Seattle’s Decibel Festival is an impressive five-night dance music marathon, run almost entirely by dedicated volunteers and fueled by a genuine love for electronic music (and a whole lot of Red Bull). In its 11-year history, Decibel has earned a reputation as one of the best electronic music festivals in the United States and is therefore a respected authority on the best of dance music’s current offerings, from the hottest underground artists to genre-defining veterans.
Modeled after Montreal’s Mutek and Detroit’s Movement, the festival featured showcases that prioritized top-notch music production and quality audio-visual performance. As such, Decibel attracted a significant faction of production nerds (who surely appreciated the festival’s daytime audio and A/V production workshops), but still felt welcoming to those who cared more about dancing than DAWs. Seattle itself proved to be an enjoyable home for five-plus days, with its friendly inhabitants and its wealth of tasty bars and restaurants for festival fueling.
Shows were held at various venues across the city close enough for a brief walk or Uber ride. Decibel’s home base was the EMP Museum of contemporary popular culture, which hosted three of the primary venues and helped give the festival a sense of cohesion. Sky Church in the EMP boasted a massive HD LED screen that displayed stunning visuals for artists including Richie Hawtin, Simian Mobile Disco, and Max Cooper. While EMP’s central location and multiple venues made it easy to jump between shows, it felt too plainly like seeing a techno show in a museum: hygienic and refined. We felt most at home in the more authentic venues meant for a little down-to-earth house & techno hedonism like Re-Bar and The Crocodile.
The lineup was stacked with worthy artists; some nights there were as many as seven simultaneous shows during prime nighttime hours that called for tricky decision making. Between these conflicts and my weary legs after spending much of the day exploring all that Seattle has to offer (see: coffee, donuts, organic/local sandwiches), I only managed to catch a fraction of the artists on my list. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the showcases that I did make and found that the Festival lived up to my high expectations. Below, my favorite moments from this year’s Decibel Festival:
Phuture’s Live Acid House
For my inaugural show of Decibel, I took a pricey Uber trip to the southern side of Seattle for an early show at The Monkey Loft’s rooftop. The trip was well worth it: I immediately forgot my jetlag once Phuture took over the decks and sent the crowd into convulsions with their raw acid house grooves. I expected nothing less from the Chicago legends, and their live set the bar quite high in both talent and raw energy for the rest of the festival.
Max Cooper Featuring Abstract Interpretive Dance
Photo: Aya Tiffany Sato
When Decibel’s full program was released, I was delighted to see one of my favorite artists, Max Cooper, performing on two separate occasions. His first set on day one at EMP’s Sky Church was both visually and aurally moving, with half of the attendees opting to sit on the museum floor to fully take in the intricate visuals on the towering screen above them. It was his performance the following night, however, that would be the most memorable. Held at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, a seated auditorium for the performing arts, Cooper played an unusual ambient set accompanied by Benjamin Van Citters’ visuals and The Pendleton House Collective’s interpretive dance. Cooper alternated between intense glitchy noises and soft, dreamlike melodies, while the dancers’ bodies shook with each fractured beat in front of the projection screen. Together the performers represented electronic music through both abstract visuals and physical movement; I have seen no other electronic music performance quite like it.
A Taste of Berghain with Steffi
Photo: Daniel Zetterstrom
On night three, I made my way to Q Nightclub, Decibel’s home for afterhours showcases. Clubgoers were treated to Berlin techno courtesy of Ostgut Ton’s Steffi, Anthony Parasole, and Marcel Dettmann. It was Steffi’s set that I most enjoyed: despite Q’s impersonal environment, heavy bro contingent, and unreliable sound, Steffi’s hardware mastery shone through as she crafted a set that built tension and kept the crowd enthralled despite being long since the end of alcohol service. I was disappointed once her set ended, and unfortunately Marcel’s Dettmann’s much lower energy set following could not keep my attention through the early hours of the morning.
Kode9 & Hyperdub Family Toast to Rashad
Photo: Chika Hironaga
Kode9 is always an incredible DJ to witness. His years of experience have made him a master DJ with the prowess to seamlessly blend bass genres from across borders (to be expected from someone who leads such a groundbreaking bass music label). His set at The Crocodile on the fourth night of Decibel was as unique and flawless as I’ve come to expect from the Hyperdub boss. Kode9 took a moment to toast to the late footwork don DJ Rashad, sharing a bottle of tequila with the other members of the Hyperdub family who had come along for the label’s 10 Year Anniversary Tour. I was glad to have witnessed such a poignant moment amidst a masterful set that sent the dancefloor into madness.s
T.Williams Sets Decibel Aflame
By night five, I was one step away from zombification, but I powered through to see Nadastrom at the Crocodile. They were surprisingly fun but the crowd’s energy was lackluster and uninspiring (everyone surely as wiped as I was). I decided to drop in to see T.Williams at Re-bar on my way home, and what I found there completely blew me away. The energy level at this Decibel edition of Flammable, one of the nation’s longest-running house music parties, was incendiary. Sassmouth’s Chicago house set a solid foundation for T.Williams, who shook the entire club with his funky house and garage. Audience members crowded the stage and turned the party into a debaucherous affair, and despite my crippling exhaustion, I danced harder than I had throughout the entire festival. Tensnake’s surprise closing set unfortunately derailed the party as he jumped into disco house, so I took that as my cue to hobble back to my Airbnb. My legs were leaden, but I was buzzing and blissful from the best party of the festival and the overall glowing excitements from my past five days in Seattle.