BLOC 2009 Reviewed: Aphex Twin, Kode9 & More Hit The Beaches

The Quietus does like to be beside the seaside, especially when its noggin resembles a pillbox shattered by the unrelenting barrage of an invading force of some of the freshest names in electronic music

By Kev Kharas and Samuel Strang

It makes an odd sort of sense when British festivals head for the seaside. Out on Brighton beach or within the sun-drained confines of Butlins holiday camp the air of lost innocence that hangs about the coast is generations old. There’s a strong likelihood that you, your parents or your parents’ parents have taken the first bitter swig while the surf broke close in the dark, or put illicit digits around or into another young holidayer, also seeking escape from the provinces.

Following the annual ATP gatherings, as well as the likes of Loop, Latitude and The Great Escape, gambolling out toward the edge of the land comes the third Bloc Weekender, its stellar line-up of young beat tyros and bassland legends summoning a capacity crowd like a powder-plying Pan. Previously held at Hemsby near Great Yarmouth, you’d expect a move to Butlins to provide organisers with a logistical nightmare, but Bloc’s one of the best run events we’ve ever been to – bar and venue queues never exceeded ten minutes and pretty much all staff were helpful, even if dreams of being a redcoat had to be put on hold for a weekend to tend the sore minds of gibbering drug casualties. With the frazzled lot recovering stoned in the sun, on crazy golf greens or chlorine splash flumes, you got the impression it was a pleasantly bewildering situation for all involved.

Arriving at Bloc late Friday after work, we found those already gathered fully submerged beneath the bass weight of Bristol’s DJ Pinch who, one year on from debut album Underwater Dancehall, is packing more into his previously sparse productions; percussion that itches, barely-restrained from delirium, filling the mid-register between twinkles of treble dust and low-end that’s still slung resolutely into the earth. Responsible for one of the weekend’s stand-out sets, it’s not for nothing that this man runs a label called Tectonic; shockwaves reaching out to jitter chests through the bricks of the Subloaded Tec:Bloc Arena.

Much of the satisfaction to be had over the next few days will be delivered by acts that, like Pinch, throb intriguingly from dubstep’s fertile nether regions. On the Tec:Bloc stage immediately after the Tectonic man is Dutch producer 2562, whose starry-eyed segues clatter with the ferrous textures of techno, albeit shying from the 4/4 beat so beloved by that strain of dance, preferring instead to shoot eyes at 2-step’s sultry bomp ‘n clack. Jamie Vex’d is due out next but is home tending to family matters so we head off in pursuit of Future Sound of London, only to get sucked in by the whirring arcades and arrive back at the Subloaded stage to get our dance on to Blazey and Joker’s back-to-back set. They lay down Luck and Neat’s ‘It’s The Way’ only to then get lured into chanting lines from Beezy’s ‘A Day In The Life’. You’d feel violated were it not for Joker, Bristol’s Purple Prince, to return with some more of his imperious G-funk-drenched grime as sea salt sank into the gums. There’s a fair amount of tack, but it all works a dream in these early hours, especially when the prospect of London’s bassland leader lurks in the couple to come.

Around a year or so ago Steve Goodman was playing out as ‘Frankie Solaar’ as he began to delve into deep soca snatches, away from the usual lurching basslines. Having now ditched the side-pseudonym, Kode9’s more than happy to bring Funky’s mutant 4×4 to the fore. HardHouse Banton sits beside the standard post-jungle jumble of his sets, as well as the showcasing of his Hyperdub imprint’s most recent bloom, whether recent signing Cooly G’s bullish sass or Darkstar’s post-UKG miserablism. His set is one that dips its fingers into various pools, providing a blueprint for the deeply set associations than stem throughout the various burgeoning waves of the UK’s current underground.

After the Hyperdub don’s seamless set, dropping in on Hudson Mohawke feels like turning up at the student union stone cold sober as each track seems to sit awkwardly beside the other. Though heralded as dance-album-artist label Warp’s latest golden boy, highlights are too rare and while providing a decent indication of what makes the Glasgow tyke tick it all feels uncomfortably pasted together, though if ever one had a saving grace HudMo’s monumental appropriation of Tweet’s ‘Ooops!’ is nonchalantly dropped with aplomb. Jury’s still out here though. Next up’s Martyn, the Eindhoven journeyman supplying one of most astute sets of the weekend, showcasing material from his forthcoming Great Lengths with the colossal “Seventy Four” sprawling onto Jaks’ murky floor, before Rustie takes to the stage for a somewhat inappropriate 5:30am slot. But the LuckyMe boy triumphs, providing a set of monumental flea-bitten hip-hop and acid-rotten crippled crunk. We spin out into the morning glow light-headed and in need of bed.

