There are hassles you come to expect with festivals of a certain size: epic lines, obscene prices, heavy security and, often, mud. So much mud. Melt! is indeed a festival of a certain size (its attendance is north of 20,000), and it's without question a big-ticket production, with a genre-spanning cache of A-list performers booked across three long nights. This year marked my first trek to Ferropolis, the cutely dystopian open-air industrial museum near Dessau that's been Melt!'s home since '99, and I certainly had my reservations about the sort of weekend I had in store.
What I found, though, was a big festival unencumbered by the baggage that bogs down similar events. Unlike the rusting industrial relics that dot the festival grounds (and occasionally shoot fireballs into the sky), Melt! is a well-oiled machine. But rather than neuter the vibe, the slick production and organizational know-how gave it the space to manifest. This is a festival where a glitter-blasted, face-painted young person can crazy-dance for hours without interference from orange-vested bruisers, then smash a vegan döner within a minute or two of craving one. As for mud, this year's toasty weather meant Melt! featured exactly the opposite: dust—dirt's vibiest form—clouds of which rose up from crowds and came to coat most of your belongings by the festival's end.
Friday's late-night-into-sunrise programming on the Big Wheel Stage matched the setting perfectly, with a trio of techno heavyweights—Function, Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock—blasting the crowd with festival-ready techno. Dettmann, whose set climaxed with Untold's still-unstoppable "Motion The Dance," was the best of the three. Over on the lakeside Melt! Selektor Stage, Mount Kimbie's live performance added some bite to their latest album's electro-slacker anthems. On the Mainstage, James Blake and the Knife took wildly different approaches to their marquee sets: the former's luscious bass and sensitive songwriting lent the scene some intimacy, while the latter's choreographed "live" show made an already massive space swell.
Big stages dominate Melt!, but there's quite a lot going on in the nooks: there was a well-appointed shisha tent in one far corner, and a hut next to a sandpit playground was usually overflowing with hipsters writhing to '70s FM radio staples. The Sleepless Floor, a rustic jumble of speakers and drunk people just outside the main gates that blasts dance music continuously throughout the weekend, is another one of these pockets. I caught Henning Baer playing darkly funky techno there at dusk on Saturday, and the set could stand toe-to-toe with anything I heard all weekend.
At the Big Wheel Stage, on the other end of the site, DJ Koze was a bit slicker, but he still played about as weird as as you could at a festival, pushing twisted techno, leftfield pop (à la MU's long-lost indie dance classic "Paris Hilton") and ruptures of noise through the stacks. James Holden followed him with a masterful set of ambitiously melodic burners. The denouement, Atoms For Peace's "Before Your Very Eyes," was a crystallization of the good feeling he'd been building for almost two hours. I can't imagine I was the only one in the crowd with goosebumps.
In between, I wandered over to the Melt! Selektor Stage for Jets, who were throwing down the live performance of the festival. Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum are an impeccable match, with the former's Detroit nous benefitting from the latter's digital sheen. Musically, they're not doing anything complicated—their set was all big, bumping techno, with plenty of samples and mic-checks imploring you to shake it—but they're absolutely nailing what they do. Ben UFO and Karenn closed out the stage, and though neither of these staunchly underground acts is a natural fit for a festival, both brought something special. Dropping Florian Kupfer's "Feelin" just as the sun started slinking up from the horizon, the Hessle Audio boss created an unequivocally sublime moment. Then, with a tangle of machines spread out before them and pitch-black techno blasting from the speaker stacks, Blawan and Pariah seemed hell-bent on sending the sun back down again.
You could feel Melt! winding down over the course of the shorter Sunday program: revelers were thinner on the ground, and each of the stages came to an easy climax. The Big Wheel Stage brought a bit of Ibiza to Dessau, with Art Department, Damian Lazarus, Maceo Plex and Jamie Jones playing pleasant if workmanlike sets, heavy on rolling bass and arm-waving melodies. Simian Mobile Disco were the odd men out on the stage, but they were also its secret weapon, injecting plenty of headsy weirdness into what was an otherwise homogenous lineup. Over on the Mainstage, Flying Lotus was proving a far better multi-tasker than most: when I arrived, he was standing right over the pit rapping, and I wasn't even sure I'd shown up at the right place. His set was most impressive, though, when he'd dip behind the projection screen and get hands-on with his machines, pumping out a strange mixture of hip-hop-tinged club styles.
An army of roadies then descended on the stage, stocking it with synthesizers and drum kits for Atoms For Peace's highly anticipated closing set. They started with a manic rendition of "Before Your Very Eyes," but Holden's rinse of the studio version the night before better tugged at the festival's collective emotions. Pulling from Amok and The Eraser, Thom Yorke and company pulled off an impressive set, but it occasionally felt meandering and indulgent. About halfway through, I heard an easy pulse emanating from the adjacent Gemini Stage and wandered over to find James Murphy playing jam after disco jam to a blissed-out crowd. It made for a neat encapsulation of the whole weekend—the sort of nonchalantly excellent moment Melt! pulled off again and again.