Seattle is not really known for its electronic music scene; preceded mostly by its reputation in grunge and rock, the clubs and venues of Seattle attract fans for its Nirvana and Hendrix cultural histories. But once a year, for five days, Seattle is transformed into a mecca for underground electronic music enthusiasts, holding a conference for hardware, music synthesis, and DJ enthusiasts, and a festival attracting some of the most renowned international and local DJ and producer talent.
The word “festival” can be misleading, though—Decibel is held in a unique showcase format, in which artists perform in clubs and venues mostly at night, where a festival pass or individual showcase tickets can guarantee entry, making it also one of the most open to the public and flexible festivals. This year, the festival was held from September 23-27th, and I was able to catch performances from the 24-26th.
The first night I was there was a killer night for women producers and DJs. I first caught a portion sof the Bottom Forty showcase, and I stayed for The Black Madonna’s set, a wonderful high-energy start to my time at the festival. Playing her share of jacking Chicago house and funk and disco edits, with touches of acid, she loosened up a packed crowd at The Crocodile.
Highlights include Nina Kraviz’s “I’m Gonna Get You,” classic Trax instrumentals, and other unidentifiable rollers that kept the crowd moving and jacking. Daniel Avery was up next, but I rushed over to the Discwoman showcase to catch Natasha Kmeto and Jlin.
Discwoman is a Brooklyn based community which features female DJs, producers, and singers at their performances and parties; in electronic music especially, the lack of female headliners and performers in general is extremely glaring and pervasive, and Discwoman has played a vital role in bringing light to this issue. Jlin, one of the headliners, was my most anticipated act of the entire festival, having never really performed out before but having released amazing footwork tracks on Planet Mu spanning from 2011’s Bangs and Works to this year’s Dark Energy.
I got to the showcase, taking place in the small and intimate Re-bar, right at the start of Natasha Kmeto’s live set, which was a refreshing cleanser between banging house and techno sets. She does live vocals over electronic music, but in a way that is similar to yet distinguished from typical “future/alternative R&B”. Borrowing from Chicago house in her instrumentals, some songs with percussion reminiscent of juke and footwork, she also included elements of powerful, fast jittery drums and breaks to waves of bass. Restricting her style to just R&B is hard to negotiate, as her singing was as sensual as it was anxious, and as confident as she was jittery.
She threw in a couple slow jams in there as well, having the crowd sway back and forth to the grievances of her past romances, but what stuck out to me was definitely her seamless confidence and stage presence as not only a singer but also as a live electronic musician. It was lovely to see Jlin enjoying herself side stage as well—and although their performance styles were entirely different, certain elements were able to unite them in a cohesive, fun, bass-heavy night.
Jlin finally took the stage at the healthy hour of 1:40am. As one of the only female Chicago footwork producers out there, she has predominately existed as a mysterious enigma in the music world. Having only had a couple of interviews, the major takeaway is that Jlin creates music that is charged from a dark and angry place; she transforms that energy into intense and beautiful footwork tracks. She greeted the audience at Re-bar with such a positive energy and vibe (that Natasha Kmeto helped to instill) that the only anger that could be felt is the punishing sound of her tunes on the tiny club’s sound system.
Playing most of her own tracks, with her distinctive style being more cavernous, swelling and symphonic sound than most raw, edged out footwork, Jlin brought the entire crowd to madness, people losing control over their physical bodies attempting to awkwardly footwork or just engaging in the sound. The dancefloor cleared out a bit which let the music and movement breathe, but not as much as I expected—plenty were there to witness Jlin’s sound destruction.
Towards the second half of the set, she also gave a nod to her mentor RP Boo and footwork mastermind Traxman, grabbing the mic and declaring “RP a monster, ain’t he?!” before playing unreleased RP Boo tracks, and playing classic Traxman tracks like “Blow Your Whistle.” As her set was closing and energy in the crowd still running high, Jlin had a huge smile on her face and took the time to humbly thank everyone for coming to see her, at the second time she has ever played out (according to herself).
The next day, I caught the Resident Advisor showcase with Cygnus, Rob Hall, Laurel Halo, and Autechre. Cygnus played a great precise and geometric yet groovy live set, Rob Hall killed the dance floor with his UK bass and techno DJ Set, and of course I swooned during Laurel Halo's finessed assemblies of rhythms from misshapen and misplaced sounds with strings and analog snares and ticks to form a cohesive and fully masterful techno set. Autechre was Autechre, a possessed domination of bleeps and bass and drums that went from total unstructured grit to a rhythm you could actually node your head to.
If there was anything that my first time at Decibel Festival taught me, it was that you need to taper off your clubbing and rest up before going--having had an intense week of radio shows and going out before, it was difficult to muster up the strength to attend showcases (I completely missed all of the after-hours 2:30am-7am showcases), especially with the brisk Seattle weather convincing me to stay in my warm room. But I'm very thankful to have been able to attend my first, and hopefully not last, Decibel Festival. Truly one for the heads.
Carrie Sun, ELECTRONIC MUSIC DIRECTOR