Is Post-Communist Prague The World's Next Techno Capital?

In a city known for its architecture and literature, roaming parties like Polygon are lighting up the night.
March 23, 2016, 7:35pm
Jaroslav Moravec

"Honestly, this totally feels like Berlin in the early 90s right now!"

The two tall sound technicians next to me seemed pleased. Both of them are British, and do the sound for Germany's Fusion Festival. They were responsible for the sound at this party, too. And it was booming all around us—inside an abandoned slaughterhouse in the middle of Prague.

Prague: that "golden," so-beautiful-you-could-melt metropolis on the Vltava River. It's a city known for its architecture, literature, and drug culture—but hardly as a techno hotspot. What's going on, Prague? Is there really nothing happening, or are you guys just sitting on the best-kept secret in Europe? As a jaded and ignorant Berliner, I wanted to find out. So I set out to infiltrate the local club scene.

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The occasion that had brought me there was Polygon—a party night specializing in deep, hard-hitting techno. Polygon started in 2013, drawing in crowds of about 80 people. Today, the event brings in around 1,000 heads, making it the biggest party of its kind in the Czech Republic. News of Polygon has spread mostly through word of mouth. At a small dinner before the party, one of the cofounders, Jaroslav Moravec, explained, "There just wasn't an existing club scene here before. At least not the kind you're used to in Berlin. Our clubs were more oriented to tourists and mainstream crap. They were less experimental."

Still, raves in the Czech Republic are nothing new. Jaroslav—who would later spin under the name em ju es aj si—told me about the FreeTekno-Festivals of the late-90s, which for years were pushed through the country by peace-loving hardstyle and Goa hippies. This was before the raves become subject to a police crackdown in 2005. After that, there was nothing for a while. It wasn't until around 2010 that the city was home to its first good house parties, followed by Polygon three years later, which started bringing techno—before then, greatly neglected in the Czech Republic—to a whole new audience.

Polygon doesn't have a permanent home. Each installment, the city's ever-resourceful underground infiltrates a different, brutalist relic of the country's socialist past—abandoned train stations, nuclear bunkers, industrial warehouses. The party I was there to experience took place at Hala 36, a long, low-rise brick building that used to be slaughterhouse located in the city's eighth district, also known as Prague's creative hub. After sliding open the massive metal doors, we got smacked in the face by the strong smell of incense. The concrete hall leading into the darkness was flanked by a row of white candles. A light installation made of tin at the other end looked like a futuristic shrine to the movie Blade Runner. If techno is a religion, and clubs are its temples, then Polygon seemed to take that sentiment quite literally—even if, as Jaroslav explained it to me, "The incense is just to mask the song smell of beer."

A tire-swing hung in the red-lit chill out room and bar area. The dance floor was further back, its walls covered in heavy black satin curtains. Copper cylinders dangled from the ceiling, blasting out clouds of smoke in sync with the music. I'm 5'2", and I kept running into other peoples' armpits and stumbling into the gutters on the floor, once used for collecting pig's blood. Speaking of pigs, the counter that was being used as a bar used to be the slaughterhouse's chopping block.

Jaroslav is a video director, which means he's also responsible for the extremely labor-intensive teaser clips the party uses for promotion. "That's become something like a nice tradition," he told me. "It's not just us—almost every party in town is making little videos instead of flyers." The maps on the flyers that give away the party's location are also little artworks in their own right. Thanks to the machinations of the local art scene, there seemed to be more creative ideas in one corner of this place than many of the parties in Berlin have all together.

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It wasn't just the constantly booming 4/4 beat that made me feel at home. Nor was it the Nike Airs, manbuns, drawstring backpacks, round glasses, and beanies all around me—hipsters of the world, unite! It was the fact that there were people there that I wouldn't expect to see: between the indie boys in Bloc Party shirts, I spotted the odd Oligarch daughter with plastic surgery in the crowd, flanked by her cleanly shaven body builder date.

But the enthusiasm coming from all sides was contagious. Veronika, a girl from Prague, told me that this was the first techno party she'd ever been to. "Techno is washing over my head!" she exclaimed. "It's the best thing there is!" Her friend Vit was already a die-hard tech-head. After I told him I came from Berlin, he didn't want to let me go—he wanted to discuss his favorite labels there. Not surprisingly, the city's local scene is still pretty insular. They don't get too many visitors from abroad. The questions I got most frequently during my time there were "What is Berghain like?" and "How do you get in?."

The Ostgut Ton roster is well known here of course. Rødhåd's label, Dystopian, also seems to have made an impression. Rødhåd has played Polygon, along with Henning Baer and Italian acts like Claudio PRC, Dino Sabatini, and Wrong Assessment. Tonight, the label Avian took center stage, represented by Sigha, Pris, and Shifter, who let the techno beats drift into fluffy acid and electro. According to Jaroslav, there are only a handful of Czech producers—including Selectiv Mutism, a duo that also played that night. Most of the DJs at Polygon fly in from abroad, but when they do, they appreciate the enthusiasm of the crowd, which was much less druggy than I'd expected. Even in the morning hours, when a milky light flooded the hall, I noticed way fewer dilated pupils among the hundred or so dancers still present than I normally would in Berlin. This led me to believe that the euphoria was genuine.

Why, then, has it taken so long for techno to infiltrate Prague? Everyone I spoke to at the party had a different answer. Ryan from Melbourne, who has lived here for years, explained that Czechs coming back from time abroad in Berlin, New York, and London wanted to present the hungry Czech youth there with fresh culture—including kale smoothies and pop-up stores. This is commonly known as gentrification. Ryan's girlfriend, Martina, dropped the catchphrase "post-Communism": "Socialism was deeply rooted in the heads of the Czech people," she said. "Anything that was somehow 'different' was rejected." Only now, she explained, was the post-Iron Curtain generation emancipated enough to crave its own identity, which goes a far way towards explaining why parties like Polygon are so well-received. In the beginning, Polygon was the only game in town; by now, there are five or six copycat night that have popped up.

I leave the old slaughterhouse secretly planning my next visit to Prague. As I struggled to flag down a taxi, two exhausted figures kindly offered to give me a ride. I offered them money but they waved it off. "Don't give us money," one of them shouted. "Just say hello to Berlin for us." To which I wanted to reply that it's actually about time for Berlin to say hello to Prague.