We all know how much people love to knock sacred cows, and boy does Berlin have its fair share of bovines and bitching. From the steady stream of the easyjetset who have felt the heavy hand of Berghain's Sven crush their weekend party plans to the jaded Berlin kids who lament the steady stream of foreign newcomers, first from Bavaria and the rest of Germany, then from further afield. Who started the snowball that is this mysterious gentrification effect is of course a mystery to them, but still there's always someone in line ready to bang that final nail in and declare the place overrated or even, heavens forbid, over.
A very meaty cow indeed is Melt festival, now in its 14th year, which was originally described quite innocently as “electronic meets rock” and gained enough popularity in its early years to move quickly onto its current site at Ferropolis, an old filled-in quarry which now functions as an open air museum for industrial machinery. It wasn't, however, until the last few years that attendance figures really started ballooning, which brought the need for more extensive stages and even bulking the festival out to a full three days in 2008.
Along with this came the hordes of English teenagers ravenous for European festivals with their forgiving licensing laws and imaginative programming, but also the reams of furious forum humbugs declaiming the death of the festival "for locals." Melt has been trying to tread the very fine line between being a major European festival stop with the programming pull that corporate sponsorship brings and trying to maintain its original 24-hour party feel ala Fusion festival, a local underground party which is just as long-running but relies purely on word of mouth. We went along to see how they fared.
Melt 2008 is forever burned into my memory as three days of cold, rainy misery, so after a couple of shambolic hours spent in the dust and blazing heat trying to arrange our festival passes and transport, I kicked myself for willingly signing up again for more poor organization and weather extremes. Later, all fears were lost as we found the Melt!Selektor/Heat! Stage, a breezy little oasis on the shore of Gremmin Lake, with brave swimmers cooling off in the murky water. Despite having stumbled into the middle of Hipsterville, with Hooters t-shirts (boys), ironic glasses (girls) and headbands (both) at every turn, feeling sand under my feet was a perfect accompaniment to Jamie XX's mix of hip-swinging tribal beats and garage/dubstep hybrids. Despite sometimes lacking technical finesse, the cheerful crowd was unbothered when Jamie's mixes unraveled, happy to bop their heads until he recovered, then pick up where they left off.
Ata seems to be one of those guys who is often described in print as a "DJ's DJ" which is really just a way of saying, an influential guy who doesn't get many international gigs. This probably isn't due to a lack of interest on the part of bookers but more down to Ata being too busy in other areas of his life. As well as founding Ongaku, and its offshoots Playhouse and Klang Elektronik with Heiko M/S/O, he also started and still runs Frankfurt's Robert Johnson, arguably Germany's second most important club. Nowadays, reportedly, he has a thing for cooking. Knowing all this didn't give me much of a clue as to what to expect from the jovial looking man in the elevated Big Wheel booth, but his set was a very pleasant upbeat mixture of older microhouse and some poppier melodic techno, flawlessly mixed to a fairly appreciative crowd still energetic at this early hour on the first night. Ata himself bounced around the mixer, head bobbing and grinning manically. For a man who probably couldn't be identified by the majority of the crowd yet still has achieved so much musical success, he's got a fair amount to smile about.
After Black Rose's exuberant peaktime set Desperados Beach was left with a surplus of pent-up energy, and there was a notable shifting down of gears once Kieran Hebden took up residence on the stage. His slow, steady cerebral electronica thinned out the crowd a little, but as he moved though leftfield techno, warped dubstep and other unclassifiable oddities, it became clear that Mother Nature was on his side. When not obscured by puffs of white smoke, flashing motifs of triangles and grids appeared on the large screen behind him, while a spectacular electrical storm grew in intensity on the other side of the lake. Even though I was fresh and clear-headed, the experience took me back to Jon Hopkins set at Club to Club last year, where fever-sick and drugged to the eyeballs I had something as close to a religious experience as an agnostic will allow; Four Tet's set was a perfect synergy of sound, vision and atmosphere that of course peaked with an extended work out of "Love Cry."
Even in amongst the enormous stage built high up into the side of one of the laser-spewing excavator towers and with a seemingly ever-expanding coterie of champagne swillers milling around, that insouciant flick of lank hair was all that was needed to signal the beginning of a flawless mix of organic house with gentle smatterings of ethnic percussion, Latin warblings and the odd surprise. With a bottle of Ballantines planted firmly in front of him, Ricardo Villalobos stalked about his territory with a familiar confidence for the two hours with the set ending quite abruptly. (Ricardo's love of the eternal encore was no match for Melt's precise timetabling.)
