Review: Bloc 2016 – Weekenders & Madness Like This Matter.
Raves often culminate in a melancholic aftermath, the inevitable end-of-night ennui that follows an intense, immersive experience in a club. With Bloc’s co-founder Alex Benson announcing that this year’s festival would be the last there’s been a heightened aura of sentiment surrounding the anticipation of this year’s event, the tenth and final edition since it began in 2006. In that time the festival has changed sites from Pontins to Butlins, heralding a resounding yearly invasion of the usually docile, terminal confines of English holiday camps.
Last year saw the festival return in triumphant form to its favoured Butlins resort in Minehead after a fallow year and in the wake of 2012’s crowd safety problems; an issue that eventually led to an unfortunate cancellation. Thankfully Bloc avoided being fatally embroiled in the controversial conception – and eventual demise – of the London Pleasure Gardens, and like last year 2016 represented great reward for those who’ve kept the faith. Such controversy now feels like a distant memory.
Despite inauspicious signs in the run-up – with talk of heavily discounted tickets and liberal competition giveaways – the festival was well attended and relatively hindrance-free. Rrose – the Marcel Duchamp inspired nom du plume of an enigmatic Sandwell District alumnus – exemplified the weekend’s easeful operation with a memorable early evening first night set, scrupulously building from a blanket wash of glacial drones to a steely, insistent uproar of heavy but detail-rich techno. It instigated the first of many heaving dancefloor reactions. Both Dasha Rush and James Ruskin took up where Rrose left off, yet Ruskin proved a more vital fixture, hammering home a set which stormed through a similarly forbidding, monolithic strain of techno, a style Ruskin has honed in his own productions and over the course of twenty years at the helm of Blueprint Records. Although there was a persistent industrial unit chug spilling from the speakers, the atmosphere was one of brutal hedonism, and amidst the ferocity there was a surprising and adeptly executed detour into strident, climactic diva disco, before the heaviness was reassumed.
Nestled between these sets was a centre stage appearance from Floating Points in live band mode, accompanied by visuals which echoed the work of Pablo Barquin and Junior Martínez and their use of light painting on the ‘Silhouettes’ video. A revolving starlit cycle which paralleled the cosmic proportions of Sam Shepherd’s set, it provided a mesmeric spectacle. Yet for all the special quality of the visual element, and the widescreen grandeur produced by Shepherd and co, there was a bloated, indulgent ostentation to what transpired, a contrived grandiloquence that felt predictable once it’s elements were established (chords, modulation, jazzy improvisation) It felt too large scale to connect with, dangerously close to the stuff of sync deals and an ‘epic’ climax in a formulaic nature documentary. In other words, boring.
Fortunately, Ugandan Methods – the collaborative duo of Karl O’Connor (aka Regis) and Michael Wollenhaupt (aka Ancient Methods) – were an inverse contrast to a set which seemed ambitious but far too lofty and formal. A seething, blasted techno rage that often spilled into heavily distorted, all out noise, it’s devastation was perfectly suited to the final hours of the first night. It didn’t seem like anything could follow in its wake.
For those who could contend with an early start on Saturday, there were afternoon sets at the resort’s water park and industry talks at the cinema. The latter was an interesting expansion of the festival’s remit, especially in light of the projected plans for a conference in the near future, compered by Bloc and The London Electronic Music Event. Here they co-ran discussions on the art of DJ-ing, gender and explored the careers of a select crop of artists. One of the more interesting slots on this bill was an under-attended but appealingly offhand profile of Powell who spoke with a casual and self-deprecatory air on the patronage of Karl O’Connor, ill-advisedly banging out a record with a ‘Sieg Heil’ sample in the Berghain, and the clique, blinkered state of London clubbing as reflected in the unambitious nature of current club line-ups. There were a few contradictory points raised, with Powell describing the Diagonal Records roster as one built on personal relationships whilst he affirmed the importance of always encouraging a new guard of young artists. Although the notion of reconciling creative friendships with bringing outsiders into the fold remained an unsolved issue, there was no righteous declarations of holding all the answers and conducting a ‘lecture’, which made for a refreshing listen. He also touched on a wide glut of formative influences, from memories of horrendous drum and bass to the enduring impact hearing Suicide has had on his own work. He made a later appearance on the same stage as Rrose, James Ruskin, Dasha Rush and Ugandan Methods, continuing to assert this year’s Bloc as a festival dominated by those who operate at the heavier end of the spectrum. Yet instead of the monochrome bluster of the previous night, there was a kinky, sleazy, turbo-charged feel to his set, one constituted by urgency, amusement and abrupt transitions. A major highlight came in the form of an airing of his recent collaboration with Posh Isolation affiliate Loke Rahbek, a mordant vocal and noise cut-up of manic dejection and lurching percussive punch.
