Billy Butlin's Bangers: Bloc Weekender Reviewed
, March 22nd, 2011 11:41
Angus Finlayson reckons that the Bloc Weekender has one of the best line-ups going, but unfortunately the soundsystems at Butlin's Holiday Park let the whole thing down
I don’t believe in hangovers or comedowns. Not in the way that one doesn’t believe in Father Christmas (sorry kids). More in the way that one may not believe in David Cameron’s vision for the healthcare system, or in the jovially worded, factually questionable letters which British Gas keep putting through our door. I don’t trust them, and a basic, unshakeable antipathy will overshadow my approach to them. I’m not sure when this happened - perhaps around the time a year or so ago when I had one (very) heavy weekend too many while unwittingly suffering from glandular fever. But that’s the way it is now; any evening of excess will be accompanied by a constant internal struggle, as the left brain begins to furiously calculate tomorrow morning’s retributions while the right brain tries to suppress it.
Given that Bloc quite simply the best lineup of its kind to grace our shores since, oh, about this time last year, I was optimistic that I’d be able to overcome my malady. Now into its fifth year, the festival’s tried and tested formula of taking over a Butlins resort for a weekend certainly has its perks: beds, showers and a beach being among them. Its appeal to both hardened ravers and louche clubbing types - largely through outsourcing each stage to established promoters, allowing a range of scenes and sounds to be represented across the weekend - has set it apart from other UK festivals of its type. The breadth and quality of its lineups makes it pretty much the best barometer of what’s been getting feet moving in the past twelve months. I certainly had high expectations.
So, to the event itself. After a gruelling five hour coach journey and a fortifying cocktail of beer, balloons and Burger King, most of Friday was spent skulking around the Subloaded stage. The spread laid on by Bristol’s premier dubstep promoters seemed like the perfect way to ease into the weekend, and - excepting the odd slackjawed sexual predator on the dancefloor - it was. Mala was in victory lap mode, rolling out classic DMZ records with his partner in crime Coki appearing every now and then to rewind them. Loefah turned in his usual 808-led fare and Untold pushed the envelope in all sorts of odd directions.
I was struggling to really engage with it all though, and before I explain why I should perhaps provide you with a disclaimer. I am, and will always be, what you might term an Audiophile. I’m one of those people who goes to the bar at the point when the DJ plays an mp3. Many a night has been ruined for me by overbearing hi-end, indistinct mids or insufficient sub bass. You may consider this needlessly anal, but for me, shitty sound is alienating to the feet and cruel to the ears; and it can’t be denied that crowds respond negatively to it, whether consciously or otherwise. So, while seeing Mala play the dubstep anthems of yesteryear is always a pleasure on some level, in this case it was marred by woefully inadequate sound. As, indeed, was every set, across all of the stages, all weekend. Granted, turning an aging Butlins resort into a sonic mecca is undoubtedly a difficult task, but - and not to introduce an element of competition here - the Bang Face Weekender has managed it at the similarly decrepit Pontins in Camber Sands for three years now; and given the scope of Bloc, its world-beating line ups and its enviable reputation, at least one decent rig isn’t too much to ask, is it?
As much as I tried not to let these shortfalls ruin my evening, my inner naysayer continued to surface with every fresh disappointment. Who wants to hear Ramadanman play without being suffocated by the bass? How can anybody really enjoy Ben Klock when his Germanic legions of kick drums are almost insultingly quiet and wet-sounding? Even the bass-heavy house of Claude Von Stroke, his hirsute form presiding over the closing slot in the main room, definitely lacked heft. The evening’s sole redeeming moment was Shackleton’s performance, the smartly turned-out Northerner having presumably cranked the volume while the sound engineer had his back turned. His bespoke live set was every bit as dark, rich and uncompromising as you’d expect; and all the better for it. My night ended with the after-hours crew at the Plex stage, being subjected to a barrage of misanthropic techno by men in their mid 30s bearing the kind of impassive expressions I would usually expect from Patrick Stewart’s android sidekick in Star Trek: Next Generation. Needless to say I was soon rapidly closing the distance between me and my sleeping bag.
