Glorious Absurdity: Field Maneuvers Reviewed

Taking place at a secret location just an hour outside of London, Christian Eede finds that Field Maneuvers is a festival that taps into a special kind of community spirit befitting of its modest capacity, and checks out sets from Giant Swan, Avalon Emerson and more along the way

Photos courtesy of Jake Davis

Around halfway through her two-hour debut slot on the first night of this year’s Field Maneuvers, Anastasia Kristensen could be heard dropping Eric Prydz’ 2004 number one single and turbo banger, ‘Call On Me’. The crowd gathered at Sputnik, the disorientating, smoke-filled rave dome that would quickly become one of my favourite places to dance anywhere as a first-timer to the festival, naturally went wild. A similar scene beckoned not long after when she followed it with a gleefully silly mash-up combining The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and Yes’ ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. Peppered around these selections was the Russia-hailing, Copenhagen-based DJ’s signature brand of propulsive techno and hardcore, a classic rave stab never too far away.

It was this kind of scene that could neatly sum up my first time at the festival. While the line-up was no doubt put together with a headsier raver in mind, these moments of absurdity – and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible – were never too far away, with many of the DJs booked to play across the weekend tapping into the community vibe that makes Field Maneuvers such a special festival. That vibe is no doubt thanks in part to its relatively modest capacity at 800 people, but there were also a number of distinctive touches that played their role.

The dedicated ambient and tea tent, which remained open through the weekend, offered people a chance to break away from the thud of a 4×4 kick pulling revellers in with its inviting floor cushions and general nighttime warmth. The 24-hour pub, lovingly dubbed ‘FM Wetherspoon’, is kitted out every year with sofas and armchairs, as well as a singing wall fish, and acts as a kind of meeting point for groups away from the three main music tents. On the Sunday afternoon, the annual pub quiz saw attendees invited to answer a round of Field Maneuvers-related trivia and get arty by drawing headliner The Black Madonna, while each year, attendees are also invited to gather for a group photo on the final afternoon.

On the festival’s final night, the ‘anything goes’ vibe that permeated the weekend meant that London-based selector Peach brought home her riotously fun 90-minute set in the main Field Maneuvers tent with Madonna’s ‘Into The Groove’ and George Michael’s ‘Flawless (Go To The City)’ to a rapturous reception. Before that, she moved through wiggly ‘90s tech-house from fabric resident Terry Francis, classic euphoric techno from Slam’s Soma Records label and a killer edit of Rihanna’s ‘Pon De Replay’ which particularly kicked things up a notch having been given the task of getting things going inside the tent that night. (The daytime programming for the festival’s main tent centres around a nearby outdoor booth in the site’s main field when the weather permits which it mercifully did this year.)

Launched in 2013, Field Maneuvers has grown only slightly and very carefully from the 400-capacity event that it was upon its debut. The catalyst for that launch was an unshakeable feeling by organisers and friends Ele Beattie and Leon Cole that a number of the UK’s dance music festivals were lacking a certain kind of vibe, DJs often playing in spaces too large to get a real party going. The plot of land they settled on, which the festival has called home since its debut, is distinctly – as the festival humbly describes itself – no frills, no more than a couple of large grassy fields boxed in by trees. The campsite and music tents sit happily alongside one-another and you can walk from one end of the site to the other in under five minutes. This means that over the weekend, you can happily throw yourself into a daytime set or two and then swiftly head back to your tent for a breather or, as personal Sunday evening entertainment involved, listen to obnoxious jump-up D&B from a portable speaker surrounded by your nearest and dearest.

As a small, not-for-profit festival, Field Maneuvers partly relies on DJs who know the value of knocking a little cash off their standard festival fee in exchange for playing a great party. A number of those DJing this year were returning after playing the festival in the past – some play every year having built up close ties with the event. Having played Field Maneuvers for the first time last year, Chicago-based DJ Eris Drew played Sputnik once again in 2019. It’s a venue that’s perfectly suited to her blend of ecstatic ‘90s breaks and house records. Sweat dripped from above throughout her set (this was a common fixture at Sputnik across the weekend) as she drew for gleeful New York and Chicago house cuts complete with vocals touching on the power of unison in the rave, offsetting those tracks with breakbeats, hardcore and tempo-changing classic hip-hop drum fills. Dancing amongst the disorientating chaos towards the back of the Sputnik tent and surrounded by gleeful faces, I was often left wondering how she was actually pulling all of it off with just two turntables and a box of records. One memorable moment came as she completely re-contextualised a recent Timedance-released track from Metrist (‘OL Face You Got’) to me thanks to some impeccable scratching with a James Brown record.

