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Unknown Festival 2013

December 9, 2013

Click here for a photo gallery from the festival

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

A couple of us trudge down from our apartment onsite – a four minute walk to the main stage. It’s downhill all the way, but even this feels like a struggle. This is Friday 7pm and we’ve been here in Croatia for six days now, and present at the festival (where sleep is scarce) for four of those – a festival that has gifted us a fatigued body that creaks with each step, a soporific mind muddied with senses crushed.

It’s all for Jon Hopkins.

The setting is one of an intense otherworldliness; to our right is the beach where the vibrant stock photo sunset is setting over the Adriatic sea, in front is the remnants of a paint fight sprawled across the floor that occurred an hour previous. These two factors combine to produce an intense and dazzling display of fecund colour, the sunset glow illuminating the paint-stricken shimmering surroundings like a souped-up Hayao Miyazaki-film.

A giant glittering octopus occupied by twenty or so revellers dances by, each gaggle of people moving the legs individually. A glitter-faced girl so obviously on acid follows, arms spread, fabric from her psychedelic dress fanning in the mild breeze, laconic grin spread, eyes dilated. I’ve rarely seen anyone love, and be in a moment, so acutely. Less said about tomorrow the better.

It may be my precarious state, but even my most rational part of my brain that I’m trying to access for some perspective agrees it’s a highly emotional sight, in an emotive site, that matches the power and absorption of the music that follows.

Hopkins begins and immediately all thought of struggle is vanquished, his brand of mellow yet abrasive techno possessing the art of something classical almost. Think of Moderat at their best with the icy epidermis of Perc’s devastating sound alongside Brian Eno’s heart, and you’re getting there – enriched further by a crisp, emphatic sound system at the Main Stage here. Fourth solo album Immunity was released this year to highly critical acclaim, which in theory covers the “arc of an epic night out” so this should be a fitting listen, and we’re treated to a couple of tracks off the album at the front of his set in ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Breath This Air’.

Hopkins constructs each track masterfully, building and building until the anticipation of the drop is unbearable – in the best possible way; and when the euphoric pay-off arrives, boy, we’ve got ourselves a stratospheric out of body experience of capricious proportions. This, on top of the scene as described, makes for a genuinely moving experience, the body nourished and sway-dancing to every driving beat in the modest crowd, the massaged mind wrapped in a rich catharsis, every sense stimulated. Tears forming, feet tapping, hairs tingling. Hopkins is orchestrating it all, and concocting a deeply vivid memory for all present to take back.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

“The summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-spoken executrix, was locking up safely”

Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first incarnation of Unknown Festival, run by the same people behind Field Day, The Warehouse Project and Parklife, and held in the ridiculously picturesque resort of Rovinj in Croatia by the Adriatic. Prior to departing there were clues as to what would take shape, and Google image searches as to what would be in-store, but as a festival the whole thing was, a – come on now don’t make me say it: an unknown. Line-up wise expectations were firmly nailed to our glowsticks – a host of house and techno DJs with a smattering of other electronic acts, this wasn’t going to be much of a place to have an early night.

The highlights in terms of both music and the general experience it turned out would be numerous, the anfractuous memories varying wildly between ones of the ultra-vivid and lifelong variety, to the non-existent. Here I’ll attempt to talk you through and assimilate some of the more trenchant ones, in an unstructured, not always chronological order; mirroring my memories of opprobrium from the week. I say attempt – as I type this I have my disassembled, tatty Unknown lanyard sprawled out in front of me like a mind map trying retrace events, I’m an incompetent amnesiac detective piecing it all together, the ties, the chronology, the paths taken, the memories esoteric, chopped and screwed.

Featured are boat parties, forest raves, biblical storms, dolphins – not like any festival these guys have hosted. A farewell to festival season and the end this subdivision of the year, this is the summer of love: bookend edition.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

There ain’t no party like a boat party party.

