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Three Songs No Flash

ABlocalypse Now: Bloc 2016 Reviewed
Christian Eede , March 18th, 2016 16:52

With Bloc retiring from hosting annual weekenders at Butlins, Christian Eede visits the last ever edition for a weekend packed with one-of-a-kind experiences. It's just a shame that co-founder George Hull doesn't seem to feel the same way. All photos courtesy of Jake Davis

Arriving at Bloc on Thursday evening following an eight-hour coach journey from London (refund?) was something of a bittersweet moment. Sweet having finally arrived at my adopted home for the weekend, ready to experience all that Bloc had to offer for the first time; bitter that all the fun that lay ahead - a kind of fun so unique to Bloc and its setting of a Butlins holiday park - would be my only time to soak in the experience. Last month the Bloc team announced that this year’s event would be the last and that they would instead be putting all future efforts into their record label and Hackney Wick club venue.

The first event, after all, back in 2007, took place when I was just 12, yet to be sullied by the kind of antics and activities that could be found at every turn of the Minehead site from morning through to night. Across the weekend, pool parties soundtracked by the likes of Egyptian Lover and Space Dimension Controller kept revellers busy through the afternoon with sets from Holly Herndon, Shanti Celeste, Floating Points and more taking the evening into night and into the darker recesses of what Bloc’s programming had to offer. No other festival will allow you to watch Sunil Sharpe be beaten in the final of a Sunday afternoon pool tournament by Steve Davis having seen the likes of Powell, Ansome, Billy Nasty and many more crash out in earlier rounds. It is as bonkers as its setting, a year-round family holiday park given over for one weekend of the year to thousands of wide-eyed techno fans - one does wonder what the Butlins staff are thinking over the course of the weekend.

Friday, the first full day on site, allows for some time to check out what Bloc’s surroundings have to offer: go-karting, Laser Quest, pool parties soundtracked by Afrobeat and UK garage as you crash back into the pool through the Space Bowl of the water park. Sure, it’s not radically reinventing the festival system or offering anything particularly highbrow but it doesn’t claim to do so and doesn’t have to do so. Tamar Sumo plays back-to-back with Lakuti early on Friday night and one small snag of reasonably weak sound systems does make itself apparent and unfortunately not for the only time over the course of the weekend, not wholly ruining matters though as they work through a set of off-kilter house and techno, the pair exploring the deeper and darker side of their record collections.

Elsewhere, soon after, Pev & Kowton begin a two-hour set characterised by the distinctively bass-driven sound of the label through which both release the majority of their material, Livity Sound, taking in past releases on the label as well as affiliates such as Batu, Hodge, Beneath and Simo Cell and a smattering of old favourites such as Green Velvet’s ‘Flash’. It all comes to a head in a dizzying 20 minutes or so exploring bassline classics from Dexplicit and UK funky bangers from Lil Silva, Spooky and Crazy Cousinz’ unrivalled ‘Do You Mind?’ Bloc isn’t just a place to experience pounding techno after all.

Midland pushes deeper into the early hours playing an expertly paced set, leaning away for the majority of his 90 minutes from the disco that he can sometimes be heard playing in favour of punchy, tech-y rollers from labels such as Don’t Be Afraid and Nsyde. There's an outing too for the glossy, cosmic synth thrill of his own forthcoming material such as ‘Blush’. It’s an early highlight that others are hard pressed to top over the rest of the weekend. Following that, Ben UFO, Ben Klock and Andrew Weatherall back-to-back Optimo play across the site, with South London’s Gateway To Zen crew taking proceedings through until 10am showcasing the regular techno night they have been hosting in London since late 2014.

The unexplained decision to move Helena Hauff’s midnight set forward to 8pm on Saturday night leaves a number of us scratching our heads and scrambling together to catch her laying down yet another on-form meshing of electro, EBM and techno. Any concerns that she may rein in her usual brand of selections at such an early hour are put to rest as recent set favourites such as Cute Heels’ ‘Silence Complot’ and Privacy’s breakbeat-indebted, Lobster Theremin-released stormer ‘Apex Predator’ come in the later moments of her 90 minutes, alongside music from DMX Krew and The Hacker among others.The Leisure System stage is packed full from the front to back of her set with attendees eager to catch one of the most on-point, enthralling DJs currently operating in action, providing small mercy that the last-minute set change doesn’t put a dampener on one of the best bookings made by Bloc this year.

A little later on in the same setting, Objekt traverses similar territory, opening on a power hour of house and slinky techno that includes new music from producers such as A Made Up Sound and Minor Science. Pushing beyond 130 BPM in his second hour and into electro, the DJ demonstrates his choppy style with aplomb giving those in the room a few minutes for air with an ambient closer of Pearson Sound’s ‘Raindrops’. Elsewhere, Slackk, Logos and other Boxed affiliates bound through grime classics across the same night at their stage providing ample opportunity to flaunt the sound that can be heard at their regular UK nights; at one point Steve Davis can be spotted down the front enjoying a little of the action.

