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Freerotation 2012 in review

While the date may change every year, it’s always easy to sense the lead-in to the annual Freerotation festival. Fevered anticipation ripples out through the niche corners of the house and techno fraternity, which in the nature of these times manifests itself in impassioned status updates, gloating tweets and lots of “look forward to seeing you!” posts between friends, artists and fans. This convivial atmosphere speaks volumes for the impact Freerotation has had in dulling the barriers between performer and punter in a small sector of electronic music, providing a utopian bubble where everyone can truly feel as one.

In the aftermath of the 2012 event, you need only look at the outpouring of thanks for the bouncers and the venue managers no less, reciprocated in full, to realise just how much those taken-for-granted details contribute to an event successfully existing on a small scale. At a capacity of little more than 800, all crew and attendees considered, the feeling of a private house party has never been so accurately recreated. It’s just that this house party happens to have a world-class selection of DJs and live acts keeping the merry bunch of mates happily flailing round a 19th century mansion for three days straight.

As this year’s attendees made the pilgrimage through the pastoral surroundings of Powys to reach Clyro on a thoroughly oppressive Friday afternoon, those unfamiliar might have felt that sinking in the stomach that comes from the premonition that the ensuing weekend will entail tonnes of mud and dampened spirits. Fortunately though, Freerotation and its choice of venue lean on a maddeningly simple premise that could have saved many a blighted British festival over the years; all the music takes place under cover. Truth be told, you’d have to be mighty ambitious to organise a festival in Wales without considering rain a factor, although past Freerotations have been doused in a generous doses of sunshine which unfortunately remained elusive for much of this year’s event.

Be that as it may, the British festival spirit has been well hardened over the years to rise above such obstacles, and there was no shortage of positivity as camps sprung up in the fields and friends gathered under any available shelter. The contentious membership policy with the Freerotation ticketing system may have its detractors, but as faces who meet but once a year greet each other like old friends, you realise the worth of keeping things intimate.

Nestled on the side of Baskerville Hall, the geodesic dome started cooing out an ambient lullaby from the late afternoon, courtesy of festival mainstays Alex Downey and Ilmajaam, and so those already assembled and settled started to drift across the lawns to cluster in spaces warmer and dryer than the soggy plains of the camping area. There was no escaping the serenity of those first hours turning to a nervous rush as the Friday line-ups appeared and the magnitude of the billings became realised. After all three days is a relatively short time in which to fit a lot of heavyweight artists. Heads were scratched and priorities debated, but everyone secretly knew that impulsive feeling matched with time and place would eventually rule the weekend.

The house opened to a simmering warm up session from Rick Nicholls followed by Miles Sagnia in Room 1, both of whom held their house down appropriately deep, respectful of their responsibilities ahead of a long night. With its low ceilings and darkly enclosed on all sides, the artists in this room take on a bewitching image bathed in the glow of a desk lamp, while the mapped visuals crack and fizz behind them.

New Yorker Joey Anderson followed with a certain weight of expectation amidst strong releases and favourable press, and he didn’t fail to deliver on his promise of unconventionality. His was the non-direct way, allowing abstract textures and moods to lead just as much as the subtleties of the rhythms he chose, coming on more like a live set despite the records he played. For the vast majority of his set, brother in arms Jus Ed sat close behind, watching and nodding approvingly.

In stark contrast, Arkist worked up the newly rearranged Lounge space with a hybrid selection that moved between his snapping genre-formerly-known-as-dubstep beats and more rigid contemporary house fodder. In light of the music on offer throughout the weekend, the Bristolian producer seemed most comfortable with the broken grooves that reflected his own personality as an artist, although his transitions into 4/4 were seamlessly executed.

Room 2 always proves to be something of a roadblock location, with just one slim entrance/exit, but it also provides the greatest sense of grandeur. The lighting and sound rig stretches up on all sides of the chandelier to capitalise on the space afforded by the high ceilings, while this year the mammoth bay window behind the decks dominated the room with three visual panels. As the traditional location for dubstep-related acts at Freerotation, (organiser Steevio at one point refers to it in passing as “the dubstep room”) it was no surprise to see Livity Sound take to the stage for their live set.

There’s a certain austerity about the execution of the Livity project, as Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu merge their considerable talents for a shorn yet bass-led amalgamation of techno and soundsystem ethics. In the live setting Pev mans a Jomox drum machine as Kowton hunches over a laptop, all feeding into a rack of effects units which Asusu calmly contorts to his will. However, on the night it felt as though something was amiss, coming off sounding a little flat even as the likes of Asusu’s anthemic “Sister” received an airing. Whether it was a problem of context in the midst of a bursting line-up (sometimes festivals don’t prove to be the best place to appreciate certain performances) or a technical hitch, there was a certain punch lacking from the Livity contingent at Freerotation.