A plethora of boat parties set sail early in the week from Monday-Wednesday before the festival hits top gear (The Main Stage beginning on Wednesday). We make our way to the Phantasy one on Wednesday afternoon with DJ sets by Daniel Avery, Erol Alkan, and Justin Robertson, still reeling from the activities at The Forest Stage the night before. Would being trapped on a boat for three hours actually be the worst place for those possessing hangovers?

The impossibly busy Daniel Avery soundtracks setting sail in the afternoon sun, top-decked packed out to his lean, cosmic techno stylings, easing the party into an appropriate spirit, the novelty of it all a hoot. Our boat slowly weaves around the rocky coastal formations, passing a couple of nudists who get a rousing cheer. They don’t even flinch. Towards the handover to Erol Alkan, the clouds darken. Heads turn around. Murmurs spread. They darken further.

The heavens open. I mean, really, this is rain you so rarely witness in Britain, this is biblical shit. Each cartoon-sized rain drops forms a crater in the sea.

A quarter or so flee to the safety of the lower deck, but not as many as you’d think. For the majority that stay, it somehow turns into the party of a lifetime. As intense rain beats down, a tribal instinct awakens within all, literally screaming to the Gods as the water thrashes everyones face. Primal dancing – as time goes on it turns out we’re dancing just to keep warm, dancing for survival. A remix of ‘The Bay’ is dropped in by Alkan, and a drenched crowd go nuts like I’ve never witnessed. This force of God rather than hampering it all, turns into one of the highlights of the festival.

It’s only for 30 mins or so – the sun returns in time for our return to shore and thus drying us off. Another boat party later that day isn’t so fortunate; Jaime XX and Four Tet getting a three hour monsoon that didn’t sound quite as fun from those shivering people I talk to later.

And who’s that chap in sunglasses throwing some obtuse shapes on the very top deck with the DJs? For literally three hours non-stop by himself? I recognise him, but from where… more on that later.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and Balkan differences.

Last year in Serbia I was fortunate enough to experience EXIT Festival in neighbouring Serbia, where Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs also played. The two festivals are verging on polar opposites – not that I was accusing you of yourselves thinking they were the same just because they’re from the Baltic. I wouldn’t do that.

This is a highly Anglicised festival as you’d expect given the British promoters involved; written down it may seem like a negative, but hear me out. EXIT was very much a melting pot, feeling like the outsider in a wondrous new land; here, it feel almost like a collective experience. This is a first, and we’re all in it together, whatever journey this is we’re going on. The way the festival is set-up aids this – it’s an ATP feel with many staying on apartments onsite at Amarin (aka Butlins), literally a minute walk from the main stage. ATP on acid. ‘On acid’ is such a misused, lazy phrase. In this case for some it’s actually true.

At roughly 7,000 capacity, it’s large enough to get lost in if you so prefer – but intimate enough to find the people you want to find, and to slowly build a cast of characters in your head and make transient friendships with strangers. There’s that couple you danced with last night and showcased your silliest moves, now at the beach chilling out. Oh, sitting next to us is that DJ from the boat. “Hey, weren’t you on the bus journey over with us?”. The mood is always one of happiness and openness, a refreshing change from the deep ‘heads down’ anonymity of London – even though I’d estimate that more than half of the crowd here are from our capital. Ephemeral conversations are struck up in the lively ether between stages, “Oh, you actually live at the end of my road?”. Rather than annoying, these prove to be endearing and provoke a woven feeling of union.

Anyways TEED. The Oxford-based pop-house chap has perfected the art of whipping the crowd into a hedonistic frenzy via debut LP Trouble as released last year, and is no different on The Main Stage. Tracks designed to be played at festivals.

It’s past midnight.

Lights.

Friends.

Where’s the bar?

Wait, did he announce this was his last show? Cue panic eye exchanges to those next to you.

No we just misheard, it’s his dancers last show.

The lights mean nothing, yet they mean everything.

