After years watching Decibel Festival unfold across the Atlantic from England, I was finally able to attend this year after my recent relocation to the Pacific North West. Five days later, as I sit on the Coast Starlight from Seattle back to Portland, I feel lucky to have experienced a very special tenth anniversary Decibel festival. Here’s my own personal low-down of the week, but I obviously didn’t get to see it all. So for anybody else who went feel free to comment below with your own experiences.
Wednesday: Venue pit-stops. No Order. Performances by Ben Klock & Kode9.
Arriving early evening on the Wednesday, the only performance I was interested in seeing was Peter Hook and The Light, where he was due to perform New Order’s classic ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’. We arrived at around 10.30pm and couldn’t get in as the venue (Neumos) was already at capacity – I expected it to be busy but it was a disappointing start to my festival experience. I later learnt that Moby went up and performed with him on stage, but after a chat with someone later on in the week, apparently any die-hard New Order or Joy Division fans were cringing the whole way through as Moby destroyed Ian Curtis’ unique and legendary vocals…
A quick walk down the road to ‘Q’ Nightclub and it felt like we had walked into a european super-club; with Funktion One speakers adorning each wall, a glitzy light show on the ceiling and Ben Klock getting down to his dirty business. We didn’t stay long, as the sound engineer that night was obviously intent on demonstrating the lowest spectrum of the Funktion One without any treble, and my trousers were rattling against my legs.
On to The Crocodile for a quick blast of Kode9 – it seemed like a good performance and the perfect venue, but we decided to call it a night as the best was undoubtedly yet to come.
Thursday. The kings of improv. Performances by Peter Broderick, Oliveray, Haushka, Moby.
Thursday got off to a great start as my planned interview with Nils Frahm was moved to 1pm. A skip over to the W Hotel to meet the Erased Tapes crew including Peter, Hauschka, Olafur, Nils and label owner Robert, and my excitement for the Optical Showcases that were to begin that night had reached new heights. (More on my interview with Nils and Ólafur to come very soon!)
The Optical Showcase kicked off in the Nordstrom Performance Hall and I was quick to bag a front-row seat. Peter Broderick introduced himself via his choice of outfit – a suit “chosen by a gay friend in Portland” he said. His modest and charming demeanour won the crowd over straight away and his equally brilliant voice was quick to draw gasps from the audience. Switching from the banjo, to acapella and violin, Peter’s warmth and charm shone through as he played new material “he was trying out”. I’m not sure if everything he played that night will make his new album though – his unexpected improvised rapping was the perfect end to his set and the ideal crowd-warmer for Oliveray.
Nils Frahm then joined Peter on stage and as expected took to the piano to accompany Peter’s vocals. What followed, was again more unexpected improvisation as these two musical genius’ decided to tap, drum and loop their way across the stage, intersecting delicate Oliveray tracks with surprise, laughter and smiles from the crowd. Nils was already a magician in my books, but I think he found another partner-in-crime that night.
Hauschka, the legendary king of improvised piano began with an introduction to his work schedule, apparently consisting of many haunting film-scores, he warned the audience he had been in a dark place recently. With a Grand Piano full of unknown gadgets and tidbits, and a full screen linked to a camera peeking inside the hood, Hauschka pelted out a 45 minute, non-stop piece that went from skittering tight notes to blasts of bass and rolling melodies. Mind-blowing and all-consuming, Hauschka took advantage of coins, tins, drumsticks and what I think were a couple of vibrators pinned down with tape (!) to conjure up scores of euphoria, dictating his very own improvised movie soundtrack. Despite his unorthodox approach, he said he “likes the purity” of the piano, and like a musical cleansing process, proceeded to remove the trinkets that adorned the piano, throwing them on the floor for all to see just how much experimentation and ingenuity went into his performance. An amazing first night of Optical performances.
From here, we headed over to Showbox Sodo, mainly because it was right next to where we were staying so we could see the night through in comfort. Also, after our first night’s experience trying to get into Neumos we didn’t want to risk turning up late to see Teen Daze (who I heard had a stormer), but on hindsight we could’ve made a better choice. Whilst Moby’s warm-up act were terrible, The Little Idiot did a good job banging out some dirty techno which at times was just perfect, but some atrocious mixing moments and the weirdest crowd i’ve ever been dancing with, put a quick end to the night. More for the energy bank though and the highly anticipated Friday schedule.
Friday. D-day. Decibel Conferences and Performances by Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Dauwd, Beacon, Lusine, Shigeto, Max Cooper.
The big day. My Decibel day of choice, started with a visit to the Broadway Performance Hall to get a download on sound-related topics, which are for the most part over my head. An intimate session with Olafur as he took a crowd of twenty through his Ableton setup, his loops and his very earnest approach to production – a sneak peak into what was to come that evening. This was followed with a lecture by Rafael Anton Irisarri who took a room through his surround-sound manipulation techniques. Then, a quick glimpse into Ghostly’s Dauwd and Lusine’s setup before I made a dash back to the Performance Hall to make sure I was in line for the Erased Tapes special showcase with Nils and Olafur.