The disappointment of Steffi’s cancellation due to illness sees me round up the penultimate night at Centre Stage with headliner Jeff Mills – unfortunately missing out on a secret set from Move D elsewhere, apparently made up of records all bought on site at Bloc. Once again, Mills is steely and focused, flitting between selections unrecognisable to my ears and improvised 808 patterns that command the room’s movements. While Jeff Mills is as sure to make an appearance on the line-up of any techno festival as pingers are to make a (hidden) appearance in the attendees’ luggage, he is a trustworthy headliner as attested by the rapturous response that ‘The Bells’ receives in the latter moments of his two-hour set.

Less obvious though is the schedule back at the Centre Stage on Sunday night, the final night of the last ever Bloc weekend with Shanti Celeste giving way to a three-hour set from Omar-S. The inclusion early that night of The Verve’s ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ in the on-site Pizza Hut playlist hints rather dryly that somebody involved certainly has a sense of humour. Omar-S pushes for pounding techno at the start, an early highlight in his set coming from Orlando Voorn’s KMS classic, ‘Flash’, released under his Fix guise. Making full use of the three hours allotted to him, the DJ continues to change the pace throughout. Representing all the corners of his sets, he works in lighter house, techno classics such as Plastikman’s ‘Spastik’, a number of his own productions (most notably ’S.E.X.’ and ‘Here’s Your Trance, Now Dance!!’), acid from Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and even Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’. With Jeff Mills and Ben Klock sitting elsewhere on the line-up, the decision to draw a curtain on Bloc’s history as a holiday park weekender in this way is relatively bold. It certainly pays off though as the thousands head back to their respective chalets sometime after midnight to continue their sessions into the dying hours of the weekend.

At this point, it seems that Bloc 2016 was a resounding success then, a near flawless swan song to its tumultuous first decade of operations. Just four days after revellers return to their homes and day jobs however, co-founder George Hull, via the mouth breathing Tory vehicle of the Spectator, treats us to a little insight on just how wrong today’s rave culture has apparently become in a spectacular own goal; an 800-word ‘Old Man Yells At Cloud’ diatribe, if you will. No, the Bloc weekend isn’t coming to an end because organisers struggled to sell chalets to punters this year, it’s the “kids” of today that are the problem.

Seemingly hitting out amongst the throes of a crushing comedown, and taking in all the ropey, tired tropes of the Golden Ager raver that young people today are just “dull hipsters”, Hull takes aim at vegans, the DJs whom he booked to play his festival and, most viciously, safe space policies, all while delivering loving references to such ‘luminaries’ as Thatcher and political blogger Guido Fawkes. The talent booked to play his festival, he seems to suggest, is “a monstrous cabal of overpaid circuit DJs”. Over the course of the weekend, it was sometimes hard to see where any care had been taken in curating respective stage line-ups and schedules, with a number of the world’s best DJs left to pack everything they could into meagre 90-minute slots. Helena Hauff, as previously mentioned, was given a crushingly early set time.

Most worrying is Hull’s decision to lay into safe space policies describing them as “the opposite of fun,” a matter that is unsurprisingly not at the top of the list of concerns for a middle-aged, white, male, Tory-evoking chancer who apparently couldn’t care less about his customers as long as they are lining his pockets. This is the man who partly owns a venue in Hackney Wick that regularly hosts and profits from the Chapter 10 party series, billed as a “gay dance party”. Incidentally, Chapter 10 were one of the promoters to also put their name to a stage at the weekender itself.

Of course, to an opportunist like Hull, a safe space policy is a mere distraction to furthering his profits - after all, as he puts it, the rave is supposed to “feel like a distinctly unsafe space” with “no rules” - but these policies exist, in the simplest terms, in order to ensure that all people feel safe and able to report harassment in venues regardless of their personal circumstances. Collectives such as London’s excellent, recently launched Siren are making concerted efforts in order to ensure that people feel safe and welcome at their parties stating, in no uncertain terms, that “we do not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind on our dancefloors or online spaces.” In a post just days before Bloc kicked off, Midland, who played at the festival, tweeted also that “always feeling safe dancing / in clubs is not a luxury all people are lucky enough to have,” words that unfortunately haven’t reached Hull. Going one step further, he too pointed out today that “the music scenes that gave birth to rave music i.e Disco/Chicago house all were about safe spaces for minorities.”

What’s more, a number of stories have emerged both this year and in past years of unnecessarily militant security staff ensuring that rules were never too far from people’s minds, so not quite the no-holds-barred experience that Hull's piece describes. If he is so desperate to summon the apparent hedonism of illegal ‘90s raves, perhaps he could go back to organising such events rather than taking £200 from partygoers for the Bloc experience - it could somewhat minimise the danger of those attending his events paying hundreds for something that fails to materialise as was the case with Bloc’s ill-fated 2012 event at London Pleasure Gardens. I suppose we should be somewhat thankful though that Hull decided to kill off the Bloc brand this time in this way rather than repeating the aforementioned disaster.

At the heart of it, Hull demonstrates a contempt for those who’ve paid to be part of the experience that he organised - a kind of contempt that I hope people won’t forget in a hurry. “Under the hipsters’ watch, dance music has become tedious and diluted,” he says. At the time of writing, Bloc’s Autumn Street venue is gearing up to host a party organised by all-male purveyors of YouTube videos soundtracked by bland house and illustrated by images of women in underwear, Eton Messy. It’s now more apparent than ever that what made Bloc itself such a fine overall experience wasn’t those behind the scenes but instead the thousands of people that I spent the weekend partying with - the people apparently not good enough for old George.

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