Impetus is one of the most important forces in dance music in the Eastern European music scene. Denied almost all of the media attention given to cities such as London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, the scenes here rely on stamina and endurance, and the hope that in time word of the unique and self-evident strengths — the common lifeblood of the communities here — will eventually draw the crowds when the major media platforms neglect their role. Impetus has, at last, justly arrived at Prague’s Lunchmeat Festival.
After two years of attending a COVID-restricted (or at the very least impacted) Lunchmeat Festival in Prague, first as a visitor, then as a resident of the city, this year’s edition felt like a bustling metropolis of activity. The main days were completely sold out. A two-day symposium on the local and broader Eastern scenes (with guest speakers from The Wire and The Quietus accompanying local panelists, and workshops plus a modular instrument play-station from local synth manufacturers Bastl Instruments) kept the buzz at a steady level, and the liberty of the first summer of relatively microscopic COVID cases saw hungry attendants flocking in from surrounding and distant countries alike, tantalised by numerous reports of the festival and relaxed travel restrictions.
The formula of the audio-visual arts festival remained more or less identical: an eye-popping opening show, a heavyweight Tuesday rave, a day of recuperation in a seated performance, and then the festival proper — three nights of the best music, visuals, and company which money can buy, and for an absolute steal at that thanks to the city’s low living costs comparable to Western Europe.
The festival makes use of changing themes to curate a body of work unique to other European festivals it shares a platform with. This year, use of AI in art, its relevancy and its potential, were prescient — yet not overdone — themes throughout the week. Before the festival even began, Molly — an entirely fabricated digital festival guide created by Czech AI investigators Alpha Industries and Dita Malečková — talked followers through events to take place, even giving a stirring and yet disturbing interview with local creative outlet Swarm Magazine.
On Monday, Lorem was first of the performers to mine the AI vein, in a lucid dream of a literal sense — the visuals were generated “in conversation” on dreams with an AI. Memorable moments featured an impossible and dizzying close-up orbit of a football field, with players seemingly sucked through the ground while making contact with their hands, knees, and feet.
The colourful and screwed reality came shockingly out of darkness and brunt, minimalist visuals and maximum impact sound, served by Manchester’s Acre: a deceptively quiet musician since his exceptional ‘Better Strangers’ album on Tectonic years back. It was brilliant to see he’s been neither idle nor stagnant since then, remaining one of Britain’s most underrated explorers of the Grime/Bass hybrids emerging from the faded UK dubstep scene.
SPIME:IM followed Lorem: two men who have managed to find a way to video game their performance (not a bad hack) and wielded the plethora and staggering mass of public imagery captured in a neural net, not unlike the performance of Raster artists Frank Bretschneider & Pierce Warnecke exactly a year prior, shifted and warped with motion-control from their controllers.
Tuesday’s Ankali event was always going to be one to remember: a premium blend of experiential shows and proper club fare. This year we were spoiled by Lee Gamble’s UIQ showcase. Gamble himself returns from the previous years’ lineup — evidently impressed by the festival’s curation (take note) — he brought with him Emma DJ, who gave both a DJ set and the ‘g0drm2’ trap live set with cxoxc, and a percussive-heavy live set from SAFA, which exploded from monochromatic into colour towards the end.
Local support was strongest at Ankali. Elastix (Radio Punctum) did a sterling job playing music that I’m totally at a loss of categorising, weaving between tear-out BPMs and fantastical genre hybrids with evident ease, a feat of fluidity mirrored somewhat by Glory Affairs crew Mor Wen and Liz Wiz in the other room. Describing the latter pair’s set is a challenge, which I’m not quite ready to undertake; to attempt is to defeat the object of their performances, which must be attended to comprehend, or feel.
Kobayashi Maru, a vanguard DJ to the locally based YUKU and Amphibian labels, had the task of closing after Emma DJ’s set in the second room, and frankly I’m moved to say he did a better job of making the crowd dance with his selection of cohesive, fun, and insanely danceable 140+ BPM dubstep trance-flecked wonders. I wanted to reserve my strength, and didn’t want to stay till 6am. I did.