Seats taken, and the space filled 20-minutes before the first note was played. Nils and Olafur have become infamous for their performance on this tour and this was destined to be one of the highlights. Nils didn’t waste any time in taking to the piano and beginning his ‘Spaces’ performance with Olafur joining him shortly at the start with a glass of wine (or juice as Nils may have it). My review of ’Spaces’ pretty much sums up how fantastic it was should you want an overview of the entire performance, however in a twist of fate relating to his album inspiration, a raggae sounding ring-tone interrupted Nils’ flow in the middle of his switch into ‘Hammers’, only for Nils to stop, give a smile to the crowd (as if to thank them for the inspiration of his latest album) and switch from the Rhodes straight back into his emotional flow. This moment happened at almost exactly the same time as it does in his new album ‘Spaces’…
Nils quoted on ‘Spaces’ that the audience are his main inspiration for how a performance will grow and develop, and during “Over There it’s Raining”, the silence felt from the room was almost unreal – it seemed to inspire Nils to approach this particular track even more softly than normal. Some of the most, quiet, delicate and intricate piano playing I’ve ever witnessed, balanced with his multi-piano manipulations.
Nils stood up to end the set with the synth-laden “Says” and powered his way through to a well-deserved crowd joining him with a standing ovation. I experienced his genuine gentleness and humour when i interviewed him the day before, but watching him perform is like witnessing a dark-magician alter-ego conjuring up a musical storm – a genius, mystical, out-of-this-world experience.
Ólafur started with his audience-sample loop, similar to my experience at Hackney Empire last November and continued with tracks from ‘For Now I am Winter’, delivered as always, in spectacular fashion alongside plenty of audience banter. Every girl in the room was swooning at his Icelandic charm and modest jokes. Whilst Ólafur is an easy focus of attention, he gave plenty of room for his violinist to shine, who delivered a ridiculous solo. And the unselfishness continued as Ólafur invited ‘For Now I am Winter’ vocalist, Arnor Dan to the stage to deliver the album’s title track – an amazing voice which really shone on the big stage. As Arnor walked off to leave Ólafur to finsih, he gave a little punch to the air as if to congratulate himself on how well it went.
Like every single Optical performance at Decibel so far, Ólafur was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd and once again, these musical geniuses had won the hearts of every single person in the room.
The night wasn’t even finished and I was rushing over to The Crocodile for another highly-anticipated showcase by Ghostly International. Label newcomer Dauwd began the night amongst a fire-alarm evacuation and finished on spectacular form with his melodic, layered driving electronica. This is only his second tour with Ghostly and he already looks a part of the Ghostly furniture.
Beacon followed and sent the room into a hazy, dreamy state as eager eyes fixed on the duos silhouettes and angelic vocals. Lusine was quick to follow and like a forgotten godfather of electronic music, laid down the dance-floor friendly electronica law – simple, clean and just damn good, people can’t help but smile and enjoy Jeff’s productions, especially as he debuted some brilliant new material.
Two-years ago, Shigeto was warming up for his label-mates, but now takes centre stage after his recent album has caused a stir. Adorning Portland-esque trendy lightbulbs amongst his synths and drum kit, Shigeto wasted no time in sending an expected Ghostly crowd into a hip-chopped electronic frenzy. Amongst thanks to Decibel and gratuities to the other performing artists, Shigeto, as always, gave it 110% and is now a well-deserved head-liner.
One last performance of the night and I was off to catch Max Cooper at Q. Despite the millions of remixes, live sets and DJ recordings i’ve heard from Max this was to be my first time catching him live. Walking in, and you could immediately sense a different vibe from the first night’s experience at Q – the sound was much better, the crowd were already in full flow and Max was dropping his signature sound from one-track to the next. He even paid homage to the earlier Olafur performance with a subtle little remix from (what I can remember) ‘For Now I Am Winter’ – maybe an unreleased gem we can look forward to?
Saturday. The original heroes. Performances by Juan Atkins, The Orb, John Tejada, Matias Aguayo, Thomas Fehlmann.
There was only really one act I wanted to see on the Saturday – The Orb. Everything else took a back-seat, however it ended up being one of, if not my favourite nights.
I chose to skip the Zola Jesus Optical show at The Triple Door, which going by everyone else’s feedback was a mistake – an acoustic set backed by an orchestra apparently. However, my absence meant I got to the Showbox venue early enough to grab a table and wait for The Orb to appear.
I forgot that Juan Atkins was also on the bill and as soon as he stepped up with his choppy mixing and energetic detroit techno, I was gravitating towards the dance floor. Not a moment too soon and the legendary Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann graced the stage to a rapturous applause.
