Big Chill Festival Review 2009

Category : Animation, Digital Media, Electronica, Minimal House

big_chillThe heavens always look kindly on The Big Chill. Inexplicably, the sun always shines on Eastnor at festival weekend. Perhaps it’s the karma, but there are no mud baths here.

For me, The Big Chill’s appeal lies in its left-field and electronic music disposition. I’ve no interest in seeing a rock band churning out their greatest hits, or producing a perfect rendition of their latest album. I can stay and listen to that at home. No, I want to discover new, exciting sounds and watch experimental visuals effects. Every year The Big Chill brings new delights – The Bays, The Egg, to name but two.

The festival, in its 15th year, is a mature and truly diverse event.  There’s now an increased capacity of 35,000 and international headliners. The facilities have always been a cut above the rest. Lack of large sponsorship banners and a ‘leave no trace’ policy ensures that the site remains picturesque and pristine throughout the weekend.

Against this background there have, in effect, been two festivals running side by side for many years. The first is for nocturnal ravers and the other for ex-ravers with kids. These two groups only tend to converge in the small hours of the morning, when ravers are wandering back to their tents and the others waking up with their children. As a member of the former group, these are my highlights.

Thursday
This year’s itinerary started a day early, as filming took place for Warp Films’ ‘I Spit On Your Rave’ which included a ‘Zombie’ gathering. This made for the site being full swing by Friday afternoon.

Thursday

This year’s itinerary started a day early, as filming took place for Warp Films’ ‘I Spit On Your Rave’ which included a ‘Zombie’ gathering. This made for the site being full swing by Friday afternoon.

Friday – Left-field night

shakletonI spent the main part of the night at the smaller Castle Stage. Shackleton’s live set reverberated with his trademark throbbing sub-bass sending sound waves from the stage through the terra firma of the Herefordshire countryside. His recorded music is moody and downbeat, but his live interpretation felt like it had been shot with amphetamine. It was accompanied by a mesmeric looping animation sequence, which meshed frames from buildings and people to create an inter-cutting strobe effect.

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Next up is Chris Cunningham, the video director and visual artist, who made it his mission to disengage everyone’s retinas with an optical bombardment. Cunningham’s work has always been challenging and no more so than this. The first sequence was an extended version of Aphex Twin’s ‘Flex’, which showed a male and female floating in a void before beating the living daylights out of each other, each shot synched and looped to the beat. This was followed by the background footage from The Horrors ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ – a seemingly possessed and strung out girl proceeds to dance catatonically to a heavy beat. There were also visual remixes of the PS1 Mental Wealth Commercial, ‘Rubber Johnny’. What made this quite wonderful was the way the visuals were elevated from supporting role of the music to primary content.

Anticipation grew for an act I’d been waiting to see for a couple of years – The Field, aka Axel Willner. He specialises in clean minimal house described as a cross between Philip Glass and My Bloody Valentine. He arrives on stage accompanied by a bassist and drummer, after being delayed by his flight from Stockholm and losing his equipment. The set starts slowly and minimally with the track ‘Leave It’ from ‘Yesterday And Today’, his newly released second album. The gradual introduction of bass and drums adds idiosyncratic texture to the evolving sound. By this time they are at full tilt and the crowd are in a trance-like dance. Due to their late arrival, the set is cut short and they finish with the sublime ‘Over the Ice’ from the seminal ‘From Here We Go Sublime’ first album.

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Friday night finishes with a good dance over at The Coop with some dubbed out Chicago and Detroit house from the Subculture DJ’s.

Saturday –  Eclectic night

Around 6pm The Penguin Café Orchestra commence the early evening schedule on the main stage with a Big Chill favourite, ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ and a set full of fun and frivolity. Lamb follow later with their melancholic trip-hop that strikes the right chord with the crowd’s anticipation for the main event – Orbital.

Every year there seems to be an act that feels out of place at this festival and this year it was, without doubt, Spiritualized. They huffed and puffed through Jason Pierce’s brand of psychedelic angst rock, seemingly unaware that this event was about having fun. The only time they came to life was during ‘I think I’m In Love’ but then reverted, frustratingly, back to form.

Another disappointment, although I know many would disagree, was Lindstrøm on The Coop stage. His sound reminds me of a cross between the tweeness of Vangelis and the self-indulgence of Yes backed with a 4:4 beat. Or, as I like to call it, ‘twiddly bollocks’. Not a good sound. I was prepared to give him another chance but his performance was as I had expected, so I didn’t hang around for the whole set. He may well have improved…. But I doubt it.

orbitalOrbital appear on the Main Stage at midnight. The audience is a mix of old ravers (their kids in bed, presumably) and curious bright young things. Early on I was concerned that their set was just going to consist of faithful renditions of their recorded music. But as the set progressed, it became clear that they were mutating some of the tunes. This was when Orbital came to life for me and old favourites like ‘Lush’ ‘The Box’ and ‘Halcyon’ were given new life.

