Brendan Arnott recaps his weekend spent in New York’s Catskill Mountains soaking up the vibes of Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky’s Sustain-Release festival.
After Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky’s first weekend-long techno retreat in the Catskill Mountains last September, Sustain-Release took on the status of urban legend. Heralded for its diverse roster of artists who somehow all seemed to intersect with each other, the internet was literally full of rave reviews. It was a weekend that distills a D.I.Y punk ethic while remaining immaculately well thought-out; a dance space where respect for the space and each other was tantamount; a party that in every true sense of the word was “strictly for the freaks”. Facebook threads popped up in the off-season to help first-year-campers deal with the depression that comes from not being out in the woods dancing to Patricia, Aurora Halal and Joey Anderson. The fact that year-two had some mighty lofty shoes to fill makes its transcendent triumph all the more praiseworthy.
Entering Camp Lakota, you are greeted by a sign reading “you are now unplugged”, which after dark perpetually conjures memories of American slasher Sleepaway Camp. While it’s not technically true (plenty of power was coursing through the festival’s incredible sound system), it certainly characterised a shift in attitude that had attendees striking up conversations with strangers, and smiling warmly at those they walked past on their way to the main stage and smaller, cosier Bossa venue.
While Brooklyn implants Down By Low started things off in the main stage, it was Bu-Mako Recording’s Jenifa Mayanja who truly began building the vibe of the night; her slamming piano chords bathed the room in warmth, which already began feeling womb-like thanks to the glow of Nitemind’s gorgeous, flexible, mood-shifting lighting. Alternating between well-worn house classics like Masters At Work house mix of Simply Red’s “Thrill Me” and the uplifting afro house of Kiko Navarro’s “Babalu Aye”, Mayanja was responsible for igniting the spark the rest of the weekend would ride on.
Walking along the dirt path leading to the Bossa Nova Civic Club stage, campers passed a basketball court draped in LED lights giving the setting an eerie, surreal beauty. Temporarily entranced, a small crowd began trying to throw up some three-pointers, while others were temporarily stopped in their tracks, staring at the stars in the night sky. We ran into Analogue Soul on a dirt path, whose set at last year’s festival left the crowd in a froth, and my friends immediately approach them, simultaneously praising them and mourning their lack of involvement this year.
“We’re just here to dance this time around,” Jacky Sommer responds, casually raising an excellent point about Sustain-Release’s programming choices. While it would be easy, or even drastically tempting to make year two a re-hash of last year’s event, Halal and Wladawsky’s endeavour to fill this year with new talent felt thoroughly respectful and inclusive. Of the select few making repeat appearances, Ital’s Daniel Martin-McCormick was one of them, jamming out alongside Hierogylphic Being as their Interplanetary Prophets outfit, filling the Bossa stage with brash, brittle eruptions of analogue sound evocative of a spacecraft burning up as it re-enters orbit. Hitting a near-immediate groove of chaotic unison, their improvised set felt like it stretched the limits of the time.
Back at the main stage, The Black Madonna provided the first immense moment of non-techno catharsis of the night, dropping the swelling horns of Scherrie Payne’s “I’m Not In Love / Girl, You’re In Love (Mix-X-X-Tend Version)”, which sent grins rippling through the room. Slamming her body to the beat with the enthusiasm of a professional wrestler, Marea Vierge-Noire not only barrelled through a series of joyful acidic excursions, but came out the other end with Kon’s climactic edit of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Looking over to a group of friends, I see they’re having a good time, traces of glitter clinging to their bodies from someone who just came over and hugged them.
Kassem Mosse quickly replaced my paternal glow with a frantic, single-minded impulse to dance. Providing the night’s most jaw dropping performance, his set began with a looped sample of a demonic children’s choir; its foreboding chant holding a shrill note of urgency sustained throughout the next hour. The Nitemind visuals which bathed the room in an apocalyptic orange glow gave the feeling of an underground bunker in lockdown. Repackaging certain sounds from his Trilogy Tapes and Workshop records into threatening new contexts, Mosse’s set varied in intensity, and always seemed to be build upwards, moving to higher ground.
Tearing oneself away from the main stage for well-worn Brooklyn staple Volvox was challenging but ultimately worth it; Ariana Paoletti’s set provided a level of spring-footed jacking intensity matching the looming basketball nets above her. Operating out of a deep, fully focused trance, Paoletti’s set hit a high point when she dropped Bjarki’s “Wanna Go Bang”, as the humidity from dancers’ bodies appeared as a gigantic billowing cloud when cast under the the Bossa stage’s otherworldly laser.
At last year’s festival, Jus Ed operated like somewhat of a messiah figure; rousing the dancefloor out of their soggy raincoats and into a joyful groove with his affable, easygoing charm. Closing the main stage this year, his set was categorised by a somber, heady seriousness – providing swirling house numbers that bled into each other, only breaking a smile when a moth from the woods outside repeatedly found its way into his DJ spotlight. It was as if the forces of nature themselves providing a full co-sign of his set. And again, as with last year, Mike Servito’s closing 6am set only exists for me as some kind of fragmented fever dream. Feeling the wooden planks of the Bossa stage wobble in synchronicity with the dance floor frantically bowing at the altar of acid to Phuture Phantasy Club’s “Dream Girl”.
