If You Go Down To The Woods: Things Learned At Dekmantel

Just us and techno, against the world... Battered, bruised, discombobulated and exhilarated by three days of dancefloor mayhem at Amsterdam's Dekmantel Festival.

(Photos with thanks to De Fotomeisjes)

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Festivals don’t have to be aesthetically pleasing, but it certainly helps

Amsterdamse Bos is situated just south west of Amsterdam; a thirty-minute drive across the city leads you directly into its artificial heart, a man-made forest constructed some seventy years ago upon unused wetlands with an idyll of Englishness in mind. Last year a section of its woodland played host to the initial outing of Dekmantel, a festival organised by a collective of local promoters, bookers and label bosses who operate under the same name, and its success has since seen the event double in size.

Wandering across the almost empty site at noon on Friday is something of a sight to behold, with stages enveloped by trees, towering white lookout towers, and slatted wooden sprung dancefloors constructed with aching Monday morning knees in mind. Of course, with the prospect of expansion there’s always the dread of what might come with it, and before the gates open on Friday, worry of an infiltration of Brits abroad looms overhead. Luckily, as people begin to arrive en masse on bike, (later they’ll mount them again considerably less of sober mind, careering back across the darkness with impressive speed and balance) it soon becomes apparent that nuisance levels are going to be kept to a minimum.

Hanging out with a load of women at an electronic music festival is a delight

I’d like to take this early opportune moment to point out how great it is, particularly at a festival with a line-up that features only two female artists and that is (notably but not despairingly) dominated by large groups of men, to be joined by so many other media women. Shouts to Fallon MacWilliams, Nicolina Claeson, Lauren Martin, Anna Tehabsim and Maya Kalev, it was a pleasure dancing with you all.

It’s near on impossible to write a Things Learned without mentioning the weather

While the sun beats down perilously throughout most of the weekend, on Saturday afternoon Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall’s immensely enjoyable back-to-back set is cut frustratingly short as an ominous black cloud sails towards Red Bull’s Into The Woods stage. The crowd are funnelled towards the main stage to await instruction, and we later learn that the site was mere moments away from being entirely closed and evacuated. It’s a close escape, and with the air still thick and the sky still dark we head for cover beneath XLR8R’s UFO tent, to bear witness to an excellent set from Joey Anderson; all patterings of house that weightlessly carry themselves across the dusty dancefloor.

With pregnant clouds and the threat of an electrical storm still swirling above, it’s only fitting that Shackleton follows. Hopes are raised that the heavens will open mid set; visions of hundreds of people dancing out in the open to his live modulations, arms raised aloft to welcome the soaking seem too good to resist, but (thankfully) it never happens. Indeed, as soon as the tent fills with crunches of sound that rattle around inside your head, all notions of weather flee from the mind. A deft twist of a knob suddenly wrenches everything into a hypnotic pool; another sprays percussion wildly, shattering any apparent notion of reticence with invisible strings that tug on knees and arms. And then of course there are those familiar clusters of notes, dissected from recorded material and re-laid over and over each other, undulating smatters of tone and colour that you could hear in any context in the world and still be filled with a sense of joyous recognition.

There’s always room to pull up more chairs

Emerging with blinking eyes from the depths of the XLR8R tent two hours later, slick with sweat and suitably lubricated from the fridge of wine located underneath the stage, we stumble (via some Luther Vandross courtesy of Mr Ties) back over to the reopened woodland stage, where Three Chairs – the Detroit supergroup of Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite, Marcellus Pittman and Moodymann – are beginning their six hour set. After being interrupted earlier, Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall join them onstage to form what you might call Six Chairs, (Four Point Five for the pedants). The very notion of a DJ supergroup often leaves me feeling a little uneasy; in the minibus on the way over to the site someone likens one recent instance to a blending of CMYK colours, a process that leaves a residue of congealed murky brown. Here though, there seems little that could go wrong, and thankfully it doesn’t, and as Parrish pinches at the mixer controls like they’re on fire and feet thunder down on the wooden boards below, it’s difficult to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Hosting disorientating and mildly terrifying art installations inside a nightclub is a brilliant idea

As Dekmantel itself finishes at 11pm each night, there’s plenty of time to fit in a whole host of extra curricular capers and still get to bed at a relatively savoury hour. Conveniently, Amsterdam’s underground club of choice, Trouw, is situated opposite our hotel, and a quick, perilous dash across a dual carriageway lands you right outside its door and headlong into a 500 person strong queue. A former printing warehouse for the Dutch newspaper of the same name, its industrial concrete interior now provides an excellent music venue, at least until the club’s lease runs out next January. Dancers sweat it out on a narrow tunnelled dancefloor over two floors, leaning up against the air conditioning units that line the walls when it all gets too much. Staggering through its inner sanctum on Saturday night I stumble across a set aside roped entrance, dark heavy curtains closed around over a proverbial rabbit hole. After a short wait, I’m ushered inside, through a PVC strip door curtain and out onto a platform with a railed edge. It’s so dark and foggy it’s difficult to work out the margins of the surrounding space; it feels endless, yet reaching hands soon find felted walls. A glance over the railings reveals a sloped concrete incline that descends into darkness.

Inspired by an unfinished novel by Rene Daumal, the piece, titled ‘Landscape’ is an installation by French artist Fouad Bouchoucha, commissioned as part of a collaboration with Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and Paris’ Palais De Tokyo. It sits in the underbelly of Trouw, nestled behind the main downstairs room that throbs away, muffled in in the distance. Every two minutes or so an explosion rings out into the void, bouncing off the walls and shattering any notion of preconceived spatial awareness. It’s dizzying, and, after a while, pretty amusing, watching worse for wear ravers wander in and lose their minds.

According to the book of techno, Sunday yields no rest

We’re barely on site ten minutes on Sunday before the kick drums begin pounding out again from the XLR8R tent. It’s clear from the off that we’re going straight in, leaving no time for breakfast to settle, never mind the hangover from the night before. There’s a short interlude watching Ben UFO, outstretched fingers brushing the branch tips of the willow tree planted right in middle of the dancefloor, before we’re thrust back into a mind-blowing six hours of back to back techno on the main stage.

When Jeff Mills appears for his headline set, the sky turns pink then blue then black. Dry ice hangs above the crowd like smoke over the mouth of a volcano. It feels simultaneously like the end of the world and the dawn of time. Mills is a simple silhouette against a backdrop of burning light, casually controlling the chaos that unfolds around him with a delicate touch of one of four CDJs or an elevated 909. Pockets of the audience chat to each other throughout the first twenty or so minutes, but by the time he’s in full swing the entire crowd is facing forwards, eyes locked, limbs synchronised.

The main, RA-sponsored stage, as it turns out, is a perfect setting for this closing set; the sound is thrown a good few hundred metres without losing intensity, and the curved LED screen that arcs right round the top of the crowd shoots simple mutating visuals right to the edges of your sight path. It’s an emphatic end to a truly brilliant festival, and despite the state I’m left in by midnight: blistered, exhausted, hungry, in desperate need for the toilet, so utterly discombobulated that even the air coming in though a cracked open window during the ride back to the hotel sounds like ‘The Bells’, it’s still difficult to smother a grin.

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