Sustain-Release provides a glimpse of a thriving underground dance music culture that is as soulful and singular as ever.

In the foothills of the Catskills there exists a quaint little summer camp, which spends the vast majority of its time providing a venue for children to make friends, experience nature, and have a good time. Once a year however it receives a colorful host of rather older, weirder children and is transformed into a debauched paradise filled with sound, light, and laughter.

Camp Kennybrook is perhaps the best venue I have experienced for a “festival” of any kind. I use scare quotes because comparing this event to the much larger, more bustling and commercial dance music festivals that are now so commonplace across the world would be doing it an enormous disservice. Sustain-Release channels the aesthetic, energy, and romance of the forest raves and renegade parties that shaped so much of modern dance music culture, yet it does so in a way that is effortless–you don’t get the sense that it is trying to be anything other than itself. In an era when nostalgia is one of the hottest commodities around, S-R is a beautiful reminder that the now is full to bursting with promise and potential.

Masterminded by Brooklyn underground maestro Aurora Halal, S-R has been running for five years now, and that history is apparent in the refinement of the event down to the tiniest details. The shuttle buses that ferry eager dancers to and from Brooklyn keep their schedules to the minute, the venue’s capacity handles the number of attendees–enough to get lost in, few enough that every face feels familiar by the end–with room to spare. The food is great (though there were slightly less options available by Sunday morning) and the bartenders are on point, you never have to wait long to wet your whistle. For a decidedly DIY festival, albeit an experienced one, the professionalism and graceful execution is impressive. Aurora and co. run a tight ship.

The main stage is set up in the immense gymnasium that sits approximately in the center of the campground, the water of the lake that separates campsite from festival grounds laps just beyond its walls. The spectacle delivered is comparable to any overwrought, multi-million dollar dance music festival, and far, far better in context, with pristine sound from the Funktion Ones, intense lights, and hearty helpings of fog. The mood was thick as Friday night started to gain momentum, with secondnature DJs Archivist and Fugal delivering a pristine and ultra-sophisticated set that ran the gamut of agile, textural techno. One of the few minor nitpicks I have is with the frenzied light programming at the main stage, which was often, combined with the fog, extreme to the point of discomfort. I had to step out a few times during Shyboi’s absurdly destructive set, as the strobes and colored floodlights became overwhelming. Obviously this is a very subjective criticism, but it was a complaint I heard echoed. Things settled down nicely to a set of moody red lasers when DJ Stingray stepped behind the decks.

Among the cabins across a hill lies Bossa, the second of the three stages, which comes complete with a bouncy wooden floor that is an absolute pleasure underfoot, especially after sixteen-plus hours of non-stop dancing. Bossa provides a wider palette than the slamming peak-time techno and electro of the main stage, with highlights including Galcher Lustwerk’s variegated set, much of which eschewed dance music orthodoxy, as well as breaks and classic rave sounds from Simo Cell and Eris Drew. The former even managed to slip in the Get Ya Freak On instrumental. I started off Saturday evening here, having my insides very thoroughly rearranged by Juliana Huxtable, with a set that was as savagely noisy as it was abstract, disjointed, and utterly brilliant. This dancefloor also provides a final haven for the festival’s stalwarts (so, pretty much everyone) as it continues on well after the main stage shuts down on Sunday morning. Following up on her somewhat legendary pool party set last year, Josey Rebelle took this opportunity to play whatever the fuck she wanted (meaning just about everything under the sun) for a seven hour set that culminated in a handful of much-adored slow jams, unclenching jaws and exhausted grins all around. At one point during her marathon I found myself sprinting full-tilt into the sweaty room from the nearby tennis courts, having caught the strains of Cybotron’s Clear carrying on the air.

Speaking of pool parties, the one at Sustain-Release is a uniquely wonderful experience, providing a perfect contrast to the gritty nighttime vibes. The Honcho and Honey Soundsystem DJs came together to cover an enormous amount of musical ground throughout the course of the day, eschewing the boundaries of genre and creating an ideal space to come and go as whimsy dictated. This event is unmistakably queer, without going out of its way to be, and this adds hugely to the sense of freedom and comfort. The many-colored spread of humanity attending is itself inspiring, all shapes, sizes, and identities demonstrably welcome. The commitment to decency and respect among all comers is powerful, I witnessed not a single untoward interaction. This pervades everything about the festival, and is possibly its greatest boon. The dreams and ideals of dance music history, of America’s queer underground, are tangible at Sustain-Release–you can taste them in the sweaty tang of the dancefloors and see them in the uncompromising approach to freedom, fashion, and art among the revelers. Another distinct takeaway for me was the sense that each of the artists performing were as enamored with the festival as the attendees. The sets were, without exception, aspirational, exciting, and creative, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with a dancefloor full of deeply invested merrymakers is simply par for the course. The blandness that so often invades the dance music we love is anathema at Sustain-Release.

Finally it would be unthinkable not to mention the third stage, which is nestled in the forest across a floating bridge that bisects a narrow part of the lake. This area is dedicated to calm, solace, and ambient sounds, and the visual setup is fantastic. Trees flicker with light from the floating fence of powerful, programmable strips that circle the DJ booth, languid patterns and colors blending into each other. The light programming is agile and organic, a perfect counterpart to the brain-bending textures and timbres seeping out of the speakers. Patrick Russell’s set in particular was an absolute masterclass in extraterrestrial sounds, transforming the grove into a psychedelic womb.

This long weekend in the Catskills is a unique experience. It is intimate, joyous, and the commitment to respect and acceptance is as deep as you will find anywhere. This festival accomplishes something really incredible, it manages to gracefully walk the line between the modern, commercial dance music festival, and the messy illegal rave, mating the best of both worlds into a bacchanal that is intense yet welcoming, bohemian without being clichéd, and profoundly free-spirited while remaining, safe, organized, and focused.

Not long after Mama Snake’s explosive set–probably the sweatiest of the weekend–I sat alone by the edge of the lake, cooling down and attempting to collect myself, watching fog billow across its surface as the night sky started to lighten, the sounds of DJ Nobu taking the main stage through its paces clattering and thrumming over the buildings of the camp like muted artillery. It’s a particularly sublime memory that I suspect I will keep forever. One of many. I cannot wait to return.

📷 Credits: Pegah Payandeh & Kayla Waldorf

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