The Bloc Weekend is about a lot of things – an endless pageant of bad t-shirts, the bizarre reality of being in Butlins for three days – but it’s the music that makes the annual festival such a compulsory destination for electronic music fans, and the programming for the 2010 edition was inspired.
My first port-of-call was the Rinse FM showcase. I arrived to the sound of Youngsta banging out in-the-red wobblers that existed just the right side of metallic; Marcus Nasty followed with an excellent, nuanced house set – rooted in UKF, whatever that means anymore, but pursuing an ever-stranger muse, and at times hinting at something more akin to oily minimal techno or, quite honestly, post-I-f avant-electro. The initial excitement and surprise at Wiley turning up was quickly extinguished by his hoarse, scrappy delivery: what I, and those around me, wanted was for Geeneus to take centre stage and Wiley to ride the rhythms, but what we got instead was just a perfunctory run-through of ‘Your Woman’, the volume on the mic grossly outweighing that on the beats, and a troupe of oddly-attired dancers strip-club-voguing across the stage.
“Marcus Nasty played an excellent, nuanced house set – rooted in UKF, whatever that means anymore, but pursuing an ever-stranger muse, and at times hinting at something more akin to oily minimal techno or, quite honestly, post-I-f avant-electro…”
The arrival of Katy B, Zinc and Ms Dynamite saved the show, the latter’s stage-presence, charisma and ability to work a room all the more apparent and impressive in light of what had come before. Slowed down by a belly full of booze (mea culpa, mea culpa), I couldn’t summon the energy to see if the Boy Better Know lot would make their scheduled appearance, and the queue to see the very-good-but-not-that-good Joy Orbison was a joke, so I headed over to the festival’s main room, where an uninspired-looking Omar-S delivered what was, by his standards, a very flat set, favouring a succession of tracky numbers over the compulsively danceable, jacked-up grooves that we know and love him for. Ellen Allien followed him, aided by visuals from Pfadfinderei, and though her efficient, big-room-friendly and well-assembled selection of tech-house had several thousand ravers rapt, I found it easy to like but difficult to love.
Exhaustion from a day of wholesome Butlin’s activities (mini-golf, go-karting, and the like), followed by a paranoid episode in my chalet, meant I missed Salt-n-Pepa‘s live performance on the Saturday evening, a disappointment made all the more tart by the fact that various trusted sources assured me that they were amazing. By the time I made it into the right room, the crowd was dispersing, and I was faced not with S’n’P but with the constipated, self-righteous barkings of Anti-Pop Consortium. I lasted about ten excruciating minutes before running to catch the end of Joker‘s set, which was less heavy on the purple business than I’d expected and instead made some agreeable detours into early grime, the very graininess of the 128kbps mp3s over a monster PA proving exhilarating. Kode9 and Martyn‘s b2b set was initially dogged by some technical issues, but quickly took flight; one couldn’t help thinking, all the same, that each of these mercurial DJs works best alone and autonomously.
“Rob Hall’s pre-Autechre set was a masterclass in juggling different beat structures while sustaining a firm sonic aesthetic, taking in heavy electro, acid, breakbeat and minimal techno.”
The perennially unfashionable Rob Hall deserves some kind of knighthood for services to UK dance music, and his pre-Autechre set was a masterclass in juggling different beat structures while sustaining a firm sonic aesthetic, taking in heavy electro, acid, breakbeat and minimal techno, and making particularly memorable use of Martyn’s swinging, psychedelic ‘Krdl-T-Grv’. Russell Haswell followed with an intense, physical live set of skewering, laser-assisted acid noise; within ten minutes he reduced the headcount in the room to something like 30, and the poor Butlin’s security and bar-staff who’d had the misfortune to be assigned this stage looked genuinely ill. For those who knew what they were letting themselves in for, the irrepressible Haswell essentially cleaned the ears out, expunging any bad music that had been heard up till that point, and cleansing palates for what was to come.
“Model 500’s performance really was a performance: all live synthesizers and drum machines, with Juan Atkins on the mic, something akin to a popstar, better than a popstar…”
Model 500 and Autechre was an unfortunate clash in the festival timetable, but it did mean that neither show was uncomfortably packed-out. I favoured Model 500, having never seen this live incarnation of the group, with mastermind Juan Atkins assisted by UR’s ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, DJ Skurge and Mark Taylor. The performance was revelatory, and it really was a performance: all live synthesizers and drum machines, with Juan on the mic, something akin to a popstar, better than a popstar, ‘Mad’ Mike grimacing in the shadows (of course) and Taylor grinning and vibing up front like a cross between a Cheshire cat and Dam-Funk. What was remarkable about the set was the way it collapsed perceived boundaries between the very different sounds of tracks like, say, ‘Nightdrive (Thru Babylon)’ and ‘Starlight’, the group’s open-ended, improvisatory approach vividly demonstrating them to be part of the same P-funk-meets-Kraftwerk continuum.
