Braga, Portugal, is wryly known as a city where people leave their doors wide open. This is supposedly because the western entrance through its medieval walls has always lacked a gate, but it’s more likely a reference to the community’s thoroughly welcoming and open-minded spirit. The latter makes it the perfect home for Semibreve’s adventurous line-up. Now in its seventh year, the event brings together adventurous acts from ambient and experimental folds.
It opens at the Theatro Circo – a grand, gilded monster of a space which boasts possibly the best sound system I’ve ever sat in front of. First on are Visible Cloaks, who have what must be one of 2017’s most enchanting live sets. Driven by playful flurries of marimba-like synths, the pair’s dense, stop-start sound further deconstructs the luscious new-age vibes that acts like Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro have championed in recent years.
This is followed by GAS. Wolfgang Voigt’s slow, noble techno proves as engaging an experience as ever, particularly in such a big space where the intense hues of his woodland visuals can fully unfold. Things then move to gnration, a smaller arts and club space where Japanese producer Kyoka is raising hell. Hers is a freewheeling performance that blends elements of heavy IDM, blown out jungle, abstract turntablism and other influences with ultra-processed vocals. The end result is a deeply pleasing chaos that often appears on the verge of falling apart, but never does.
On the Saturday afternoon, a free concert at an austere, city-centre seminary brings in a big crowd of curious locals. These include children who at one point threaten to drown out Steve Hauschildt’s beautiful, but delicate set. Luckily the former Emeralds man perseveres, delivering the dreamiest experience of the weekend – warm washes of synth flood the concrete chapel, and crystalline tones fall through filters and octaves, losing all shape.
Back at Theatro Circo, performances from two of the weekend’s more demanding acts – Fis and Deathprod – provide the highlights of the festival. Fis’s AV show is a near overwhelming experience, at first eliciting deep-seated feelings of cosmic dread. But it gives way as something beautiful, opening up in the heart of the sound, blooming amid magnetic storms of noise and industrial sample-work. Meanwhile, the sheer weight of Deathprod’s drones is such that sitting through his set, particularly in the dark, feels like being dragged to the bottom of the ocean.
Things do fall a bit flat at Saturday night’s gnration club event. Rabih Beaini’s drum-machine workouts feel muddy and unsuited for the space, whilst Sabre’s acid jams seem plain unfocused. Then again, both seem to pack out the room, and the mood in the club is jubilant, perhaps following the memorable, shared experience of day two.
Semibreve’s line-up is minimal, with only two acts on the bill for the final day. This gives visitors plenty of time to see the small city’s innumerable churches, and wander its sleepy, cobbled streets. But one thing that’s particularly striking at 2017’s edition are the mountains, scorched by recent wildfires that have left scores dead and have cleared entire forests.
In an emotional address preceding the closing concert, Room 40 boss Lawrence English talks about the fires, comparing them to similar challenges in his home country of Australia. We each experience things in individual ways, he says, and by coming together and offering up our unique perspectives, we do our bit to come up with viable solutions. English’s intense focus on ‘interior sound’, which is largely ‘felt’ as well as heard, means his music is experienced in similarly unique ways. Parts of his Cruel Optimism set contain bass that resonates so deeply within me that my throat seals up, and I can’t swallow. Later, I’m sure I can feel my teeth rattling in my gums. Participants of a workshop he hosted earlier in the weekend are invited to lie on stage near his amplifier stacks for the full experience.
It’s a powerful conclusion to an equally gripping festival, and one that, as intended, brings the festival’s temporary community together afterwards to talk about how it physically affected them. It’s sort of magical, and more proof that Semibreve is surely one of the finest small festivals Europe has to offer right now, in a location that few will fail to develop a deep fondness for.