A film about Under The Desert Stars
Desert Rave is a film by London-based video artist Rebecca Salvadori capturing the one-off electronic music festival Under The Desert Stars, which took place in the Moroccan desert over the last weekend of September 2019.
The film was commissioned by Dutch promoter ISOTOOP and was produced by Inverted Audio. Below is a firsthand review of Under The Desert Stars written by Freddie Hudson.
Review by Freddie Hudson
"The innate beauty and characteristics of the environment was a huge part of the draw for many. For all their sparsity deserts are beautiful locations"
There are few places left on the surface of this world that remain a challenge for humanity to exist in. We’ve leveed rivers and drained swamps, terraced mountain slopes and carved out plateaus on top of the world. The Poles, once the utter edge of humanity’s reach, are now far less intrepid, and the great forests disappear year by year.
The one environment which seems fully wild and unconquerable in totality are the deserts, that biome which, due to the inexorable impacts of climate change, are set to expand at the expense of forests, jungles, and grassland. Years without rainfall; punishing daytime heat and contrasting nocturnal temperatures; a wealth of venomous creatures — a more inhospitable location seems hard to imagine.
The pure challenge of merely existing in the desert makes the proposition of a festival in the north Moroccan desert by Dutch promoter ISOTOOP and Casablancan label Tikita something of a bold one — despite everything, Under The Desert Stars, which took place over the last weekend of September 2019, was a resounding success on the final frontier on this earth, thanks to the unwavering dedication and determination of those involved.
Artists, liaisons, crew (local and visiting), sound engineers, food stand workers, camp hosts, taxi drivers, bar staff: all these, and all unmentioned hardworking souls, bound together and forged through sheer will a truly exceptional experience for the delighted pundits.
It was always set to be special, with a mantra of hypnotic techno and anaesthetic ambient running throughout the two day event. The lineup was star-studded, with acts such as Jane Fitz, Neel, Kangding Ray and Marco Shuttle running the peak hours, and performances on either side from ISOTOOP affiliates Vand and Ben Buitendijk, Tikita’s Karim and Malik, natural/electronic system, and Don’t DJ. Ambient supremacy was supplied from Utrecht newcomer Shoal, Astral Industries’ Ario, The Transcendence Orchestra (Surgeon + Daniel Bean) and Koen Hoets.
The innate beauty and characteristics of the environment was a huge part of the draw for many. For all their sparsity deserts are beautiful locations, but the summits of the high Atlas mountains lining the Moroccan desert skyline make this one particularly so. It is speculated that the Sahara’s northern reaches formed the seabed of the ancient ocean Tethys — gazing out at the foothills rolling before the far-off Atlas, the imagination easily furnishes the arid wastes with deep-sea life, cresting waves breaking against the sheer banks of the Roof of North Africa. A more otherworldly setting in which to place a festival is difficult to conjure.
"There’s a pervading sense of being in tune with your surroundings, despite the invasion of humanity into the space, which only heightens the incredulity of being in such a location"
In front of these hills on a levelled plain sits a bizarre thing: a white tooth jutting up, defiant in the midday heat. This is the stage, an earthbound celestial entity testament to the beauty of simplicity: just three components (wood, lycra, projected light) that at night became a mesmerising centre point. Sometimes glowing a gentle orange, and others racing patterns of red and blue; it appeared as a pulsing tear in the fabric of the desert.
The programming was engineered in such a way as to build energy slowly, beginning with ambient or soporific rolling rhythms, before slowly escalating into peak time motion. The opening acts would play through the last hours of daylight, whilst the final performance shook off night’s mantle, bringing in the fresh morning. Just as the stars mark their slow progression through the cosmos, on the second night there were subtle differences: the shapes and structures stayed the same, but the perspective shifted. It was comforting, knowing that from night to night the music was set to be consistent and in tune with one another.