What followed may not have been an original performance – it was raw, it was familiar, it was swampy, it had Alex Paterson smiling from ear-to-ear and Fehlmann rocking like a possessed doctor, but it was The Orb and it was great. Edits of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ amongst other classic cuts, a quick glean at the crowd and every single person, including The Orb were witnessing a rather special reunion set. Apart from the Optical Showcases, this was the only crowd I witnessed at Decibel who seemed 100% obsessed and locked into who they were watching. It was great to see middle-aged balding men (no comment – i’m one of them) and psychedelically dressed hippies grinning and nodding to their heroes from years gone by.
Any tiredness I had collected until that point was replaced with adrenalin and we quickly stomped over to the Kompakt after-hours at Neumos. Thomas Fehlmann was due to perform a live set, but at 5am this seemed a little unrealistic to stick out. However, I have to thank John Tejada and Matias Aguayo for keeping me rocking until the time came. Tejada, with an emphatic minimal techno set that would lead me to buying every single record played if I had a way of finding out, and Aguayo with a unique vocal-looping-latin-inspired performance that kept the energy rolling. Listen to Tejada’s set here.
Fehlmann arrived on cue at 5am and with a half-empty club, proceeded to rip the place apart with edits of his own productions on the likes of ‘Gute Luft’. Again, Fehlmann gently rocking as he stared into his laptop, only to break out into subtle little arm-dances and cheeky smiles as he realised his beloved following had stayed with him until the very end. Listen to Thomas Fehlmann’s set here.
Sunday. A grand-bient finale. Performances by Raime, The Sight Below, Nosaj Thing.
I was tired by now, but there was one last Optical Showcase and it was set to be a stunner. Arriving early at the infamous Triple Door (it was my first time and is quite a legendary place after hearing many ambient live sets recorded here), I had a brief chat with HC (Headphone Commute) and waited out an unexpected delay to the show as Decibel tried to compensate for Oren Ambarchi’s delayed flight.
My venue inexperience showed as the seats we were given placed us at right-angles with the stage – great for a band, not so good for any AV performance. Raime were up first and the english duo wasted no time in delivering a harrowing soundtrack, whilst hunched over their laptops in the stage’s dark corner. You could tell these two hail from a dubstep background with their subtle appreciation of beats, but the progressive bells and washes were from the (twisted and brilliant) mind of a couple of ambient masters.
After a brief break and a well-deserved Decibel thank-you procession, The Sight Below took centre stage, laden with his laptop, numerous loop pedals and his infamous hoodie. I was lucky to see Rafael perform as himself at Substrata a few months back but i’ve never seen him perform as The Sight Below – the guise which induced my entry into Rafael’s productions. His performance can be summed up pretty simply – #dronelife. Rafael shook The Triple Door to the ground, teetering on the edge of the maximum output, as subtle guitar loops grew into an atmospheric monster. My friend had to leave as he said he was getting heart palpitations – no joke – I wasn’t surprised. This gentle dinner setting was being assaulted by a wonderful, rich ambient performance from Seattle’s finest. The subtle introduction of vocals into the last enveloping track blew my mind, and pretty much everything else in sight.
Oren Ambarchi was due to cap the night but couldn’t make it due to a delayed flight, so Nosaj Thing was lined up at last minute to close proceedings with a debut ambient AV set. I enjoyed it. It was unique and melodic as you’d expect from him, similar to the likes of Sun Glitters and Teen Daze, but I couldn’t help but think Oren’s set would’ve capped this night off perfectly. After The Sight Below, I wanted something dark, dramatic and transcending. But, i’ve been spoilt and had got used to such perfect programming. Decibel did an amazing job getting Nosaj in at last minute and it was a testament to the hard work put into this festival. For a great in-depth review of the Optical 4 night, have a read of Kexp.
From the showcases, to the set-orders, it was an unbelievable week of music and without a doubt the best ‘city’ festivals I’ve been to. It’s not often you get to see the faces of the grafters, nor is it often you see a festival curator such as Sean Horton at nearly every single performance you go to, running around making things happen. Top this off with a dream lineup and it’s one hell of a festival. I missed out on so much; Machinedrum, Aeroplane, Lorn, Âme, Teen Daze, Lapalux, Cajmere, Gold Panda, Zola Jesus to name just a few sacrifices, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Thank you Decibel for a mind-blowing musical week, and here’s to another ten.
Top 5 festival moments (a list of complete performances was too hard)
1. Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann glancing at each other on stage with total satisfaction and happiness (because I was in it with them!) Main picture.
2. The Sight Below rattling the hell out of The Triple Door. Is it still standing?
3. Peter Broderick freestyle rapping at the end of his performance.
4. Singer, Arnor Dan joining Olafur Arnalds on stage – what a voice.
5. Nils Frahm’s emphatic standing ovation at the Optical Showcase. Grins from ear-to-ear.
Five tips for next year:
1. Get to the venue early if there’s something you really want to see.
2. Avoid the pasta at Lost Lake Cafe opposite Neumos.
3. Try not to get a seat down the side of the Triple Door at any AV led performance.
4. Avoid the Neumos / Q area after 2pm. It’s a war-zone.
5. Don’t take a mate with a dodgy heart to see The Sight Below.