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nightingaleAt 1.30 we were in need of some deep and dirty house. The Coop and The Rizla Arena were playing disco-orientated house. Not good. Then in the distance came the sound of breaks, beats and techno echoing from the Cocktail Bar stage. The place is buzzing with folk jumping up and down to some great tunes. This is just what we want! Who’s the DJ? It’s none other than Annie Nightingale delivering a blistering DJ set. She may not be the most technically proficient of DJ’s on the digital decks, but she has the tunes and knows how to please the crowd. Young pup DJ’s please take note.  At 3am she finishes to rapturous applause.

Sunday night – David Byrne

I awaited David Byrne with great expectation. His 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, was a massive influence on the development of house and techno music in the early 90s and remains one of my favourite albums. Add to this his funk-driven Talking Heads songs and his world music orientated albums, I consider this a must-see event.

First point to note is that the music is very much a Byrne and Eno affair, although the latter is only present in spirit. The performance is built around the duo’s recent offering ‘Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’, but includes highlight songs from the three Eno produced Talking Heads albums, More Songs About Buildings & Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light. There was also a track each from ‘Bush of Ghosts’ and the theatre soundtrack to ‘Catherine Wheel’.

At quarter to nine out walks David Byrne, band, and backing singers all   dressed in white. He announces that this is the last performance of a year-long tour and launches straight into ‘Strange Overtones’, and then the African tribal influenced ‘I Zimbra’ which is accompanied by choreographed dancers. The highlight from the ‘Everything That Happens..’ album had to be “I Feel My Stuff’. A slow builder.

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Byrne has always said he would never entertain the idea of a Talking Heads reformation and here it’s easy to see why. This band is fresh, tight and, without offending the former members, indistinguishable audibly to the former. Indeed, Byrne appears very much at ease within himself and with his performers and there is a genuine feeling that they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. This is contagious and the audience responds with enthused dancing. It really is wonderful to hear these songs live. ‘Houses in Motion’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Life During Wartime’, ‘Burning Down the House’ all benefit from a live treatment and clever use of backing vocals, lighting and choreography.David_Byrne_stage

On the second encore Byrne delivers the final ironic ‘Road to Nowhere’ with a wry smile and looping projection of him on a rocking horse seemingly imitating a rodeo-riding stance. He and his band take a final bow and the crowd bid farewell. With a successful tour ended and the release of his book, ‘The Bicycle Diaries’, plus his current sound installation at The Roundhouse in London, Byrne can be considered a truly versatile and diverse artist.

Hexstatic are the festival curtain closer using their clever video and music mash-up techniques. They begin with a, now well-worn, Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ remix (attempted by nearly everyone at some time during the festival – how long will it be until we can put these ‘tributes’ to bed?). What Hexstatic do well is add wit and humorous juxtaposition to images and sound. This is not just some arbitrary concoction but a successful attempt at the ultimate continuous mutating mash-up.

So ends another Big Chill Festival and another belter. Great music and as always, it seems, great weather.

The Return of Nathan Fake – Hard Islands

Category : Digital Media, Electronica, Minimal House

fakeBack in 2003 a 19-year kid with a laptop and Casio keyboard set the world of electronica alight with the release of his seminal, techno inclined, ‘Outhouse’ single. His sound was something very special that alluded to a style, sophistication and knowledge greater than that of his youthful years.

Techno is a genre littered with artists unable to step beyond one-hit-wonder status. However, it was clear by Fake’s 2005 release ‘Dinamo’ that there was something quite remarkable and multi-faceted about this wunderkind from Norfolk. His music straddles the “maximal acidic techno beats” of ‘The Sky is Pink’, lovingly remixed by Border Community label boss James Holden, and the more ethereal and sweeping downbeats of his first album ‘Drowning In A Sea Of Love’.

Fake’s new six-track mini album ‘Hard Islands’, released on 18th May, is an unquestionable return to the dancefloor. I was lucky to get the opportunity to listen to a pre-release copy and the result is a techno delight.

“Playing live a lot over the last couple of years has had a profound influence on the way I make music now,” says Fake. Indeed it is clear that this collection of tracks have taken inspiration from recent tours with the likes of Squarepusher, Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) & Steve Reid and also indicates influential stimulus from the back catalogue of Warp and Rephlex.

The stand-out track for me is ‘Basic Mountain’ proving his ability to take a simple melody then twist and distort it into a maelstrom of undulating sounds. But this album has its fair share of exciting experimentation too in the form of ‘Fentiger’ and ‘Castle Rising’ – the former a nod to Richard Aphex Twin James. There’s also the brooding fuzz of “Narrier” which invokes a soundtrack for a, as yet unmade, film – 2009: A Space Odyssey.

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Back in 2006 Fake stated “For me it’s just a computer and a Casio keyboard. It’s all I’ve ever used”. Today he’s progressed to the more robust and experimentally vigorous Ableton Live enabling him to induce a technically advanced battering of the software.

nathan_fake3

To celebrate the release of ‘Hard Islands’ Nathan Fake is set to play live the Elephant & Castle arts club Corsica Studios on Friday 15th May. His live show has been described as an “unstoppable hour long industrial assault” so with dj sets from James Holden, Allez-Allez and Caribou the night looks set to be a winner.

Look out for the equally enjoyable “Hard Islands mix” which is a Fake mix of compatible tracks in a similar mode….. especially Clark’s – Growls Garden.

Nathan Fake @ Cargo, 17th May 2006