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The calibre of the (mostly house and techno) artists playing across two days, and an affiliated boat party, suggested a growing appetite for underground dance music in this small but storied Mediterranean nation. On both days, the crowds were slow to appear, meaning two top-flight acts (Objekt and Young Marco) began their main stage sets with sparse audiences. But Young Marco’s in particular was nonetheless one of the highlights of the weekend, shifting effortlessly between delicate disco and cosmic soul, before raising the energy and the tempo just enough to ensure the handover to Robert Hood’s harder-hitting Floorplan made sense. The acts that got the best reception on the vast main stage were the big-room techno headliners, including Charlotte de Witte, Amelie Lens and the reverently received Jeff Mills, who obligingly dropped The Bells to a predictably raucous response. A standout on the programme was a scorching opening night set by Nina Kraviz. Arriving on stage to chants of ‘Nina, Nina’, Kraviz spun out spiky techno with an occasional ghetto-house pause, in the dexterous and dynamic style that explains why the star has risen so fast and so fully in recent years.
While the main arena drew the big crowds, the other stages offered more immersive dancing environments. Built around an existing club or roof terrace, the smaller capacity areas were home to some of the best sets of the festival. A live set by Gesloten Cirkel on the opening night was an acid-drenched masterclass in warped electro, followed by a casually multilayered set by Call Super, who glued gentle, pastoral house together with playful breakbeats to create a diverse but totally coherent end to the first day. The following evening, Peggy Gou drew a huge crowd into the small Hydro space, but it was Volvox’s life-affirming smash-and-grab on the Cosmic stage that really nailed it, as the Discwoman associate rattled through a joyful set of Hauff-like proportions.
“This year’s festival follows many years of the organisers slowly building the networks and experience required to stage an event of this size as well as they did”
One of the big draws of the weekend was a ‘vaults’ performance by the seminal Detroit act Dopplereffekt. But despite the crush to get close to their masked faces, and see their measured robotic synth-playing firsthand, the performance was a little underwhelming. The sparse, ominous electronica sounded better further back into the underground cave system that’d been exclusively opened as a venue for their set.
This year’s festival follows many years of the organisers slowly building the networks and experience required to stage an event of this size as well as they did. While there are maybe still a few programming questions to work through (so that major artists get the crowds they deserve), the depth and quality of the 2018 line-up marks a strong new presence on the European festival circuit, and adds another story to Malta’s evolving history.