Over the last two years I have transported myself many times from the fluorescent lights of New York City to the charming nighttime seduction of Seattle. When Decibel Festival announced its ten year anniversary, I quickly decided I couldn’t miss out on such a monumental event. September 25 – 29 the seaport city of Seattle, Washington lit up for the tenth time with one of the largest live event programs in North America. Spanning five full days and nights of music and culture, featuring 130 confirmed artists from 20 countries, scores of club showcases, day-time boat and after-hour parties, educational conferences, film series and more, it wasn’t a terribly hard decision.
The first day of Decibel Festival rolled on slowly, kicking off with an Opening Gala at Chihuly Garden and Glass. The very classy introductory ceremony hosted in the museum’s Glasshouse was completed by hors d’oeuvres, wine, and neo-classical music. As the crowd trickled in, Serena Tideman quietly serenaded the audience accompanied by her cello. The night’s headlining performance by Mileece was an exciting affair, but the premier attraction might have been the relatively unknown Ben Klock, who turned a glowing Seattle nightclub into a dank and dense atmosphere Berghain’s techno. The volume was raised more than a few notches, and the suffocating bass created a hypnotic atmosphere of tweaking sounds around the crowd’s perimeter. Kode9‘s finished out the first night’s set. As compared to the massive techno grind Kode9 was somehow light but definitely entertaining. The founder of the influential UK bass label dropped everything from old-skool garage to grime to ragga, hip-hop and r&b. The set was fresh, unpredictable and super intelligent.
Day two of Decibel Festival was more event packed, with the commencement of the Optical Events. Peter Broderick hovered between the banjo, guitar, piano and violin, at times layering his vocals through recorded loops. The elementary particles of songwriting sparkled through Peter’s music with elegance and grace, impressing his unique style of folksy Americana upon the audience. Nils Frahm joined Peter on stage for the very first Oliveray live performance. The duo abandoned lyrics to plunge instead into tender instrumental moments, inviting tear swells to the audience’s eyes. These sonic mood swings created mass emotion just in time for Hauschka to take the stage. Volker Bertelmann put on a performance much darker than his usual affair. Aphotic chords collapsed upon a prepared piano. The lowest keyboard strings were wired to a pickup that mapped the strikes to a dull and hollow kick. The percussive power of the instrument exploded in staccato rhythm that resolved itself over reverb and delay. The set created a mesmerizing atmosphere, one in which the tense arrangements sprang to life.
By early evening of the third day, I found myself seated at the Nordstrom Recital Hall for the Erased Tapes label showcase. Watching Nils Frahm perform is can be a religious experience, and once again, I felt like I was in the presence of a master. Frahm has a dizzying, kinetic physicality about him, with the ambidextrous ability to play multiple keyboards simultaneously. His fragile and dampened keys gave me goosebumps, chills and currents of emotions I still can not explain. His label-mate, Ólafur Arnalds was joined by Arnor Dan to perform material from his latest album. Arnalds’ neoclassical chamber music is more restrictive and regimented than Frahm’s, yet in a live setting the solo passages were extenuated, allowing more flow to enter their gorgeous refrains. For the next chapter in a five-day adventure, Ghostly International presented a showcase at The Crocodile. The label brought Seattle’s own Jeff McIlwain and his Lusine project. The techno was ultra-streamlined, bearing Lusine’s previous suggestion of urban beats and structural breakdowns. The night ended with Machinedrum, who, honestly, completely killed. For the unveiling of his world premier conceptual work, Stewart invited a live drummer, swung over a guitar, and picked up the mic. Stewart’s expert guidance was saturated with sheer funk and party vibe, as he traversed his meta-space with a blissful and highly memorable groove.
The next day, at Optical’s third installment I experienced Margaret Chardiet’s Pharmakon project. It was a blindingly bright definition of noise, manifested by explicit compositional punctuation performed with abandon. The roar of her vocal howl was only exceeded by the wining, twisting torrent of contact-mic amplified sheet metal. Later, across downtown at the Showbox, Juan Atkins created a marriage of Detroit techno’s keynote repetitive phrasing and deep syncopated funk. Drum machines engaged in an endless dialog of call and response of arpeggiated synth which rode the rhythm into futuristic vistas. Hamburg met Detroit as Thomas Fehlmann embraced Atkins, handing off the baton to Dr. Alex Paterson. For all the rain and hurricane winds outside, the interior of the club was a humid, light filled, and pulsating urban space filled to capacity with bodies in motion. Building from slower, more spacial ambiance and dubbed out downtempo beats, The Orb brought around some older favorites, including Little Fluffy Clouds. This was a sound that looked back to past decades of electronic music’s golden cultural ascent without denying the technological advances of it’s present incarnation.
The final Optical showcase was made weighty not by the conclusion of the festival alone, but by the bleak weather coupled with the evening’s theme: Black Noise. The showcase featured Blackest Ever Black label’s current rising (dark) star, Raime. Keeping to the shadows on the peripheral of the stage, Tom Halstead and Joe Andrews let loose a goliath of strained acoustic instruments. Guitar and electronics formed a tidal ebb and flow of gravitational weight. Next, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s The Sight Below created an unbroken thread of desolate, elegiac yearning, opening with field recordings of bubbling water, distant birds and deep grumbling bass. Hiss and crackle slowly gave way to more controlled distortion, which slowly drowned out the harmony in a torrent of electric guitar fuzz and analog synth. A postponed Oren Ambarchi performance took place the next night. His sound explored lower frequency shifts punctuated by nimble resonances plucked from the electric guitar. Given the physical, aural, and sensory overload over the course of these days, there have been few festival conclusions that have so perfectly matched the overall cumulative effect of Decibel as this late and final chapter.