One hour from Bilbao is Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Basque country’s small but lively capital. A gallery complex near the old town quarter is the setting for Mugako, which in its first year has already established a strong sense of identity. Practically every act on the line-up works with a murkier, grittier techno sound. There’s no big names for the sake of big names, and for a festival trying to establish itself, that’s to be applauded.
Demdike Stare are among the first to play, layering glacial synth sweeps and howling drones over blown-out breaks. It’s a very physical listen – the duo sculpt their dense mass of sound in ways that make your eardrums seize up, and invade your headspace. Visuals complete the experience, the pair drawing upon their continuing fascination with witchcraft, ritual, and a very English type of horror.
“Life’s too short for techno” tweeted Objekt last May, and it looks like that’s been weighing on his mind as he warms up with an hour of suspiciously soulful groove and disco. By 3 am however we’ve arrived in familiar territory. As a DJ, Objekt’s very good at unsettling the club without clearing the floor. There’s something slightly off about each track, the set littered with weird synth-squeals, disquieting vocals, and disorientating rhythms. What’s really great though is how much fun he’s having doing it – a master-class in how to do the serious techno guy thing without looking too serious.
Day two, and things have moved to a beer garden in the middle of the old town. The suns out, the BBQ’s going, and a Segunda División clash between locals Alavés and Osasuno sees football fans swamp the cobbled streets. Some show up in time to enjoy Andreas Tilliander’s live set, throwing down harder then any ticket-holder in the place. “It’s fine,” Tilliander tells me afterwards. “Football fans have always understood acid better.”
Tilliander returns to the gallery’s plaza stage a couple of hours later to perform under his TM404 moniker. Following drama at the airport, a suitcase of 303s arrives just in time for the set. TM404 has long been the Swede’s most intriguing project, and the live performance resists any urge to move out of the deep and sensitive territory explored on record. Each click, swell and hollow tom beat carries the same moody weight.
Dasha Rush rounds things off with the best set of the weekend. Rush’s preference for slow burning tracks full of breathing space, combined with her patience and technical mastery, makes her one of those DJs who can make time feel meaningless. It’s over in what feels like minutes, the crowd melting as Rush plays out on Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinox.
Mugako kept the musical focus narrow, and delivered something really satisfying as a result. With a solid first year under their belt, it’ll be interesting to see if next year they try and broaden the appeal, or narrow it even further. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.