Iso9, Vex’d & Michael Forshaw @ Diston, The Pavilion, Ormeau Rd.
It came as a massive shock to me as I was reading Friday’s paper (a day late) that the Vex’d duo were to make an appearance in Belfast that very night. A paragraph in the clubbing section of the Belfast Telegraph raved about how Vex’d’s style of music [Dubstep] would be ‘something of a first for Belfast’s clubbers’. That’s a bit of a fucking understatement if you ask me. Even Boxcutter, the city’s (if not the country’s) sole Dubstep producer hadn’t played a DJ set in town since the release of his Oneiric album on Planet Mu (who come to think of it would have been a suitable guest on the night, but apparently lives in Lurgan). Not only would tonight be a virgin experience for the people of sunny Belfast to hear these dubby sounds on a full rig, but for many it would be their introduction to the music full stop. This was an opportunity I couldn’t miss so I got down to the Upper Ormeau’s Pavilion bar despite the short notice.
Before I give you the low down on the gig, I’ll offer you a short spiel about the state of dance music in this neck of the woods. It probably goes without saying, but beyond a few spins of Pied Piper’s Do You Really Like It in a few carpet & chrome Ritzy’s, Garage never really happened in Ireland. In 2002 a DJ and an MC from So Solid played a set at a big one off rave in Belfast’s Shine club, where they probably bemused the largely MDMA fuelled audience desperately waiting to hear their beloved House & Techno. Around the same time The Dreem Teem had a show at an invite only party at the Milk club on Tomb Street, although by that stage it is arguable that they had already moved over to a musical policy of Funky House and R&B. Whatever the response the holy trinity of the 2-step scene generated (and I can only assume that it was lukewarm), the promoters never invited them back. So as you can expect, the premise of Dubstep (the darkside progression from the now defunct UK Garage sound) taking off in Ireland seemed unlikely, and the fact that the Vex’d performance would take place in a bar outside the city centre hardly sounded encouraging.
For the uninitiated, Belfast is a small city of around half a million people. The line between what constitutes the city centre and what is a residential area is a lot more clear-cut than in larger cities. I’ll put in terms that residents of The Smoke can relate; DMZ consciously chose to host their parties in Brixton, and not the more obvious West End. They did this because Brixton is a thriving area; chock a block with shops and nightclubs, and the sole tube station Sarf of the river (nah, just kidding!). Belfast on the other hand just isn’t big enough to have those type of large high streets that are capable of attracting people from outside the surrounding area, which is why virtually all the popular nighteries are located in the town centre. The alternative to this is hosting events in the ends, and that’s generally an undesirable prospect. A trip to a club night in the backroom of a ghetto pub is usually akin to dying and going to chav (or steeks as we call them locally) hell, where play lists consist solely of commercial dance & R&B cheese accompanied by Smashey & Nicey style DJ banter (“Hello Belfast, the first lady to get in a fight with her mates and end up crying mascara down her face wins a FREE Bacardi Breezer”). Unfortunately some attempts to improve this sorry state of affairs by promoting more credible nights in these venues have been thwarted by excessively high extortion fees from the local paramilitaries. On a more positive note though, gun crime in clubs is virtually non-existent in Northern Ireland, a far cry from many of the English cities.
Even so, with all this doom and gloom chat I’ve probably discouraged you from ever crossing the Irish Sea (and earned a few dog turds through the letterbox from the Tourist Board while I’m at it), but South Belfast’s Ormeau Road, where the Pavilion stands, suffers from none of these afflictions. Situated close (ish) to the student part of town, the Ormeau is a mixed area with an uncharacteristically decent nightlife. To call the district a bohemian quarter would be an exaggeration, but it is easily the classiest high street in Belfast outside the city centre. After all, this is the birthplace of dance music visionaries like David Holmes & Calibre (who as playing the same night in another club). So perhaps hosting a night of Electronica, Techno & Dubstep there wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
I hadn’t heard about the Diston nights before, and was unaware that there was a group of promoters in the city with enough balls to put on events with crazy Electronica DJ’s, let alone the purveyors of Dubstep’s first long player. Apparently the Diston boys switch venues at the drop of a hat, but as example of their shrewd promoting abilities they’ve managed to rope in a classic line-up for their 9th of December gig at Lavery’s, with big boys like Planet Mu’s Milanese (who recently remixed Virus Syndicate’s Dead Man Walking) and Warp Record’s Clark (formerly Chris Clark) on selecting duties.
