25th – 27th August 2016 – Festival Forte, Castelo Montemor-O-Velho, Portugal
Montemor-o-Velho castle can be seen from around 10 miles away while driving through the Coimbra region of Portugal. Perched on top a steep hill the 12th century fort overlooks a small town sprayed across the banks and the foot of the mound. A small sleepy town with a handful of cafes & restaurants, a shop and idyllic streets & alleyways winding up to the castle it’s an extremely picturesque and quiet traditional Portuguese town. Except for once a year of course, when the organisers of Festival Forte seize the castle for a 3 day techno marathon, hoardes of ravers descend into the town and most of the locals seemingly disappear. A Techno festival in a Portuguese castle anyone? Erm…yeah go on then.
We got our first proper view of the castle in all its glory as we rolled into town around 7pm on Thursday night. Unfortunately the weather was grey and overcast but it wasn’t dampening the mood. Having spent the best part of the day driving around trying to buy tents and stocking up on festival essentials we were more than ready to get stuck in.
When we arrived at the campsite we were quite surprised at how small it was, the campsite could be walked across in a few minutes. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing though as it created a much stronger sense of community. The campsite was well thought out with an official stage/dancefloor surrounded by chill out areas and a few bars. Quite a few campers had brought their own rigs giving our temporary home a free-party feel and the music was pretty much 24 hours for the duration of the festival. We decided to have a few drinks at the campsite, meet our new neighbours and chill for a bit before heading up to the castle just after midnight.
The first surprise of the festival met us at the foot of the hill where we found a succession of elevators to take us up to the peak. It was certainly a surreal experience taking an elevator up through the secluded village with music already pounding out from within the castle walls. No wonder the majority of the locals seemed to have disappeared for the weekend, the music could be heard cleanly from the campsite which was about a 10 minute walk away. The 2nd surprise was that the festival organisers had taken over the entirety of the castle which is vast. I had assumed that some or most of it would have been closed off however one end, covered in grass, was dotted with small art installations & places to sit while the other end housed the stage in an impressive courtyard come dancefloor with a church and walkway separating the two.
Honestly I can’t think of a more picturesque setting to host a party and the organisers had done an impressive job at preparing the space. The sound system was punchy, loud and clean – one of the best I’ve heard at a festival, there were two long, well-staffed and well-stocked bars at either side of the dance floor and plenty of toilets. I didn’t queue once all weekend which is always a plus in my book.
Ben Frost was billed for the opening concert however having arrived late we had missed his set. Instead we entered the fray mid-way through Cabaret Voltaire’s eclectic mix of ambient electronica, breaks and dare I say it ‘mash up’. To be honest it was slightly underwhelming but it gave me a chance to explore the castle a bit and get into the groove. Up next was Apparat, a slightly surprising headliner for a festival mainly focussing on techno, however the organisers were obviously keen to ease us in slowly and it paid off. Apparat played an uplifting set to an enthusiastic crowd. His mixing was tight and he was enjoying himself throwing down summer party anthems.
A Sub:terranea favourite; Martyns remix of Tiga – Gentle Giant went down a storm.
Mute records Daniel Miller was up next and he took things into minimal territory as a pre-cursor to Marcel Dettmans closing set. The first sound of techno over the thumping system was welcomed enthusiastically however close to 2 hours of Millers minimal techno wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Just before 6am the dancefloor suddenly got a lot busier, Marcel Dettman was waiting in the wings and the crowd were anticipating something special. Dettman is a good DJ, he mixes records together very well in a tight fashion. Any small mistakes are very quickly and easily amended however technically he isn’t the most creative DJ around and I can quickly lose interest. I stayed for around an hour of his set and then wandered off back to the campsite. The line up on the first night was by far the weakest of the 3, FF had many more tricks up their sleeve over the following two nights.
Having spent most of Friday afternoon sleeping by the river and eating BBQ’d pork I was feeling refreshed and ready for action again by the time I made my way back to the dance floor for, the previously unknown to me, Shcuro. And what a pleasant surprise the Portuguese DJ turned out to be. The highlight so far he was really testing the system banging out some bleepy techno laced with classy acid moments, setting the tone for the rest of the weekend. Things had really started to heat up. The best was yet to come though and as Helena Hauff stepped up she instantly brought energy to the dance floor, along with a record bag seemingly packed to the brim with excellent classy electro and acid techno. Helena is an extremely busy DJ and I don’t mean that she plays a lot of gigs. The way that she moves behind the decks is a joy to watch, she doesn’t stop for a second. If she’s not cue’ing up a record then she’s mixing and if she’s not mixing she’s searching through her bag for the next tune. There’s nothing less inspiring than seeing a motionless DJ and Helena is the opposite, she stopped for 30 seconds to make a rollie with almost military precision and then the headphones were back on. Here is an example of a DJ who can transfer her energy and passion through to the crowd. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it with many lauding her set as the best of the festival. High praise indeed among such a high profile line up. For me though she would be outdone on Saturday night but more on that later.
