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Things Learned At: Forte Festival
Mat Colegate , September 10th, 2015 09:49

Spurred by curiosity, Mat Colegate travels 1276 miles to find out whether or not he likes techno. Photo by Damien Quinchard

"You don't like techno."

"We'll find out, I guess."

Because it's true, I'm not sure that I do. Soon after arriving at my hotel I'm hanging out with a group of festival organisers and fellow journalists. One of them tells me that recently he saw someone begging – literally begging - for entrance to Berghain after queuing for five hours. "Isn't that what killed disco?", I ask, to no one in particular.

I love electronic music, and repetition as a principle of composition, and noise, and dancing, and me and techno have drifted alongside each other during late night car journeys and surprise festival appearances for years now. But I own Johnny Cash records and Mike Nesmith records and Dolly Parton records and do I like country? Nah. So let's find out. I've got three days and three nights at Forte festival. I've got Ben Klock and Ellen Allien and Function and Regis and Planetary Assault Systems and Gaiser and – hey! - Front 242, and if I don't like techno then I'm going to be very reliant on the good company of journalists and the warmth of the hotel pool.

Of course, the fact the festival takes place in a goddamn medieval fortress is an advantage. Montemor-O-Velho castle (or 'Das Techno Schloss' as it quickly get re-named) looms over the Coimbra district of Portugal like a stoneclad Jabba the Hut. It is within the walls that all the music will be taking place. This is great because it means that when you get bored you can simply scan your surroundings and go "Oh yeah, I'm in a fucking castle". This is something I have to do a few times on the opening night of the festival when nothing seems to click. A steady succession of acts, a steady succession of thudding kick drums, a steady diet of nothing. It isn't happening, for whatever reason. Ah, nuts...

But then...

Extremity saves the day

Luke Slater, under his Planetary Assault Systems guise, lives up to his chosen name ("These are planets, we like to assault them, we have... a system") by vomming out some of the most vicious crunch of the whole weekend. Sure, the man is a veteran and knows what he's doing, but his display of ruthless efficiency on  the Saturday night is still surprising. The sound seems to swarm and organise itself into an ever-shifting series of breeze blocks, which Slater hurls down into the crowd like that aggro gorilla in Donkey Kong. It's fabulously and opulently aggressive, like being beaten around the face and head with a bejewelled tortoise, and represents a level of argy that I can get with easily. It rocks, basically. Basically, it rocks.

Vatican Shadow is a cake

He is! But after hours of witnessing static head-tilt after static head-tilt I'm in the mood for someone to get the whip out, which Dominick Fernow does with absolutely zero reservations. Here he comes! Beating his chest, punching himself in the head, thrusting his arms in the air and bellowing like a drunk locked out of his own house ("I wish I knew what he was shouting," says one of my friends. "I think it's his own name..." says another). Faced with a young local crowd – a good percentage of whom probably have no idea who he is – Fernow takes the hardest road. Rather than huddling for warmth in clanking militarised drones, he grabs the audience by the throat with a merciless party set. Yes, a Vatican Shadow party set. I had no idea those existed either. It's under such circumstances that you get to see a part of Fernow that he doesn't show that often: quite simply the man is a superb entertainer. At one point a giant CGI ram's head appears frowning and inscrutable on the screen behind him and sends a welcome shiver of genuine malice through the crowd, but all is set to happy rights at the end of the set where our man wraps himself in the Portuguese flag – what a tart! - and prowls the front of the stage exhorting the exhausted dancers to further heights of abandon. It's a great show, and Vatican Shadow walks away with the festival cupped in his leather-gloved hands.

Gently does it

But it's not all thudding-fit-to-bust at Forte. Function's live set is as soulful and free-flowing as Autumn rain, building itself up in simple layers and controlled explosions which keep the dancers tantalisingly clinging on for release. His former Sandwell District buddy Regis, also playing live, opts for a similar tack – dark loops and whorls of sound echo down yawning tunnels, sharp stabs of hi-hat providing kinks of light – and together with the excellent visuals goes a way to providing a completely immersive experience. However, he has the misfortune to go an after Front 242's dystopian pantomime, meaning everyone has to take a while to adjust to the change of pace. Precious minutes are lost and the crowd never seems to quite catch up with him. A shame. Next time.

So, yeah, techno

I'm as surprised as anyone by Ben Klock – embodiment of techno, grey man, grey beats, function and cleanliness and sharp lines heading into a grey polygon future – but his set becomes proof that everything has its place. The place is a castle at 8am, the misty morning creeping around the battlements, getting so you can't see ten feet in front of your face and Klock blasting out slate-grey wormholes that seem to warp the fabric of the fortress. It's beautiful. And helped along enormously by the fact that Portuguese crowds still look gorgeous when the sun comes up. Bastards.

Ellen Allien is another surprise. On paper? Nope. On record? Nope. But at Forte she turns in a beautifully twisted set, as solid as steel and as gloopy and colourful as ice cream topping. However her visuals leave a bit to be desired, and when she starts flashing up photographs of herself looking elegantly wasted at a series of exclusive looking nighteries I have to call bullshit. This is brand building and, frankly, I don't care. It's not enough to make me stop dancing – hell no – but it gives a bit of pause. Maybe I'm being overly utopian, but this kind of ego-driven grumph is not what I signed up for (if indeed I've signed up at all). I think of that five hour Berghain queue again and shiver.        

You will yield to The Dominator!

This makes the prospect of Front 242's ribald leather-clad showmanship all the more tantalising. However the people of Portugal clearly don't agree and the castle isn't even half full, causing the Belgian Battle Beasts to consider dropping their triumphal set-opening fanfare for fear of looking ridiculous (on which more later). Thankfully they get talked around and arrive on stage shrouded in dry ice and lasers, fists raised in salute to some future leather-ocracy, while in the background (and the foreground, and the side-to-side ground) an electronic anthem for the priapic youth erupts. Front 242 are loud, man. Really loud. On every possible level. The retinas are raked with images of fire, propaganda and domination! Two blokes stride around looking like the survivors of a future sex war! There's a drummer! Pile it all on top of some of the most thrillingly ballistic electronic music ever made and it's party time.

'Body 2 Body', 'Headhunter' et al are, most of all, brilliant fist-punching rock records, and the thin crowd is soon chugging relentlessly and yelling along. Sadly, there are a few alarming lulls in which Front 242 answer the question of what would happen if Golden Earring collaborated with Giorgio Moroder - A question that nobody has ever asked – but mostly its hit after bum-slapping hit. You can't take away how weirdly captivating these two veterans look either. When all the elements of the show click together  they resemble some futuristic cyber Inquisitor and his feared chief of secret police. Then the lights come up and you're left with the sight of two men dressed like knock-off action figures prancing about in front of a Fantazia video. When faced with Front 242 live you have three options. You can either a) laugh at how rib-hurtingly ridiculous the whole spectacle is, b) knuckle down to the stern unyielding grip of The Dominator, or c) both. Myself and, by the looks of it, all the people in the castle choose c) and everyone is grinning from ear to ear.

So... techno?

I love electronic music, and repetition as a compositional principle, and noise, and dancing.

You work it out. I'm having too much fun.

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