Shanti Celeste was another returnee, playing the main Field Maneuvers tent some hours after Peach on the final night. Her set bounded between banging, loopy techno cuts from producers such as Stephen Brown and Umek, hands-in-the-air ‘90s rave music and a healthy dose of speed garage – the latter might just have been the defining sound of this year’s edition with various DJs drawing for the Reese basslines and gunshot samples of the genre over the course of the weekend. Another of those was Nick Höppner, also a veteran of the festival having now played at four editions. He played two sets in 2019 including a closing UK garage set at Sputnik on the Saturday. As a former member of the UKG crew Tune in the early ‘00s with whom he organised raves in Hamburg, the Panorama Bar resident’s connection to the genre runs deep and the set certainly didn’t disappoint. Naturally, he drew for various unidentifiable deep cuts of the sound but was also unafraid to drop in a well-known tune (Floating Points’ recent remix of Headie One, Wookie’s ‘Scrappy’, Club Asylum’s remix of ‘Imagine’ by Shola Ama) when the time was right. The singalong for Artful Dodger’s remix of ‘Thong Song’, for which Höppner cut the sound during the chorus, was a particular highpoint.

First-timers to the festival didn’t disappoint either. Avalon Emerson tore through acid-tinged trance, speed garage and a t.A.T.u. edit during her two-hour set closing the main tent on Friday night. Her selection of The Knife’s stirring Silent Shout highlight ‘Forest Families’ to bring things to a close was inspired. Giant Swan kicked things into gear in the same tent the following night, delivering a typically rowdy set. Their brand of atonal, stomping hardware techno was the perfect opening to a programme that night that focused firmly on doofers. Glimpses of a shirtless Robin Stewart, one-half of the duo, could be caught amongst the maelstrom of strobes over the course of their set as he climbed the table of equipment while shrieking all manner of indecipherable noise into a microphone.

One of Field Maneuvers’ great strengths lied in how wise programming decisions meant that large and lively crowds weren’t simply reserved for the festival’s more obvious headline acts. Essex meets South London duo Local Group, who’ve played every year since 2014 and are now counted as Field Maneuvers residents, brought the party to a very up-for-it crowd at Sputnik on Saturday afternoon, delivering an unruly mix of hardcore, breakbeats and, yes, yet more speed garage with no care for the relatively early time of day – and all the better for it. Rising South London selector OK Williams was handed the penultimate slot at Sputnik on the final night of the festival and undoubtedly smashed it, moving between dynamic techno and drum tracks ahead of Alex Downey’s closing set. This year was Downey’s second time playing at the festival and his first in the closing Sunday slot having gained increasing attention in recent years amongst more in-tune crowds thanks to his status as a resident at similarly small Wales festival Freerotation. Breakbeats were the common thread across his 90-minute set as he connected tracks from Overmono, Skee Mask and Berlin-based Lobster Theremin-affiliated producer Privacy. He was also unafraid to draw for some tried-and-tested techno classics, reaching for Dave Clarke’s stripped-back bruiser ‘Zeno Xero’ early on as well as a Jeff Mills closer.

Committing unashamedly to its ‘no frills’ policy, Field Maneuvers is a festival that doesn’t really put a foot out of place. It’s built one of the most respectful crowds I’ve ever found myself amongst at a festival with many of those who’ve been in the past continuing to return year-on-year, while many of those who attended for the first time this year – myself and around 20 others I spent my weekend with included – will no doubt be back next year too. The names at the top of the bill may continue to get bigger and sell-out dates may edge further forward each year as word of mouth spreads, but it still feels like Field Maneuvers very much remains one of the best-kept secrets in the UK festival calendar. Long may it continue doing what it does best.

Below, you can find a playlist featuring tracks played at this year’s edition of Field Maneuvers and below that, you can find a gallery of pictures from the festival by clicking on the image.

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