“It’s for one weekend so you’ve got to get it right”, these were the delicately spoken words of Craig Richards in anticipation of Houghton Festival 2018. A place that was described by many as an electronic music utopia in its inaugural year and where getting it right was surpassed once again.
The festival is set in the traditional grounds of Houghton Hall, a Palladian Mansion built in the 1720’s for Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is a vast estate featuring immaculate hedge rows, herds of white fallow deer, bracken, mysterious woodland and a large gleaming lake. The atmosphere feels curious and inspiring. Produced by the same team who present Gottwood, the focus on creating a unique experience was at every twist and turn taken throughout the 4 days.
Music and art are often used in the same breath, but no festival I have encountered before has managed to display both in such an intriguing and compelling manner. Scattered across the site were multiple distinctive paintings and sculptures created by Craig Richards and other carefully selected artists, some in obscure places, but still feeling wholly natural. The stages, of which there were 13 in total, all held their own characteristics, considering aspects of programming and the landscape they were a part of. The captivating ‘Pavilion’, designed by a multi-disciplinary group of architects, was a simple wooden structure contained under the forest. By day it allowed you to take in the beauty of the lake in the backdrop and by night it became a glowing, UFO like focal point. Tantrum, the name of a weekly new weekly night of electro, otherworldly noises and drumbeats initiated by Craig Richards and Adam Shelton was turned into a stage at the festival, bringing these sounds to a UK rave inspired tent with shipping containers and raw materials.
Terminus, a secret stage accessible only by land train featured rare b2b’s and hidden gems all weekend for those lucky enough to find it and which will not be described for those that are still yet to.
Phone signal was non-existent; however this again felt purposeful and allowed you to become fully immersed in the environment, people opting to dance rather than film. Sound systems were carefully tailored and ripe no matter the size of the stage, resulting in you being able to stand in any location and feel the music. The food also felt like another form of art, with a floating restaurant, pop-up El Pastor’s and dozens of other high quality stalls to choose from.
Trevino’s, a cultural space and meeting point for the festival had leather sofas, pop up record stores, turntables for listeners and a set of 1210’ for artists to play on throughout the day. A friendly and welcoming area, people were allowed to select records at ease whilst being provided by expert recommendations by the store owners. It allowed strangers to come together, some who I’m sure became friends, through sharing their musical tastes and past experiences. It had the feeling of a unification of a scene through the most important aspects, the physical. Aptly named after the late Marcus Kaye aka Markus Intalex aka Trevino, a man who epitomised Houghton in his diversity of sound and attention to detail.
Embarking on the 72 hour non-stop musical odyssey on Thursday evening, Adam Shelton and Cassy opened up The Warehouse, a lofty hangar constructed out of metal. A dark space with piercing laser beams and smoke injects, it did not take long for those that had put up tents in a downpour to dry off by filling it into frenzy and set the tone for the rest of what was to come.
On Friday it was a pleasure to finally be able to witness not one, but two Schatrax sets, a man who made his name in the 90s with house music that still sounds as deep and playable as it did then. Firstly at the Magic Carpet, a warm dome, where he demonstrated this sound and more. It’s a rare opportunity to see him play records out, so I made the effort to go and find him playing again later on, stumbling my way down an endless long dark path to find Terminus and I was not disappointed I did. Playing one of my favourites from him ‘Restless Nights’, the dubby bassline was making the whole crowd move.
Over at The Clearing, below the headlights and corrugated steel, surrounded by a crowd, Binh provided scientific, acidic oscillations of sound. Tightly mixed, often almost disturbing with Furfriend’s ‘Fist Fuck’ drawing the audience further into the booth.
Back at the Magic Carpet, Craig Richards was playing the first of one of his 6+ sets, I was as mesmerised by his track selection as I was his by unrelenting energy, shown in abundance when he played his latest release ‘My Friend is Losing His Mind’. The distorted voices, bleeps and punchy techno-electro rhythm sending the early morning dance floor into raptures.
