There’s a unique joy in spending hours in a dark underground bunker with nothing but bass heavy drones and noise for company, the brief shuffles and breaths of other audience members reminding you that you’re not alone, or dreaming; then soon afterwards standing atop a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, letting the first vibrations of a party segue, via an elaborate and extensive buffet, into early hours hedonism. This nightly sequence is simple, refined and addictive.
Such is the way with the opening evening of Madeiradig, those arriving too close to 9:30pm – when the festival goers board coaches bound for the nearby performance space – have little time to get their bearings. More time for that in the morning.
A sharp thump. John Chantler looks around himself like a toddler who has just unknowingly injured his younger sibling, instantly distracted by awful cosmic echoes. Moaning circuits duck and cower. The room is black save for wired beasts on stage, a glowing face hovering above. A faded and muted growl reclines into a shy background, grimly dragged through corridors of restless fuzz into a pale light – television static – phased and panned into a swirl. This is a cold, arctic sound. Miles of iron filings ripped out of stomach lining reveal a stretch of silence, gradually filled with colour by deranged, legless and flightless birds, swallowing their atonal song as coat-hangers are shoved down their throats. A cruel deconstruction of a Ken Ishii drum loop, then a chord of galactic crickets fills the mid range space. Chantler’s modular synthesiser set up is pushed through predictable timbres to a creepy nightmarish sonic landscape, then back into atypically corporeal clanks, metal against metal in surround sound. This hard multichannel panning (a last minute decision, John later reveals to me) comes out of nowhere, establishing a renewed disorientation.
After the short interval a tall, largely concealed figure picks out a David Thomas Broughton sense of intimacy and discomfort, though darkened through an aura more in line with Siouxsie Sioux. A droning psychedelic fog brings the room into a rum-soaked stupor not quite suitable to precede the vibrancy of the opening night party. Beth Gibbons’ soily sister eschews soulfulness for noisier, more ethereal tones, often slightly meandering without a clear direction. Praise is deserved for choosing a format more recognisable as contemporary song, which is rare for this and many similar festivals. The atmosphere remains thick and replete with palpable emotion however, and really kicks in when the live sound team correct the embarrassing discrepancy between guitar and voice levels.
Every year the festival offers a day excursion along one of the island’s levada walks – this traditional pastime is essentially a wander along the irrigation paths carved into the mountain sides, several hours staring at distant towns, down lethal drops or through gushing waterfalls. This year the coach took us up to the mountain town of Encumeada where the three-hour walk began, through patches of eucalyptus trees and tunnels cut straight through the mountains themselves. At its end we were fed in the north coastal town of Sao Vicente, where the emphasis on food was matched, at least, with the emphasis on wine. The vocalised nonsense concurrent with afternoon drinking was soon abound – “are you a borderline botanist?”
Performance night two centres focus on the 20th year of the Editions Mego record label. Four performances take the programme later, with extended darkness. Rumbling drone and distant dry screeching spew from Chra’s opening sound palette, squidgy Morse Code colouring the upper mix levels. The sound system and this room are built to withstand significant levels of bass, a notion Chra clearly intends to test. Her set builds to a point where a massive factory can be imagined churning in the furthest recesses of a ceiling higher than this. A semblance of a heavenly choir, pitched up to the rafters, drifts in, half of the perceptible sound made up from breaths, formless and at odds with the low frequencies still underpinning everything.
The interchange between Chra and Klara Lewis sees the preceding artist leave the stage seconds before a dividing screen is pulled up, revealing a secondary performance area with Lewis, and her accompanying visual backdrop, ready to begin. At first it seems like Lewis might well be a part two to Chra, beginning with a completely unsubtle burst of full spectrum noise of markedly more force. Over the duration of the set however, it becomes clear which is the more diverse project. Stretches of frenzied electronics occupy the sound space; digital graffiti and warped oscilloscopes run wild over the near-still figure sat in front. A refreshing use of dynamics puts periods of calm between the chaos, drawing comparisons with early 90s ambient electronica, then disappearing under the threat of dense beats and intense, exotic environments. Rattles, rituals, distant and intimate violence, hissing vacuums trembling at the mass of synth slabs. Syncopation weaves in and out of existence, occasionally warped by ring modulation and exaggerated resonances. The visuals take the audience deeper into a paranoid, narcotic realm; equal parts unsettling and beautiful.
By the time Thomas Brinkmann starts his journey into extremely sparse techno it’s clear that one thing is not on his side: the overstated presence of thumping bass tonight. Yes, there are roots in Berlin’s industrial techno twilight, but the third blackout set of gut trembling waves comes with a sense of exhaustion. Fortunately for Brinkmann, a defining characteristic of his performance both ignores and capitalises on the situation – heavy, merciless kick drums that pummel on for basically all of the set, keeping pace with a restless, disorientating time signature. The rhythms drive out any notion of time or structure, leaving only the most subtle suggestions of temporal development: a high pitched squeal slowly modulating, sounding like a rave beneath a huge airport; fractional shifts in mid-low tones swapping and re-swapping dark for pitch black. Given Brinkmann’s slot in the evening, it’s quite a marvel that his performance manages to rouse such renewed energy – a testament to the involving psychology of relentless but barely shifting propulsion, and the hypnosis thereof.
The final performance, from Hecker and Tina Frank, seems to celebrate a completely over the top continuum of errors, blending senses into a warped synaesthetic frenzy that rarely lets up on the discomforting and ridiculous. By far the wildest set of the night, probably the whole festival, it’s chaos, beats gulping round insane harmonic corners to the image of a spectral analyser on an exothermic breakdown. After passages of digital lunacy, space is made for fragments of musicality to seep in, though these are rapidly yanked out of familiarity, piano keys thrust apart in bi-directional Shepherd tones, falling up into something electric and unforgiving.
