29 November - 2 December
Held annually in December, Polaris is a small, lively festival located in Verbier, a postcard village in the Swiss Alps that’s also one of Europe’s premier ski resorts. With only a few thousand revellers in attendance each year, the festival’s line-ups punch above their weight, bringing an impressive range of the most in-demand names in house and techno to an impossibly picturesque setting.
This year, the festival’s timetable is oddly front-loaded. Nearly all of the most exciting acts are billed on the Thursday night, which sets us off on a duff footing: we can’t get from the airport to the town quickly enough, and so arrive onsite at 8pm to the news that we’ve missed French legend I:Cube and headliners Massive Attack completely.
Instead, we arrive halfway through Hunee’s set, with Ben UFO following on after – something that, speaking to us beforehand, he predicts would be no easy feat. There’s little need for such modesty: the Hessle Audio boss is one of the more left-field artists on the line-up, and it’s interesting to see how he weaves moments of magic throughout the set whilst maintaining enough big room clout to keep the dancers onside. Towards the end of his set, he breaks from the steady 4/4 pulse to play a section of more challenging, broken beat tunes, including one UK funky track with kicks so subby the sound man looks genuinely concerned. To close he plays Objekt’s One Fell Swoop, a somersaulting sonic workout that sounds immense in the space and stupefies the energised crowd, bringing the set to a dramatic head and resetting the space before Jeff Mills comes on to close.
The following day, we wake early and head to a nearby sauna to sweat out our hangovers. Music at the main stage begins at noon, and ramps up slowly as the afternoon progresses. Unlike most dance festivals, where the energy continually crescendos to a point in the early hours, Polaris’s programme comprises three key daily peaks, with the first arriving around 5pm when the sun sets. Positioned on the piste itself, overlooking the beautiful valley beyond, the transparent dome in which the main stage is housed provides an unbeatable vantage point to view the sun as it sets behind the mountains. Today, the soundtrack is provided by Tale of Us, who play a suitably grandiose set for the occasion. Then, as the evening grows dark, the energy builds exponentially through Innervisions duo Schwarzmann and a peacocking DJ Tennis until we reach peak number two: Dixon, who closes the main stage with a three-hour set of impeccable (yet somewhat shallow) tech house.
As the main stage winds down, buses transport revellers down the mountain back into the village for the final stage of the night. Here, a network of the town’s après-ski bars host the late-night ‘Festival Off’ billings. These are intimate club sets that provide a drastic and welcome contrast to the big room dynamic of the main stage. Tonight, Timeless label-head Francesco Del Garda closes the Farinet – an achingly suave bar beneath a luxury boutique hotel – with a typically cool set of early hours minimal techno. For those of us who find the OTT sounds of the Innervisions crew a little on-the-nose, these low-key, late night sets are a welcome way to end the night.
On the Saturday morning, the ski slopes open for the first day of the season. As the cable car lifts us out of the village and towards the untouched snowy peaks, it feels as if we slip into another world entirely; by lunchtime, the dancefloor at the Farinet feels like a half-remembered dream. As the sun lowers, we embark on a long, cross-country descent through the forests. Turning a corner, we find ourselves unexpectedly back at the entrance of the main stage, and are suddenly thrust back into the mix. Stepping inside, revered Swiss local Sassy J is soundtracking the sun’s descent with a warm, languid selection of downtempo rollers. After the overblown sounds of the night before, her deep, heady selections are a breath of fresh air.
The remainder of the Saturday night is dedicated to Detroit. New generation favourites Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel kick things off, slowly upping the energy with jacking drum machine rhythms and jazzy broken beats. Jay Daniel’s set comes to a brilliant head when, at a point of crescendo, he pulls the rug with Marcellus Pittman’s anti-banger There’s Somebody Out There, a track that, despite comprising little more than a kick drum and a wriggling, writhing bassline, turns the dancefloor completely on its head. Old school heroes Rick Wilhite and Carl Craig follow. The energy levels inside reach fever pitch, and while there’s nothing boundary pushing about what they play, it’s captivating to watch such capable showmen at work. These are DJs who have worked relentlessly over decades to refine their craft, and while their selections feel a little staid, it is a pleasure to watch a pair of masters at work.
The weekend’s highlight is saved until last, when Nina Kraviz closes the festival on the Sunday night. Kraviz’s style has grown increasingly wild and adventurous in recent years, with her sets frequently covering dense, experimental territories at higher and higher BPMs. Her performance here is no different: she quickly reaches and surpasses 140 bpm, moving from oddball vocal house through to rolling electro, retro IDM and fast breakbeat techno. At one point the driving kicks give way to the floating, ethereal ambience of Aphex Twin’s Tha, a moment of complete contrast that feels fitting of Polaris on the whole. Here is a gathering where top-tier festival acts sit happily alongside low-key cult favourites; where elite VIP seasonaires rub shoulders with sweaty, grinning ravers; and where each night you step out of the hot, ringing dancefloor to find yourself in total silence, all sound muffled by the snow. It’s these contrasts that makes Polaris the surreal and memorable party that it is.