Despite all this, Labyrinth is most definitely my thing. For a certain type of electronic music, it's probably neck-and-neck with Freerotation as the best festival in the world right now. I didn't sleep in a tent, but I stood in a field for hours on end, briefly braved bouts of drizzling rain and used the same toilet as thousands of my new best friends. And I loved it.
To be honest, I was expecting to. Relentlessly promoted by the bloggers over at mnml ssgs as a potentially life-changing experience, Labyrinth has enjoyed a remarkable reputation among techno heads over the past few years. The lineups are tightly curated, subject to the personal and artistic predilections of co-founder Russ. Artists who do well are often asked to return, becoming part of a loose Labyrinth family.
Which isn't to say that the event hasn't changed over the years. The festival began life ten years ago as part of the psytrance/Goa trance scene in Japan in the late '90s. But it's gradually folded in more modern techno sounds. It would be hard to believe that Sandwell District's Function would have ever played a regular set at Labyrinth 2001, let alone the hardware-aided four-and-a-half hour centerpiece of 2010's second day. The classic house rooted sound of Steffi, melodic dubstep of Scuba and whatever-the-hell Shackleton is? Not a chance.
While there were plenty of internationals enjoying the music a few hours outside of Tokyo, Labyrinth is still first and foremost a Japanese event. So it's fascinating to see how easily all of this music was embraced by a culture of festivalgoers that were dancing en masse to such feathery tunes only a few years ago. By all accounts, the psytrance scene has faded heavily, dogged by backward-facing music and ideology.
The influence of trance hasn't completely dissipated. Mathew Jonson, whose tempo-spanning techno this year was a master class in the possibilities of a hardware live set, performed a revelatory set in 2005 that arguably set Labyrinth on its current artistic course. Festival favorite Donato Dozzy's hypnotic techno often weaves the same sort of spell. So did Move D and Jonah Sharp, whose easy improvisations were perfectly pitched for their early morning slot on the second day.
Among the many things that set Labyrinth apart is its soundsystem. People often nod unblinkingly at the phrase "Funktion One," as if it's a cure-all. But Labyrinth's use of the speaker company's products were stunning both visually (imposing three-person high bass bins, 12 speaker cones held above them via cranes) and functionally (no matter where you stood in the main festival area, an enormous circle cut into the woods, the sound was uncannily crystal clear with little volume drop-off). I don't exaggerate when I say that I've never heard anything like it.
The artists involved responded in kind, providing excellent distillations of their unique aesthetics in nearly all cases and, in some, extending themselves to places that they've never gone before. Function, for one, seemed to exult in the chance to perform for longer than he almost ever gets to play, alternately rewarding and punishing the audience. Immediately after, Shackleton turned things upside down with a set where the kick drum was impossible to find. All the while, you saw artists genuinely enjoying each other's music and company: Peter Van Hoesen grooving to Donato Dozzy's exultant closing set; Steffi, A Guy Called Gerald and others huddling around the warmth of a food stand in the brisk early morning weather of day three while Convextion played a set of remarkable and frustratingly unreleased material.
Talk to Russ, and you'll realize that this is all part of the plan. He talks to the artists that have already been to feel out potential newcomers. Will they fit in with the rest of the Labyrinth family? "Fit" is the most important word there, because each set felt like a bigger piece of a whole. Whereas you get "the festival set" from artists that fly in for a gig and fly out without much understanding of a greater context, Labyrinth invites them to experience its entirety. To become egoless.
It's the same for the audience too, whose attention isn't distracted by other stages and needless decoration. What was regarded as a potential frustration—a denial of a permit to play music 24 hours a day for the festival's duration—actually helped make the event a success. Everybody was on the same wavelength, moving from early morning ambience to mid-day techno and house to weirder and weirder sounds as the night went on. Perfectly plotted, it made me think on more than a few moments that maybe I did like festivals after all. Open-air festivals, even. Or maybe I've just been going to the wrong ones all this time.
To gain a better insight as to the origins and the ethos of the festival, we talked to Russ, one of the co-founders of Labyrinth, a few weeks after its tenth edition.
Why did you first come to Japan?
I've been here more than ten years now. I originally came here with the intent of studying Japanese for a few years and going back to the United States for an academic career. One thing led to another, though, including Labyrinth and I've been here ever since. I wasn't in Japan very long before Labyrinth began, but I was here long enough to experience some outdoor parties and get a feel for the scene and get motivated to do my own.
At the time in the late '90s, there was a flourishing of psychedelic trance and outdoor parties in Japan, and those were the first parties that I was exposed to. They were a bit crazy, the organizers were all over the shop, but it was a really cool and special group of people so we wanted to bring even more to Japan and to do something a little bit different with it.
