A self-contained playground of gaudy arcades and diminutive chalets withholding extroverted rave diehards (read: later casualties) and the more self-possessed of revellers, Bloc seems defined by the surreal disjunction between the cloistered shadows of its many stages and the inevitable jar of that environment with the mundane realities of an English seaside holiday camp. This year the sounds spilling out of the site were dominated by a resounding pump that gave the main pavilion the feel of a powerhouse, more than a place for the more humdrum indolence of 70s-synonymous family holidays.
In spite of that seeming friction, the history – of bygone soul weekenders, and rave marathons – has made this kind of thing a pastime just as British as any more traditional excursion of leisure. On the basis of this year’s Bloc, the tradition’s being worthily upheld.
It’s hard to get away from the impressions of this year’s backdrop; a peculiar contrast of overcast skies and the cheap & cheerful, budget brass dotted around Butlin’s grounds, a home that the festival have returned to after recent years of controversial shutdowns, fallouts and fortunately avoided bankruptcy. But somehow the festivals friction between the grey and mundane and the synthetic and tawdry still bears a definite charm, and despite the knowledge of those recent mishaps, there was little if any bad taste in the air, save perhaps a more understandably wary if at times worryingly strict security.
Conversely devoid of any semblance of wariness was one of the first acts to grace the opening night’s bill, Donato Dozzy, who ran amok to a dizzying array of flashing lights, blistering through a cohesive run of techno, acid and electro. There was a more stentorian force to his set than the liquid depths of his solo project and his work as one half of Voices From The Lake. But the steeliness was convincing, his capacity for shifting and maintaining the intensely constant and linear encapsulated by one isolated moment in which a consistent, hammering techno thump was bridged with a chattering electro-funk heavy on the handclaps. The quality of his set was further highlighted when Livity Sound came to the stage in less urgent form. Not that their more bass-centric incisions were lacking, simply outshone. One of the more surprisingly memorable and triumphant sets of the opening night then came later with Akkord, their hard-hitting bass-nosedives, staunch minimalism and strung-out vapours of dark ambience making their set another early highlight of the weekend.
ESG, on the other hand, seemed isolated in comparison with the preference for techno that transpired. Unfortunately their Latin-inflected rhythms and carnival-esque glee felt slightly diminished on the Centre Stage, even with an infectious, stripped back emphasis of organic bass groove and mirthful vocals – worthy of many instances of call-and-response. It all dissipated too quickly in a space that felt too inappropriately vast for their particular trademarks. Nevertheless witnessing many of their cult leftfield favourites and the amount of careless, beaming abandon they still play them with served as an appealing, short-lived alternative to the preferences of performance exhibited over the rest of the weekend; the familiar head-down, cloaked, anonymous approach of those immersed completely in function.
That was something unerringly adhered to in the case of Moritz Von Oswald who resembled more of a lab technician than a performer, sat fixed and taciturn behind an eclipsing glut of wires and hardware. But that reserved approach mattered little. Although such unflinching austerity extended to the music, its impact compensated for a lack of showmanship, with an appealingly mercurial nature ensured by subtle shifts that slowly unravelled amidst dub-concreted, moderately paced, and tactile techno. Intriguingly set amongst this was a sense of unpredictability and divergence provided by improvisatory traces of jazz which left flurrying bursts of colour on the uniformly hued blocks of sound created. The fact that those heightening dashes were provided by Tony Allen only made the measured draw of the music more of an illustrious event; the famed former cohort of Fela Kuti riffing masterfully over the surrounding mechanics with such casual supremacy that his questionable attire - glaring white waistcoat and incongruous shirt – almost became an unlikely badge of cool to aspire to.
Sartorial flair aside, the trio’s set was a level-headed ascent, one that was in another dimension entirely to the shimmering, B-Boy, 808-prominent floorfilling of The Egyptian Lover, who testified as to why his resurgence has proven so popular. Stiff robotic proto-hip hop and astral, zapping electro adrenalized the crowd into a clamour, half consisting of abashed grins and half of determined, throwback shape-throwing. So well received was he that even the usually questionable, puerile machismo of announcing an intent to ‘fuck English pussy’ was met with a chorus of half-ironic but appreciative rap-battle jeers.
