Dgtl Amsterdam 2015 – A REFLECTION

Art & Culture

It’s around 7:25am on a Monday morning and my eyes are burning. And by burning I mean truly, maddeningly, deeply burning. 

The smoking area in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport is, like most rooms reserved for victims of nicotine addiction, void of oxygen. It’s also full of tired people, either here for an early morning departure or in between transfers, this being one of the world’s major stop offs for intercontinental flights. Transport facts aside, it ranks in the least pleasant places I’ve ever fallen asleep standing up. 

Despite the trauma of a quick blink turning into 15-minutes of vertical shut eye, a respite those who also share my penchant for cigarettes are likely to have noticed with amusement, there’s no denying the current predicament is more than worth it. The last few days have been spent marauding around an abandoned shipyard in the north of Holland’s capital, with nothing on the agenda apart from techno, house music, bass-inflected rhythms and getting involved with the famously decadent Dutch attitude towards partying. 

On paper, DGTL is just another city festival in a world overrun by city festivals. You know the kind. Queue to get in, queue to get a beer, queue for the toilet, struggle to see the good acts because someone decided to put DJ {Insert Name} on in a four man tent with a rig that emits noise levels equivalent to an iPhone 5. And when 11pm comes the music that was audible fades to nothing, leaving only the surface noise of excited kids on ketamine ranting about some set they probably didn’t see because they were too busy hunting for £3 balloons. 

Not that I’m skeptical. 

Reassuringly, though, the Netherlands versions always seem to prove this theory wrong. Two years ago the first edition of Dekmantel’s now annual triple-header festival went off in the kind of way that made me more than enthused to attend another bash in the same city. Approaching NDSM Docklands, the venue for DGTL 2015, and it immediately becomes clear the aforementioned bonanza was no anomaly. To evidence the point, let’s start with the basics. 

In terms of locations this one takes a lot to beat. You can opt for a 15-minute taxi ride from Amsterdam Central Station to get here, but a far more fun and ‘I’ve never done this before’ version of the trip can be found in one of the regular, free ferries that departs out the back of that ridiculously busy railway interchange. Over the water you can just about see the fringes of the world famous Canal Ring area, but for all intents and purposes once you arrive the place is all about industry, or the remnants of. 

I’m not sure when the final dock workers packed up and said goodbye, but given people are now allowed to use the place to experience some truly great names from the world of dance and electronic music, I’m glad they did. Albeit that point will only really ring true with assurance everyone went on to find fruitful jobs elsewhere- nobody wants to party on the graves of other people’s pay packets, irrespective of which way you’re going to vote next month. 

Enough digressions, and on to the specifics. Arriving at the gates mid-afternoon on Day One (AKA Saturday), and a few more plus points make themselves apparent from the off. Firstly, DGTL isn’t just a name, it’s a whole concept. Friendly entrance staff issue me with a smart wristband, which contains all essential information ranging from ‘privileges’ such entrance to the after parties, scheduled to take place on the same site, only within the not-so-intimate confines of the monolithic Scheepsbouwloods warehouse; to drink tokens, making this a very future-leaning ‘moneyless’ bash. 

On top of that, there are no bottlenecks. After experiencing the atrocious scenes at Bloc. 2012 in London first hand (although it has to be said the crew more than redeemed themselves this year in Minehead), the idea of heading down to a festival in an old industrial zone now purely ‘designed’ for large scale events is always a bit worrying. But whilst DGTL was a sell out weeks ago, crowd movement and access to every arena is easier than at many UK shindigs that fail to flog all their tickets. You have to wonder exactly what they’re all doing so wrong. 

Making a beeline for the Phono stage, it’s obvious there’s a good chance I won’t be going far. Locked Groove is rinsing out the kind of stomping, raw but intricately detailed tech house you want to hear in a shipping container on a weekend afternoon. Vocal loops sit atop rough cut grooves, threatening but never realising the potential to burst into full song. Which is a good thing, considering my aversion to overblown lyricism. 

The line up in here is definitely one for the photo album. An hour or so later and the legendary Steve Rachmad is doing what he does best. Perhaps a little heavy for daylight hours, thankfully you can’t see much of that in here, and so for all intents and purposes it could be 4AM. Knife-edge atmosphere would be one way to describe the vibe, and if you’re looking for track titles best keep moving. A funny predicament of the club critic is that realistically if a DJ is doing their job properly there should be very few tunes you recognise, and this is one such instance. 

