Last Saturday’s AVA – short for Audio and Visual Arts – Festival in Belfast was promoted as a highlight of this summer’s cultural calendar, and so it proved to be with a full day of events dedicated to promoting the city’s healthy scene of dance-floor oriented electronic music.
By the time I got down to the cavernous T-13 Hangar venue, plonked in the middle of the post-industrial, post property market crash wasteland that is the Titanic Quarter, the mid-afternoon Boiler Room session had just kicked off. Despite the typically bipolar Belfast weather, the youthful punters were already up for a boogie as the first act of the day Timmy Stewart geared up. Timmy proceeded to breeze through an energetic set of classic house, dropping a number of Belfast favourites including Robert Hood’s “Baby” and “Dance” by Earth People to the crowd’s obvious delight.
The Schmutz boys then took the reins following Timmy’s 45-minutes-of-live-streamed fame, with their heavier tech-house sounds featuring plenty of their own original material, including cuts from their recent Peelers EP on German label Dirt Crew, amping up the atmosphere.
John Daly, a Cork-based producer and DJ who has released on esteemed underground labels such as Secretsundaze, was next up and treated the crowd to a more cerebral live set of deep house and dubby techno, manipulating what appeared to be a DAW through a rotary mixer.
As the weather gradually improved a sunglasses-wielding Space Dimension Controller now manned the C-DJs for one of the more curveball sets ever recorded at a Boiler Room, mixing an eclectic combination of trance (including the Clannad-sampling “Saltwater” by Chicane), classic 90s techno (including Capricorn’s “20 HZ”), and a range of more up-to-date material.
Bicep finished up the Boiler Room session, which they are old hands at by now, with a set drawing on their own tunes and the sort of obscure disco and proto-house they have curated on their Feel My Bicep blog. As the reverberations of their concluding tune rang out around the courtyard we were crammed into, and the first proper rainfall started, it was time to make the short journey inside the main hangars for the evening acts.
After a quick burger and beer break, it was straight back onto the dance floor with Ejeca warming up the half-frozen crowd of drenched youngsters with a bass heavy house set, ratcheting the tempo up over the 125bp mark. This was an expert opening set as the hometown selector guided dancers through euphoric peaks and troughs, sprinkling his sound with glitchy effects, underpinned by driving lows accentuated by the booming bass and dynamic range of the impeccable Funktion 1 system.
As Ejeca wound up, the sun very gradually began to set behind the DJ podium and the twilight streaming through the windows lent an aura of unreality to Space Dimension Controller’s second set of the day, this one a live presentation of new material soon to be released on Belgian electronica label R&S. Things started off gently, with echoing ambient drones swirling through the air and rising upwards to the cavernous hangar roof, and a pounding bass gradually coming into a play as we settled into a slower-paced groove than ostensible opener Ejeca. Heads began nodding and bodies moving as the hypnotic groove gripped the dancers and, at an opportune moment, the spellbinding lasers that are at the heart of this live performance shot out over the crowd’s heads. As evidenced by this performance, Jack Hamill continues his musical evolution which has seen him gradually introduce more ambient and heavier elements to his original campy electro-funk sound, with almost tribal percussion and polyrhythms in places, and vocal samples deployed tastefully throughout to break up the monotony. One highlight that stood out was a mournful, high-pitched, horn sound deployed over a stripped-back beat for at least five minutes of emotional push and pull, before a phasing synth chord panned right across the front of the sound system bringing the set to a triumphant end.
Glasgow duo Optimo have over twenty years experience DJing together, and it told as they gripped the audience by the balls (or appropriate genitalia) from the beginning of their set with a series of classic acid bangers, thriving in the warehouse environment. It was during their set that the mind-melting visuals on the big screen from Belfast visual wizards Guerrilla Shout came to life, shifting and flashing in time with the rhythms of the music. This psychedelic festival atmosphere suited Optimo perfectly as they ran through a set peppered with the right balance of crowd pleasers and eclectic sounds, including a bizarre techno mix of the Chicago standard “You Used To Hold Me”, machine gun blast snares slamming into the chests of those at the front of the stage. Optimo were one of the few DJs on the night to step outside the rigid 4/4 house/techno template and liberally incorporated bits and pieces of glitchy dubstep, breakbeat, and afro tinged dub into their set. A series of stomping classics rounded things off including the classic afro tinged house of Dubtribe Sound System’s “Equitoreal”, Cajmere’s Chicago basement stomper “Percolator”, a techno-fied “Alternative Ulster”, and LFO – “LFO” to hammer home the mega 90s warehouse nostalgia.
Belfast’s favourite sons Bicep then manned the wheels of steel with gusto, beginning with a number of classic piano house tunes including Detroit anthem Derrick May’s “Strings of Life’. For a moment you could close your eyes and imagine you were 20 years back in a 1995 rave in the Ulster Hall without a beat amiss. Bicep walk the line between pastiche and homage and they proceeded to knock out a propulsive, melodic set, maintaining the same driving tempos of the previous acts but subtly shifting into more of an r&b and disco-inflected melodic house sound encapsulated by Robert Hood’s “Greatest Dancer” edit. Near the end the duo showed off their mixing chops while riding and quick-cutting between an amped-up version of ‘Good Life’ by Inner City and a remix of ballroom classic ‘Walk For Me’ by Tronco Traxx, as fierce voguing moves were unleashed by the crowd in response to the latter. By the end of the festival, at the criminally early time 1am, concluding with Sister Sledge ‘Lost in Music’, there was a carnival atmosphere in the air. As the festival crew were called on stage for deserved ovations, the chants of ‘one more tune’ rung out, and Bicep inevitably obliged with the left-field disco of Sheila B Devotion’s “Spacer”. If they could have the punters would have danced to sunrise at least.
Unfortunately, all good things must end, and as we shuttled out into a stinking Belfast night of rain and booked-out taxis, I reflected on the success of AVA. Overall the festival was an excellent event, from the sound, to the good-natured crowd, lack of up-tight security, and alternately intense and uplifting music. The post-industrial setting, in the shadow of those long-expired giants Samson and Goliath, added an aura of poignancy to events as we partied on the graveyard of Belfast’s once functional industrial heritage. Minor quibbles would include the lack of a covered smoking area, and the omni-shambles of the post-gig transport situation that saw rain-soaked kids stand in the rain for up to 2 hours waiting on taxis home. In fairness to the organisers this is their first effort, and I’m sure a lot of these niggles can be worked out for forthcoming events. Of course proceedings ended far too early, but the organisers can hardly be blamed for the bloody-mindedness of our city fathers. Arthur Russell famously described the feeling of the Paradise Garage as “seeing all my friends at once” and AVA at its best had that utopian, communal, feeling to it in common with the very best parties. Til’ next year!