Why didn’t anybody think of this before? It’s a festival... in an abandoned air base. Brilliant. Tonight, the eerie experimental sounds ringing out over Bentwaters Air Base in Suffolk seem to fit their surroundings, and the place that once existed as a bastion in America’s efforts in the Cold War is an incredible backdrop for some weird and wonderful musical creations.
Faster Than Sound, an event encompassed by the wider happenings of the Aldeburgh Festival, takes place every year at the former RAF base in coastal Suffolk. The main setting – an old engine testing room called ‘The Hush House’ – has long been disused and silent, but tonight it is beautifully lit so that it’s hard to imagine it was meant to be used for anything else. Classical and electronic musical forms soundtrack the evening, often married together at various points and channelled through four surround sound speaker systems. It feels more like a rave, like we shouldn’t be here - there’s no corporate sponsorship evident or heavy-handed security anywhere to be seen.
The line-up was stronger in its inaugural years of 2006 and 2007, boasting Venetian Snares, µ-ziq, DAT Politics and Throbbing Gristle between them. This year’s event is less of an all-star-cast, but still welcoming the relatively big names of 4AD’s Jóhann Jóhannsson and Warp's Plaid onto the bill. For £10 though, no one’s complaining, not least when you consider its unique setting and ambitiousness of the set-up. Faster Than Sound isn’t about the big names; it leans more towards personal discovery, where the lesser known, even virtually unknown artists, are the ones that can impress the most.
Each artist on the bill performs for an average of ten minutes, before reappearing at various points in the night with different collaborators. As the sun begins to set outside, the proceedings begin, and the first notable performer DiS manages to catch is Tim Exile, whose cluttered breakcore sounds like a Normandy beach on D-Day through the multi-channel speaker system. He's incredible, but something tells me it wouldn't be as good through your average PA system. Visuals for the evening are provided by Quayola, whose calm looped-nature videos create a beautiful juxtaposition with Mira Calix’s scatterbrain electronica. Of course, whilst there is much chin-stroking and folded arms amongst the audience for most of the night, by the time Plaid’s twisted IDM fills the hanger, the audience unfold their arms, stop using big words and start to dance.
The highlight of the evening is undoubtedly a mysteriously named installation called ‘The Bunker’, situated a quarter of a mile away from the main event. Rather than openly advertising the installation, those intrigued enough by its vague mention on the programme have to figure out and track down the balaclava-clad man driving a Land Rover (pictured, below) up and down the runway. Upon arrival at the bunker, we're greeted by more shadowy figures in guerrilla attire who lead us into the old, dark concrete building. We make our way haphazardly through the rooms of dusty cold-war relics towards the echo of music. We find its source in a dimly lit room reminiscent of an old jazz club with small tables and candles, wherein two women – one with a cello and the other set up with a microphone and laptop – create the most incredible dream-like ambient soundscapes. Their names we don’t know, as there seems to be no information on the programme or on the internet about them anywhere, probably to add some mystery to the proceedings. After five minutes we’re being bundled back into the Land Rover by the masked curators towards the main hanger. Only a few select people get to see their performance, as the majority of people we spoke to after greet us with a bemused “wut?” when we proposed the question as to whether they'd seen the secret installation.
This is an event that deserves to expand, and there’s consensus amongst its attendees that they’d pay extra for a bigger line-up and more installations besides. Despite its few shortcomings, Faster Than Sound is the wind of change in a quagmire of mediocre festivals, mediocre bands, and mediocre settings. More festivals will be like this in the future, and they’ll be better off for it too.