Words by Keely Starr, photos by Sam Whiteside @ Voena
Reviewing the same festival two years in a row is kind of how I imagine a primary school teacher must feel writing a report for a child they’ve taught for consecutive years. There’s a level of responsibility to both the child and it’s creators, you want to paint the praises, and acknowledge the improvements while making carefully worded suggestions for next year. 2013 marks the fifth year of Subsonic, so it is still very much of a primary school age, and with a hell of a lot to praise, noticeable improvements and a few suggestions up my sleeve, the metaphor is pretty appropriate (although I can’t imagine many elementary report cards come with the prerequisite that the author spends three days in the bush, covered in glitter and flitting between dimensions.)
With the crowd’s apparent preoccupation with coloured lights, nonsensical costumes, and the complete abandon of otherwise damaging ingrained social constructs like judgement and intolerance, Subsonic Music Festival shares more similarities with a five-year-old than one might first assume. Still in it’s infancy as an event, and with my adopted position as figurative report writer, it’s easy to throw around words like “outstanding” and “improved” lightly, but often clichés become that way because there really are no better words to use.
Showing my bias as a graphic design student, one of the most impressive improvements about this years experience is what was given out at the gates. Along with garbage bags, branded butt bins, and stickers was a beautifully designed A6 booklet, with information on everything from the stage designers to the market stalls and the visual artists in between them; but perhaps most notably was a twelve-page spread on the DJs and producers playing, divided into both international and local artists alphabetically, complete with accompanying photos and their respective genres! Genius. How often have you missed incredible sets at festivals after skimming the set times and chilling at your campsite when you didn’t recognise any names for a few hours, only to discover an artist three weeks later and kick yourself for not knowing that they were *insert favourite genre here* when you read their name on the line up? The chances of me being awake at 9.30am on the Sunday were little to none, but after flicking through the booklet Saturday night and realising that Bumble was glitch hop, I made the effort to check it out and was rewarded with a organic, warm, weekend highlight. The booklet is an evidential of the attention to detail that transcends the barrier between ‘better organised, more expensive bush doof’ and takes Subsonic to ‘properly planned boutique festival,’ and it’s an added bonus that it’s the first impression you get on the way in.
The other advantage of a genre listing is that it’s immediately apparent just how many there are on offer over the weekend. A quick scroll through the Subsonic Facebook page reveals a surface level frustration with the inclusion of certain genres, and while this could be perceived as negative, expanding the comments is actually testament to the competency of the Subsonic line-up coordinators. “My only complaint is why so much techno/minimal/deep house?” is answered with the set times of the drum n’ bass and jungle at the river stage on Friday night, multiple mentions of the evening’s seamless progression from disco to deep house at the Paradiso stage, and compliments on the amount of psytrance and glitch compared to previous years. And that’s just in one night. The eclectic taste of both the organisers and ticket buyers of Subsonic is one of the preeminent points of difference for the festival, and something that continues to be strengthened and solidified each year. With everything from hip-hop to garage and ‘tuff disco/slut-funk’ there is almost guaranteed to be something for everyone. Most festivals are put on by music lovers, but the Subsonic crew is a collection of those genre nazi, foot tapping friends that every group has, the kind of people who can tell you the time signature of a song that hasn’t been released yet and know exactly which bpm scares horses. They’re not just music lovers, they’re music livers, and it might annoy you at gigs, but it results in really, really good ones.
While the international line-up always delivers from every corner of the musical map, this year the local line-up was fierce competition in the set time clashes. At any stage on any night, there were artists from Australian labels Motorik, Astral People, and Regen, as well as regulars from S.A.S.H, Spice or Mad Racket. The seemingly bottomless depths of Sydney’s talent pool was represented in almost every genre, and it wasn’t restricted to merely musicians, with local artists, designers and circus performers adding to the multifaceted visual vibe.
Friday night kicked off to a shaky start with some of the stages running behind schedule, which meant a few missed sets and frantic scrambles back to the stages once it was realised, but Psychemagik more than made up for it with a disco driven bass heavy hour, which was more appropriate for the later set time regardless.
The main stage was marked with more delays; a restless crowd waiting almost forty minutes for Subsonic headliner Chic ft. Nile Rogers. All was forgotten as soon as they began though, and Nile Rogers took his audience on an emotional journey through his entire career in music, spanning decades, genres and talent with an awe inspiring amount of funk. One of the welcome changes this year was the introduction of extended sets, with two hour set times the norm, allowing artists like Nile Rogers room to craft incredibly memorable performances.
