On paper, ATP 2003 was a battle between the electronica big daddy Aphex Twin and young Canadian pretender-to-the-throne Venetian Snares. In practice, there could only be one winner.
For anyone still wondering, it was Aphex Twin.
Quite simply, the man otherwise known as Richard D James is the musical equivalent of doing a pill: he'll make you dance for hours like a fucking retard, grin insanely and stay up until ridiculous times babbling shit. Fantastic.
All life before 2.30am on Saturday April 4th was instantly rendered pointless. By one man. A man who looks like an alien species, is renown for his awkwardness, but once every so often shows why he's number one.
This was one such occasion; 120 minutes of exocet DJ precision, mashing together the very greatest bits of techno, jungle and drum & bass; a couple of thousand mad-for-it stay-outs, many with E-filled veins, others merely psyched into a frenzy by literally non-stop body-arresting beats.
Amazing is the only word which could possibly be used to describe the atmosphere. No fights, no aggro, no bullshit. Just wall-to-wall rave action and Aphex Twin, messiah-like, manically shaking his fists elatedly at his dancing disciples.
By comparison, Venetian Snares was dead in the water before he ever started. Not that he didn't come close - the insane opening shot of 'Dance Like You're Selling Nails' almost defeated Aphex single-handedly with live vocals from opera singer-cum-MC hip-grinding vixen Jo Apps. Ultimately though, VSnares' music surely wouldn't exist without the influence of Richard D James. And the master hasn't been overcome by his student just yet.
So. What with the advent of discount airlines one would expect the profits of such grim English 'Holiday villages' as Camber Sands to be in steep decline. All the more reason then to hand the place over to a motley crew of ravers, bemused indie kids and avant-garde enthusiasts for the purposes of a prolonged three-night party!
And, yes, a three-night party describes the event pretty well. Those used to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury - and even the regulars who booked their tickets in advance expecting a similar line-up to the last few years - were in for a surprise. Acts started at around 4pm and continued till the wee hours (5 or 6am) and the number of them featuring live instruments (with the possible exception of the turntable) could probably be counted on one hand.
While this in itself is no bad thing, there was relatively little to actually watch onstage. Indeed at times I found myself frustrated by the crowd's tendency to stare aimlessly at the bloke onstage pressing buttons, rather than raving it up like they blatantly should. In essence it was more of a club atmosphere than a festival one, and because of this an act-by-act review would be rather redundant - instead I'll single out some of the highlights and try to give a feel for music being played on both stages.
Down here it was pretty much a big rave-up from 6pm till 6am each night. The stage featured more DJ sets than live acts (although with electronic music the distinction is often rather arbitrary), and the Skam Records crew were the best of the lot, ranging from trippy electronica to techno freak-outs, melodic stuff and old electro [The pulsating bass antics and live visuals of Meam were probably the most memorable - Adam]. They also made a mockery of the festival's supposed no-drugs policy by handing the TV test-card girl and what looked like her pet clown a spliff for their visuals. Other notables were the excellent Wevie Stonder, putting on a far better live show than the rest with their on-stage costume rave-up, DJ Woody with some impressive turntablism, and Bola's techno - they didn't actually turn up, ironically, but hearing their tunes on the PA was just as good.
The ever-so-slightly-mental Venetian Snares rounded the weekend off downstairs with his trademark machine-gun-fire gabba techno noise - great in small doses, but however many pills you've dropped, it's enough to do your fucking head in. To call him 'Aphex Twin without the tunes' would be a little harsh, but after a while I found myself retiring to the conveniently located Queen Vic Pub, where some militant indie kids had taken over the decks and started playing assorted retro classics. Frankly, after an afternoon of incessant 'rinsing' tech-house beats from next door (mm-chh-mm-chh-mm-chh-mm-chh->infinitum), it was a breath of fresh air.
Upstairs - the laptops
The feel upstairs, while more eclectic, experimental and live, still became a little samey after three nights. The highlights were great, but a number of rather dull and pretentious laptop acts managed to creep onto the line-up. Take Hecker for example - a tedious little bloke who treated us to a half-hour-long wasp noise from his iMac. The idea that this kind of music's impenetrability somehow makes it intellectual and worthy is something which needs to be challenged, I feel - the fact the vast majority of the crowd didn't 'get' it doesn't make them stupid, but makes the music fucking shite. Pretentious to the max, elevating the electronic process over and above musical content, and avoiding any kind of impact on the listener whatsoever, save mild annoyance.
Before you start judging me as an enemy of the avant-garde though, I have to say that Jim O'Rourke's laptop set was excellent. Using the same processes and styles as the other laptop acts but somehow managing to fashion it into an intense, organic whole, twisting flashes of melody and glitches into a gradual build-up of noise - more evidence for my theory that a grounding in traditional musical processes and forms is very important in making good electronic music. The man himself incidentally was being very friendly (and drunk, by the looks of it) in the pub afterwards.
Mira Calix and Andrea Parker were also quite interesting, although what was with the two balaclavad peeps ironing towels onstage? Who knows. Any effort to relieve us from the terminal boredom of watching a lone artist fiddling with a turntable was much appreciated, although you could've, say, switched to ironing shirts halfway through for a bit of variety.
Upstairs - the hip-hop
Thank god for the hip-hop acts then - without them the festival would have been almost entirely white male electronic fiddling and we'd have had no excitement on stage all weekend. Public Enemy were great fun, and seeing Chuck D and his crew sauntering around Pontin's holiday camp in the day was surreal to say the least. They played quite a few classics but towards the end their set ventured into rather wanky rap-rock territory and it was at that point I left.
Thirstin Howl III was my personal favourite of the hip-hoppers - combining great backing and melodies with excellent MC-ing, at times pretty funny, especially the 'I still live with mah mom' number. El-P was also excellent, as was Kool Keith, despite his DJ's rather lame self-promotional efforts (no we don't want to hear all your fucking remixes, get the MC onstage!)
Upstairs - the rest
Alongside the electronica a few Autechre-selected oddities had also made it onto the line-up. Avant-sludge-metallers Earth had cancelled but the noticeably similar Sunn 0))) took their place - two hooded wizards playing sludgy distorted echoey overlapping guitar chords, once every 5 minutes or so it seemed. Surprisingly perfect for the blissed-out, loved-up crowd awaiting Aphex's set, but hilariously frightening for our mates, who for reasons unknown had previously 'boshed down some mushrooms'.
Coil gave us some of their slow, gothy processed vocals and synth noises - interesting at first, but somewhat dated and became rather tedious after a while. The Fall were pretty much as you would expect The Fall to be - noisy, drawling and somewhat incomprehensible. Cue hilarious Mark E Smith impressions from the Gents toilets. Most exceptional of the guitar acts though were The Magic Band - backing band for '60s psychedelic rock genius Captain Beefheart. Surreal to say the least, watching over-the-top bluesy rock from a bunch of balding over-dressed Americans after an evening of electronica. One of them managed to take over the vocals pretty well, another had one of those hilarious double-headed guitars - your hippy parents would've loved it. If they were hippies, that is.
All in all then - some highlights, a lot of OK but fairly predictable club type DJ-ing - we rather felt this year's curators, Autechre, should've ventured a little further from their 'home' genre in search of an eclectic line-up, both downstairs and up. Next year's looks like a return to form though with Mogwai, Tortoise and Shellac all returning to curate a day each. See you then!