Every great party begins with a great venue, or at the very least, an interesting one. Europe's festival circuit has much to offer in this regard. Croatia's Hideout, for example, takes place in an old Roman castle. Or Germany's Nature One, which makes use of a more modern equivalent: a disused missile base. Then there's Melt Festival and the Ferropolis, an open-air museum for dormant mining machinery. It's inspiring to dance beside these flood-lit, ten-story behemoths at night. And yet, it takes much more than just a venue to achieve success. In Melt's particular case, this would mainly seem to involve overcoming the stigma of being the "hipster" festival; the more pretentious and less credible counterpart to Fusion.
First held in 1997, Melt's rise to popularity has been swift. If you believe Wikipedia, their first decade saw attendance climb from 2,000 to 16,000. In 2008, this resulted in the festival scrapping its single-day format in favour of a three-day blowout. Entering the festival site, signs of the brand's prosperity were writ large on the landscape. Immaculate admin marquees lay dotted near the main road entry, while inside the Ferropolis itself, the army of lights, lasers and scrolling info screens was almost overwhelming. Shuttle buses zoomed back and forth, carrying partiers the kilometre or so between the stages and camp site. We opted to hire a pre-pitched tent; a move which showed its worth at the end moreso than at the beginning. As with all camping festivals, the sardine site arrangement made it nigh on impossible to ignore the neighbours. They were Germans—all of them—though this was by no means the norm. As our review noted last year, the festival is extremely popular for young Britons fed up with the prices (and weather) at home. Within a few hours, we befriended a group of rowdy Bavarians and hustled them off to see Nicolas Jaar.
Our haste was unneccessary, however. Dogged by tech issues, the lakeside Melt Selektor stage was running 45 minutes behind time just two hours after opening. Did I mention the lake? The Ferropolis and camp site straddle its sandy shores, meaning the clear water is full of swimmers during the day. The stage's location seemed sensible at such times, but during Jaar's evening performance, the ground became little more than a muddy quagmire. Accompanied by his band, Jaar did a magnificent job of making no one care. Laptop musicians are often criticised for their bland presence on stage, but the young star suffered no such problem, heaving in time to the mellifluous grooves and feeding off the large crowd. After being wooed by the strains of live guitar and sax, our decision to follow up with Loco Dice probably wasn't the best. While Jaar impressed with a diverse sense of musicality, the German DJ showed little more than an aptitude for the low end. And yet, the crowd at the Big Wheel stage were delighted as he dropped a succession of cookie-cutter tunes and sprinkled them with arbitrary bass drops. Over and over and over and over...and over.
By midnight, we were relieved to leave for Australian band Cut Copy. Opening with "So Haunted," the group confirmed they're no longer just an Antipodean secret, garnering huge response with "Hearts on Fire" and "Lights and Music." Playing at the Gemini stage—an outsized marquee—their performance was greatly enhanced by the towering LED panels encasing them. Like Jaar, they also proved a strong presence live, managing to carry the crowd through less popular songs such as "Saturdays," from their first album. Similarly, Paul Kalkbrenner proved himself a showman at the main stage an hour later, though for the wrong reasons. Billed as a live act, the German star did little more than wave his hands theatrically and roll out tunes from his last two albums, verbatim. The crowd seemed impressed in a "well, it's Paul Kalkbrenner...so we kinda have to be" way.
It was again with great relief that we scurried back to the Big Wheel to catch Carl Craig vs Radio Slave. The duo delivered, laying down a bed of intricate rhythms which the Loco Pops-stuffed punters seemed unwilling to taste. The frustration in the booth was palpable, and exacerbated by the stage's right channel frequently dropping out. Still the veterans plowed on, Craig looking cool as ice under his sunglasses. It was only towards the end of their two hour set that the crowd seemed to relent, responding particularly to a remix of "The Sound of Violence." It was a wonderful moment, the moon high and visible through the scaffolding of the booth, and the sun rising to face it. And yet, the prevailing feeling was that most of the crowd weren't quite sure what they were doing there. They'd paid, they'd showed up, the drugs had kicked in...now what? Based on this first night alone, it would be easy to agree with the aforementioned assessment that Melt is a hipster festival. The fashions certainly support the idea. Or perhaps more accurately; a festival for people who want to party, and don't really care what the soundtrack is. Thankfully, there's far more to it than that.
The second day started strongly, with Pawel and RNDM opening the Big Wheel stage at 3 PM. An unavoidable consequence of their timeslot, the dusty clearing was empty except for a few people swaying to the duo's sultry house tunes. The deliniation between "just woke up" and "still going" was hilariously clear. Soon after, Hamburg's Peter Kersten—AKA Lawrence—took the decks to considerable applause, as the crowd swelled to meet him. His classical-influenced house was a perfect late-afternoon accompaniment, and recognised as such by those present. The floor was dotted with people wearing Dial and Smallville shoulder bags, smiling appreciatively as Kersten dropped tracks like Dionne's "Back on the Planet" and Larry Heard's "The Sun Can't Compare." Unfortunately, the previous night's sound problems were still to be resolved. A barricade was erected mid-set, and a forklift puttered in to replace several of the boulder-like speakers. Despite the engine noise, it was a surprisingly slight interruption, ultimately shining favourably on Melt. Kersten finished his set looking unruffled, passing over to John Roberts. The young American held his own, but couldn't quite control the crowd the same way. However, his set acted as an excellent bridge into Redshape's—AKA Sebastian Kramer's—more upbeat sounds. Playing under the Palisade moniker, Kramer showcased a cheerier side, though still delivered via his 909 and laptop.
Missing many acts in favour of a desperately required sleep, our final push came the next morning, at the Sleepless Floor. If the first day was disappointing and the second a touch more than satisfying, the Sleepless Floor was a miracle. Without it, the festival might be nothing more than a bland, commercial event. The other six stages are located within the confines of the Ferropolis, meaning pat-downs and no outside alcohol. As a result, they can feel regimented and artificial. At the free-spirited Sleepless Floor, you're free to bring whatever props and drinks you like. Still, the bar was doing a roaring trade. We arrived round 7 AM, with the Live at Robert Johnson crew taking the reins for the next 13 hours. The stage was little more than a giant sand pit with a closed circle of booming speakers enclosing it. And yet what followed was one of the better parties I've ever attended: five discrete yet stylistically coherent sets and a wholly appreciative crowd. People often talk about collective experience, an ineffable feeling which pervades good parties. It's not so hard to describe, really. Apart from the crowd being there and enjoying the same thing, the richness of the experience comes from everyone contributing to one another's happiness.
The guy dressed in a clown costume to make you laugh. The guy with the giant bubble-blower. The guy with the roll of blue stickers, slapping them on everyone he passes. The girl sharing her cigarettes with anyone who asks. The bloke earnestly playing a blow-up guitar in time to the music. The cynic would write off this atmosphere as the work of drugs, but that's not really it. "It" was Roman Flügel dropping Orbital's "Chime" and then Todd Terje's "Snooze 4 Love" to finish his three-hour set. Gerd Janson inserting "Ragysh" at just the right time, or perhaps Oliver Hafenbauer playing Wax's "40004." It was these moments that kept the stage packed, even when the weekend's run of will-it-won't-it weather finally broke and it poured with rain all afternoon. Whatever else may go on at Melt Festival, it proved unequivocally that it still has relevance to the discerning punter.