Then came the undoubted standout of the weekend, one that surprisingly, wasn’t defined by a charging, industrial pound as might be expected, but an hour of alienating, stroboscopic theatre provided by Dean Blunt. A sample lifted from previous release ‘Skin Fade’ – ‘The white man, I say to you over and over again’ – seemed to last for an eternity to the chagrin and perplexed reaction of many of the assembled crowd less familiar with the contrarian, elusive antics Blunt often favours (or is overly associated with favouring) And these tactics were favoured for much of the remaining duration as the stage remained enshrouded, only occasionally lifted out of obscurity by what looked like red mist born out of the convergence of liberal billows of smoke and dim red lights. The show itself seemed split into many modes, with Blunt flitting through rueful but ambiguously toned confessionals as much as socket-ruining power-outages of noise. Beautiful and ugly, graceful and at times difficult to bear but all of it transfixing. His figure often only emerged as an outline, one of many dramatic conceits. Though within these distancing tactics there were genuine causes for more conventional expressions of crowd assent. ‘MERSH’ and ‘PUNK’ rippled riotously out of the speakers, causing stirs of appreciation; in the live environment delivered with a more intensely acerbic and defiant tone. The climactic talking point came with an endgame of strobes which flared into a progressively relentless, blinding flash, to the point where it was almost seizure-inducing. For those in a more delicate and ‘altered’ state, it proved too much. For those that hung on however there came a final crowning moment, with frequent collaborator Joanne Robertson coming onstage for ‘GRADE’; a finale of sax-blares and huge, sweeping drones as goosebump-stirring as Bernard Herrman’s Taxi Driver theme; removed of noodling, adapted with Blunt’s spoken-sung sonority but similar in its sense of panoramic melodrama.
A similar sense of wilful disregard for accommodating ‘crowd-pleasing’ marked Autechre’s set, as they remained removed in pitch-black impersonality for much of their performance. The sounds emitted from them seemed to parallel that sense of disorder and misdirection. Torn vestiges of rave and glitch-ruined collapses of beat seemed to fall out of the speakers as if the duo were disassembling the familiar with nothing but pliers and brutality in mind. Testament to its power became clear when reacquainting yourself to the rigorously systematic structures of Jeff Mills afterwards proved a strangely difficult feat, like a rave version of ‘the bends’.
This generally shared recalcitrance made Blunt and Autechre the more long-lasting peaks of the weekend; the harder won rewards of committing to something not easily understood as opposed to a more straight forward and obtainable dancefloor gratification.
That said, those who did provide the latter didn’t disappoint. DJ Funk’s rapid flit through Ghetto House standards and prurient booty bass felt almost punkish in its mindless but maniacal addictiveness. Levon Vincent and Ron Morelli also lived up to the recent praise heaped on them. As too did Ben Sims & DVS1 who seemed not so much focused on seamlessness and coherency as fatally locked in rough but fluid battery.
Reverting back to the inclination for something more forbidding, Samuel Kerridge offered a writhing, scalding fix of scrap-metal discord and ominous, droning ruin in the small hours of the second night. But despite his efforts the usual power of his recordings felt muted, quite literally. For whatever reason, the volume seemed unusually faint. Yet even with that depleted power, the set offered a tantalising glimpse of potentiality. When all the variables are in order its undoubtedly going to prove an overwhelming, forceful live sound. One of the final performances, Kerridge, despite the setback, ably rounded out a night of diverse kicks and inspiringly deviant stunts.
This left the last day. But unfortunately at this point yours truly has to fess up to being too done in to truly appreciate any more the weekend had to offer; its final farewell omitted. Put it down to too much of a good thing. Even so the basis for a verdict had already been set and was further cemented by walking through the humble surroundings of the site in the aftermath of the penultimate night, where amidst witnessing a fair measure of absurd delirium (security attempting to coax a woman down who had somehow scaled a tree) and some more restrained contentment (the enervated, slack-eyed, homebound amble of many others) I realised the glaringly obvious; it’s great to have Bloc back.