I try to make it down to Seattle for Decibel Festival every late September. It is just as much an excuse to wine and dine, shoot photos and enjoy the weather in the city as it is to see premier electronic acts. But Decibel is not just any electronic music festival. What makes Decibel unique is, it is both large enough to draw the world's best talent, yet independently minded enough to cater towards underground and experimental acts.
The Decibel folks have resisted pandering to fads in the EDM world, as pop music has highjacked the good name of electronic music and many have cashed in on the trends while watering down the sound. Decibel instead offers an alternative. It proves that electronic music is not monolithic: it is in fact is healthy, creative and intelligent in the underground. The 2014 Program certainly highlighted the state of the scene today: as varied as the performance halls the showcases were staged in. From the chic and monied Seattle Center and Nordstrom Recital Hall, to the gritter yet gentrifying streets of Belltown and Broadway, the music scene is as diverse as it is vibrant. Decibel attempts to cater to many divergent corners of the scene, pushing boundaries and finding new territory. Yet, most of the acts Decibel booked remain small-club draws to us here in Seattle, despite some big names in the international scene.
Decibel's decision to feature a larger profile venue like the EMP may have been a gamble, but it would ultimately pay off by increasing their presence and prestige on the international stage. Yet, the venue didn't seem to draw the crowds of years' past when the event was centered in Capitol Hill; the venue itself could not shake its corporate feel. Ten dollar beers in a corralled beer garden and early curtain calls for the headliners were a few indicators that the underground scene felt awkward in a mainstream venue. It is evidence that Decibel is a "big tent" kind of event. Yet, it continues to hand pick from the best artists in the world, across many scenes, and has many venue options. Certain venues would provide a better format, such as the mainstay Crocodile, which was outfitted with good sound and solid attendance. Booking many of this years' best showcases could not shake the fact that it still felt a bit like a rock venue, however. Q, on the other hand, a decidedly dance venue, seemed to pander to a collar popping clientele, one more at home with radio-friendly electronica than db's tastes. The scene in "dressed down" Seattle seemed most home in longtime venues like Rebar, and showcases like Ninjatune's may have felt more inspired if held here instead of the Croc.
On other programming notes, certain artists were booked to perform at the same time that may have split the crowds between venues. These "conflicts" are unavoidable, but booking showcases that would draw from a similar crowd, like Ninjatune and Modern Love showcases--both on a Thursday night--may have hurt attendance for both of these shows (I reluctantly did not make it to Andy Stott, but heard it was a highlight). On Friday, the cancellation of Scuba (and then Gui Boratto) diminished the options at EMP; I ultimately landed at the Crew Love showcase on the hill. Saturday, I personally had a hard time picking between Kastle and Kode 9, both slated to play early slots; and later, when I ventured to EMP around 1:15 to catch Richie Hawtin's finale, the venue was already vacated. On Sunday, I questioned booking Salva and Mimosa/Kraddy on the same night; the later showcase was ultimately canceled. Not sure why. The programming and venues were ambitious, and there are bound to be hiccups.
Yet, Decibel continues to impress. And while Seattle may seem an unlikely host for such a foray into all things electronic, it makes sense. Seattle insists on being non-conformist and open-minded, while maintaining a hipster, forward-thinking bent. It's colorful enough of a backdrop, yet dark and brooding enough to fit the mood for everything from "Haunted Pop", "Modern Love" and "Black Pitch"; artsy enough for the OPTICAL series; and heady enough for the house and techno sets of the After Hours.
My top picks: Max Cooper's "Emergence" was an immersive audio-visual experience; Martyn entertained with a set including his old and new tracks alike. Artists like Falty DL and Simian Mobile Disco skirted their more accessible catalogs, opting to perform more avant garde, newer works. One artist I am fond of, Kastle, was booked too early in Q and found himself warming up an empty dance floor, while across town at the Hyperdub showcase, label boss Kode 9 and his crew were celebrating their 10 year anniversary, partying in style (literally on stage). Kode 9 himself proved to be a master taste-maker, playing many styles of his brand of bass music. Sunday saw the varied styles within the "Friends of Friends" showcase, seeing Salva close with his impressive mixing skills and selections as well. The lineup ultimately felt eclectic, opting for core underground acts, unique up-and-comers and those on the fringes of more established genres; in other words, a return to form. Decibel remains relevant by staying on the outside of a corporate dominated festival format, and instead opts to explore electronic music's more creative side. The results continue to pay off, and Decibel stays the course. Seattle continues to be a fostering environment for such a unique platform.
We stayed in a well situated Capitol Hill condo with views of the city skyline and quick access to anywhere in the city. We ate our way through the entire weekend, revisiting our favorites like Tango, Mezcaleria Oaxaca, Cafe Presse and Lost Lake; and discovering new favorites like Annapurna Cafe.
Here are a few photos I took over the weekend using my Olympus OM-D.
Photos and review by Jayme Wiseman