We wake up in a hotel room built from squares, in a village with no discernible past, future or villagers. Some 20 miles outside the festival site, what we would later learn was Bitterfeld is truly one of the strangest places we’ve ever visited – a Saturday ride through the town centre betrays no signs of life, no youth, no nothing. Just endless houses, recent-built, sat isolated in plots of land like they’re trying their hardest to ignore and deny the presence of neighbouring borders. We hang around ‘til mid-afternoon, tiring of passing cyclists, before giving in and making the return to Ferropolis.
Familiar gone eerie, comes again with the day's first band and the watching of things. Shout Out Louds are typical Scandinavians, penning as they do bouts of sound that fall between innocuous nonsense and pleasant pop. But as ‘Please, Please, Please’ rumbles into ‘Tonight I Have To Leave It’ a pattern emerges. Every single song sounds like The Cure reimagined as a car advert. ‘Plastic Passion’, ‘Without You’, ‘Close To Me’. The band shoot for Smith but take-out Oberst. We drift.
On one of last night’s dizzy treks we stumbled across a ‘hidden’ stage, tucked neatly away between three walls at the back of the site and almost spectacularly empty. Dirk Rumpff is battling manfully; against the empty space in front of him, against the house martins dive-bombing the intruder from their nests under the guttering of those three walls. The most intrepid get a couple of feet into his booth before rebounding off the growl of bass and the whine of ailing glitch; the most unnecessary use of dry ice cloaking nothing but clear, evening air.
Attentions flit to jerk-merchants Erase Errata. As the deformed bassline to ‘Cruising’ opens, the sheen that overly-polished Nightlife is washed off, spiralling riffs handled by sweaty palms lose their shape and gain a reckless authority. Rampant throughout, Jenny Hoyston’s careless contribution is performed with sullen, Kim Deal brilliance. Mark E Smith may have pulled his billed appearance with Von Sudenfed this weekend but the relentless spirit of the Prestwich noisenik remains.
On, to Lo-Fi-Fnk, beneath the disco ball dangling above the dance stage. They’re beset by technical problems from the first song – which is also the second, the third. Tapping feet get itchy with the restarts and when we leave they don’t feel like a big miss. They're young enough to be seen again, at any rate.
By this point we’d seen a host of Germans wrapped in Tocotronic Ts – a host of hostages, on hearing, taken captive by some movement of native sympathies. The most interesting thing about the A-Z indie that's somehow made it onto the main stage at this hour was thinking about my Tocotronics – the bands in the UK, or England, or London that the heart takes to heart for the spec of their passport. As far as we could tell there was nothing more here – Yank radio rock rebranded in tricolour.
Something numerically less on the Gemini stage, but Düsseldorf duo Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma shrug off E. Smith's absence as Mouse On Mars. An awkward drone holds the set together as material from Idiology provides the backbone of something that lurches and bounds before a backdrop of shotgun politik. By now everyone’s blottko and their awkward skrunk seeps like emerald blottings down the grooves on a knuckle. We burst out of the tent into the fresher air, looking for eyes awake again.
What do we have here? Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, despite all the Ginsberg-citing and JAMC affiliations, failing to provide any of the masked poignancy of either influence. Relying heavily upon early material, their sonic snore is exposed as being little more than a sub-Verve dirge. Whilst ‘Berlin’ provides BRMC’s ode to a nearby wall’s fall, with fatigue setting and salt in the eyes it's us that feel like rubble.
And so, with such retrospective posing on one stage, another provides The Horrors. Heads down, clad in black, drenched in distortion, the parallels are there; but for the artschool pretence and the polite reception that greets them. When compared to the trite BRMC they provide a fiercely gothic psychedelic mess, and though Farris Badwan lurches over onlookers with a somewhat flimsy menace the set provides their staple dose of noise-mongering. Find Horrors wading the same swamp as The Birthday Party once wade, albeit with a beetle-legged meticulosity.
The main stage is running late, so a chance is taken and we steal our way onto one of the hospitality tours running up the legs of the excavators. Sit and wait, camera in hand, we head across the tarmac, up stairs and up the tin machiney. It’s dark and dank in here, predictably, and the skeletons are given flimsy new skin by an empire of busy spiders. We climb up, but are told to stop – the gangway we’re on can’t be more than 20 ft into the air and the brakes are put on. Frustrated, we sit and wait for the late-running main stage to get back into gear, but get bored and go looking for the Dutch, our heads clouding. We get word – he’s climbed the biggest machine in the park, and wants us to bring drinks. Later, later.
When The Neptunes provide the bulk of the brilliance in your set it should be left in its brazenly bare glory. Whereas Alex Smoke had the sense the evening prior to trust the stark minimalism that often underpins his output, Kelis employs the age-old festival tactic of tailoring herself for the festival circuit. This means a full band, the pretence of sophisticat-ing rock and - resultant - the whiff of intense smuggery. So, where ‘Millionaire’ should provide a bona fide pop piece it drowns behind the band and the careful detail Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams applied to ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Good Stuff’ is wrecked by some meddling six-string berk. We leave her jiggling without her underwear to resume our search for Mammut.
We imagine a good place as any to be the Big Wheel stage, Melt!’s primary dancefloor. That floor is shaking with the stomp of feet, faces contort. We catch just the end of Michael Mayer, but it’s a brilliant end, the shifting chords of Gui Boratto’s ’Beautiful Life’ lifting moods up to the glitterball above. In the melee, we locate Mammut and from here on in things go stellar.
Melt!’s golden period starts now, in the heat and swipe of Digitalism. It’s a struggle to put words to dance music – ‘cause a) minds are usually fuzzy by now; and b) it’s the thinnest line between something euphoric, uniting, dirty, genius; and not quite cutting it. This does cut, hard – go to the medley at the link above to pull together some kind of idea of quite how sharp this set was. Easily the musical highlight of the weekend so far, and with Simian Mobile Disco to follow.
Except we wouldn’t see SMD – we’d hear them, definitely, but from the sort of distance where ’I Believe’ and ’Hustler’ came from behind closed doors – memories flood of occupying stairs in superclubs, fire exits at school discos, bedrooms at house parties. Anywhere sound's dulled and chat can flow.
Up we went, lead by Mammut, jumping the security fence. Stole in and bounded all stealthy over to the machine, the biggest machine in the park, over by the lake. We clamber over the gate and start our ascent, buoyed on dust and clatter up through its rippling, rusty guts like monkeys in a metal thicket; ‘til we’re right up, legs dangling 100 tingling feet off the ground, grinning and half-gurning in the canopy. The Mobile Disco lights up beneath us, throwing out gooey green light and bass that rumbles up the aching struts of the excavator and shakes the webs of lonely spiders. There’s a spotlight from below that hovers at us, but it passes on and we’re left in the relative dark with Mammut, the sunsetting over the toxic lake, over our shoulders, looking down through the lasers on the city of iron.
Second photograph shot by Bastian Langguth; all others by Sam Strang