Loose Lips

Labyrinth Open Air Opening @ Tofte Manor - 07/08/21

Event Review

Labyrinth Open Air Opening @ Tofte Manor - 07/08/21

Soooo here I am again, another post-lockdown event review! In case anyone's wondering, I'm purely doing this for fun and for the sake of recording this experience of returning to music, I'm not being paid in money or tickets or anything. As I said in my last review, life is still chaotic, if anything I’m now more worried about catching covid in the weekdays; getting isolated sucks, and there is a lot of covid around atm! I work from home and do little outside of my flat, but I forget about that once the weekend comes and I’ve done the obligatory lateral flow test retch'n'gag, because it’s been 17 months and I’ve been so relentless in building up my own hopes for big beautiful post lockdown dancefloor moments. The dancefloors have been chaotic too; I’ve been to an event that got moved to a rainy Sunday with not many people, and another an event that got cancelled and replaced with a totally different one last minute. My last event before Labyrinth (which I didn't review) featured the biggest disappointment; we arrived halfway through, it was all looking peachy, and then five minutes later the music’s volume got turned down dramatically, to the point where you could hear the sound of talking over and above the sound of music, regardless of where you were. Come on baby, bring on the big moments please...

That memory of entering the space, experiencing one perfect tune at full volume, and then having the music basically drop out, that memory is worth mentioning for context, as a comparison to the utter treat of a day festival that I’m reviewing now, organized by London party series Labyrinth (whose origins are in House music events at the Notting Hill Arts Club, with DJs like Bradley Zero and Spencer Parker). Labyrinth’s first full-on festival had its own issues due to covid travel complications; with two weeks to go, the international core meat of the lineup (MCDE / Danilo Plessow, DJ Koze and Jose Gonzalez) were replaced by UK groove dealers (Anu, Floating Points and Maribou State). So yeah, still a bit chaotic, particularly as their initial poster was literally a bunch of faces stitched together, and most of those faces were now cancelled, but boy what perfectly chosen replacements. This was the first time I was seeing one of my best mates in 3 years, a massive DJ Koze fan who I didn't want to disappoint, but as it turns out he loves Maribou State just as much, so yeah I'm really grateful for Labyrinth for this perfect pivot.

And yeah, the sound system was bloody puuuumping. Like you could hear the music clearly from 100 metres away, on the covered beanbags in the corner. Labyrinth’s promotion was a bit funny; the venue’s name was Tofte Manor, a grand 17th century home that features heavily in all the images, but said manor was out of view of the festival grounds. There was also the option to ‘walk the labyrinth’, which some of my friends failed to realize was a labyrinth etched in the floor, not an actual functional labyrinth. I didn’t feel cheated at all though, as behind the gimmicks was an amazing lineup, great sound, and a lovely venue with loads of cute nooks and crannies (logs, haystacks and a mini amphitheater for sitting, top quality veggie burgers from Mob Kitchen, ample toilets).

Our experience was also massively boosted by turning up early; when my mates and I walked into the gloriously sunny space in front of the main stage at 1 in the afternoon, there were maybe 3 other people dancing there, but NTS Radio extraordinaire Anu did everything you could possibly ask a DJ to do in coaxing out dancers and big toothy grins. I have thoroughly enjoyed Anu’s genre-hopping radio show before (a favourite episode focusses on the Japanese Hip Hop group Asayake Production), but I had no idea that she would be so utterly perfect on the dancefloor, easily my favourite post lockdown DJ set so far. Swiftly blasting through out Jersey Club mixes of American Boy by Estelle, Beautiful by Snoop Dogg and Kiss Me More by Doja Cat, before then blending those pounding joyous Jersey beats into ukg classic Crazy Love. It was both super inclusive and super exciting, the kind of set that could make dance nerds and cheeky lads alike get dowwwwwn. 

Why don't all DJs play Jersey Club and UKG??? I posted 5 Instagram story videos of the set and tagged Anu in each one, prompting one friend to message me and ask how high I was. To top it off there was another genre that doesn't get played out nearly enough over here; Rap, specifically super-well produced, hyper commercial modern rap music from this current renaissance era of excellence; in this case it was Doja Cat's album cut Get Into It (Yuh). It's like a cross between Young Thug and the Spice Girls, ie: fucking amazing. Admittedly these tunes did play into a lot of sounds that I personally love (hence it being my favourite post-lockdown set, pipping Jayda G's one at my first post-lockdown event), but it was also objectively yass due to its grounding in big, insistent bass drums, the kind that that sound particularly amazing on an outdoor sound system.