Lunchmeat broadly divides itself into two unequal spheres, which overlap, and are scarcely completely separate: the astonishing, cerebral, even serene; and, the chaotic, explosive, energetic. The latter takes precedence in every year, but the inclusion of the other makes it an entire. Every day is an intense amalgam of the two — Wednesday’s show at CAMP consisted of two shows, Cloudhitects’ graceful swan dive through pointillistic renders and accurately overcast ambient music, followed swiftly by Lucas Guttierez’ candy flip of an AV set — startling, electrified and unthrottled; the festival in a nutshell.
The contrast between these two acts can roughly be ascribed to the entire festival: the pace is unerringly fast, with the main festival programming featuring no clashes, no breaks, and no decision-making required as to which act you choose over another — only when to duck out for your next shot of slivovice (careful on the intake with Czech spirits, you reach your destination fast). In this, there is unity of the crowd, most people catching at least some of everything – although the compound and extended events tend to blur into a cohesive whole, days indistinguishable, on reflection.
After 12+ years’ rehearsal, the spectacle is something the team know how to get right. Where an act, usually from abroad, comes with a live or DJ set without visual accompaniment, the Lunchmeat team step in to complete the picture, sometimes with dizzying lights, other times with something far more. Such curated sets took place in the cases of rlung with Tasya, Ancestral Vision’s live set — joined by local arts collective BCAA System’s realitycongress, and h5io6i54k — or Cocktail Party Effect and Jan Hladil (an ex-Lunchmeat visual artist).
While the presence of local acts presenting as audiovisual experiences is strong (a crucial aspect of the festival’s influence on the local scene), foreign acts make up a significant part of the festival’s draw. This year, AV shows from Kuedo, Sky H1 & Mika Oki, Lucy & Wanton Witch’s wildly eclectic collaborative set, the arresting experience of ‘A World of Service‘ from JASSS and Ben Kreukniet, and Tri Angle Records leaguer Holy Other (joined by NYX and Pedro Maia) consisted of the big pulls, alongside the gravitational tug of the legendary Squarepusher, who alone brought more than a few individuals from afar to catch the opportunity.
Each of these acts provided a stunning show: Sky H1 & Mika’s ascendant experience leant into the ambient lanes, while Holy Other’s performance with NYX, backdropped by Maia’s unerringly perfect visual art, globulous and vivid, was a trip back into the Witch House era — perhaps a little dated musically, compared with the more modern cutting-edge acts at the festival, but resolutely a brilliant performance.
On the flip side of this coin, Ancestral Vision and rlung (plus their unique visual comrades) are names that are likely to be unfamiliar to those outside Czechia — an echo of the issues of Eastern representation flagged in the opening paragraph. Yet, both demonstrated individual prowess, and multitudinal reasons to keep your ears glued to their progress as musicians, and to the Prague scene in general.
Ancestral Vision, who co-runs the more famous Unizone label from Prague, deals in enlightened hybrid club, a marriage of sound design with dance music tropes that border simultaneously on cerebral listening experiences and gut-shifting rave gear. In contra-orbit to this spins rlung, a field recordist released by the Biodiversitá label from Italy, with a definite talent for bridging ambient music with hard-hitting (yet soft-tongued) club gear.
Decorating rlung’s set was Lunchmeat’s Tasya. The two Russian expats, members of the local scene for years, worked in perfect unison: as the granite scrape of rlung’s music elevated and became infused with flavours of breakneck hardcore techno, Tasya’s soaring scree-slopes, fractured by the digital means that created them, followed suit, grey and intimidating. In all methods and reception a mountainous performance, delivering the same emotional response as facing those unendingly steep ruptures of the Earth’s crust.
Ancestral Vision delivered the same human response to nature’s crushing majesty, but operated on a different elemental plane. Echoed by the near-real CGI backdrop from realitycongress and h5io6i54k, they chose water instead of earth: forests of augmented kelp warped and shifted with unseen currents, which were equally matched with flowing moods summoned by the musician — unfathomable depth was measured in subbass, the incessant motion of the ocean summoned to mind in fluctuating musical pace.
When the act could not be rehearsed prior to the event, like with the sets from E-Saggila, Karenn (which were always set to be highlights for the dance crew) the professional lighting squad that makes up the Lunchmeat team step in to deliver stunning ad-hoc visuals to keep the eyes stimulated. Blackhaine’s show stole the laurels in this regard.