At night magic was thick in the air. The heavens were open above our heads, and down on the firm ground the music transported us wherever our minds wished to take us. Across the two evenings we were treated to some of the finest musical escapism imaginable.
Shoal opens the festival’s first night with a healing breath in: angelic harmonies scrape away the vestiges of the mountain cloud cover, revealing graded purple vistas, layers on layers of backdrop darkening in the ochre sundown.
It’s a slow start, before thundering bass heralds the beginning of new movements. Rising into soothing waves, the blinds are wound down on the day. Jupiter awakens, heralding the arrival of the long-promised stars; shy at first, they crop up one by one before revealing themselves in their multitudes.
Vand replaces Shoal, warming up the legs with beautifully individual techno, characterised by a thick low end that plays with the air in your lungs, pushing and pulling at your very energy. The sound is pure and whole — understandably, as there are no sound restrictions in such isolation. The desert is your only neighbour, and it does not mind the noise.
Rather, the environment acts as a cradle of resonance. There’s a pervading sense of being in tune with your surroundings, despite the invasion of humanity into the space, which only heightens the incredulity of being in such a location.
On the second evening, Orion is bright and proud behind the stage, his bright belt ornamenting the skyline. Tikita’s Karim and Malik open with mystic rolling techno that resembles the sound propounded by the rest of the European-based lineup, but is markedly unique — perhaps as a result of their separation from the continent.
"At night magic was thick in the air. The heavens were open above our heads, and down on the firm ground the music transported us wherever our minds wished to take us"
Gently rising to an elevated plain, their music warms the system as the fierce heat of the day leaves us; and so the audience is prepared for Neel’s set. It’s slow-motion euphoria, and the hours flit past in a sludged whirl as, step by step, we trudge up out of this world — the crowd are spaced apart, unified in their guided journey, and completely rapt by the sonic magic coursing through the air.
Keeping well below 100bpm, the Italian maestro shows all in attendance that true energy doesn’t come from speed, but from the chemistry of the component parts of music. Prepared for the festival upon hearing about the location, Neel’s set was a special moment, thanks to the artist’s precise technique at building a cohesive experience through music.
After these artists, on their respective nights, the audience is primed for peak time energy. However there is no suggestion that these were merely warm-up acts. From Neel, a hugely respected musician and sound engineer, through to Shoal, a new talent with great promise, there was a sustained note of quality throughout. It reflects ISOTOOP’s attention to the smaller sounds, to quieter motion.
Don’t DJ picks up after Vand, on the opening night, and he is not the type to rush. An adventurous stop-start beginning brings the crowd up to their toe tips in anticipation, before a thorough shakedown of syncopated polyrhythmic freak outs run riot through the last half of the set. It results in the most creative dancing of the night yet, a testament to his own creative approach, combining abstract turntablism, mixing and live production.
Natural sounds paint the backdrop of Don’t DJ’s set; deep water wildlife click, pop, and hum, the sound system firing organic shots off into the surrounding hills. At times the bass pours through with such power it’s less of a sound wave and more like a ray powering through your body. The music thrives with a wild lifeblood: the beat is tampered, drums misbehaving and breaking out of their moulds, running amok across the score.
Marco Shuttle, true to his name, emerges from the sci-fi undergrowth, swiftly digging out the spacecraft and firing the dancefloor off into the outer reaches. Combining disparate styles and a smooth mixing technique, Marco guides us into orbit of strange, wild planets before pulling away just before burning re-entry.
His command is absolute throughout the 3 hour set, an exploration of diversity within his chosen genre. The drums hit harder than we’ve heard yet, and by his closing track (Barker’s masterpiece “Maximum Utility“) we’ve toured coarse breakbeat and ravey vocal stabs, all while remaining true to the festival’s sonic image.
"There was a strong energy between those in the crowd. Early expectations that the audience would be a dedicated subset of party-goers with a distinct love for the music on show was proven to be correct almost without exception"
The soft matting before the stage teems with a captive audience of all nations, many dancing energetically, others are held rapt in the headlight glow of the stage. Still others, laying on their backs, wrapped in a blanket of stars and gazing at the milky way streaking above, feel the ground tremor from the system and remember their position in this universe.