The highlight of the weekend came on Saturday, when the senses were treated in every way imaginable. The day started with a sculpture tour in the grounds of the hall. So calm you couldn’t hear the festival at all and providing opportunity for reflection and recuperation. This was also possible in The Orchard, a sanctuary of theatre, performance art and healing therapies. Fully rested I then saw Calibre, another genius and another artist who rarely plays out live, it was special to see him play a set that displayed all his characteristics, moving through ambient, refined dubstep and liquid drum and bass. The biggest ovation came when he mixed his own ‘Wassold’ into Mala’s ‘Eyez’.
( ) MC DRS added even more life into the music. Later on in the day came some of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. Nicolas Lutz started under the darkness of the Pavilion, with bouncy, bass-heavy electro minimal bombs including ‘Gerogliftko’ on his My Own Jupiter label.
Legs and arms were feeling the rapid beats that combined NYC garage with space like noises. There was no let up throughout as people jumped around to Back to Basics by Fear-E.
Barac in The Warehouse was dreamy, melodic and a great contrast to the fast paced bumping nature of Lutz.
Now we all know Ricardo Villalobos can often confuse, delight and spellbind in equal measure, but his sunrise set at The Pavilion might be one of the best times many have seen him play. For the first few hours it was completely unhurried as he gradually cast the crowd under his spell. With long drawn out mixes blending shuffling drums, bongos and sometimes just the slightest of basslines, every single person was locked to his gaze. German vocals intertwined with cricket noises as he faded tracks in and out, sometimes bringing them back after lengthy periods out. ‘808 Thebassqueen’
featured a vocal conversation on top of it that I had never heard before. The sun slowly rose behind the booth, at one moment the sky was a purple colour, as he moved into his famous ‘Logohitz’ and a remix of Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’
no one was going to be leaving this set early. Transitioning from the dim aura he had begun with the latter half sprinkled love and heart felt emotion on the deserving crowd, with tracks like DJ Koze’s ‘Pick Up’, some shutting their eyes for minutes as it played out, others embracing.
Joy Orbison woke the crowd up again on the final day with a feel good set combining classic ice cold garage including ‘Too Blind – Stone Cold Steppaz’ with house and techno joy such as Mood II Swing’s ‘Call Me (Moody Dub)’.
Punters swung t shirts round their heads and bopped with glee under the afternoon grooves. On the Derren Smart, one of the bigger and more traditional festival like stages of the weekend, Khruangbin delighted the audience with their Thai/West African influences of guitar funk. Friends held each other aloft on shoulders showing they were well and truly still alive when they ended on ‘People Everywhere’.
The band loving the reception they received with grins wide across their faces as they treated everyone to their sincere melodies.
Across the weekend DJs were frequently given 3+ hour sets and played more than once. Allowing them to explore their collections and also provide the crowd with the chance to see something different to what they might do at an ordinary club set. In turn it felt like both rose to the occasion, DJs playing records that they may never have had a chance or felt like they wanted to save for the moment. The crowd stayed rooted to sets for the duration, using every fibre in they had to show their appreciation no matter how tired they might have been from the constant dancing. In a year when Richards said everyone who attended would be treated to “the best of everything”, I can quite easily say they were and more. The only downside was that I couldn’t’t do the whole thing again to take in every aspect. Houghton brought together the community of the dance floor of all eras and genres, DJs and ravers alike, where the weekend was spent as one collective and powerful force in an unrivalled setting.
At Tantrum there was debut performance by A-Future, the new electro alias of Adam Shelton, playing a fresh exciting brand of the genre. Dark and moody cuts like the Sync 24 remix of Stratowerx’s ‘Secret State’;
sounded great in what was one of my favourite tents of the weekend. Keep an eye out for Shelton & Stratowerx’s new label ‘Eon’ which will be bringing this sound to turntables very soon.
The magic wasn’t quite finished as Helena Hauff closed out, tearing through forceful electro and techno, an eerie green mist rising from the crowd under the pouring rain, it complemented her sound perfectly. Ending on the heavily reverbed, enchanting and cinematic ‘Mutual Arising’ by Galaxian, I and many around me were longing for it to continue, but there it did finally come to an end.
Words by Tom Warner
Photo Credtis: Here & Now