Camp Kennybrook, New York
13 - 16 September
Since the very first edition of Sustain-Release, each year’s poster has prominently featured a four-word slogan, which stands in equal parts as a policy and a promise for the dancers who’ve made it ritual. It’s a proud declaration reading: “STRICTLY 4 THE FREAKS.” The yearly weekend of late summer camp raves is now in its fifth year and more beloved by its audience than ever. With this year’s community, of around a thousand dancers or so, comprised of previous attendees and their invited guests, there’s the sense that promoters Aurora Halal and Daniel Martin-McCormick have got the formula right. What began as a humble gathering of 500 members has confidently grown to become an important landmark for the New York underground.
I arrived early Friday evening to the sound of rain. Out in the woods Mister Saturday Night stages a rare auxiliary edition of Planetarium; their long-running event series based on the poignant staging of tunes predominantly reserved for home listening. A new addition this year, the Grove Stage renders a wooded glen into a hallowed ground. Lit in neon by visual artist Kip Davis, it’s the home base for this year’s newly expanded ambient-leaning programme on the Thursday night. Kicking things off on Friday, Mister’s Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin embark on a five-hour opening set full of rainy field recordings evocatively peppered with crackling 45”s like The Flamingos’ reverb-laden doo-wop dream I Only Have Eyes for You.
By nightfall, the tone has sharpened dramatically as the converted Basketball Court main stage lets loose a thrilling array of playful menace. Discwoman affiliate SHYBOI’s two-hour set makes for a huge moment, weaving club fury with impressive plateaus of gabber, DMX acapellas and skllful edits, like MC Bin Laden’s baile funk cut BOLOLO HAHA played out over NA’s bass workout Brass Claim. Up next is Detroit’s DJ Stingray who methodically pummels a packed house with razor sharp electro. Grinning from start to finish, I’m particularly taken with the Vancouver duo Minimal Violence’s high-energy techno before Courtesy’s solid closing set. Over at the Bossa Stage, dancers find a holy ground for the cool modern house of the Incienso label showcase featuring Beta Librae. Sustain alumni Shanti Celeste comes after and the night ends with a high BPM blowout by French upstart Simo Cell that leaves folks shouting, “We have to remember it’s OK to like dubstep!” on the floor the following day.
Shortly after sunrise on Saturday morning, the lingering notes of Precious Lord Part 1 sung by a 14-year-old Aretha Franklin rings out from ambient crew Hypnotic Spa’s Grove set, providing the much needed sound of catharsis as a small group of ravers hop in canoes and begin skimming across Camp Kennybrook’s misty lake. Following the rancor of the night before, there’s an overwhelming calm on the grounds, a kind of breezy peace. Come lunchtime everyone hits the pool; burgers are grilled, cold beer is poured, and bubbles fill the air as Honey Soundsystem and Honcho bang out a six-hour eight-person set full of buoyant house, afternoon techno and an edit of SZA’s Prom by Jackie House.
In a charitable act of curation, Saturday night’s schedule provides a much-needed siesta between the pool closing and the beginning of the evening’s marathon. Starting off with a bang, scene mainstay Juliana Huxtable whips up a punishing warmup set that rattles nearby cabins, waking napping attendees and foreshadowing the night to come. On the main stage from behind a mess of wires, Legowelt reinforces his synth lord status with a thrilling live set filled with spooky power and laser-laden jack. In stark contrast to the weekend’s undeniably techno-centric sound, the night’s first display of playful rebellion comes courtesy of the great Galcher Lustwerk, who jams on tunes from Primal Scream’s Higher Than the Sun to Kanye and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts. Engulfed in a cloud of pink fog executed by lighting maestros Nitemind, Galcher prompts a chorus of audible gasps as he let loose the powerful guitar swell of My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic Soon.
At 2:30am Eris Drew takes to the decks and wipes the slate dramatically clean. A proclamation by way of Mount Rushmore: “I got in me music / I got in me music / I got the music in me!” and we’re off to the races. Drew’s gleeful set demonstrates a kind of shamanistic prowess, distilling rave ecstasy onto the grounds. Ripping through record after record, Drew fills the stage with huge piano chords, razor-sharp rave stabs, bongo breaks and whistle blows. It’s a masterclass in dancefloor catharsis, exemplified by her inclusion of Mix Factory’s heartswelling Take Me Away (Paradise) (XTC Come Hard Mix). Playing the same copy she bought over 20 years ago, Drew leads more than a couple of dancers to collapse in tears in each others’ arms. “It was an intensely emotional experience for me,” Drew writes speaking on her set in the days after, “I figured everyone was dissolved by that point, so I just opened my heart and let it rip.”
Billed as “back for Round II and this time it’s personal,” Sustain-Release veteran Josey Rebelle takes to the Bossa Stage at around 4:30am, tasked with closing the festival’s fifth edition. She takes on a seven-hour marathon set spanning from peak-time techno to after-hours mutant club and disco all before noon. Co-headliner DJ Nobu ends his hypnotic yet brutal technical assault, moving a crowd of dedicated dancers to spill out into the bar area. We all take in one last moment of communal glory with full hearts and fatigued limbs and take in the fitting conclusion of a truly fantastic weekend.