The 2012 edition of Seattle's Decibel Festival managed to combine the Europhile techno preoccupation of Detroit's Movement with an emphasis on the arts á la Montreal's MUTEK. In fact, the biggest complaint one could conceivably throw at Decibel was that there was too much of a good thing. Taking over the city's best venues split between downtown and Capitol Hill, the close proximity meant that hopping between three or four clubs each night to catch certain acts was surprisingly easy. There were a few far-flung venues that held special showcases (DJ Shadow, Shpongle), but those usually only required a short cab ride.
Decibel had a fairly meaty extra-musical program this time around, with a number of panels on everything from media to hardware tips to scoring video games. Interviews were conducted with some of the festival's headliners (as part of RA's Live Exchange series). This year also saw a focus on the visual arts, with UK conjurers Demdike Stare improvising—for example—a live score for a kitschy '70s vampire film. Events like these seemed to corral academic and experimental types that might have not been swayed by the festival's dance-heavy PM lineup, making for diverse and knowledgeable crowds throughout the festival's duration.
Venue-wise, Decibel centered on a mixture of concert halls and nightclubs, including the historic (and gorgeous) Paramount Theatre and the Broadway Performance Hall. The Baltic Room proved one of the festival's hotspots, in addition to the always-crowded Crocodile. Keen to do things right (or try), the festival boosted the soundsystems of nearly every location. The embellished system at Neumos was so loud it was almost painful, inflating Carl Craig's blasé set of middling tech house and overheard classics to incongruously Herculean proportions. The talk of the town was the new club Q, a series of stark white hallways with a finely-tuned Funktion One that served as one of the festival's hottest afterhours spots (of which there were plenty of choices, remarkable for an American city with strict last call laws).
Moving onto the music itself, any account is bound to be biased and limited by the sheer amount of things going on simultaneously. It takes a certain finesse and handy time management skills, and certainly a lot of planning. One night of rather frantic club-hopping left me with the empty feeling that I hadn't really witnessed anything substantial at all. But amongst my nighttime adventures, I managed to see Jimmy Edgar's stunning live set on Wednesday night, where a hand-assembled, custom-layout LED rig dazzled the audience. On Thursday night, Andy Stott pummeled the appropriately brutalist Melrose Market venue, and Objekt played an admirably blistering set for a much-too-early slot at 9:30 PM. Ripperton dropped a rambunctious house set on Friday, after Erykah Badu disappointed with an ambitious Cannibinaoids set where her still-sterling voice was drowned out by sound problems and a spectacularly large backing band.
Saturday's Hotflush showcase stole the spotlight, with Braille's ethereal, skippy house prepping the audience for a doozy by George FitzGerald, ruled by relentless, vocal-heavy house anthems. The ebullient and cheery groove of Public Lover on Sunday was catnip to an audience exhausted by the whirlwind week behind, and Salva had special guest Teeko playing keys and singing on top of his usual quirky hip-hop/bass hybrid set. Dixon, Robag Wruhme and xxxy were among the most-talked about highlights that I didn't get to catch in their entirety.
As Decibel has swollen in size, so have its peripheries. Some of the best moments of the week weren't even on the festival program proper. Two consecutive Boiler Room sessions saw fantastic sets from Appleblim and especially Portland's Natasha Kmeto, a little-known artist whose indelible live set features her own powerhouse vocals looped over shuddering, dubstep-friendly beats. An unofficial afterparty on Saturday night by local crew Sweatbox provided a proper afterhours atmosphere in a sweaty room with delightfully banging techno, while Portland crew Dropping Gems did a pop-up showcase in the afternoon sun at Captain Black's on Sunday, featuring Shlohmo amidst a list of other West Coast names.
It might be a bit of cliché, but for those five days, the city felt abuzz with musical goings-on; including events like the outdoor Do-Over on Saturday afternoon, music was quite literally everywhere. Even if you didn't get to see every act you were hoping for, chances are you'd stumble on something else you weren't expecting, or get dragged to a great party you had no idea was even going on. Staying for the festival's entire duration was a physically taxing experience to be sure, but also one that couldn't help to be inspiring even to the weariest of bone. Whether your thing is purist techno, deep house, dubstep, trap or whatever else, it felt like Decibel had managed to stick it all into a few clubs for something every bit as confusing, overwhelming and ridiculous as that sounds, and every bit as fantastic.