Our brains spluttering along near-empty, the best the next ‘morning’ can bring is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who, after a 90-minute delay, strips last night’s grown dubs back to root, peeling away the layers to revel in the play of low-end throw downs and “cool it” guitar shrugs. Such tussle between bass and treble frequencies is what binds all the acts on Bloc’s bill together – even the melodrama of Ulrich Schnauss, performed live over in the Tec:Bloc Arena, pits gungey, sadsack sub-bass against blast beat pummels. In this instance the one struggles to absorb the other and is eventually overrun, but later Egyptian Lover manages to hold his shit, George Broussard seeding his electro with synth sparkles before leading the crowd in sing-a-long tribute to his good friend, the esteemed “Eight! Oh! Motherfucking Eight!” drum machine held aloft for all to adore before setting it down and turning the goodwill on himself, reeling out ‘Egypt Egypt’ and ‘Electro Pharoah’ in a maddened fit of self-veneration. Smiling girls sexy-dance, lapping up the entertainment before the brain-mauling trials to come.

Tonight Aphex Twin, along with regular henchmen Hecker, is a fucking bane. The pair’s set begins with a dark machine presence promising humans life in return for subjugation, the dismissal of freedom as an illusion and the assertion that “enough alcohol has been consumed this evening”. Locking immediately into a blaring squall, it’s unclear whether Richard James sees himself as the human or the machine in this equation, but he proceeds to unleash horribly harsh rave pummels upon those toward the front of the stage, while those languishing, like us, at the back are bombarded with a hail of noise that seems to implore us forward to turn the rave pit into a heaving, legless mass of flesh. The sound coming from the back of the room – the whir of rescue helicopter blades, ticking bombs, the tooth-bothering grind of metal-on-metal – has nothing to do with the set ‘proper’, producing a disorientation that’s as beloved by the majority of dark-eyed pill-gulpers in the Centre:Bloc Arena as the strobes clambering over their fizzing heads. A track from Zomby’s Where Were You In ‘92? is dropped – it could’ve been ‘Euphoria’, but it was hard to engage memory banks at this stage – and the awful, green, twisted thing rolls on gleeful and gurning into the night.

The last day of the festival sees the closure of the Tec:Bloc area, leaving just three stages and the novel sight of a queue as people collect outside the Red:Bloc Arena for Skream and Benga back-to-back. It’s interesting to contrast their shared set with those witnessed on Friday – as ever dubstep’s posterboys are all smiles, but recent sets have seen an unwelcome settling upon something that verges close to a blueprint and one, in all honestly, lacking much in imagination; all numbskull bass drops and cheap synth stabs. But for every dud the prolific pair put out there’s a gem, with Skream recently turning in tracks with the sort of slowburning bass that would suit any aspiring pop beau (particularly the track that closes the set, apparently written with N-Type) whilst Benga’s best, such as when he delves into the alien tones of tracks like ‘Spongebob’, sees the duo as relevant as when they burst onto the scene as Hatcha’s prodigies. With the mic in their hands throughout shouting banalities whilst the other locks up, it’s a set packed with unabashed energy and juvenile passion.

In fact Skream and Benga enjoy themselves so much that all-purpose rave crew 4Hero’s entrance is delayed for some time, so we slope off in search of Cocadisco, whose gaggle of deck hands are setting about turning the fusty, tarnished oak furnishings of Jaks bar into the last outpost of glittering Euro clubland. They succeed with unerring ease, we leave and, upon returning to Reds, 4hero have arrived and are turning in a set of vintage Reinforced cuts. The north London troupe’s imprint was responsible for floating such classic old school haunts from luminaries Tek 9 and Manix, as well being the outlet for their own releases. Fifteen years since the label started and this material’s still revitalising, underlining the gents’ status as a true tour de force.

Back at the main stage, disappointment looms as Metro Area fail to show, Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani missing the opportunity to enrapture a crowd primed for their starry-eyed urbanity. Instead, Agent 2 comes with the electro before the much-anticipated arrival of Afrika Bambaataa who proceeds to play a frat party set taking in Eminem, MC Hammer and Salt N Pepa. It’s as dire as it sounds and it’s left to Carl Craig to tidy up with some classier hedonist rhythms, undulating electronic gargles tickling at the guts as Bloc fades into the coastal mists.

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