I’d never been upstairs in the Pavilion before, a sizeable three-storey pub that has been building a name for itself over the years by putting on loads of live events. I was doubting whether they would be able to draw in enough punters, it being a Saturday night and the venue’s location. Thinking I was fashionably late, I showed up half an hour after Diston was meant to start, only to be confronted with an empty room save for the promoters who were slowly trying to tweak the sound system into perfection. This took a further half hour, but the tedium of waiting for the night to kick off (and for people to turn up) was relieved by the quality of the tune that they were using to test the equipment. One of my personals’, Loefah’s Mud, bashed through the speakers powerfully, SE25’s finest getting aired in BT8 for the first time, and I would have paid the entrance fee to hear this one alone.
The sound test seemed to go on for ages, and still the place wasn’t filling up, even though it was billed to start at 9:00. Finally resident DJ iso9 from the Diston collective took to the decks. The crowd level increased pretty quickly after that. I’m not quite sure what style of music he was playing, but it was dark & breaky, a pretty sensible warm up for the Vex’d boys. But it was when the South Londoner’s stepped up to the table that the audience really responded though. They kicked off their set with Bombardment of Saturn, their latest release on Planet Mu. It was the same track they used to start their segment on the Mary Anne Hobbs Radio 1 Dubstep Warz show in January, and it’s not a riddim to be sniffed at.
One of the things that sets Jamie & Roly apart from their Dubstep peers is their penchant for dark melancholic sounds capes, often complete with haunting choral chanting. But don’t turn away in fear just yet, because these sounds are a million miles away from coffee table tedium. Their stuff is always accompanied with a heavy dose of twisted bass. You can rest assured, these boys love to push their studio equipment to extremes (up to 11 as the would say in Spinal Tap), as was seen when they dropped Killing Floor. This tune is every bit as menacing as it sounds, containing a distorted screaming sample just before it drops. I can’t believe this didn’t give the crowd a nervous breakdown. Who’d have thought it? 30 years of violence has numbed the people of Northern Ireland to the extent that they don’t even recognise the squeals of pain when they hear it!
The Vex’d set consisted almost entirely of their own productions. Scene darlings like Digital Mystikz, Loefah, Skream, or even label mate Pinch didn’t get a look in, although DJ Distance’s guitar hooked Traffic was played to crowd applause. For some reason the Kode 9 masterpiece 9 Samurai sounded so muddy on the Diston rig that it had to swapped for another slab of plastic (probably just a worn out dubplate), but all the other tunes came out perfectly. For myself, hearing Dubstep in a club for the first time wasn’t quite the chest plate rattling epiphany I was expecting, but the bassbins were up to the standard of any other club in Belfast I had visited if not better.
Given how long it took to get started, the attendance at the gig was pretty good (out of a capacity of around 100-150), and was near packed out in the later stages of the night. The girl to boy ratio was less favourable to
those with oestrogen, though the most up for it clubber was definitely a girl at the front. You could have said that the crowd was a bit passive, but this didn’t really reflect a disinterest in Vex’d’s tunes, as even the FWD (London’s original Dubstep night) regulars find it hard to manage much more than a skunked out shuffle!
It was near the end of the set when the energy levels really started to rise. Tracks like Angels, lifted from 2005’s Degenerate album, was a crowd pleaser, and the remix of Toasty Boy’s The Knowledge even elicited a rewind (not exactly a Belfast institution). On the other hand the excellently experimental Jah War by The Bug & Riko (from the recent Mary Ann Hobb’s Warrior Dubz compo) turned heads completely, rudebwoy patois being a bit too unorthodox for Belfast.