I’ve reviewed his set before in various places, and rather than providing a slightly different rewording, I’m going to be transparent and recycle my previous quotes here:

“It’s unbelievably well received as the first four-to-the-floor beat kicks-in – his delicate vocals swooning over the top of an electronic utopia of rhythm. You make me happy he states; the feeling is more than mutual TEED.”

“The hour of music is unrelenting; blending most tracks into each other in the classic build-rise-fall nature of electronic house music, and full of those discombobulating skree squirly treble frequencies”

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

Fanatasy Bazzar.

On our final night in a post-festival setting, we head across the water to the town centre in Rovinj for a civilised meal – and in the sprit of adventure and general firsts that the week had offered, I opt for the ‘Fanatsy Bazar’; that is the only item with no description on the menu.

I receive a gargantuan plate full of muscles, prawns and other sea urchins in shells. Stuff to make your hands filthy. I should point out that I used to suffer from a bordering-on-OCD complex in regards to getting my hands dirty that would make Niles Crane from Frasier blush. This was my hell. My tasty, tasty hell. This mini-roller coaster summed up the week in many ways.

George Fitzgerald / Scuba b2b – The Forest Stage.

Late on Wednesday, to make-up for not staying up to see Jaime XX at the 4am slot the previous night, we make a concerted effort to enjoy George Fitzgerald and Scuba playing back to back (not sellotaped to each other it turns out), as they often do. Four hours of garage tunes and house moves from 2am – 6am, as a deluge of relatively fresh feeling revellers (this being Wednesday) made it their mission to be the happiest people in The Forest.

The Forest Stage lives up to the moniker – the dance area sunk into a bank of trees with levels on the left, and featuring a balcony to view the thronging crowd below, and ocean adjacent right. James Holden‘s set I sadly only catch a slither of prior to these two, but there’s enough techno to go around this week I’m sure. Tracks from his riveting potential album of the year The Inheritors are heard, that’ll do.

It’s all fuzzy, and before I know I’m lying in bed at 11am, tinnitus swirling in a droney disorientating motion around the inside of my skull amid looped snippets of conversations relaying for no reason, as other memory fragment tantalisingly slip through my fingers. Like if Pete Swanson was let loose inside of my brain and was hammering at my ear canal with a cleaver. Oh, well, The Horrors are sound checking and that’s not a bad way to wake-up. Strong coffee time, splash your emaciated face with water, wash away those scrambled eyes – just don’t look at them in the mirror.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

Caribou ‘Sun’.

There are hyper-real moments that seem so engineered, so scripted, as to seem almost fake. Hopkins was one of them – but earlier in the week before the hordes of people turned-up, we gathered at The Forest Stage for the first time. On the balcony, with a view of the sea to our right, at 4pm when we knew everyone else was at work in their quotidian flow, the sun beaming, the drink flowing, the DJ on stage played Caribou’s ‘Sun’. Literally perfect, corny – but a memory that will forever stay and a moment of pure perspicacity.

Four Tet + Factory Floor

There’s little more gratifying experience than an hour of Kieran Hebden heard under the the stars on a supremely clear soundsystem. His trademark giant colourful balloons are batted about in a meandering set that sneaks in the Middle Eastern soundscapes of Omar Souleyman – Hebden having produced Soulyman’s forthcoming album of course. The sun’s just gone down, and the crowd is salubrious and not too frantic yet – a pleasing kick-starter to the evening.

The previous evening Factory Floor unleashed fury, after the monsoon that had done the same – The Main Stage becoming something of a quagmire; sadly many stay away for the time being as a consequence of this storm, and take shelter elsewhere. We see some unhappy faces with their belongings packed walking down the path – some tents washed away or flooded; these I’ve since found out were found accommodation in town by the Unknown organisers, for those who opted not to crash at friend’s apartments onsite.