Come Saturday afternoon, I was on a mission to find something to break through the watery-eyed haze. Black Devil Disco Club proved a little too cosmic for the job, but L-Vis 1990’s compact, percussive bass music was an unexpected treat. Following that, Addison Groove’s live show was a pleasure to behold, all twitching 808 patterns and scatterbrained juke-style vocal edits bolted on to cavernous bass. Calculated deployment of a ‘Footcrab’ VIP (the second by my count) sent the crowd flying for the rafters - no mean feat in a pre-dinner slot.
By the evening things had taken a slightly darker turn. There was banging and shouting a couple of doors down from our chalet owing to a man’s frustrated efforts to buy drugs. Enormous queues for the likes of Four Tet and Aphex Twin began to test people’s patience (I didn’t bother with either), and getting served at any of the bars became an exercise in steely determination. Myself and my cohorts spent most of the evening dosing ourselves up on feel-good house music in one of the smaller rooms curated by Resident Advisor, with Space Dimension Controller, Floating Points, and the sterile but gratifyingly camp tech house of Soul Clap doing the job nicely. In retrospect I wish I’d made the trek across the site to catch DJ Funk’s booty stylings and the hyperactive jungle onslaught of Venetian Snares, but if there’s one thing a festival like this teaches you, it’s the inevitability of those surges of regret which will wash over you in the ensuing days. After all, how can you possibly see everything you want to see when it’s going on in four rooms simultaneously?
Which brings me neatly to one issue with the enormously wide remit which Bloc’s organisers have given themselves. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that part of UK electronic music’s strength (and perhaps all dance music the world over) is its tight-knit communities, and the ferociously high levels of focus and energy which form the nucleus of any given scene; look to dubstep (as always) for a recent example. The sense that everyone at the dance forms a kind of extended family, and that everybody’s there for the same reason, is intoxicating and addictive. This feeling of commonality was lacking at Bloc. It would be a kindness to even describe the crowd as tribal in its divisions; it would be more apt to see it as a confused mulch of festival-goers. I’m not trying to be a snob here - it’s not about demonstrating your musical credentials upon entry - but I encountered enough displays of negativity and indifference over the weekend to keep me - prone to dancefloor paranoia at the best of times - well and truly in my shell for the duration. Perhaps it was this negativity which led me to slope off back to the chalet early that night, where I had fallen into a blissful slumber by 3am (some of you may call snoozing through peak time on the peak night of the festival ‘bad journalistic practice’.. I call it ‘sensible and good for the skin’.)
Much of Sunday was spent drinking cups of tea and chasing down an interview, but there was still time for a highlight; namely Detroit wunderkind Kyle Hall. Not only was his brand of rugged, bumpy house the perfect anathema to Sunday blues, but the sheer recklessness of his mixing would bring a smile to the lips of even the most needlepoint-pupilled rave casualty. Things went downhill from there, with the at best mildly diverting ragga jungle veteran Top Cat extolling the virtues of sensimillia in one room, and Laurent Garnier delivering two hours of tepid main-room house in the other. Before long thoughts turned to Monday and the preternaturally long coach journey ahead.
I’ve struggled to reach a conclusion about the merits of Bloc. As you’ve probably ascertained by now, it wasn’t a great festival experience by any measure. But nor was it awful - with such a stellar lineup, it would be almost impossible to produce a flop. There was just something not quite right about the whole affair; the listlessness of the crowd, the lackluster sound, the at times odd programming. The festival’s promoters were clearly keen to pack the site out with as many revellers and stages as possible, but the result was often bottlenecks for the headliners and weirdly dispersed crowds elsewhere. And they are shrewd to outsource their curation to established promoters each year, granting them a few hours of stage time to present ‘their sound’. But the whole festival experience loses something as a result, and it calls to mind that awful term, so often preceded by the word ‘industry’: a showcase.