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The Well-Oiled Machine of Melt! Festival

"Melt! exists to (and does) provide a solid good time, but felt like it was missing an opportunity to have a hand in shaping a future."
July 28, 2014, 3:45pm

The phrase "well-oiled machine" is so frequently attached to reviews of Germany's Melt! festival (and to Germans in general, if World Cup commentary alone is anything to go by), that it feels like too convenient a tag-line to wheel out yet again. But whether by inception or otherwise, it occurs to festival-goers much more frequently than is usual during the 3 day event: "Oh, I didn't even have to queue for that doner, what a well-oiled machine." "The shuttle bus from my tent to the festival takes approximately 5.8 seconds, what a well-oiled machine." "That disused crane just sprayed me with cooling smoke exactly as Mano Le Tough unleashed a gravelly low end, and the sun started to beat mercilessly on my head. How efficient of the Germans."

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If anyone knows how to do a techno-loving festival in the dust-bowl surroundings of an abandoned mine, and the Bear Grylls-inspiring conditions of 32C heat, it's Melt!. In the face of hurdles other festivals may have fallen at - a cancelled live set from Fuck Buttons, a heatwave that leaves campers covered in scratches from their Herculean efforts to find shade in the forest and sponsorship from a truly disgusting beer-mixed-with-cola brand - Melt! holds together with a community and a positive spirit that's overwhelmingly consistent.

Throughout my weekend at Ferropolis, 2 hours south of Berlin, I stood in queues approximately twice, I was constantly hand-wringing over the quality of acts playing at every turn. I danced in crowds that were always chilled and respectful, finding space easily and having interactions based almost entirely around exchanges of wide-eyed grins and "this is amazing!" "Ja, this is amazing!"

Two things that particularly made an impression in terms of the overall vibes were the fact that, as a vegetarian, I'm not used to being able to have something different for every meal at a weekend-long festival, and, as a woman, I was unused to feeling quite so un-pestered and free to move as one of the crowd. A powerful sense reigned that everyone was welcome: from those who were screaming Oasis covers in the karaoke tent at 3AM, to those who brought their children on the first evening, to those whose skin was leathery and faces chewed from hours spent at the aptly named, no-wristband-required Sleepless Stage.

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Seamlessness is the word for it. Anywhere you wander within the Melt! grounds, you're anchored by the looming shadows of the fireball-spewing cranes that loom over the space, disco wrecking balls swinging from their creaky arms. The machines are at once terrifyingly inhuman, and reminders of what humans can build: they also just look really cool, and add a character to the place that I haven't experienced at any other festival site.

With a crowd that moves as if one body through a site that's overlooked by an omnipresent, visual theme, the line-ups curated at each stage are also engineered for smooth changeovers and endless consistency. The Gemini Stage in particular, isolated as if by magic from the sound of the neighbouring Main Stage and the light of the aggravating sun, played host to a slew of fluid B2B sets, most notably from Erol Alkan and Daniel Avery (who stood stoically as ever, while splitting cigarettes and bashing out their most bodily of exchanges) to the hyperactive Seth Troxler and Tiga, who swapped party anthems for four grin-inducing hours on Saturday night.

In the pit of the Main Stage, Robyn and Royksopp played a monster set on the opening night, which felt a little disjointed with a string of costume changes and awkward weaving of their material - Royksopp leaning much more to the accessible end of their catalogue - but consistently held an adoring crowd in the palms of their hands. The same could be said of Metronomy, who brought a rowdier set than their usual blissed-out fare on Saturday night, before Portishead brought things to a meticulous, mighty close on Sunday. The Big Wheel Stage, curated by Resident Advisor, was where I spent much of my weekend, basking in angular projections of light and blasts of smoke while Pantha du Prince, Mano Le Tough and John Talabot glided through dream-like sets.

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Lone provided some of the most beautiful psychedelic visuals during his slot there, though his heady set of hip hop nostalgia interspersed with rave jabs left me wanting to do little other than lie back and float to the sky. The rest of my time was spent slipping on the sandy verge of the lake-facing Melt! Selektor stage, where Omar Souleyman delivered a frantic set as calmly if giving a regal sermon - pacing up and down as audience members cleared circles for crazed limb-flailing - and French Fries and L-Vis 1990 had the crowd writhing through an angular B2B.

Lone's live A/V show

Meanwhile, the sweat-coated Intro tent, while being in urgent need of ventilation, played host to some of the most exciting bands and vocalists of the weekend. Little Dragon christened it with a more progressive set than their usual on the opening night, before Planningtorock showed her credentials as a full-chested soul-funk vocalist, accompanied by DJ Roxymore as she head-banged to groovers like 'Public Love'. As usual, she provided a festival highlight in her proven ability to make a room go off, with songs like 'Misogyny Drop Dead' and 'Patriarchy Over and Out' ("exactly! Over and out, exactly!" one man screamed next to me, while punching the air).

Future Islands and Jungle are both acts who musically deviate very little from a magic formula on their respective 2014 albums - Singles on 4AD and Jungle's self-titled debut on XL - and yet, live, they both wring blind-siding peaks and troughs from their tightly crafted sets; engineering emotions and dance moves with theatrical perfection, leaving bodies exshausted as they piled outside in the dust after their sets. Samuel T. Herring in particular is the most gripping front-man you could see live this year.

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It's the obviousness of this statement that exposes Melt!'s one flaw - which, like everything else about it, was consistent throughout. Its bookings are unfailingly safe. The newest names on the line-up were bands whose albums have just come out on major labels. Stalwarts like Four Tet, Modeselektor, Jeff Mills and Innervisions were dominant - and dependable. If I had to say there was a track of the festival, it was 'Bad Kingdom', which was not only the centrepiece of Moderat's live set but also the closer of Dixon's DJ set, a staple at the Sleepless Stage and a gem in the crown of John Talabot's festival-closing, 2-hour slot.

There was also something a little empty about a 2014 festival being so hung up on a tune from early 2013. I looked at the dystopian high-rise of Melt's surroundings, and longed to hear it offset by the UK's sharp-edged grime underground; the pop-goes-weird contortions of LA's Fade to Mind, or the sinister sheen of SOPHIE and PC Music. Melt! exists to (and does) provide a solid good time, but felt like it was missing an opportunity to have a hand in shaping a future, keeping itself willfully isolated both in its water-surrounded geography and its water-treading line-up.

But telling Melt! that it could experiment more is like telling a straight-A* student to have a go at sitting their A Levels in Mandarin just to shake things up a bit: it could be changing the game, but it certainly couldn't be playing its own game better. Even the decision to end the festival early on the Sunday, making the final night into a half-night that leaves you being abruptly asked to leave by security at 2AM, turns out to be one that's a little inspired. Sure, it's disgruntling when your dancing is interrupted at its peak, but the result is that huddles of friends old and new descend on the same, barrier-less area between campsite and festival site, dancing and cuddling and swimming in one amorphous blob until the sun begins to rise.

My festival ended sitting among the reeds, overlooking a blissful blue expanse of warm dawn light settling on the still Gremminer See lake; soundtracked by the final hour of Ellen Allien's pulsing 4-hour set, distant laughter and the occasional splash of a skinny dipping German, too, before joining the Sleepless Stage for a slow-limbed dance to 'Blue Monday' and an eventual kip in the forest. It doesn't get much more idyllic than that.

You can follow Aimee Cliff on Twitter here: @aimeecliff