At this point it’s becoming clear that arguably ridiculous descriptions of music and sound are in strong supply, and the idea of perhaps toning them down creeps in. So here goes: Casa das Mudas Centro des Artes Cultura is so minimal it doesn’t cast a shadow. Oh dear. The juxtaposition of dark / light sounds is even more pronounced this year. Festival head figure, Michael Rosen’s sunny disposition conceals what appears to be a darkly playful narrative, only in the sense that the audience can never settle with the spectre of what’s around the next corner always looming. Speaking to festival attendee Toby (who installed during a previous year), he reminds me of this deliberate programming decision, and indeed it is a characteristic that augments the oddness of the whole thing.
The Sunday had been reserved for some exploring of the nearby mountains looming above Ponta do Sol. A Portugese friend once said that they make him feel claustrophobic, pushed to the outer rim of the island; the opposite could also be imagined, a feeling of comfort and safety. Either way one is very much drawn in to them, through escape or intrigue. The winding roads that run between the town houses soon give way to paths – the old crumbling beside the newly built – commencing several hours of elemental journeying. Though not the first time on this particular route, new environments still cropped up, most notably a high altitude meadow of vivid green suspended just below the clouds, lush and unreachable until several miraculous gateways exposed possibility.
Eli Kezler introduces an unmentionable climate, replete with aquatic wood beams splitting and merging, coloured by swells from a partnership of Rashad Becker’s analogue synths. The intention is apparently to bring the audience up and down quite violently; there is no build up from the start, and only a few minutes in the drums drop away suddenly, allowing the synth to take occupation of the sonic foreground. A resonant wake trails behind another passage of percussive thuds as Kezler winds up again, and the synths mirror the amassing of energy with metallic brass stabs, and some unpleasant bastardisation of throat singing. An IDM sensibility has crept into the drumming, reminiscent of when Alarm Will Sound made that Aphex covers album (‘Acoustica’). In the latter stages of the set a slightly flat section is lifted, delightfully subtly, by the introduction of an open hi-hat; the synths meanwhile have gone a bit 90s drum n bass…
On the other end of the cinematic audio spectrum, much more direct emotional yearning is cast out through A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s ensemble in a melodic arc, pushed to singularity via the programme’s commanding atonality. The warmth of the opening chords spells out a tense but comforting ambiguity, wavering but not disappearing throughout the set, capitalising on the relation the group has to the much-celebrated Stars of the Lid. This, a markedly more ‘radio friendly’ version of the former outfit’s more accessible material, cuts track times down into smaller pieces, but somehow going past the point with which The Dead Texan achieved worthy compromise, and reducing the signature drama a touch too far. Moments where the contemplative state is present and full glide around patchier, flatter sections, and the conclusion leaves a feeling part wistful, part unfulfilled.
Though the last night of the festival traditionally sees the latest, most committed post-performance party, the penultimate holds importance as many new friends have been met, and various views and experiences exchanged. It was possibly this new sense of social comfort that brought many of us eating together out on the far cliff end of Estalagem that night, soon indulging in a number of the extra curricular delights the festival offers. The divide between audience and performers was here as invisible as ever, united. Here, next to the Atlantic Ocean, Madeiradig has reached its magical peak.
On the last performance night the down-shifted brass tones of Selvhenter bring about an atmosphere you might expect from the more drone based Earth or Parson Sound, soon spiking higher stratospheres with piercing sax damage. Sharing a similar suspended drama to the opening of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s hiatus-breaking monster ‘Mladic’, the sense of ritual is significant, giving way eventually to an agitated, noise based sonic framework. Through the seldom-seen song-based approach, the trio switch focus to a possibly crap Yamaha synth and violin, and grotty acid pulses add temper to the previous relative stillness. This could almost be a Peter Greenaway soundtrack, though more hellish with deranged loops and stomach churning distortion.
Supersilent’s set began just so, with chimes and shuffles playing off nocturnal Rhodes echoing in tunnels, and distant glistening scrapes. Sitting at the further end of free improvisation for now, a peacefulness is holding position despite threats from less dreamy timbres. Synth reconstructions of acoustic instruments are removed enough from their source to be abstract yet imply the same physicality. Our performing duo aren’t the most commanding on stage, preferring to maintain their own unspoken communication through largely unbroken eye contact. This becomes a performance in itself; a tension that underpins even the most freeing segments of the set. Their sound world does not come without its uglier moments: a sci-fi telephone sound establishes presence amongst whipping beats that sound like raw meat being slapped in an enormous echo chamber. A kind of fury peaks and spills over into a calmer section to conclude in reflection of the beginning.
With the music festival over and the film festival coming next after only a days’ break, the Tuesday offered another, longer walk through the very rock of the mountains and ended up on black sand in Madalena do Mar. The road there was generous with waterfalls, imposing tunnels and vast eyefuls of sparkling sea, offering a state of reflection so blissfully consuming, getting back to Ponta do Sol in time for the terrace cocktails was only made possible through hitch hiking with a very pleasant holidaying couple. The memories of the darkness, the volume and ecstasy of the preceding days sits in harmony with delights so rich and natural. It appears that Madeiradig’s main concern, year after year, is offering the giddy bewilderment of sweet, bizarre contrasts. It’s a festival in the sun where almost no part of the festival happens when the sun is shining; it’s held on an island of so rich an exterior yet almost nothing happens outdoors. You would be understood in thinking it was an elaborate joke but, be assured, it’s far from it.
Photo credit: Roland Owsnitzki @ Votos.de