I’ll save the step by step write up style for those who feel less inspired to do DGTL justice, though. Throughout the course of the day treats abound. Getting lost from my comrades and invited to play by a group of multinational hedonists led by the friendliest Dutch man imaginable being one- which is also indicative of the incredibly welcoming clientele that bought their way into this soiree. 

Another would be the heavy techno pounders rolled out by Boddika and then our final punt, Makam. Both were on fire, unleashing the kind of tracks that take no prisoners and would send fans of sexy grooves running for cover, air raid style. Think Tenshin by Impact Unit, Material Object and Luis Flores and you’re in the right ballpark. Along with broken drummy numbers that mess your dancing pattern up, force your eyes to rise from the floor and consider exactly what the hell is going on.  

Like betting on the G-Gs at the National, trying to decide which name to finish a day like this off with can be difficult, and a poor choice will only ever lead to the feeling of disappointment and wasted money. But get it right and there’s every chance you’ll be running round an arena shouting the words “Stag Do” at the top of your voice, before heading to the bar and ordering yourself six or seven glasses of JD and Coke, only to hand out 50% to anyone who’ll take one. 

Twelve hours or so later and we’re back in the same situation. Sort of. Last night’s after party saw an underwhelming Boris Brejcha and Art Department do just about enough to keep me inside the cavernous factory venue until god know’s when. A brief shut eye session followed and then it was clearly time to get back on it, as the phrase goes. If Saturday’s bill was impressive, then Sunday’s takes the proverbial biscuit, with two names in one back-to-back imprinted on the mind, stamped with the word ‘Priority’; Michael Mayer and Roman Flugel. 

That’s not until a little further down the line, though, affording ample opportunity to take in some of the sights and sounds that help set DGTL apart. There was the rolling, foot stomping and somewhat unifying house bangers of homegrown player Prunk, Rone’s inviting broken cosmic disco (if that’s even a thing), and the incredibly talented Recondite dishing out a mind-melting hardware set of space age dub techno- halfway between 2001 and that SCNTST album from earlier this year. But that’s besides the point, really. 

A fire-breathing machine dragon looks as though it just walked off the set of Escape From Game of Thrones. A huge pair of wings flap as they carry an almost-as-big eyeball. The Chaosgenerator- a perpetual pendulum piece of installation art powered by the wind- is constantly spinning. And the Hypercube, a box fitted with LED grids that nobody on acid should ever climb into for fear they will be forever trapped inside, takes us to the brink of sanity. Put simply, the festival is all about spectacle, and a distinctly dystopian aesthetic that’s both at odds with the party atmosphere, and in keeping with the darker side of the tunes and the location itself. The approach works. 

Enough said, onto that Michael Mayer and Roman Flugel set. Under-attended at first thanks to a Special Guest Appearance from the spring sunshine, nevertheless it went off massively, leaving just enough time for two more shots at the title. Another live set, this time from Ten Walls, was decent enough, but nobody seemed capable of matching my last port of call- Happa. The young British upstart stole hearts and ruined vertebrae in the Stereo bunker thanks to his rave-infused, breakneck-paced display of throwing the kitchen sink at attendees. If a kitchen sink means hulky, varied, but delightfully pounding upbeat and upfront techno, electro and dubstep. A job well done indeed. 

None of which quite explains exactly why I’ve just woken up in the airport smoking area, so let’s put it as succinctly as possible (no doubt if you’re still reading this the narrative is wearing a little thin). 

After that closing set, a quick trip back to our ‘camp site’- basically a collection of army barrack huts containing two bunk beds and a load of sweaty socks (our fault, not the festival’s)- resulted in the usual conversations with randoms, at which point we remembered that anyone with accommodation at the event also has access to the after party. Six hours later, or thereabouts, and we’re sweaty, exhausted and a little worse for wear after watching John Talabot and former Trouw resident Job Jobse take the well-attended nocturnal session to the cleaners, and we’re desperately trying to shove all that dirty laundry into our suitcase. 

It’s 6am, someone has already ordered a taxi, and in around 250 minutes we’ll be airborne, sans sleep. Now, where did we leave that passport? 

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt

Images via Tomdoms.