“This is it. It’s the final one and we won’t be doing any curtain calls, encores, reunion tours or one-last-jobs. If you ever want to see the titans of techno (and related musics) face down with 6,000 ravers in a Butlins holiday park, this is your very last opportunity to do so.”
His tone may have been upbeat, but when Bloc. co-founder Alex Benson announced that that 2016’s event would be the clubbing institution’s final ever weekender, our hearts sank. Having returned to Butlins for a large-scale festival for the first time since 2012’s infamous Pleasure Gardens meltdown, 2015’s Bloc. weekender felt like an inspiring comeback, with a hedonistic but clued-up crowd flocking to the budget holiday camp for an incredible line-up. “Long may it return,” we declared in our review.
One positive outcome of the announcement was the amped up enthusiasm from this year’s crowd. For fans of Bloc.’s particular music policy, this was the chance to say farewell to the strangeness of holiday park raving, to dart between aforementioned techno titans and dilapidated day-glo arcades and drink so much Hooch that your teeth hurt.
Friday night set the tone for the diversity of music on offer. This year’s schedule seemed to offer a greater variety of sounds and styles, potentially a response to last year’s late-night soundtrack being somewhat dominated by brutal techno. Opening sets like Floating Points’ gentle live show and Intergalactic Gary’s woozy, thick new wave provided the soft landing to ease people into the weekend.
After Tama Sumo and Lakuti’s disco-licked house in Carhartt’s sports bar-turned-dancefloor, and Carl Craig’s minimal and muscular Modular Pursuits show in the expansive Centre stage, Friday’s highlight came in the form of Optimo and Andrew Weatherall’s closing set, meandering through various alternative dancefloor anthems and curveballs – including the unlikely crowd-pleaser of Moby’s remix of Simple Minds’ Theme For Great Cities.
Due to Bloc.’s rigorously hedonistic nature, daytime activities are rare. Yet this year there was some stuff available for the early riser, with LEME’s scheduled series of talks including in-depth looks at the likes of Powell, DJ Bone and Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. We deemed Fostering Female Community in Electronic Music worthy of getting out of bed for. Hosted by shesaid.so’s Sofia Ilyas, it was an impassioned and well-rounded debate on the realities of misogyny in the industry and the degree to which we should be actively encouraging connections between and providing support systems for female artists. It is worth noting that Bloc. itself faced criticism when an initial announcement for their 2015 event featured exclusively male acts, and that this year’s line-up featured more women across the weekend.
Musically, Saturday was the strongest. Kicking things off in the Centre stage, Holly Herndon’s dreamy glimpse into dystopia was at once comforting and strange, layering a tougher sound under her avant laptop-pop. Accompanied by the singing and vogueing Colin Self and visual collaborator Mat Dryhurst, theirs is one of the most unique A/V shows around, with a backdrop of 2D figures darting around a warped digitised chasm alongside messages from Dryhurst explaining why their tour is dedicated to incarcerated former US intelligence officer Chelsea Manning. They close by saying that they “will be dancing”, and, true to their word, the three of them were spotted leaving the Crack stage following Ceephax Acid Crew’s comically wild closing set.
Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes project appeared after Herndon hustled her crew offstage, and her adventurous supporting duo was soon replaced with Yorke’s heads-down, low-key one. Not that you’d want to look anywhere but Yorke – backed by a shimmering, undulating sheet of graphics, it was hard to look away from the frenetic and utterly engrossed movements he was cutting onstage. You could claim the set was a little self-serving, with guitar noodling and reaches into the baying crowd aplenty, but the surrealism of watching an iconic musician while stuck to the quicksand-like sticky carpets of Bloc. was not lost on us.
While the majority of the crowd seem to bow out by this point, the Sunday night at Bloc. Weekender is a gruelling, but strangely heartwarming ritual – a unison of the unkempt and sleep-deprived, many of whom have become acquainted with each other over the course of the weekend. As with last year’s line-up, Sunday’s real treat was the jungle and DnB takeover at the Reds Stage. It took a little while to get going – although dBridge’s experimental nature would be compelling in another context, there was only a few hours left of the last ever Bloc. weekender, and this was not what the crowd was craving. But once Dom & Roland took the baton, all inhibitions were lost, and Goldie then arrived to deliver a no-holds-barred set of throwback Metalheadz bangers, pushing past Sunday’s 1.30am early curfew by half an hour – at which point it’s a struggle to stay standing.
Now that Bloc. Weekender is no more, Alex Benson and his partner George Hull have promised to focus their time and resources into running Bloc.’s London venue and label, building a “super club” as well as more affordable music studios and workspaces. In an era of constant, dispiriting news stories of the UK capital’s accelerated gentrification and subsequent club closures, it’s reassuring to know there’s a principled team who are pumping some inspiration back into the scene.
But while we understand that the pressures and huge financial risks of putting on a weekender are exhausting, we’d be lying if we said we’re not a little sad that they’ve decided to throw in the towel after such a recent return. Benson and Hull have suggested the “next generation” might follow suit, even going as far to offer their email addresses out for anyone seeking advice about taking on a rave weekender. For those hoping to preserve the magic of the UK’s dance festivals, we’d encourage you to get in touch.
Words: Davy Reed, Anna Tehabsim + Sammy Jones