Kangding Ray exists on a continuum: starting with heady ambient experimentalism, he moulds the crowd into an anticipatory muddle before settling deep into his vibrant, nuanced techno. His music is the colour of early sci-fi dreams of outer space; false-colour nebulae, streaking comets and barely describable ephemera. Soft mechanical loops fold and intersect, undercut by warm and driving bass tones — a lush, striated sonic miasma, busy and occupied, but with space to dance.
There are similar scenes on the second evening. Neel’s mastery was such that many in the crowd wondered how anyone could follow — but any doubts were swiftly put to bed, for the gates were now open for Jane Fitz’s three hour set.
Those who’ve caught Fitz playing before will know what’s in store with her music: mind-bending psychedelic techno, blurred forms of reality, a treat for the mind and body. This night was no exception. Her exemplary skills in mixing and selection are well-documented, yet deserve echoing once more: she was, and remains, truly spell-binding.
Deft control takes us coursing through multi-coloured 4D labyrinths, each new turn dissolving the path behind in a flash — the attention can only be kept in the present, in the sensations and the energy of the immediate beat. Eyes-closed, dancers take root at the front. There’s no desire to leave this exact spot, dancing in internal space amongst strangers and friends alike.
natural/electronic system assume control from Fitz with a set comprising of analogue warmth, spread out across a wide range of speeds and styles. The pair play with perception, crests and valleys of sound shaping and slipping away around you.
The pace often bubbles well below energetic, but as with Neel’s set, there is an inner energy which manifests over their set. Ensconced in the depths, the crowd simply buck and turn with the rolling tide as the duo demonstrate their skill of craft, guiding a balance which is maintained until their pulse-racing close.
Across all of the peak acts we were reminded of what it takes to be on par with the main acts, these alchemists at the height of their power. Their performances seemed to take life, splicing obscure elements together in order to construct complex, evolving forms. With precise technique they target that sacred part of the raver’s mindset which conjures trance-like motion and carefree abandon.
The final stroke of the first evening comes from ISOTOOP family Ben Buitendijk. Closing the first night of dancing is no small task, but, undaunted, Ben balances melody and drive in a set that is a resounding celebration of everything that went before, and everything that will come after.
"Nothing in the world could be worth being busier than laying on your back and drifting away"
The last moments of his blistering set usher in a new day; the shades of night withdraw gradually as the colour of day paints the early morning pallor. Legs heavy, the dedicated ravers make the rocky commute to bed as early birds dart and play in the cool air.
Throughout the next morning the camp sits in restful contemplation. Black shades counter gleaming sun-flash on water as recovering party-goers slip and dive in and out of the oasis pool. The regeneration session begins in earnest in the mid afternoon as Ario, enthroned on a soft cushion beneath a shaded parlour by the pool, coolly guides the sleep-struck ravers through a world of dreamless slumber.
The resonance taps into some frequency hidden deep within the hills, everything emitting a rumbling bassline. Nothing in the world could be worth being busier than laying on your back and drifting away.
After an hour or so of charting deep-water ambient treasures, a spontaneous wind flares up, evolving into a sand-devil that rips around the edge of the oasis camp, spiralling chaotically before evaporating with as much notice as it arrived.
This surreal act of nature marks an unconscious shift in the music, and in a subtle twist we are risen out of the sea and placed within the stars. Digital waves crash on cosmic shores, and false memory field recordings splinter into synthetic fragments. It’s the perfect beginning to the second day’s programming, which has a slightly increased focus on ambient sounds.
This was most noticeable after natural/electronic system’s dizzying set finished at 3am. At this point ISOTOOP make a daring move and switch the vibe to ambient. It’s a little uncustomary for this to happen in the last hours of the final night of a festival, but ISOTOOP have a mission to push ambient music out of the side rooms and into clear focus.
