Viana Do Castelo, Portugal
Certain tried-and-tested crowd-pleasers should be sentenced to an early retirement and never heard again: Floorplan’s Aretha-sampling Never Grow Old and Charlie’s Italo classic Spacer Woman, for example, should to be met with no more than an eye-roll from you, the discerning raver. Still, when Ricardo Villalobos throws out the bait after a night of monochrome doof-doofery at Portugal’s biggest techno festival, it feels like we’ve just crash-landed in Oz.
Situated within the walls of a 16th century fort in Viana Do Castelo, a historic seaside town just north of Porto, Neopop Festival is an annual focal point for the whole country’s techno scene, with world-class headliners joined by national stalwarts like Tiago, resident at Lisbon’s Lux, and booker, DJ and festival director Gusta-vo. The line-up is characterised by a certain techno purism; this year, the Detroit tradition is represented by Jeff Mills, who reminds us how it all began armed with a 909 and his usual effortless elan, and Dopplereffekt, whose austere electro chemistry doesn’t seem to ring any cowbells for their sparse audience.
It’s a compact offering, with two stages to hop between and a serious lack of chill spaces in which to take a sit and enjoy your decriminalised spliff (a false promise, actually: Portugal’s progressive drug laws do not extend to chemical free-for-all at festivals, where actual police officers carry out bag searches). But there’s no arguing with the massive Neo stage when it gets going: the sound is unbelievably loud and incredibly clear, boosted by a wall of immersive (if slightly dorky, Hackers-esque) visuals. It’s a full-body techno experience in the right hands, and Paula Temple and Rebekah pull it off perfectly with their hybrid live set of eyelid-peeling technoise. (Alarmingly, I didn’t see anyone wearing earplugs the whole weekend.)
The four-day event opens with a history lesson from St. Germain, who introduces his jazzy, after-hours house to a younger generation of fans with a full live band. Departures from the techno mainstream also come from Finnish eccentric Aleksi Perälä, whose experiments in musical tunings evolve into a deep, surprisingly banging trip on the smaller Anti stage, and the inspired pairing of veteran DJs Solar and Intergalactic Gary, who pool their decades of experience for a set of chugging, whacked-out techno on the more experimental Thursday bill. On a similar tip, Solar’s SF associate Mozhgan injects a pleasingly trashy vibe to the night with plenty of wiggy acid and vintage drum machines. There’s more to be found off-site, too: the town’s theatre hosts two bonus gigs, with Clark performing his ravey Death Peak album and James Holden’s psychedelic ensemble The Animal Spirits conducting a folk-trance ritual via brass, Moroccan percussion and modular synth.
Too much of the rest of the line-up is occupied by wipe-clean tech-house from the Beatport big league, which is probably why Villalobos’ set hits the spot so squarely – after 10 hours of 4/4 orthodoxy, the sniff of a piano sample is enough to make the morning crew lose their shit completely. It’s hardly a historic set in the Villalobos canon, but no one’s complaining when we’re jacking to Paul Johnson under a cloudless Atlantic sky. The final victory of the four-day marathon is claimed by Nina Kraviz, whose subtly unpredictable set demonstrates why she’s one of the finest techno headliners money can buy. Dark, raw and flawlessly executed, there’s even a significant dose of trance – perhaps 2018’s definitive dance festival trend, second only to those pointy sunglasses.