancing harder than most of the audience.
The Selectors stage offered unhurried exploratory sets over the course of the weekend, playing host to one of the biggest and best surprises in Red Greg and Ge-Ology’s 3-hour disco and boogie odyssey on Friday. With waves of euphoria surging around the audience it was truly an amazing way to start the festival. As with every year many highlights from the weekend were to be found here; Beatrice Dillon playing some precision-judged dub and afrobeat on Sunday afternoon; the pairing of Objekt and Call Super, which saw the pair banging out breakbeat and dancehall and techno and garage… and Tears For Fears… and ‘Gypsy Woman’.
The only instant the sound was dissatisfying seemed to be during Donato Dozzy and Peter Van Hoesen’s hybrid set in the UFO tent — the highs unarticulated and muddy for the pair’s characteristic level of detail. However that could’ve just been where I was standing, I can’t be certain.
As a whole it’s an amazing feat of vision and planning, and speaking with a friend, she pointed out that many of the female acts were given earlier slots, and that they didn’t acknowledge that Pride was happening that weekend… indeed problematic, and it’s probably best for you to judge yourselves whether the gender ratio was even enough (it is worth noting that these aren’t issues unique to Dekmantel).
As a medium capacity festival which understands where electronic music is right now (and indeed it’s lineage), Dekmantel nails its mission statement. Best advice I can give would be don’t stress about inevitable clashes, make the most of the extra events on Thursday, and absolutely, most definitely, get a bike.