Ancient Methods were up next for an hour live set and for the life of me I have no idea where I was for the duration. Even my extensive notes could not explain this absence, I can only imagine I was working the crowd. Everyone I met was really friendly and I made lots of new friends. Groups of Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish & French party people all lapping up the British humour, one of the best aspects of Festival Forte was the lack of English people – who likes to see them when we go on holiday? Rrose showcased her live set after Ancient Methods and played surprisingly emotive. When I saw her before in Leeds she pretty much banged it out but here she took things much deeper. Perhaps the influence of there being only one stage was that the artists felt less need to impress or that they experienced more artistic freedom. The act I was most looking forward to see though on Friday night was Trade. Surgeon is without a doubt one of the best around so I was keen to see how he would team up with Blawan. Their live set lasting just over an hour was extremely well received although I personally prefer Surgeon alone. I felt that Blawans full throttle booming techno can get a bit much. Still though this was proper banging techno and that’s what the majority of the crowd had come here to hear. Having opted for a sober 2nd day of the festival in a bid to save my energy for the 24 hour long final night I retired as Ben Klock came on at 6am. A DJ that I’ve seen before I wasn’t too fussed to have missed him.
Saturday afternoon was spent on the beach! The seaside town Figueira da Foz, about a 15 minute drive away, is the perfect way to wind down and escape the constant tech house on the campsite. Another chance to visit Lidl too, the place to procure only the finest (cheapest) vodka & rum the region had to offer. Well-tanned, well-stocked and well up for it we headed back to the castle just in time to catch ‘Vil’. Yes Vil & not Vril who would play later on. I don’t know much about Vil but I was pleasantly surprised, he was playing some very clean sounding techno, definitely one to keep an eye on in the future and an excellent aperitif to the marathon about to ensue. Up next were Orphx who were my surprise highlight set of the whole festival. If Helena Hauff expressed passion through her performance then Orphx portrayed nothing but pure class. Deep and dark techno of the highest order they looked up from their machines only once for a 2 second conversation with one another before getting back to work. I was hugely impressed with their performance and they are a new firm favourite of mine, the only downside was that the volume seemed a notch on the quiet side for the duration of their set. A small niggle that overall couldn’t affect the power of their performance. I had been really looking forward to catch Silent Servants live set but I remember feeling underwhelmed, perhaps following Orphx was just a bridge too far. Each to their own though, I overheard a few people raving about his performance.
Kobosil was another DJ I was looking forward to and he was simply incredible. Two hours of really punchy tight techno expertly mixed together spoiled slightly by the 2 or 3 old school jungle esque tracks that he played at the end of his set. While the festival overall was very well organised I couldn’t help thinking that sandwiching Sebastian Mullaert & Ulf Eriksson between Kobosil & Rodhad was a mistake. Their melodic minimal techno, whilst incredibly posh on its own, would have been more suited to the beginning or the end of the night. Scheduling can be a difficult task though so I’d prefer to give FF the benefit of the doubt, perhaps flight timetables or DJ availability were factors in this decision. Rodhad, one of the ‘bigger’ names on the line up, jumped onto the decks at 7am. For the first few minutes of his set the volume was too low, until one of the organiser strolled onto the stage to pump it up. When the crowd roared the look on Rodhad’s face was priceless. One of pure joy, his smile broke out from ear to ear, he showed exactly why he’s so popular. This man loves techno and he loves to make people dance. His brand of techno is not exactly up my street but his passion for DJ’ing has my highest respect. As the morning sun started to shine I found myself wandering off on a mission, unfortunately this meant missing Vril however I was back in the action for Drumcell & Truncate playing one after another from 10am – 1pm. I’m a huge fan of Truncate but Drumcell didn’t quite do it for me, I found I was eager for Truncate to start but with age creeping up against me I had to retire. I found a good spot of shade under a tree and spent the rest of Sunday getting down to some serious snoozing. I had hoped to catch Konstantin and experience Michael Mayer close the festival during the Sunday sunset, I imagine that was pretty special.
Even with only one stage it’s still impossible to catch everyone you want to, let alone the full line up. The better a festival environment and the more distractions on offer the harder this task can be. With a well thought out venue, chill out areas & campsite, interesting art installations and mind blowing visuals such distractions are a plenty. Ultimately, feeing regret about having missed certain artists is a clear sign of an excellent festival. The combination of the venue, crowd, sound & sheer class of the line-up make Festival Forte a serious contender in the European Festival game and well worth considering for those who prefer a festival slightly off the beaten track.
-Review by Phil Warner