“repetitive beats and thrusting industrial hypnosis creates a disquieting electronic paranoia. Post-punk yet now DFA-signed, danceable yet receptive to friendly head-thrashing”

And this dancing guy in stage has returned once again, half Duracell bunny, half Ian Curtis. Just who is he? Upon mentioning this to East India Youth sometime later, he informs us that it’s… Alan The Dancing Misanthrope. A man, who dances. A lot. You may well have seen him.

East India Youth.

We’ve follow the progress and fine sonic palette of young Will Doyle, aka East India Youth, since The Quietus unearthed him last year – and the one man curator of doleful, danceable electronic goodness has been hard at work touring since then.

The stage time of 4pm is unfortunate at a festival of this ilk – the party not commencing until darkness falls; stick EIY on at 3am in one of the smaller stages in the forest and this kind of stuff would destroy souls, commence dance-offs, and make discombobulated people lose their shit. The whole of Rovinj is still on a comedown this early and thus either having a sleep, or at the beach (Theme Park after suffer from a similar fate). For those present however the sunny 45 minutes is quite the journey through ambient-slash-dancefloor motorik rhythms, never once pausing for through between the extend tracks. It shakes off hangovers, kudos EIY. Roll on the album release next year.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

Hats off to the smaller stages and the details.

As with all good festivals, it’s about the experience – if that hasn’t been made quite clear enough yet. Let me guide you on a typical walk from The Main Stage to The Forest Stage (at the far side). Here, hold my hand it’s quite alright. First, try not to step on those people lying down in the dark towards the rear, near the toilets.

We can go by the ocean where we hear the crashing waves violently plunging into the darkness and head to the Pool Stage to the right. At night time, the main DJ booth awakens and the pools themselves get sealed off – during the day the pool is filled with people, the beach adjacent the pool the same, as bodies recharge in the sun and sea for the night. Tiga was a highlight one night here.

Head into the forest away from the lights, and we’ll hit the Mad Ferret’s Mirror World (that took me shamefully far too long to realise it’s a play on ‘Mad For It’) – a small stage enveloped by trees, smoke and lights that you could easily miss at night if it wasn’t for the thumping bass emenananting from behind these shrouded parts. The Shisha Bar is just down the hill a bit for those wanting to relax, and also an even tinier gem in a clearing called Just A Little Moroccan Medina that generally plays crowd-friendly house classics, a helpful stop-off on route for those craving a instant hit of body parts to be moved.

Continue down the paths, (or wonder though the rocky woods as you please) and a series of hammocks hang across the trees for those craving a disco nap, bits of colour fabric hugging every tree along the way, quirky mini-installations to marvel at – are all sprinkled along route; before finally you hit The Forest Stage itself. But it’s these little details along the way that add to the spectacle. A lot of attention to details and graft has been put in folks, and the pay-off is worth it.

Unknown Festival 2013 - Disposable

There’s so much more to mention. Disclosure‘s encompassing all-out pop-garage set on the final night to the most hedonistic, incendiary crowd I’ve witnessed. Incendiary from when the paean “When a fire starts to burn, right” kicks-off the hour. Jackmaster, already known for being quite the tastemaker as co-fonder of the Numbers label, unleashing his unfathomably entertaining set in The Forest. The drunkest (and pushiest) Croatian in all of Istria insisting that he book us a taxi-boat back from Rovinj at midnight from his friend he had just woken-up – and his subsequent 15 minute rant on how Sunderland are the cream of English football and all other teams are “bullshit”.

All these memories from a festival that has sprung up in an area where you could argue the market is saturated. Hideout, The Garden Festival, Electric Elephant, Outlook Festival Dimensions and so on. But for the aforementioned reasons, the organisation, the backing, while possessing a healthy variety in the line-up so it’s not just purely four days of house DJ after house DJ – it’s a festival that will surely calcify its place in the festival calender for years to some. And I welcome that. And so should anyone who’s into electronic music and also gets a kick out of trying something new.

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