Meanwhile in Room 1, the heat was ever-rising as John Heckle wielded his machines for a rip-roaring live set. There were shocked faces matched with satisfied grimaces at the sheer next-level quality of jacking analogue house music the Scouse producer was firing off, raining down colourful reams of melody from his Juno while hammering the 909 into submission, constantly working and pouring sweat into his performance. Kassem Mosse followed up with barely a moments pause, swiftly cooling off the wild mood into a steady hum as his own live set eased into a distinctly different groove. Where Heckle was all brawn and fireworks, Mosse coaxed out an astounding subtlety, letting the grit and grain of his samples unfurl over each other with just the right amount of hypnotism. Although measure and restraint typify Mosse’s approach, it fortunately never veered towards boring, instead stopping at a captivating kind of hinterland that suited the 5am witching hour.

While Tama Sumo strode onto the decks to pump out her immaculate house music, Room 2 was already quaking to the malevolent machinations of Blawan who was playing as though he had something to prove (although certainly not to anyone present). There was no room for mercy in the brand of techno he threw down, ignoring the lateness of the hour and keeping the BPM high and the drums booming. What set his impeccably mixed records apart from other spinners concerned with hard-as-nails techno was an innate funkiness, manifested in kinked grooves and barbs of sound design that saved the session from faltering into being monotonous.

Following that the faltering masses drifted windswept across the site, seeking pockets of comfort in which to collapse or carry on in the festival downtime. In truth it felt like little time had passed until Juju & Jordash had taken to the decks in the dome for an extended and dreamlike DJ set in the spirit of their equally chilling Off Minor podcasts. Moving through strung out jazz, incidental themes and drones, it made for a perfectly eerie backdrop to the collective picking up of pieces that was occurring around the day time hub of the festival.

They were followed up by Tom Ellis and Leif, core members of the Freerotation collective, who were given free rein over four hours to move from downtempo, low slung beats through to sleek microhouse bump with their predilection for jazzy moods on full show. It provided a smooth trajectory through which to lull the masses back into a headspace receptive to the dance, without ever rushing them.

Around the dome, various stalls had sprung up from Japhy Turner’s finely chosen house and techno wares (clearly knowing his market) through to Jus Ed’s amicable hustle in Underground Quality merchandise, at least providing an activity for the frazzled record buyers to engage in that comes naturally. That said there was nowhere near the casualty ratio that you expect to find at most electronic music festivals, as a certain level of maturity existed among the majority of Freerotators that kept the revelry at a comfortable level.

After Tom Ellis and Leif had wrapped up, Tom Demac took hold for an hour-long live set that saw him throwing down a steady stream of tech-house sizzlers. His sound has moved away from the staunch leftfield nature of his fellow peers in the Freerotation collective (not least in a cheeky re-edit of ODB’s “Got Your Money”) but it smacked in all the right places to get a busy dome moving.

One of the highlights of the previous year, Michel Baumann stepped up for one of his Jackmate DJ sets, but this year saw him keeping the mood at an even pace compared to the fiery dynamics of his performance last year. It reflected a vibe that seemed concurrent among many of the more house-orientated artists this year, where there was a tendency to hold the atmosphere down and play with a hushed reserve rather than pump out the bangers. It perhaps serves as a growing recognition that there is not a prerequisite to keep the crowd happy year after year in the way an artist might at the average gig. Joe Ellis proved this trend as he opened Room 1, demonstrating his arcane gift for house music with hidden depths while maintaining a rigid groove, and he paved the way ably for Jus Ed to take over with equally magnificent reams of undulating New York wares.

While it was tempting to stay in the immersive bubble as Fred P took over, the wilder ruminations of Room 2’s annual Hessle Audio throwdown were calling, and the formidable trio of Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea didn’t disappoint. Keeping the energy levels high and the styles fluid, there was never any doubt that British bass music’s golden boys would deliver. There is a similar security of expectation that comes with Shackleton’s annual appearance, but somehow this year things were different. As the mystical warrior pounded out his singular vision, the whole of Room 2 seemed as though it were elevating with the ever-spiralling sounds. It would be impossible to put into words just how spiritually enriching this year’s live set was, but suffice it say there was shock, delight and awe reverberating around the room throughout the performance.

It’s customary at festivals to have occasional confluences where one catches brief whispers of sets rather than the full performance. It’s grossly unfair on the artist, much like the scanning culture of internet audio streaming, but sometimes an inescapable part of the party. After the sonic reverie of Shackelton, Bodycode came striding forth with the moody grind of his live set, crooning out his vocals and hammering the interlocking machinations of his syncopated rhythms, but respite was needed. Moving through the house, respite was not what we found at the hands of Pacou, but rather a fearsome throwdown of granite techno, hammered out on an assortment of equipment. While the crowd seemed thoroughly locked in, it was not the sanctuary we were seeking at that hour. Jane Fitz meanwhile had the Lounge under steady control, weaving out a bumping elixir of house goodness.