His performance, physical theatre meets grime — nothing shy of visceral, nothing less than spine-chilling — was enhanced to extremes by the simplicity conjured by Lunchmeat’s Dano Kozlik: Fog, thick, and a permanent strobing blue light. Nothing else. An impossibly uncomfortable battering of primary senses that unmercifully separated the mind from its body for 50 minutes, locked in a blue, pulsing prison that could not be escaped, trapped within the world of the performer.
Not to say there were no close seconds: In many regards Pan Daijing’s set design was very similar, minus the intensity of the strobes, and it was not one bit less a gripping and memorable performance. Those who’ve seen Daijing will understand the unsettling intensity of her shows, and the far-from-intimate but incredibly close display of music and performance was echoed later (in moments) by Blackhaine.
Many acts were distant from the fog-shrouded worlds of Pan Daijing and Blackhaine: ID:MORA’s jumpy, lighthearted and vivacious designs brought out the fun in Mike Paradinas’ set of punchy UK sounds, and Jan Hladil, drawing untraceably fast symbols in lasers with psychedelic tracers flowing in ripples after, mixed this with abstract coloured shapes and blended footage of Cocktail Party Effect during his slamming techno set.
In tandem to the local acts that do not share the platform of the core AV performances, Lunchmeat consistently digs out incredible musicians for performances that are just a little off the wayside: far from ignored, but in that broad category of “oh, I’ll check this later”. This year, the highlight of these sets was Hüma Utku, joined by visual artist Utku Önal in delivering a scathing, freakish and harrowing mental journey to the music of Hüma’s ‘The Psychologist’ LP released on Editions Mego earlier this year.
From the get-go this show elevated itself beyond expectations, Hüma’s gleaming smile and evident enjoyment of the performance — even through the fear-inducing bog-witch terrors on screen — was not only a spur to enjoy it more yourself, but also an alleviator of the most ancient human terrors.
One act in particular transported viewers outside from the cerebral or physical experience, out of the body: Paraadiso is the pairing of renowned producer TSVI (also Anunaku, and myriad other collaborative forms) and Seven Orbits. The performance is dedicated to the greater meaning behind gatherings of people for the purpose of dancing; the older meaning, the one felt near the fires, at the birth of humankind. A collective experience designed to unify and elevate the subject of our species’ minds from the caves to the stars.
In TSVI’s thundering polyrhythmic drums, and in bathing under Seven Orbit’s crystalline light and imagined effervescent organisms, a message was communicated — hazy at first, but bounding into clarity after immersion — of the value underpinning every decent rave, every intimate (yet under-attended) gig, one that hardly needs clarifying for those that have felt it themselves.
The closing moments of each night were given over to such experiences. DJ Gäp closed the Thursday, a bastion of the Bratislavan music scene (and summoned thanks to Lunchmeat’s new partnership with the SPFM booking agency, which selects highlights from the Czech & Slovak scenes for their roster) with lethal variations on club’s myriad forms. Later, Ehua (who has released on TSVI’s ever-brilliant Nervous Horizon) stole the final moments of the hectic Friday with an utterly gripping and ecstatic set of percussion music, slewed into polyrhythmic permutations and laced with skyward synths.
The final moments of the festival are a special event. In 2020 it was SOPHIE. In 2021, Hessle Audio’s Pearson Sound exceeded expectations and standards. This year, Mumdance — recently absent father of strains of grime, dubstep and sound-design ambient musics — did the deed. It’s a blur, and quite impossible to recall the chronology: coruscating through the entire gamut of UK hardcore, golden highlights of dubstep and grime, corrupted techno and heart-stopping gabber, closing sets rarely reach such heights.
The Czech festival’s love for the UK scene is evident, especially on this year’s lineup, but with careful curation from classic acts to modern greats, and the dedication to cherry-picking local talents with a widening radius, the festival remains one of the most unique in the Eastern countries.
Part nostalgia-trip, part education, Lunchmeat is an essential component of the Czech scene, and a critical voice for Eastern Europe — most potently evidenced in the disparity between the enjoyment of headliners such as Squarepusher and the real feeling and power of the new blood, and the relatively unknown. And, pound-for-pound, Lunchmeat provides more in this regard than even the most renowned European events.