After Anu finished, we went over to the second stage, a beautifully designed intimate space overlooked by trees and this cute modern architecture thing that looked kind of like a little church's exoskeleton. We caught some of Labyrinth founder and resident Nick Castle’s set, although it was interrupted by shenanigans and food; my aforementioned three-years-no-see mate was swerving like a boat, I tried to sober him up with chips but he was having none of it. My phone also jumped out of my pocket, got picked up my mate and shown to me, I didn't recognize it so he ran it over to the bar and gave it to security, I am a silly boy. Castle's set peaked beautifully with Shaun Ecoffery’s Days Like This, leading into a set from another genre-hopping NTS radio host, Nabihah Iqbal. She was on a similarly benevolent vibe, though delivered in a totally different way, taking classics from disparate genres (Blue Monday, Deep InsideFlowers) and mixing them in with groovey connective tissue that made the whole thing feel natural. It was a perfect fit for this smaller, more clubby space, a little more serious and ornate than Anu’s opening set, but still great fun, loads of singalong moments and bouncey basslines, strangers throwing daft shapes together, sharing Peppa Pig sweets and just generally being cute.

I left Nabihah Iqbal a little early to check out the crowd situation at the main stage, as I wanted to guarantee a good spot for Floating Points’ 3 hour set. This was the lineup detail that had excited me most, one of my all time favourite DJs playing out for the first time since early 2020. This scouting excursion meant that I saw the end of Fred again's first ever live performance, particularly his big emotional lockdown anthem, Marea (We've Lost Dancing), that tune that sounds like mashup of a podcast and a Bicep album track. Now if you know straight white millennial middle class Brits, you’ll know that few things get us more turnt up than Bicep and podcasts, and yeah, the reaction confirmed that people fucking love this track, it was probably the biggest crowd of the day, swelling over the course of the track (I also heard multiple people say ‘I love this track!’). 

There are also loads of people who dislike the track, because the line ‘what comes next will be marvelous’ is a bit cheesy, and also comes from a white woman who used to call herself The Black Madonna whilst playing DJing music made by black people, and only changed said name after pressure from an online petition (swiftly followed by Dutch DJs changing their names from Detroit Swindle and Motor City Drum Ensemble to Dam Swindle and MCDE / Danilo Plessow). I arrived just as the track was getting to the 'marvellous' bit and the drop, and you know what, despite all the criticism I have read online, as the track cut to silence with a sharp snare drum and then exploded into #vibes, I welled up. That cloudy, otherwordly synth line paired with an actual post-lockdown crowd putting their hands up in the air, it felt really good.

Then came Floating Points. The only DJ of the day who didn’t succumb to the call of stonking big classics, he did mix things up though, opening with the kind of records he’s famous for digging and playing (super unheard deep cuts disco and other non-electronic dance musics), and then sliding back and forth between that stuff and some chunkier house and garage. It all felt very classically Floating Points, with plenty of pearlescent, perfectly balanced sonic moments throughout, a personal favourite was the dub  Midland’s remix of Dua Lipa - Pretty Please.

I would have written more about this set, but at this point in the day the chaos started to creep back in a bit; my aforementioned super drunk pal went missing, another bud got a bit stuck in his own head, and another one got a difficult feeling in her stomach that necessitated a longggg sit down. Actually I think we all could have done with a sitdown, it is a lot to process being back in the sesh, it’s actually more intense and tricky to process when it’s going well; it kind of feels just like those pre-covid dances, but deep down we know that so much has changed, there’s a disconnect. It’s nice to hear certain classics in these moments, because they make it a bit easier to carry off this transition back into the room, to activate muscle memories. Anu’s set was particularly perfect for me as it took tracks that were very familiar, but not familiar in a club setting, and sprinkled them with a club sound that really hasn’t been played out enough. Like American Boy is the ultimate 'let's-get-this-slightly-awkward-party-STARTED' tune (alongside maybe Paper Planes by MIA) it's a lot of fun to bring back energy from a non-rave memory and then inject it with bass-y Jersey Club steroids.

There was a similar comforting quality to Maribou State’s closing DJ set. They played out a few of their own Twee House - yep I came up with that term, patent pending - tracks cloaked in smokey guitars, tracks that I’ve listened to in many situations; relaxing, running, romancing, but never in the dance. That mate who went missing, he had said earlier on in the day that he really hoped they played Nervous Tics, and sure enough, he reappeared exactly as they played said track. At one point a different mate wanted some ice cream, so we stopped there on the way to get drinks. Look how cute the ice cream man's shirt is. Mmmmm.