Jamie & Roly closed their hour-long slot with the VIP remix of Lion. It was surprising how well this one went off. It was clear to all and sundry that this was a favourite among a fair few heads in the building, even warranting a cheeky glance upwards from the DJ duo, who had kept their eyes off the floor for most of the night. For me personally the response to the track was an indication that I wasn’t the sole dubsteppa in Belfast. And it made me kick myself that it was Diston who had introduced the first Dubstep DJ’s to Ireland and not me! Because technical difficulties aside (which were sorted out in the end), these boys [Diston] knew how to put on a good party.
The next DJ up was Glasgow based Michael Forshaw, and I would hazard a guess that this was whom most people showed up for. He took no prisoners right from the start, and span some really pumping tunes. It was really dark as fuck, but you could tell he had no time for that repetitive contemplation to the point of coma mentality that you get in a lot of Techno DJ’s. Neither did his taste in tunes utilise the two drunken chimps fighting in a recording studio style of production that characterises the more extreme regions of Electronica. Nah, this was just crazy party music. I can only describe it as being the kind of sound you would get if you locked Drop the Lime & Mathhead in a room for 2 months and forced fed them a diet of Joey Beltram, 2 Bad Mice, the entire Warp Records back catalogue, and a kilo of industrial strength amphetamines
This Blackpool born selector (but now living in Scotland) occasionally shouted jokes on the PA, none of which could be heard over the throbbing bass from the speakers, but he was obviously having as good a time as the crowd was. For a good indication of his sound check out his track Ronnie ‘n’ Ragga on his myspace page. Highly original, Michael rocked the crowd from the second he set the needle on a record. I stayed for about 45 minutes into his set, but after consuming one too many beers I decided to split the Pavilion while I still had the ability to keep my sanity intact.
On reflection, I think that out of all the Dubstep dons Diston could have invited over, Vex’d were the most suitable for Belfast. Even when they dabble with the meandering pace of half step, like their soon to be released 3rd Choice (surprisingly not aired on the night), Vex’d manage to maintain an energy that is sometimes lacking in other tracks of the 60bpm range. Even though Skream offsets his sparse percussive landscapes with sci-fi tinged melodies, and Loefah is capable of building tracks that perfectly mix the chilled and aggressive vibe at the same time without risking a drop in the energy, the question remains whether these types of tunes would have had the same resonance in the Pavilion as Vex’d’s selection. Either way, it would have been interesting to see how the likes of Ruffage, Midnight Request Line, or Misty Winter would have went down if they had been played on the night.
And despite seeing the closing hour of the night through alcohol-tinted spectacles, there was something enlightening about the arrival of Forshaw on the ones and twos. As the first bar of four to the floor left the speakers the mood in the room lifted up a fair few notches, to say the least. After all, 4/4 is Ireland’s bread & butter. The Jungle/D&B heritage doesn’t stretch back that far in Belfast, and influential DJ Kevin Trainor’s recent attempts to get a regular breaks night going was met with limited success. If 4/4 provides a comfort zone for Belfast clubbers then so be it, but that didn’t stop them appreciating the dark breaky sound of Jamie & Roly. But I can’t help but wonder how the Diston massive would have reacted to bouncy Dubstep tunes like Digital Mystikz’s Bury the Bwoy, or the psuedo 4/4 of mysterious new dubplate Roots Dyed Dark (“bullshit R&B on the stereo, pushing a pram”) by Mark Ashden.
But I am sure the likes of iso9 and the rest of the mob have got more experimental stuff up their sleeve. Get yourself down to the Front Page bar on Donegall Street, Belfast on Friday 24th for their next event, Rave Like A Bastard/ Wrong Music.
2 of our residents (a simmer tone and nez) know their dubstep big time. nez was over playing at sequence a while back. plus boxcutter is a member of our collective and plays live/djs quite regularly.
Oh, and when yer man Michael Forshaw was behind the ones & two's he ws really button pushing like a mad bastard on his laptop courtesy of ableton.
Did anyone go to, or hear how their show in Dublin went ?
Lookin forward to seeing them in London on December 8th.
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