Dissonanze’s smaller size, lesser ambitions and lack of pretension make for a more manageable event than Sonar, and with programming this well chosen, it’s also the more enjoyable. But that's only half the story - the venue was jaw-dropping. A vast marble box, the Palazzo dei Congressi may scream “Fascist” from every slab (it has Mussolini connections), but it’s a great space to hear techno. Spotlights and slide projections crisscross the roof terrace; downstairs a comfortable, seated auditorium houses the more cerebral artists, while the main stage is a huge, cavernous cube with a ceiling that rivals that of the Pantheon.
American minimalist Charlemagne Palestine was less impressed by the “hideous” authoritarian space, and this distaste was reflected in his combative performance. In between mouthfuls of cognac snifter, he opened with a few words about being happy to sing again in Rome, not having done so since 1974. He then coaxed a gently wavering drone from his two laptops, moving to a bank of synthesisers to add denser sounds, before he found his voice and started to scream. This was not some careless noise but a planned, piercing shriek, which blended with electronics into a thick, sinuous chord. Palestine’s drones are unique and captivating, and his lackadaisical approach to constructing them strangely life-affirming. After he’d finished he walked through the crowd, offering cognac to his delighted audience.
Ryoji Ikeda’s sound art was the polar opposite to Palestine’s humanism. Across the visual backdrop, black and white cells danced arhythmically to the harsh bursts of noise issuing from the speakers. It was chaos, but at times it veered into more structured forms—there were moments when he sounded like a violent, finely-honed Autechre—revealing a shade of warm blood in Ikeda's binary makeup I'd not previously noticed. The masochists dancing perilously close to the speaker stacks didn’t seem to mind, however, and soon it was over with Ikeda’s chessboard visuals and pinprick racket ending as joyously desultory and antisocial as it began.
In the big room Pinch was bringing his set to a close, picking from the borders of the dubstep canon. Plenty of hectic jungle patterns, spacious acidic passages, and elastic rhythms, and his final moments brought the Jamaican influence to the fore with patois vocals slung across drunken, lurching half-steps. But I was getting fidgety, watching Cobblestone Jazz set up to the side of the stage.
Switch’s take on big room banging was Friday’s nadir, a set of humourless, lowest-common-denominator techno devoid of anything that didn’t serve dance music's most basic function. The builds and troughs all came as expected and there were no surprises, angles, or hooks. Yet his bombast did suit the surroundings, and the crowd lapped it up, but I felt like my face was being repeatedly crushed by Orwell's jackboot.
Upstairs Prefuse 73 were dishing out a steady dose of crooked hip-hop, but it was local heroes Daniele Baldelli and Alexander Robotnik who really excited. The roof seemed ready to lift off during Baldelli’s moments, with dazzling streaks of electronic disco pounding from the speakers. I couldn't tell who was on when, or playing what, but they continuously scored with low-slung basslines and bleak electro patterns. Big eighties pop cliches segued into classy deep house numbers, punchy 'Blue Monday' moments recalling the heyday of early My Best Friend releases, and with the audience universally grinning, grinding and making out, it was an impossible set to fault. Sharing a ride with Robotnick and Baldelli later, I noticed they behaved like a pair of old school chums, with Baldelli claiming the only reason they play Italodisco is to get the girls. Heck, he almost had me swooning.
Booka Shade, the “live electronic drums” version, played a pop-centric set, giving the hits—'Mandarine Girl', 'In White Rooms', 'Body Language'—the camped-up Depeche Mode treatment, leaving me wondering why I’d not been more aware of this angle before. This tangent offered an apt successor to the disco inferno of the Italians upstairs, making the transition to Loco Dice less marked than it might have been.
Dice played sleek, dramatic minimal, mixing impeccably from among the slimmer variants of the style. He was heavy on the controls, and the drops came thick and fast, magnifying bite-sized bits into great resonant chasms. His set was riveting, a strong demonstration of the qualities of contemporary minimal, although tonight my heart was lost with the sensuous Italo boys.
After a day following Peck and Hepburn's Roman Holiday footsteps, Deadbeat's opening rooftop slot offered a fine re-introduction to music. He stuck to the loping, half-step dub side of his personality, paving the way for the more cavernous dubstep which was to follow. Traces of brass and his almost-trademarked melodica fought their way through fields of grey static – these were bastard beats that lifted the devoted to their feet, or kept the stoned pleasantly seated.
Seventies krautrock heroes Cluster did likewise. Performing in the auditorium on a selection of peculiar hardware, their glassy planes of sound shifting uneasily between stuttered bell tones and sporadic bass strums. I nearly nodded off, but that's intended as praise.
Italian AV producer xx+yy’s visuals were a flawless compliment to Murcof's captivating drones. The performance was akin to a pessimistic update on Eno's Apollo: on one hand languid, crystalline swathes of sound, on the other disconcerting and biomorphic shapes hovered unsteadily above. The pairing was quite stunning.
Brasilintime, the hyped supergroup which followed, offered antidote in spades. Their ceaseless syncopation cleared all concept of broken beat from the mind, and feet. This fusion of batucada, samba, hip-hop and disco, with Afrobeat anchor Tony Allen in the hotseat, was a joyous, infectious lesson in dance and rhythm. J. Rocc, Madlib and a stageful of others (including another drummer) added to the ruckus, which for all its activity never seemed cluttered.
The hangar was similarly heaving, with Erol Alkan's stadium electro-house doing its job. Alkan, fresh from a set elsewhere in Europe, was as animated as the whooping masses, mixing vodka drinks and flicking through his CD folder before punching the sky. It seemed a tad overkill.
Soon Juan Atkins took the mic, introducing Rome to Model 500 and launching into 'Cosmic Cars'. Now a four-piece group with Mike Banks on board, these stunning tracks contain more Motown soul than any techno hence, with subtle keyboard flourishes added to even the barest, repetitive patterns. They mostly stuck to early classics, and despite their reliance on vintage electro structures, these pieces sounded remarkably fresh, and surprisingly jovial, but not quite loud enough.
Closing with Detroit second-waver Carl Craig was a stunning ploy. His set bridged the pioneering work of earlier motor-city producers, European disco and contemporary minimal sounds in a beautiful history lesson. DJ Rolando's epic, beatless 'Knights of the Jaguar' promised a powerful, emotional ride, with tracks by Jeff Mills, Luciano and his own 'Faze Action' mix echoing his opening statement on techno unity. An idealistic vision perhaps, but set to such music it was an easy spell to fall under, and a fitting conclusion to a wonderful festival.