Sydney techno label Motorik brought international act Jon Convex up to play to an excitable crowd at the River Stage, and despite his cold knees and some technical trouble towards the end of his set, he lived up to lofty expectations as one of the UK’s most relevant electronic exports with a set that suggested he’ll stay that way for quite a while yet. Subsonic golden boy Opiuo played a predictably energetic set on the mainstage and by sunrise it was apparent that we would have to be more organised with our precious few hours of sleep over the weekend.
Saturday was further evidence to support my theory that Barrington tops has it’s own weather system, following a freezing night with mid to high thirties heat and lots of lazy people floating around in the river. By 6pm it was more manageable and Nico Stojan was enough to pull a lot of the crowd up to the Paradiso Stage, a decision no one regretted with a pretty special two and a half hour set to kick the night off.
In previous years the sound overlap between stages was one of my few complaints, (along with Subsonic’s strange opposition to using lasers?) however this year it seemed much less noticeable. Whether this was due to slightly different stage placement or direction of the sound, or simply better timetabling so the genres being heard complimented each other, I’m not sure, but regardless it was an improvement worth mentioning.
Astral People took over the Paradiso stage from Sunday morning onwards, providing a well-deserved platform to inner west twin producer duo Cosmo’s Midnight, who played a perfectly progressive set that strayed a little from their own upbeat down tempo sound into something decidedly dirtier and heavier, proving their place as Sydney’s latest up and comers in experimental electronica is just the beginning. Moving through to above-par-as-always sets from Mike Who and Ben Fester, broken up with a stand out performance from Oneman, Paradiso was on point all afternoon, and it was harder than usual to tear myself away in time for crowd favourite Perfect Stranger on the River Stage. Having seen him play the weekend before at Earthcore, and a few months ago at Burning Man, expectations were high and expectations were exceeded. The ability to seamlessly respond to a crowd is a talent that separates good DJs from great DJs, and one that slots Perfect Stranger into the latter division by the third song. Incorporating prog and psy influences into a totally unique understanding of techno, Perfect Stranger is a rare artist with a refreshingly fluid approach to music, both acting on and reacting to his surroundings, whether that is the environment, the crowd or just the time of day.
Taking us from evening to night with another indulgent two hour set, the transition into darkness was paralleled with a transition into the exciting, infectious, electric mood that Sunday night at Subsonic has come to be known for. We even met people who were working all weekend but paid full price for a ticket and made the drive up just for the Sunday night, testament to a wild reputation that keeps punters coming back. Contrary to the previous two nights, the warm weather on Sunday night matched the atmosphere, and jackets were discarded for dragonfly wings and cardboard dinosaur costumes. Stage hopping took three times as long for all the impromptu LED flow performances to watch in between, and even the security guards were in a good mood.
Garage Pressure and Zed Bias took the vibe and turned it into sound, wrapping up the Paradiso Stage with an explosive energy that drew almost half the festival over, spilling colour and movement all the way to the river bank and back to the road. Not to be outdone, Amir Alexander pushed his set at the River Stage from it’s timetabled close time at 11.30pm to almost 2am, much to the delight of hedonistic partiers looking to dance as long as their legs and supplies would let them. When even he was forced to finish up, the renegade stage at the back of the campsites was ready to take over the remainder of the crowd if they knew where to go. Shout outs to those guys for helping us all keep going well into Monday morning.
The musical element to Subsonic is enough to justify the drive and ticket price twice over, but it’s the location that invites such die-hard loyalty to the festival. Set amongst picturesque rolling hills, a story book winding river and willow trees, it’s a breathtaking place to spend time, and an incredible place to spend time dancing in a sea of LED lights and bass lines.
That said, you could take the most beautiful location on the planet, set it to the live soundtrack of the most influential electronic artists to ever live on a skyline of function ones, fill it with ground breaking art and transformational ideas as far as the third eye can see, but if the crowd is sub par so is the event. As always, this is where the true differences between Subsonic and other Australian niche festivals are found. I spotted exactly two Southern Cross tattoos, with an estimate of 4,500 attendees through the gates by Saturday afternoon, and the majority of those minimally clothed in forty degree weather. Let that sink in for a while.
Along with an almost unheard of absence of shit tattoos was an abundance of really fucking good dudes. You’ll meet people you like at almost any festival of this nature, but this is the kind of place you’ll have trouble meeting someone you don’t like. Whether it’s lending you a balloon or a meaningful conversation about spirituality, the attitude and openness of the general crowd that Subsonic attracts is second to none, and in my opinion it’s strongest selling point.
I said it in my last report card, and evidently nothing has changed this year, the crew behind this festival just get it. Even when I’m actively trying to find a few faults to throw in this review, Subsonic is pulling straight A’s and gold stars, and if it’s parents ever end up reading this, you’ve raised an incredible kid. See you next year!"
Check out the rest of the photos here.