Highlights are hard to pick from such a consistently outstanding show, but the long, exploratory rendition of Infiniti’s ‘Game One’ was particularly ravishing, those unmistakeable dub-chords and squiggling synth-bass motif giving away to a full-on and unexpected high-tech gospel middle section, complete with raise-your-hands-and-testify keyboard flourishes from Taylor, and Atkins proclaming, “You in the church now…” Coming from anyone else, at any other time, and any other way, the sentiment might have made me puke, but here it made total sense and felt more than justified. Closing with a sensationally heavy, at first unrecognisable, cover of Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’, it was the best set of the weekend and quite frankly I never wanted it to end.
But it did, and that meant I could go and catch the last 30 minutes of Shed and Marcel Dettmann‘s b2b set as Deuce. On recent appearances I’ve found Shed – like his Hardwax compatriot DJ Pete – tending towards playing some of the more lumbering dubstep that’s out there, a far cry from the subtlety and modulation of his own productions. I suspected that Dettmann’s presence would ensure a more 4/4 character to proceedings, and I was partly right – but to my even greater delight the closing section of the duo’s set, Shed’s contributions anyway, focussed on hardcore breakbeats, climaxing with the particularly pertinent deployment of Martyn’s ‘Another Wedged Chicken’ remix (a slyly brilliant track if ever there was one) and one of those hammering HATE cuts from Modern Love (‘Bad Organs’, if I rightly recall).
Torsten ‘T++‘ Profrock followed with a captivating, slowly unfolding live set that predictably alienated some of the more short-fused, kickdrum-hungry punters. By the time, fifteen or so minutes in, that the first heart-scrunching bass pulse ripped out of Profrock’s Macbook, the room was populated only by the hardcore and the appreciative. With his sound leaning more than ever to a kind of teeming but reductionist, Berlin-style 2-step, and showcasing several tracks from his forthcoming 1932 EP, it was a superb and assured performance, but like a couple of other sets at Bloc 2010, you couldn’t help but feel it would’ve been better served by a more intimate room and less physical distance between performer and audience.
“Surgeon’s a/v set was undoubtedly one of the most galvanising, communally satisfying and air-punchingly inspirational of the weekend.”
Having lost ourselves in the rarefied intricacies of T++’s productions, our appetite for big-room showboating was restored, and Surgeon‘s a/v set in the festival’s main arena didn’t disappoint. Joined by a gaggle of dancing girls performing unlikely acts of gymnastic poise in front of the DJ booth, the bespectacled, unassuming character of Tony Child instantly outdid Wiley in the impromptu cabaret stakes. His set – undoubtedly one of the most galvanising, communally satisfying and air-punchingly inspirational of the weekend – hopped confidently, and with pristine EQing, from low-slung tracks by Zomby and Rustie to Chicago house and tear-out industrial techno and back again, climaxing with a well-earned outing for Outlander’s ‘The Vamp’. There was an underlying funk and energy to everything he played, and when he finished his set and took a bow with the dancing girls, the (ahem) love from the room was palpable, even overwhelming. I would have liked to have seen Luke Slater’s Planetary Assault Systems close out the main stage, but I could no longer feel my legs, and I was forced to retire after twenty solemn but plenty beguiling minutes.
“No UK festival so vigorously and variously reps the vanguard of underground dance music past and present as Bloc.”
As a friend pointed out to me, one disappointing thing about the generally excellent Bloc 2010 was how tribal it seemed. With the exception of a few genre-transcending acts, you had dubstep for your dubstep kids, electro for your electro fans, techno for your techno types, and so on and so on; there was little in the way of cross-pollination, and the myriad choice of stages and acts on offer at any one time meant there was less opportunity – or rather, imperative – for people to discover new things than would be ideal. But then perhaps that isn’t a problem with Bloc specifically, but with festivals in general, or maybe just with people in general. Some people don’t want to get into different sounds. And the rest of us forget that sometimes you have to wade through a few idiots in sunglasses and ‘DUBSTEP’ (in a Run DMC-style) tees in order to glimpse the sublime. Any event of this scale and ambition can be a struggle at times, but fortune does indeed favour the brave. No UK festival so vigorously and variously reps the vanguard of underground dance music past and present as Bloc; so, all told, a little bravery on our side isn’t much to ask. See you next year.