2013 saw the 10th anniversary of Seattle’s Decibel Festival, one of the most progressive, forward thinking music festivals in North America that focuses on electronic music and graphic art. The festival was formed in 2003 by Sean Horton with the aspiration to unite and showcase rising talent in the relatively new fields of digital music and art creation. The last ten years have seen that culture blossom in a wildly popular way and Decibel grow into a festival that expertly celebrates electronic music’s underground heritage and roots as well as its constantly mutating and bright new future. The festival has evolved and changed over the years but its mission is as truly evident as ever and Decibel Ten appeared to be everything Sean Horton himself could ever have hoped for.
While this year’s program was apparently more condensed than last year’s marathon, quantity was surely compensated for in the sheer quality of the acts presented at this festival. Showcasing labels like Ghostly International, SubPop, Hyperdub, Leisure System, Erased Tapes and Triangle to media showcases from Resident Advisor, XLR8R and MixMag and big name artists like Moby, Peter Hook and the Light, Lorde and Nicholas Jaar all in one festival has to solidify Decibel as one of the premier festivals in North America along with Montréal’s Mutek and Detroit’s DEMF/Movement as underground leaning festivals on the cutting edge of music. The debut of rising star Machinedrum’s new Ninja Tune debut LP Vapor City, after hours parties featuring the Hessle Audio crew (Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangea), Ben Klock, Max Cooper, Kyle Hall, Derrick May and Green Velvet were just icing on the cake.
(Moby made a special appearance, lending his vocals to a couple old fan-favorites for Peter Hook and Light. See photo above.)
(Machinedrum; Vapor City Live at the Showbox Market)
While Seattle’s notoriously Pacific Northwest fall weather could have put a slight damper on things, some last minute changes avoided too much disappointment when the boat parties went off surprisingly well anyway. Ben UFO and Axel Boman played the RA Boat Party and surprised their ecstatic crowd with some back-to-backing, even more reason to be glad you’d made it out. dBx In The Park was moved, due to the inclement weather, from the Seattle Center to local venue Re-Bar which was packed out by a solid crowd to support Natural Magic, Jeno Void and the much-anticipated Poolside DJ sets.
The packed scheduling of showcases and features made for frequent visiting and revisiting of a few venues throughout the festival. Friday was perhaps my tightly scheduled day and night of the whole week. Beginning at noon at Capitol Hill’s Broadway Performance Hall the festival’s conference side of the program presented a workshop on Hardware and Software Synth Techniques discussing modular synthesis and how to craft sound with different kinds of gear as well as delving into the vitual possibilities and strengths of Digital Audio Workstations like Ableton.
There seemed to be many a new creators there eager to learn more about their craft and how to produce something uniquely their own. Immediately following, Olafur Arnalds the quietly humorous producer of moody, minimal electronic and orchestral compositions discussed his unique live performance set up; an iPad running software he himself helped create connected to microphones on the stage that allow him to use sounds from his performers as well as his audience making for a novel but extremely creative and unique performance. Any technology or music geek could appreciate these things but Olafur’s dry, witty humor and the simple relatibility of using an iPad for music production would have been interesting and engaging for just about anybody.
Later in the evening he would perform at the Norstrom Recital Hall at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall with Nihls Frahm for the Decibel Optical series, which is built to showcase engaging visual technology which this year featured San Francisco’s Timeboy (Flying Lotus’ incredible visuals from the Until the Quiet Comes tour) and Seattle’s own Leon Mayberry. That this states had yet to be introduced to Olafur and we rarely get to see the likes of Nihls Frahm made for an incredibly special evening that will be remembered as a highlight of the festival.
(XXYYXX at the What The Festival showcase)
A brief break allowed us to catch up on some food and downtime before we made our way over to an intensely packed Showbox Market to see What The Festival present Machinedrum’s Vapor City Live. I was amazed, impressed and glad to see so many people there for Machinedrum’s set. The venue’s system was able to keep up with his fantastically bass-heavy set and although the visuals seemed to break part-way through Travis Stewart’s talent stood-out on its own. And, his absolutely insane drummer (Barrington Lane of The Ocean Floor) was as impressive as anything I’d seen all festival.
We would make the quick changeover up the street to the Crocodile to see Shigeto perform. It was indeed difficult to have to make the choice to see two different things instead of make it all the way down to SoDo to see Nicholas Jaar and company but such prioritization is a curse of any festival and ultimately I was glad after missing a couple of opportunities previously in the year to finally see Zach Saginaw. The Ghostly International showcase was nothing short of what has come to be expected of the influential Michigan based label and Shigeto’s stunning visual set combined with a highly energetic set of switching between his laptop and his drum kit proved be an amazing thing to see.
After Shigeto we made a mad-dash to get back up to Neumo’s where a massive line greeted us. The Hessle Audio After Hours was delayed for nearly an hour leaving a mass of people crammed against each other on the sidewalk in the rain while the event staff seemed to take their time making the changeover. Eventually they let the buzzing crowd in to watch the Hessle boys finish setting up and get off to a late and apparently frustrated start.
It seemed apparent that Jimmy Edgar who had put on one of the most amazing sets of the festival the night previous during the Leisure System After Hours and his duo set with Travis Stewart as JETS had maybe pushed the EAW sound system a bit hard and that the Front of House staff were maybe having a difficult time managing that. But, after a number of other technical difficulties the show did go on and the Hessle Audio DJ’s rotated through some of the most cutting edge bass music this city has seen in ages. Techno, avant-house, jungle-inflected bass tunes, diverse as they were they were all togetherm Hessle Audio, and until 7 a.m., they made Neumos the best dancefloor in the city.
(Ben UFO at the Hessle Audio After Hours)
(Pearson Sound at the Hessle Audio After Hours)
The weather got worse as the weekend wore on but that seemed to slow about no one down. The Red Bull gallery performances were especially fun during the day and downtown was abuzz with all the visitors and artists enjoying the beautiful city.
Things seem to become a bit more divergent as the finale arrived as Flosstradamus and the accompanying Trap/EDM crowd flocked to SoDo and stayed there for Zedd.
Neumos hosted more house and disco, which tends to suit Capitol Hill just fine. The Crocodile was home to the Hush Hush showcase, a Seattle label that specializes in emotive, ethereal bass music highlighted by Seattle’s own Kid Smpl and performances from Henry Krinkle, Ryan Hemsworth and Cyril Hahn. And Q Nightclub saw Midland and Dusky play the biggest tech-housey bombast for hours until Kyle Hall and Derrick Carter rule the rest of the night on Saturday.
Sunday saw Zedd and Oliver take over SoDo, the Disco to Disco showcase with Aeroplane up at Neumos and the Timetable Records showcase down at the Crocodile. Timetable was perhaps the darkest night of the festival with Teebs showcasing some of his newer, moodier “downer” material which fed well into Lorn’s crowd and ultimately Nosaj Thing who put together one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen done with lasers. Which is to say anything cool with lasers. But, All in all, a great way to tie up the festival for a somewhat tired and weary crowd.
All in all, Decibel turned out extremely well. One of the largest attending crowds packed out the cities venues night after night and I couldn’t imagine anyone walking away feeling less than amazed. It was occasionally difficult to see everything you wanted to, which will happen with the best of festivals, but even when that happened you were always happy you made the decisions you did- even if you hadn’t dressed warm enough.
Decibel nailed their 10th anniversary and made it known that the United States can be and are a place for forward thinking art to be made and successfully showcased. There may be much ado about the future of the electronic festival elsewhere in the nationwide community but Decibel, it would seem, will continue to do their own thing. And for that, we should all be looking forward.