Unknown Festival

Rovinj, Croatia, 10-14 September 2013

Tom Martin/NME
Photo: Tom Martin/NME
Four Tet is hunched over his decks, two cuts of glitchy house into his set a couple of miles off the Croatian coast on one of the many boat parties at new dance festival Unknown, when a flash of red thunder tears across the sky. Suddenly the open-top ship is swaying violently from side to side, the sound of booming thunder and crashing waves drowning out its sound system. Ravers scurry downstairs for cover from the rain, fast becoming hail, like a scene from a pissed-up Balearic directors cut of Titanic in which James Cameron spends half the film’s budget on glow sticks and MDMA. The ship turns back to shore and it becomes clear neither the London beatmaker, nor Jamie xx, scheduled to play later on the ship, will be performing. Establishing a new festival in this recession is hard enough without going up against destructive weather and acts of God. Can Unknown survive?

Back on land, the vital signs are good. Boasting a fantastic line-up of Europe’s finest dance specialists, from Jessie Ware to Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, and a picturesque beachside festival site, more than 7000 people – mostly Brits – have ventured to remote town Rovinj for the five day extravaganza. Welcoming them on Monday are sets from techno duo the Eskimo Twins and London mix masters the Sonic Emporium but its Wednesday the festival really gets going with caterwauling sets from Dutch Uncles, Jagwar Ma and Factory Floor, whose recent self-titled debut album is brought to life on the main stage with the power and precision of a nuclear-charged pneumatic drill boring into the surface of the sun.

The following day sees SBTRKT (real name Aaron Jerome) take a break from work on his eagerly anticipated second album to deliver a hit-packed set, mixing tracks from his 2011 debut with gauzy edits of Mount Kimbie and King Krule tracks. The roar of applause as he lets loose solo tracks like ‘Wildfire’ and the Sampha-assisted ‘Hold On’ suggests while the crowd are undoubtedly thirsty for new material from the young beatmaker, there’s still legs in his acclaimed debut. Elsewhere, Four Tet manages a set that survives the weather this time (in fact, it’s warmed up considerably since Wednesday’s maritime near-disaster), glimpsing tracks from his incoming ‘Beautiful Rewind’ long-player amid bhangra-tipped trips into the electronic no-man’s-land he’s been exploring for over a decade now.

Jon Hopkins learned of his Mercury Prize nomination hours before taking the stage for his Unknown performance. There’s little sense of celebration to his set on Friday however, instead sticking to the intense, caterwauling brand of pulsating beats and sad, sparse minimalist piano that makes ‘Immunity’ one of 2013’s most enveloping listens to date. Beneath the glimmer of an early evening sun, tracks like ‘Collider’ are as vivid and colourful as a fresh bruise on chalky skin. On hand to lighten the mood soon after is Django Django, in a jubilant mood for their final show of the year. “We’re off to work on our new album,” drummer David Maclean tells NME. “The last one cost £90 to make. We might go all out and spend £120 on this one,” he laughs.

Disclosure close the festival on Friday night with a headline set that puts beyond any doubt their mighty talent. Combining live instrumentation with sampled vocals from the likes of Jessie Ware and Sam Smith roared back by the audience of thousands packed in front of the main stage to revel in their retooled garage sound, there’s no nerves among the young brothers: just snapping two-step rhythms, slick bass grooves and in ‘White Noise’, their collaboration with AlunaGeorge, one of the anthems of the summer. Can Unknown survive? Keep pulling in acts of this year’s superb calibre and it’ll do just fine.

Al Horner

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