But, you know, while Labyrinth has its roots in the trance scene, I don't just mean the scene in Japan around 1998. I see the roots of the Labyrinth reaching back to the full moon parties on the beaches of Anjuna and Vagator in the late '80s, and to the all night sets of DJs like Laurent. The idea of taking the best of available genres—from Italo, EBM, and New Beat to kosmische, house and electro—and weaving them together into one long psychedelic trip is just as relevant to my vision of the Labyrinth now as it was to the parties in Goa then.
Take the first night of this year's Labyrinth: Donato Dozzy opened with experimental German rock from the '70s, Scuba then morphed into tribal sounding techno and all mutations of UK bass music, plus some Aphex Twin, and then Peter Van Hoesen finished with a set that touched on everything from Belgium New Beat to Autechre and T++. And it all made sense as part of the story of that night, and as part of the larger story of the entire weekend. To me that was as close as you're going to get today to the musical ethos of Goa in the '80s.
build a club outside."
Had you done many club gigs before you did Labyrinth? Or was it always an outdoor thing?
No, we hadn't done any. We've done a couple of gigs in clubs at Unit in Tokyo since, but the focus has been on the outdoor aspect. The dance music I love is hypnotic techno, basically, but I can't pretend that I was ever inspired by a techno night, or a house night, that I experienced in a club. Everything that made me want to build an event comes from experiences at outdoor events in extreme and magical places (Hungary, South Africa, the Australian Outback and remote islands in Japan) where people were tripping out to music and nature, and where people saw themselves as voyagers.
Now, of course, many of those so-called voyagers didn't quite make the trip home, and half of them turned out to be nutters from the start, but I have to respect something that had its roots in myth and mystic visions—however romantic, naive, and foolish—as opposed to being born in the politics of an urban box.
I'm not into clubs really. I go out, but I usually don't last long, because the sound is always so poor. I'm happy the clubs are there, because they make all the music possible, and I can then take this music and reposition it in a different context. The club events we do can be a lot of fun, but Labyrinth is not closely connected to the clubbing scene here in Tokyo. The last thing I want to do is build a club outside. Just listen to the work of Shackleton or Donato Dozzy. Does that sound like it was meant to be played indoors?
There are producers who sound like all along they were making ritualistic and psychedelic techno for outdoor gatherings in the mountains, beaches, forests or wherever, and DJs sympathetic to that style. It's just taken me a long time to find them.
You mentioned you wanted to bring something different to the table with the first Labyrinth. Can you talk about what it is that you wanted to do?
We wanted to do an outdoor party, but to strip out all the nonsense. Most of the parties here would have all kinds of decorations, black lights, lasers, VJs, screens. Everything that I thought distracted you from the music. One of the main motivations to do something was to strip back things completely and focus on the sound. Organic lighting, some candles, some torches, set up teepee, set up a soundsystem and let people make their own party. We've pretty much stayed true to that concept from day one.
He's closed the festival for the past three years, but I first brought him in 2007. I heard a remix of a Reynold track called "Over There" by him earlier that year, and it blew me away. It sounded like a waterfall. Mountain techno. Exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hear outdoors. We knew we had to bring him. I didn't know much about him, but after I booked him Mathew Jonson contacted me to tell me how great he was for that type of psychedelic techno.
Tell me about the programming of this year's festival.
It's very meticulous. I expect every set to fulfill a very specific function in the party. It's not a showcase event where someone brings their sound and pisses off and someone else comes on. So you have to get people who are willing to melt themselves into the event.
The end of the second day, for example, was all about building intensity throughout until you had Function who was going to drop the hammer and play for four-and-a-half hours. I was hoping Function would soften people up, and leave them vulnerable to any sound that you might put on after him. A sound that wouldn't necessarily even have to be 4/4. After four-and-a-half hours of Function, I don't think there's much more to be said about techno. So with Shackleton, I wanted it to be this cathartic experience. What I loved about his set was the open space it created: Some people dancing, some people not, depending on what your inner demons were up to.
I think one of the most interesting things about the festival was that it didn't go all night, that you were forced to stop the music at 2 AM or so.
Yes. At first, we weren't so sure about it. But it's been an accidental boon, allowing for everyone to be on the same page, especially audience-wise. You don't have young people going hard all night, and then sleeping during the day while people who have slept already enjoy other music. Doing it this way, you can pretty much see it all.
What were your general thoughts on the festival this year? Was there anything that didn't work?
Usually, I'd be able to pinpoint a few things. Last year, for example, having techno start at 5 AM was a pretty clear "didn't work." People couldn't get their heads around it. But 2010 was one of the first years where I was happy with everything. Every set did basically what I was hoping it would do, and in some places more. I'm pretty critical. And most years I can say that plenty of things didn't work, but I was really happy with how everything went.
Plans for next year?
Already in the works. All I can say for now, though, is that it'll be in the same place and around the same time of year.