September in Seattle is just about perfect. Summer heat has abated but left blue skies before the return of the winter rains that saturate the city in gray. The month also holds a special place in the heart of Pacific Northwest techno fans, who feel a pull like migratory birds after being conditioned for over a decade with the region’s premier festival, Decibel.
Decibel went on hiatus in 2016, and while other efforts have tried to fill the gap, this year finally cemented a worthy successor to dB in the form of Kremfest. The four-night bash took place within the confines of the Kremwerk/Timbre Room complex, an upstairs-downstairs pair of venues nestled in Seattle’s booming downtown, where 40-story towers soar overhead that were just holes in the ground two years ago.
Kremwerk, the original venue, is a dark basement channeling a Germanic vibe – the son half of the mother-and-son duo that own the place spent a year in Berlin before opening the club. A former creamery, the subterranean space is decorated with a case of old milk bottles. The ceilings are low enough for a tall person to bang on them; steady investments in the sound system have made the audio experience high caliber, if not quite Funktion One quality.
Timbre Room conjures a certain Northwest cabin aesthetic with wood paneling, taxidermy heads, and a green wall (unclear if the plants are living or dead) behind the DJ booth, which make a thrilling backdrop for visual projections.
The first night, a Thursday, was the highlight. DJ Bricks, a member of the Seattle-based female/trans/non-binary collective TUF, offered a rolicking set filled with hi-hats, femme vocals, and squiggly bass lines. What sounded like 90ish techno was propulsive but not full throttle, ending with a track by 90s drum’n’bass torchbearer Trevino, who passed away in 2015.
Robert Hood, a defining figure in Detroit techno who served as Underground Resistance’s Ministry of Information, entered the DJ booth to cheers. He let the previous track fade and started his set fresh with pile-driving techno that seemed to reflect the defensive posture of his t-shirt, which read “Detroit vs. Everybody.”
No nostalgist, he blew the roof off Kremwerk with a current release, Stare5’s “We Will Not”, that layered elements at just the right intervals to create sudden, satisfying crescendos that gave the dance floor a jolt of energy. Barring one epic build-up that felt excessive to me even if the payoff was a dancefloor roar, this minimalist matter showed trademark restraint. He noodled with cosmic deep space techno rotating around echo-y hand claps, and at one luscious moment let the hoover synths rip loud and hard.
Detroiters were featured three of four nights, part of the Motor City’s techno brand equity: You can’t book a respectable North American techno festival in 2018 without paying royalties to the sound’s founding city and its still-vibrant cadre of DJs and producers. Exhibit A: Sinistarr. He explored the contours of the hardcore continuum, while keeping the 25-year-old UK rave lineage sounding contemporary with snippets of rap vocals and grime beats. In his most memorable montage, a high-tempo version of Detroit techno ur-classic “Strings of Life” exploded into 10,000 little pieces of drum’n’bass oblivion.
Not every Detroit representative was on point, however. Mike Huckaby, an otherwise capable veteran, struggled with the decks at times during a 2.5 hour set, including a major trainwreck late that derailed the dancefloor and left festivalgoers scratching their heads. “Like dirty gym shoes in the laundry,” one person commented disapprovingly.
Thankfully, plenty of others from near and far picked up the slack. Seattle’s DJ NHK Guy spun his way through jungle breakbeats flavored with Hi-NRG kitsch. Djrum offered a more subdued set than his SoundCloud, replete with intriguing genre coinages like “ambient gabber”, might suggest, generating a deep head nod mode for many. Hodge, by contrast, pulled some fancy moves with a crate of vocalless funky house.
With overflowing crowds on Saturday night, the festival proved that it has outgrown the Kremwerk/Timbre Complex’s cozy confines. That’s in large part because the festival’s structure was to mash a half-dozen different club nights together under one roof, with each night’s line-up curated as showcases – from bass night Shook! to avant-techno bookers Research to tech-house purveyors Noise Complaint! It was a healthy experience that encouraged clubgoers who don’t otherwise mix to mingle with fellow travelers in the Seattle nightlife scene. Though with crowds that big, it seems some out-of-towners may have gotten the memo about the little slice of electronic music paradise that is Seattle in September.
Photos: Tyler Hill