Trying a third time to get out for some air, we managed it for all of 20 minutes before the lure of October in Room 2 summoned us back in. Plotting a course directly into the heart of the early morning, his unique selections through analogue house and techno encompassed both dark and strange spheres and more instinctive groove-led jams, culminating in the unabashed rabble-rousing joie de vivre of Jon Cutler’s “It’s Yours”.

By this stage in the weekend the gap between stints of music seemed a gentle smudge, and a more prominent appearance by a certain glowing orb in the sky gave rise to a strong contingent of (by now) interconnected revellers gathering on the lawn to engage in one of Freerotation’s finest traditions, the Sunday afternoon. Lawrence stepped in for a last-minute swap with Move D, drawing on an instinctive selection of deep house that reflected a broad depth of knowledge combined with a feeling for the kind of simple satisfaction that a weathered raver needs at the long end of the weekend.

In the sixth year of Freerotation, expectations were running remarkably high for Move D’s Sunday session, and so as he and Lawrence exchanged hugs the dome was already electric with anticipation, and David Moufang was greeted with a heroes welcome. It was 2008 when this tradition first cemented itself, as he played in the more humble climes of the tea tent with a selection of blissed out and delicate grooves steeped in jazz and soul. With the escalation of the festival, so Moufang’s sets have become more bombastic, with the heavy atmosphere of last year’s session bringing out a selection of anthemic house cuts and the odd wet eye or two.

This year he seemed fully prepared for the emotional rollercoaster, beaming incessantly from the start and visibly moved throughout by the adulation he inspired. His set however moved at an unusual pace as he gently played tracks in their full, choosing not to mix so much as select. When the chords of “Strings Of Life” rang out there was a distinct mixture of shock and joy in the air. While such a supposedly obvious reach seemed surprising for a set at Freerotation, not a soul present has failed to be touched by the evergreen classic at some point, and Moufang wisely made the curveball move to opt for the beatless “Unreleased Mix”. That considered, it was a mixed experience compared to the previous artistic achievements the man has performed at a festival he is synonymous with, and which he would return to later in the evening.

In stark contrast, Leif was to be found kicking off Room 1 for the final push, while testing his own creative boundaries. Always known for his love of garage bump and lashings of funk, there was an air of mysticism about his performance this year which tapped into the elegance of his melodic compositions in his own tracks, but repositioned in a more rigid and deep-burrowing groove. There was still space for the odd 2-step shuffle towards the end of the set, but it was in the context of a more spiritual and embracing headspace.

Soulphiction followed swiftly afterwards and wasted no time in throwing down the sumptuous MPC rattle of his sample heavy house music. Continuing the year’s theme of a more hushed tone compared to his previous bouncy house turns with Suzana Rozkosny’s live vocals, the warm fuzz of his basslines punched through the mix with perfect results, providing the perfect run up to one of the most anticipated appearances of the weekend, Magic Mountain High.

The live improvisational powerhouse from the combined forces of Move D and Juju & Jordash has manifested itself in many ways since its inception last year, but listening to the recordings is no substitute for witnessing it in the flesh, when such an approach must so surely be shaped by the surroundings it occurs in. As such, there was a profound feeling in the room as the tender tones and patterns started flowing forth from three innately talented individuals. Taking a softer approach than some of their previous live sets, Magic Mountain High assumed the role of field doctors out to heal the wounds of the savaged and shell-shocked, calmly switching their roles between the mixer and the staggering array of equipment running into it, while a gaggle of gear-o-philes gazed on intently.

It seemed as though the only logical conclusion to the festival could be Mike Huckaby; the closest thing to a superstar among the level-pegging of Freerotation, and yet in a bizarre twist this particular reviewer found himself sucked into the climax of 2562’s searing live set. The dizzying angles and shapes of his sound sliced through the comfortable haze generated by Magic Mountain High, propelled ever forward by an alien kinesis. Following up in a most unassuming fashion, Yusaku Shigeyasu took to the decks and summoned up the most fearsome selection of jagged dubstep rhythms to round off the weekend. Eschewing excessive bass and any shred of melody, his set was a perfectly crafted rip through 140 excellence that had all present discovering hidden reserves of energy in the refreshing tempo.

As the lights finally came up for the last time and everyone blinked incredulously in that strange purgatory between the throes of the weekend and the reality that sat expectant on the other side of a broken sleep, you could almost reach out and touch the elation that swarmed around Baskerville Hall. It was as though everyone had given just the right amount, for just the right amount of time, and could give no more. Not one cry of “one more tune”, not one protest at calling it a night; instead an assurance that the inspiration soaked up over three days of next-level music would propel all present on to achieve great things, music-related or otherwise, over the coming twelve months until it was time to do it again.

Review: Oli Warwick
Pics: Pacou