Prior to Powell’s livelier excesses came more centre stage attraction, initially from Holly Herndon, who along with sound artist and technologist Mat Dryhurst and performance artist Colin Self, created a more immediate and compelling experience in the live setting than in her production work. Dryhurst – the innovator of Saga, a platform which allows artists to comprehensively customise and manipulate the web pages where their work is shared – manned a laptop and donned a webcam on his head, proceeding to mingle shots of his own inexpressive face with typed messages which conveyed sentiments of technological empowerment. Purposefully naff desktop detritus floated around the screen like a corrupted screensaver from Windows 98, whilst a majestic choral computer music fell into place, often edging into danceable moments which spoke of a fragmentary but ethereal hybrid of acid and techno. Self contributed to the cause notably, at one point rearing into a hyperactive angular vogue frenzy, a blue torch inexplicably placed in his mouth and fierce movements combining like a lip sync battle from Ru Paul’s Drag Race conducted by Robocop. Overall their set stood as a marvel and a clear highlight from the night and the festival as a whole.
More intrigue then followed in the form of Thom Yorke’s set under the guise of his Tomorrow's Modern Boxes project, a work which has been somewhat eclipsed in the past by Yorke’s decision to self-release it via the BitTorrent platform and subsequently through Bandcamp. Aside from a distribution model experiment, and a relatively lukewarm reception upon release, the live translation on this occasion felt like a victory. With Nigel Godrich in tow, Yorke cleaved closely to his previous solo work on ‘The Eraser’ and in Atoms For Peace whilst indicating subtle nods to the influence that collaborating with Four Tet and Burial has had on the shape of this particular record and how it’s currently realised in the live sphere. Aching, emotive but richly textured and driven by dance music rudiments, Yorke mixed breakbeat sonatas with low end intensity, a combination that proved as altogether characterised by head-down transfixion as it was by moments of respite and serene melancholia. Though at times the volume felt slightly muted.
Interesting divergences then came with Laurel Halo and her incremental sub-bass accumulations of minimalist power, a set which was situated nearer to her Honest Jons outing ‘In Situ’ and her techno-inspired ‘Chance of Rain’ full length rather than the exultant, vocally idiosyncratic and career best peak of ‘Quarantine’. Whilst a later set from Second Storey & Appleblim displayed a canny execution of drum machine flourish and bass bin punishment. The regular tradition of an early hours extended Bodyhammer set then continued, with hulking techno trading space with flamboyantly camp vocal Chicago trax that kept a packed floor moving, the stamina and cloistered heat of bodies defying the dreaded sunlight spilling into the forecourts outside.
Residual traces of the past two days and nights activities were more than discernible on the final Sunday stretch. The air by this time, especially within the close expanse of the Fact stage was odourised by thick mists of man musk and putridly pungent feet pong, the only downside to losing your shit in dilapidated, windowless, heavily carpeted Butlins bars for the duration of a weekend. But even then, it all feels part of the squalid charm. Marcus Intelax, as the first to appear on the night’s Metal Headz showcase helped to expel at least some of those unsavoury traces with cold atmospherics and a culmination of D&B heft that felt like the late night frequencies of pirate radio had been briefly channelled, transported to an unlikely but grateful environment.
In a fresher locale Debonair streamed through house, disco, instrumental drum bridges, and Creta Kano’s ‘Skyway Motel’, amongst other choice finds and well-loved classics, displaying a prowess that suggests she should be further up the bill in future line ups. Although it didn’t have the emphatic significance of a more major headline set, as far as low key but gradually revivifying late afternoon sets, it convinced, drawing more and more of the crowd in and away from resting in the last of the day’s sun and into the slightly pokey, under- facilitated but appealingly intimate confines of the Pub stage. It was one of the more understatedly euphoric moments in a weekend full of more savage and unforgiving hits of rapture.
That kind of buzz was left to Omar S and the decisive centre stage finale of a three hour set, another of the Detroit contingent who trailed the likes of Carl Craig and Jeff Mills on previous nights. Although it was said to have blissed out many, there was just as much closing fun to be had during Altern-8’s appearance. Sporting their iconic boiler suits and facemasks, they fluidly ran through an exemplary set of 90s rave classics, a lack of restraint and a blunt, no nonsense air of unpretentious old school boisterousness serving as a wry antidote to the now dominant, de rigueur form of serious pitch black techno that through overkill and immoderate sincerity can get tedious like anything else. Pure, ludicrous, stupid fun.
Besides the headliners, surprise diversions, daytime talks, and waterworld antics, there was a very special atmosphere characterising the site this year, with very little hesitancy and inhibition standing in the way of chance conversations and rave camaraderie, an atmosphere that felt more substantial and long lasting than the temporary solidarity of a one night excursion. It felt especially poignant when the first few headlines I read on my return concerned overdue legislation which aims to protect the night time industry in London. As touched on by Powell, it’s a scene which is already beleaguered by inflated prices and devitalizing conservatism. Bloc felt like an alternative source of hope in this context.
As for post-rave ennui, there was more than enough commiseration in recalling the many flashpoints and highlights from a relentless weekend, and if there’s one afterthought to take from the experience, it’s that someone needs to pick up the mantle and carry on the legacy. Weekenders like this, and all the madness they contain, matter.