As I was waiting for him to make his mind up about which one he wanted (a decision process which involved a full conversation with another queue-member), I suddenly had to run back to the crowd, as I heard the hyper romantic, beautiful lead vocal of Radiohead’s Reckoner. It was a Maribou State remix, one doesn't work for home-listening for me; the main melody is flattened into a very analogue, trancey bassline that sounds weirdly generic. However, when played out on massive speakers and reverberated out across an open space, that same bassline felt like it was a part of the space, which in turn made that amazing vocal feel as if it was totally separate from everything around it, like a ghost of lockdown isolation, a thoughtful spectre that floated out of the speakers and into my head. Awesome. 

The third Maribou State track that they played out was Turnmills, definitely their most exciting and ruuude tune, with a bassline so irresistible that I’ve heard people humming it whilst queuing for the showers in the morning of a festival. I can really imagine it becoming a classic in the coming years that gets great reactions from future generations, it's anthemic but also feels it couldn't have been made in any time other than now. Having said that, My favourite moment of the set was at the climax, when they cut to silence and then played a gorgeously euphoric, hyper-high-production-value Drum’n’Bass track, it felt so right that I wished they would just play D’n’B for the last half hour of the set, it’s not a genre that I listen to much but it works so well in big, dramatic stages. 

It’s funny, the last event I reviewed was run by a collective named Warm Up, who describe their sound as ‘emotional electronic music’, and there was a lot of that stuff today at Labyrinth, dance music that's kind of not dance music, that's a bit divorced from the traditions and sounds of club culture, more designed for home listening and thus does very well on Spotify. Aside from Fred Again and Maribou State playing their own tracks, I saw Nick Castle play both Loud Places by Jamie XX and Glue by Bicep. Maybe you could call it Electronica? Like if Techno is the harder, punchier sister genre of House, then this kind of Electronica is the softer, more chilled out sister of House, with less emphasis on the drums. 

It doesn’t really bother me that this music lacks edge and that people who aren’t into dance music lap it up, I like it, I like The Fray, I like Taylor Swift, music doesn’t have to be cool to be good. I like that artists like Maribou State and Floating Points develop sounds that are actually distinct, rather than simply copying black genres like Chicago House or Detroit Techno. The name Maribou State is inspired by the Irvine Welsh book Marabou Stork Nightmares, and - as one of their exuberant fans explained to me - their side project is named Shire T, a reference to the Lord of the Rings. This is not the same as naming yourself Motor City Drum Ensemble when they’re actually not from Detroit.

Having said all of that, it did feel a bit brutal that the smallest crowd of the day happened to be standing in front of Anu, the DJ whose set was the most surprising and exciting in its bids to make you get dowwwn. Like fair play to Maribou State for that D’n’B moment, it was genuinely beautiful and felt deeply right, buttttt also House and Techno DJs had been doing this a lotttt pre-lockdown, it would be great to hear more surprises and new directions. It would be also be great if events like Labyrinth could mix things up and give better set times to DJs who don’t benefit from white privilege / sexism, and also are fucking amazing, and also focus on sounds just make more sonic sense at peak times, not warm ups (you remember, because that event beforehand was called warm up! this all makes sense in my head). 

Almost all ticket holders were required to arrive pretty early anyway, they could have definitely put that massive Floating Points set earlier on in the day, his twinkling jazz house stuff, feels it would make a lot of sense as a warm up, it’s just less dancey. They did give Josey Rebelle a peak time slot on the smaller stage, but again it just feels like she would have been perfect on the main stage’s massive speakers, she definitely has more than handful of massive bassy, high bpm bangers in the crate! Anyway, thank you for listening to this middle class white boy’s Ted talk on race, and thank you to the awards committee for your bare minimum allyship award, I have literally had some thoughts and said them aloud, I’m a hero I know.

Anyway, to finish off on a less complicated note, the best part of the day for me actually wasn’t at the festival, it was the super long train back to London, crammed full of people from the festival (the previous train was cancelled). Having been a bit all over the place at points earlier in the day, my mates and I were physically and mentally centered, sat together with a couple of newbies and chatting nonsense. We were sat next to the toilets and had way too much fun talking to everyone going to use them, and judging from their post-toilet demeanor whether they had done a line or a shit. It was so lovely to just sit together and have an expressive shared experience, to share willfully dumb jokes and laugh and smile. It's still chaotic but it's getting better.