If there was any complaint, it was that every time I turned my head from its close proximity to the front speakers, the crowd seemed just a bit limp. Indie crowd that just didn't have the stamina of your average Panoramabar denizen? DJ set as concert, with more people watching than dancing? Whatever the issue, it didn't trouble me too much as I bounded out the gates to the Sleepless floor to continue the party with Nick Höppner. Until the heavens opened up quite violently, that is, and the shuttle buses inexplicably stopped running until mid-afternoon. There was something quite comical about the entire dance floor huddling like a group of penguins under a pair of leaky parasols and watching people fail to bribe the security in order to be let into the large empty warehouse which in previous years had been used as the venue.
With the clouds quickly parting, the temperature inside of the tent soon became unbearable, so with a quick restock of the vodka and juice cartons which are bizarrely the only type of container allowed on site, we trotted off back up the long road to the Sleepless sandpit. The draw was the "Ostgut Ton presents The Sound Of..." banner which has been doing the rounds this year. Ferropolis' close proximity to Berlin meant Melt had pretty much the entire roster lined up from 7 AM till 7 AM on Sunday. I was glad to catch Panorama Bar's holy trinity of house supremos—Tama Sumo, Prosumer and Steffi—playing through the afternoon, with the artificial lake stretching out all around and a very agreeable amount of sunshine, the setup was more than idyllic. Being outside of the official festival and not requiring a wristband means the stage itself is far more DIY, with the sound system being weaker than the more sophisticated stacks inside.
This would obviously be more of a problem for the Berghain DJs, but Tama Sumo particularly shone through, playing a load of Chicago jackers which worked perfectly in the midday sun. Prosumer played his typically deep house, faintly compressed drums fading into more funky grooves. As soon as Tama's first record was on, the heat had obviously got to him and he had stripped down for a dive in the lake. Tama's set kept the energy up, some chugging disco numbers like Tiger & Woods "Deflowered" as well as more classic house edits from Moodymann keeping the old school vibe flowing. By the time Steffi came on, the crowd had thinned a bit as music had started inside the festival, and she treated us to one of her more noodly sets, a look of absolute concentration locked as she carefully worked the EQs about, teasing out the vocals on tracks like Omar-S "Day" to euphoric climaxes.
For some reason the level of fanaticism at Jamie Lidell live shows always astonishes me, especially in festival settings when he's flanked by more traditional electronic acts. It was never more surprising than on Saturday, during the second track of his set—an acapella version of "A Little Bit More," if memory serves—when he was able to completely abandon the sampled vocal rhythm track, as the shrieking crowd was more than thrilled to sing it for him. Eventually joined by his motley crew of musicians, perhaps the largest ensemble he's ever played with, Jamie's live mastery of experimental blue-eyed soul is unquestionable. Although it felt quite similar in format to the last few times I've seen his solo shows, it still provided a welcome change from the day's mostly rave-friendly acts.
Filmmaker Chris Cunningham is best known for his visually arresting videos for Aphex Twin, but in recent years he's been developing an audio-visual live show which features remixes of his work, and also some of his own music productions. On at the gargantuan main stage which was in a large amphitheatre type space, there was some confusion with scheduling as he switched places with DJ Shadow at the very last minute, leading to an extended period of an already lengthy setup time between acts. Nevertheless, after Cunningham's enormous projector screens were erected and his stacks of equipment built up around him, the performance began quite suddenly and—unsurprisingly—quite violently. He began with some new work featuring a remix of Grace Jones' "Williams Blood" which turned the original's sassy diva pop into a creeping, micro-goth dirge replete with closeups of Jones' body and face pressed up against glass, digitally manipulated to exaggerate the dysmorphic effect, her dark skin tones overly saturated to a sickly green hue. Through a jarring transition this led to another of Cunningham's more recent videos, an extended sequence of a man and woman exchanging all manner of blows and slaps with what seemed like blood and viscera being repeatedly beaten out.
