Eastville Park, Bristol
27th April 2013
A new one-day festival, ARC Festival, dedicated to digital art and experimental electronic music landed in Bristol last weekend. Our man in town checked out this addition to the local festival landscape.
It’s always a worry when a festival drops the ticket price two weeks before the show, raising fears about cancelled artists and production cut-backs. The promoters of new one-day festival ARC, however, made good on their promises for cutting-edge electronic music and digital art, despite reducing tickets to £20, and had just enough people through the gates to make it what they wanted it to be all along: a fucking good party.
There was an awful lot of noise squeezed into the small site, with 60 hours of tunes spread across five distinct venues -two big, blacked-out marquees and three smaller domes- and by mid-afternoon this Bristol park was covered in smiling faces enjoying the age-old joys of getting hammered in the sunshine. The blue skies did mean that the larger stages found it difficult to reach a critical mass while the sun still shone; the Polygon Stage did best before dark, with an up-for-it line-up drawing people in, whereas some of the more abstract sounds in the ARC Stage during the day played out to handfuls of listeners standing in the glow of the enormous curved projection screen behind the musicians.
This being Bristol, of course, far too much time was spent lolling on the grass, catching up with old faces, but a few musical highlights stand out among the hazy memories of laughing, dancing, and staggering. Indigo really caught the Polygon Stage crowd, with a subterranean take on 2-step that got us all skipping from side to side. He was followed by DJ Die, who banged out a wicked-fun set, crossing from old school classics to supremely danceable soca/dancehall/bass rippers, with a verve that put a lot of the other acts to shame. Another geezer from the heart of Bristol, Tectonic label boss Rob Ellis, aka Pinch, kept the place rolling, starting with a deep roots reggae tune before descending to glacial depths with shuddering bass music that was all about the spaces between the notes. For something so loud and heavy it’s a surprisingly delicate sound, and one that didn’t benefit from someone shaking a tambourine ever-so-slightly out of time down the front… The Polygon Stage was also blessed with superb production from the Skulpt crew, who mapped projections onto the 3D surfaces above the stage in a constantly changing flow of shapes and colours that were offset beautifully by the multiple lasers.
The Radian Dome has travelled across the UK and Europe putting on wicked dances wherever it goes and when a brief rain shower passed over the site it filled with dancers. They were lucky enough to find Bebop & Rocksteady drowning the space in twisted glitch-hop and broken techno, with thousands of different bleeps falling apart then coalescing back into rhythms in very pleasing ways. As is always the way with the Dome, many entered in mid-afternoon and didn’t leave until the music shuddered to a halt hours later, lost in the 360-degree ceiling projections and the heavyweight soundsystem.
Some of the music later in the day felt a bit passive (house music that’s too cool for a piano line, techno that’s too refined for a breakdown), as if producers fear we’ve heard it all before and are stuck re-arranging pieces in ever-diminishing circles, but there were exceptions. On the main ARC Stage, with its overwhelming lasers and lights, Clarke got a deep groove going, and bleep-and-bass legends The Black Dog played a dark, hypnotic set to an enthusiastic crowd, though personally it felt like the kind of selection I’d have enjoyed more at 6am after a full nights dancing, rather than as an end-of-party headline set at 11pm. Bobbafatt in the Tangent Dome (which was set-up Boiler Room-style with the acts in the middle of the dancefloor and revellers slumped and shuffling around the edges) and Livity Sound in the Axis Dome (a white, glowing, smoke-filled space), also brought energy and action to the last hours. My highlight though could have played at anytime and would have sounded wicked, wherever or whenever. Will Saul, who played in the early evening, was joined on stage by a drummer who provided a skippy framework for Saul’s pulsing otherworldly sounds, like the Cocteau Twins raised on Afrika Bambaataa records. The simple swing of a live drummer and the interplay between this and Saul’s stabs and sighs made this show stand head and shoulders above everything else I heard all day.
So a wicked day out came to a bleary-eyed end, with the buzzing crowd being bussed off to after-parties across Bristol. It was a day that lived up to hopes for exceptional visuals and provided plenty of moments of musical joy. Fair play to the Arc crew for pulling it off, having dirty-raver fun in the middle of the city while the sun shines: you can’t argue with that.
All words by Bert Random. You can find more of Bert’s writing on Louder than War here, get his book about the 90s free-party scene, ‘Spannered’, here, and find him ranting on Twitter as @spanneredbooks.
All photos by the mighty Matthew Smith, aka Mattko; you can find more of his amazing work here.