It must be said that the crowd was a little fazed by this at first, but this bold statement says a lot about the adventurous and atypical style of the promoter, and the willingness to take a risk in order to put on a unique event.
The task could hardly be given to a more appropriate duo: The Transcendence Orchestra, comprised of Anthony Child and Daniel Bean, display domineering command and full understanding of experimental ambient. The pair play with volume – the presence of the music itself – to bizarre realisation, cutting in strange loops and glazed-eyed samples.
The duty of closing the festival falls to Dutchman Koen Hoets. After an initial sonic barrage of avant-garde sound design, he slips the crowd into sleep mode with clinical precision with an array of out-there ambient and experimental music. It’s a fitting end to the festival, scrambling the sounds of those before into a bizarre contorted amalgam, his off-centre cuts echoing out into the fragile dreams in the nearby camp beds.
"Although Under The Desert Stars will never again return in the same form, the restless eye of ISOTOOP remains searching for the next festival location"
No-one leaves a festival without inventing their own personal myth of the event, and as the memories of the festival begin to homogenise and escape perfect recall, the overriding sensation of bliss and euphoria outlast all others. Mis-memory and imagination, sharpened by a burning proximity to the event, colour the liminal spaces between the absolute truth and the invented facts with a rose hue.
It’s hard to know what is certain after sustained revelry, but there were many things that Under The Desert Stars achieved unequivocally:
The participation of locals at the event was a real mark of quality. Raving with Moroccan food stand workers (some of which had never heard anything like this before, and were clearly enjoying it) was such a special experience. It was especially warming to communicate with nothing more complicated than a smile and a thumbs up — always two were given back in exchange. A more fitting symbol of the synergy and willingness of the local teams to get involved is hard to imagine.
Similarly, there was a strong energy between those in the crowd. Early expectations that the audience would be a dedicated subset of party-goers with a distinct love for the music on show was proven to be correct almost without exception — but this doesn’t necessarily result in a bonded crowd. Although the usual dancefloor ‘distractions’ were present, for the most part the focus remained where it should be: on respecting one another, enjoying the company, and appreciating the music.
Hosting all acts on a single stage provided a single and unified experience, nuanced with individual perception. It facilitated familiarity and encouraged interaction with those you recognised, which compounded the sense of unity, community, and camaraderie.
Throughout, the music was a blend of psychotropic and hypnagogic perfection. Each act was stellar, delivering inspiring and enthralling odysseys that transported mind and soul through the cosmos, the body remaining as tether to the physical world.
The lasting memory? It couldn’t be anything other than turning away from the dazzling glare of the stage, the hammer of the sound system at your back, and – allowing time for the eyes to readjust to the darkness – tilting your head up to watch as the shy stars come bursting out of the darkness.
So often the loud, bright things in life distract from true quality, something which ISOTOOP’s brilliant dream for Under The Desert Stars is set to dismantle. Here, there is the understanding that true treasure may lie a little out of sight sometimes, but this is all the more reason to hunt harder and longer for authentic gems.
Although Under The Desert Stars will never again return in the same form, the restless eye of ISOTOOP remains searching for the next festival location. Where it will be and the acts taking part is yet to be surfaced, but there is certainty in at least one thing — it will bear the hallmark of passion for absolute quality which was so present in that precious, beautiful spot in remote Morocco.
Kenny Dean Kneefel
Klaas-Harm de Boer
Neel live at Under The Desert Stars
Lapien – Moonset [Tikita]
Amandra – Quatre Heroica [Tikita]
Lapien – Moonset (natural/electronic.system. remix) [Tikita]
Ario DJ set at Under The Desert Stars
Marco Shuttle – Thebe [Spazio Disponible]
Amandra – Autochtone [Tikita]
natural.electronic/system. – Sicut Erat [Tikita]
Discover more about ISOTOOP on Inverted Audio.