One of the more pleasant advantages of seeing someone with a minimal oeuvre is that there's little doubt of missing out on a personal favourite, and after a short segue involving a bedridden sickly child's deformed face, the star of Cunningham's Rubber Johnny made his appearance to a big cheer. With a powerful laser cannon array just under the screen, and a new sequence of the character jiggling around a pair of painfully distended breasts, it seemed like the nightmarish cousin of a Jarre laser show, especially when the familiar melody of Donna Summer's I Feel Love unexpectedly started creeping in. Cunningham had recorded a new vocal with Summer herself for a Gucci advertisement he shot a few years back, but it was still quite a shock to hear it soundtracking the manically deforming creature on screen, with its skittish wheelchair movements and bulbous head frantically inhaling a metre-long line of white powder across the screen.
Perhaps if we'd been more aggressive about finding the sound sweet spot after briefly leaving the Bench Gemini Stage towards the end of Jamie Lidell, my first live Hercules & Love Affair experience wouldn't have been so underwhelming. From the right of stage, the visuals were entertaining at least, with Captain Butler in a sailor hat, and his polysexual vocal entourage of Kim-Ann Foxman, Shaun Wright and Aerea Negrot in bright colours and sequins. But while bass lows and vocals were accounted for, everything mid-range was swallowed into nothingness. All tracks were combined into a kind of seamless party mix, leaving an endless kick and vocals, but no melodies to work against. For what it's worth, everyone else but us seemed to be on the party boat, but for me, when standouts like "You Belong" and "Blind" become part of an indistinguishable blur, something just isn't right.
I advocate Martina Topley Bird whenever and wherever I can, but was initially skeptical about her sweet, airy, quirky pop being able to command the attention of a festival crowd. Martina, forgive me. The sunny calmness of Sunday afternoon was forgotten as soon as I stepped inside the circus-like tent of the Intro Zelt, immediately transforming into a scene where I've apparently dropped acid before attending a child's birthday party. Dressed in a frothy princess ball gown, with matching red face paint, Topley Bird was accompanied on stage by an anonymous drummer dressed as a ninja, who played his kit sometimes with sticks, sometimes with his bare hands. After a call-and-response crowd sing-along of the completely wordless "DaDaDaDa" she casually introduced "an early track I sung on." Her devastating solo-with-my-sampler version of Tricky's "Overcome" had me trying to cover up tears in my eyes before any of my friends noticed, but I needn't have bothered, as they were completely transfixed by the crazy fairy on stage who, naturally, juiced up an electric guitar for her noisy instrumental garage rock outro.
As 3D and Daddy G of Massive Attack took to the stage in suit jackets and leather lace-ups, with their ensemble, it was a bit shocking to finally see their physical maturity first hand. Having only ever witnessed their growth via recorded music, an adjustment was needed to the mental image I apparently had stored in my mind. "Inertia Creeps," snapped me back to the present, comforted by their ability to still reach unholy levels of sonic doom. Backed by "the screen"—seemingly the most talked about aspect of their comeback—they're never overawed by its visual trickery, merely enhanced by it, whether it flickered like a monitor in a passenger terminal or drenched the swollen crowd with solid blocks of colour.
Like most of their recorded work, their tracks were livened by vocalists. Martina Topley Bird returned for her Heligoland number "Babel," and a surprisingly authentic replication of Elizabeth Frazer's iconic "Teardrop." My favourite moments were provided by the salt & pepper-haired Horace Andy, though. A lone figure in dark shades, with movements so small they were almost imperceptible; his commanding presence filled the arena during "Girl I Love You" and "Angel."As the main set favoured Mezzanine and new Heliogoland material like "Atlas Air," the consensus amongst us was that the encore would have to be "Unfinished Symapathy," so we were a little concerned when they returned after rapturous applause for the Damon Albarn-penned "Splitting The Atom," which at the very least provided a last opportunity for all the vocalists to be on stage at the same time.
Our patience was rewarded with a beautiful recreation of "Sympathy," and while we were ready to cheerfully draw a line under Melt 2010 at its conclusion, an unexpected closer elicited more unnecessary weepiness from me. The original inspiration for Tricky's "Overcome"—which Topley Bird had deconstructed earlier—"Karmacoma" was a welcome surprise and a nod to their brooding, early years. Altogether, the perfect combination of nostalgia, spectacle, drama and fragility to round off a memorable weekend.