Saturday morning brought mild rain, a cafeteria bustling with campers consumed eggs and Mezzo platters, but most thrillingly, the new inclusion of a three-on-three basketball tournament makes this writer revise last year’s offhanded comment about techno festival attendees being sub-par ballers. During one match, a home-made DJ mix the mini-tournament’s organisers had prepared started blasting Robin S’s “Show Me Love” and both teams stopped between plays and began dancing on the court, a moment which exemplified the real reason everyone was here. Also noteworthy: One of the Sustain-Release organisers went to the effort of re-dubbing The Immortals Techno Syndrome’s version of the Mortal Kombat theme, replacing Johhny Cage and Sonia Blade’s names with “Gunnar Haslam / Jenifa Mayanja / Via App,” and more. Calling it ‘cute as hell’ would be an understatement.
While Saturday afternoon found many campers catching their disco naps, Blazer Sound System played dubplates to a half-full room of recreationally minded dancers, the booming dub bass of their tracks providing context about the roots of a sound many other artists showcased this weekend. It was noteworthy how well Camp Lakota’s space accommodates both large crowds and scattered handfuls of dancers, feeling equally intimate in both settings. Beautiful Swimmers capped off the afternoon with a joyfully noisy celebration of sound. Running the gamut from maxi single diva moans to clattering organs and flutes, and some thoroughly enjoyable breakbeat expeditions.
By now, dusk had set, and Saturday night kicked off with the main stage covered in fog and tiny red slivers of light piercing the room. Barely able to see in front of my own face for a few minutes, Lux Rec founder Daniele Cosmo emerges from the fray, utilizing the slow-building excitement of the room as he churned out a series of precise and punchy techno and acid numbers like Antenna’s “When I Read My Book”, which immediately had the dancefloor stripping layers and reconnecting with their bodies.
While certain onlookers felt that Cosmo’s set ventured too close to the territory of “the nightclub scene in Blade” or “the soundtrack to the Spawn movie”, I found Cosmo’s EBM-heavy set the perfect tone for the rest of the night. Same could be said for Gunnar Haslam, with attendees witnessing his second live performance. Shedding the thoughtfully paced, unkempt experimentalism of his debut album Mimesiak, in lieu of body-slamming live techno, Haslam had to strip off his jacket mid-set while an extremely responsive crowd cheered him on, as if acknowledging ‘ohh, right, this is going to get really sweaty.”
Over at the Bossa stage, 1080p and Lupin Tapes contributor Via App delivered a live set that heightened the dissonant elements of her releases. Like faulty machinery in the final stages of screeching dysfunction, there were points where Dylan Scheer’s music sounded unkempt enough to fully collapse into itself, but she managed to mould a series of fundamentally ‘wrong’ sounds into something exhilaratingly danceable – causing someone to thrash their head right against the speaker for the better part of an hour, drunk on the chaos. Terreke’s live set served as a beautiful counterpoint to Scheer’s clamour, and standing right next to Bossa’s open windows with cold air pouring in from outside, Matt Gardner’s blissful analogue movements felt like a perfect fusion of the natural and synthesised.
The only head scratcher of Saturday night was performance art dance duo FlucT, whose exorcised style of dancing was reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani’s subway scene in the 1981 film Possession. While both members had an abundance of technical skill, the music accompanying their performance pulled excerpts from Elliot Rodgers’ pre-massacre YouTube videos, which came off as just a bit crass. Then again, for a performance that seemed to address the pervasiveness of gendered violence in pop culture, I suppose being uncomfortable was at least partially the point. Paula Temple was a welcome relief in the following hours, whose deployment of Regis and her own blistering tracks like “Colonized” pushed the camp’s soundsystem to its limit.
It was Galcher Lustwerk who emerged as the hero of the night, deploying everything from a smattering of his own unreleased productions to tracks that strafed Prince-like balladry, pounding hi-NRG piano numbers, DJ Bone’s stomping “We Control The Beat”, and finally giving us a dose of extreme end-of-weekend catharsis with a cut off DJ Richard’s new Grind LP, the soaring “Vampire Dub”. Looking outside, it was about time for the sun to rise and a blueish tint began replacing the darkness of the night, the forest surroundings regaining its shape and definition. The Bossa Nova stage began feeling more like a temple than a gymnastics area, and you could almost feel goosebumps collectively rippling through the crowd.
“This is the last song,” I see Aurora Halal tell one of the bouncers as Galcher closes with Zoot Woman’s “It’s Automatic”. The gymnasium lights turn on to a mutual groan from attendees, and the crowd files out into the cool morning air, the hum of cicadas are noticeable for the first time. Berghain regular Anthony Parasole closed out at the main stage, whose set felt a like military assault in comparison to Galcher’s three-hour sermon. Quite a few chose to hang outside, where they could still hear Don William’s “Orderly Kaos” rattling the walls.
Huddled together in a circle of friends and lovers, we welcomed the new day’s sun with cigarettes, hugs, conversation and laughter. It felt good in a way that staying up all weekend dancing rarely does, and I thought about how Sustain-Release’s focus on the holistic health of their attendees differentiated from any other festival on the map.
The affordable healthy food, secluded ambient chill spaces for campers looking to unwind, the cute scruffy medic who carefully bandaged the ankle I rolled playing basketball, the life-giving cases of Berlin-imported Club-Mate, the utmost dedication and talent that every artist involved brought to the table; all of these things leave you feeling more whole than when you walked in. Halal, Wladawsky and all the behind-the-scenes crew turning Sustain-Release into a reality don’t tell you they’re building a community – they show you, over and over again.
All images courtesy of Luis Nieto Dickens