To get an idea of how strong Amsterdam has become as a global clubbing destination, you only have to look to the stunning array of rammed parties during the Amsterdam Dance Event last October, with more than 300 events happening across the week. While its scene is often associated with trance, hardstyle and other Dirty Dutch silliness, techno is well-represented too, as evidenced by the recent visit of German behemoth Time Warp. The latest newcomer is Valhalla Festival, which debuted in late December amidst an already packed festival and events scene.
Extravagantly billed as a "Free State in which creativity and liberalism are fully expressed," Valhalla brought together a collection of different stages organised "by a hybrid of the established class and the new young creative organizations of Amsterdam." A number of local club brands provided the tunes across the labyrinth of convention halls of the Amsterdam RAI, with a solid lineup that steered clear of big-name bloat.
Just as significant for the festival's identity was the assortment of creative organisations, who'd been tapped to help create the early 20th century "funfair" vibe. Little details were everywhere: clowns, dodgems, merry go-rounds. Plonked between two of the bigger rooms was an Apple Tree circular swing, which had punters gently swaying back and forth, before the whole contraption began to swing in circles wildly.
The Format arena was the main draw for the techno fans, and as it turns out, it was worth the price of admission alone. Format is a monthly party curated by Juan Sanchez at Amsterdam's AIR club, with a music policy of decidedly tough techno. Here it hosted one of the venue's biggest rooms. The production was functional and impressive without going overboard, thanks to loud, punchy sound and LCD strips hovering over the crowd.
An impressively sized audience had already begun to gather as Mark Henning was laying down an early live set—a nicely restrained, percussive affair that led the crowd through some less aggressive strains of techno, flirting with melody and building a surprising amount of tension for such an early stage in the evening. Dutch artist Secret Cinema came out banging straight away, signalling an energetic shift in tempo. This is where the vibe of the room would remain for the rest of the evening.
A cruise around the rest of the venue revealed several equally sprawling rooms, also boasting healthy crowds, though less moulded to underground tastes. The Apenkooi stage hosted an assortment of pumping Dutch silliness: pop remixes, abrasive MCs and shrill melodies. The production was even more amped up next door at GirlsLoveDJs, with a Ferris Wheel perched behind the stage and huge coloured balls hanging from the ceiling, while crowd-pleasers like Radio 1 golden boy Kissy Sellout manned the decks. While you might not think these disparate musical elements would work together at the one party, it's testament to the eclectic nature of Dutch clubbing that Valhalla could cater to so many musical tastes at once.
The Dekmantel stage, which was cleverly made up of shipping containers stacked alongside each other, hosted artists like John Talabot and Deetron. At the Bar 27 stage, Matthias Tanzmann's familiar percussive sounds rang out later in the evening as the room began to swell, while over at Pleinvrees (a Dutch-sounding clubbing brand if ever there was one), Agoria delivered his own wonderfully unpredictable take on techno.
For many though, the pull of the Format arena was too much to resist: this is where Valhalla's most exhilarating energy could be found all night. By early morning, a spectacular array of oversized glowsticks had infiltrated the crowd, completely at odds with the seriously ballsy techno we were hearing. Format boss Juan Sanchez was in control post-3 AM, delivering some serious momentum and percussive groove. But it was Sandwell District's that brought the night to a climax. Super stripped-back compared to what had come earlier, after 5 AM it worked a treat.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was how a new festival could launch so successfully in the dead of winter, only a few days before Christmas. Obviously Amsterdam's clubbing scene hasn't reached its saturation point just yet.