Located in Portugal’s coastal city of Viana do Castelo, Neopop festival is a celebration of electronic music with a European body clock that allows for a hedonistic 9am finish. This year’s techno-heavy lineup boasted a mixture of innovators, trailblazers and newcomers that traced the lineage of the Detroit phenomenon from its roots in European synthesizer music. April Clare Welsh was on the ground to get stuck in.
The origins of techno can be traced back to an experimental rock group from Düsseldorf. Nearly a decade before the Afro-futurist experiments of “techno rebels” Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson shifted the direction of electronic music, Kraftwerk ditched krautrock and began sketching out a techno blueprint with their synthesizer-led experiments, Robovox-enhanced voices and future-obsessed lyrics.
With this in mind, it’s no mistake that the German band have been chosen to headline the 12th edition of Portuguese electronic music festival, Neopop. This year’s theme, ‘The Art of Techno’, ties in with Kraftwerk’s critically-acclaimed 3-D extravaganza – which is more performance art than live music show – and many other acts on the lineup represent the techno family tree, from Detroit dons like DJ Stingray to relative newcomers Dr. Rubinstein, Paula Temple and Helena Hauff. Even the festival’s architecture tips its hat to this concept of lineage, with one of the two stages – a glowing, tunnel-like construction – built against the ruins of a medieval castle wall, which is in turn juxtaposed with the modern machinery of a nearby fishing port.
Kraftwerk headlined the main stage at 1am on the Saturday night, which was an ideal warm-up for ravers poised for a 6am finish, but also spared a thought for audience members hoping to dodge the scrum of the rave. The previous two nights had been a test of endurance for anyone not powered by penis-shaped ecstasy pills (yep), and the sparsity of the hands-in-the-air crowd for Kraftwerk was actually a welcome change.
When Kraftwerk – which now features only one original band member, 70-year-old Ralf Hütter – took up their perch behind illuminated lecterns, they did so with the po-faced mentality you’ve come to expect from a group whose transport rider demands “suave brakers” and dictates that “drivers must meet basic hygiene standards”. However, the existence of the group’s neoprene suits, their bespoke digital controllers and of course, their retro-naff 3-D schtick, betrayed a geeky sense of humor that was entertaining from the off.
The band drew from their back catalogue, but breathed new life into much of their repertoire, swapping straight-up nostalgia for innovation, strengthening their status as pioneers. Opening track ‘Numbers’ was given an added injection of bass, ‘Radioactivity’s synths were amped up to jackhammer techno levels, and a medley of proto-techno classics like ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ towards the end of the set helped usher in the next rave-ready headline act.
Kraftwerk’s visual show was almost as impressive. There were “oohs” and “aahs” every time a 3-D number, waveform, calculator, or cyclist came ricocheting off the stage, and during ‘Spacelab’, when a UFO flew over Viana and then actually landed right by the port. And when all four musicians were replaced by life-size androids for signature track ‘The Robots’ – with the song left preserved in its original form – the ideas it thew up about music and AI felt eerily current.
Kraftwerk’s vision of a united Europe also felt remarkably prescient with the shadow of Brexit looming. The band’s sixth album, Trans Europe Express – which turned 40 in March – was not only a career-defining record in that it marked the band’s shift from krautrock to electronics, but was largely understood by many to be a celebration of Europe that foresaw the cementing of the union some 20 years later. Now, with hordes of young people fleeing London for the cheaper and more attractive quality of life offered by the Portugal capital of Lisbon, Kraftwerk’s rendition of that album’s title track leaves a haunting vapor trail long after their set finishes.
Elsewhere, the bill comprised both European and US artists, with DJ Bone’s 5am set on the Thursday taking in everything from second generation Detroit techno icons like Jay Denham to Floorplan – the duo made up of Robert Hood and daughter Lyric – while expertly dropping in Dave Clarke’s skeezy remix of Green Velvet’s ‘La La Land’. Eric Dulan, aka DJ Bone – who has already released one of our favorite albums of the year under his Differ-Ent alias – has always been something of an underdog, but his vibrant performance proved that he is more than ready to assume his deserving place in the canon.
While DJ Bone impressed a refreshingly large crowd of sweaty ravers, Helena Hauff was due to perform over on the main stage, but Ibiza fave Maceo Plex could still be seen behind the decks during her time slot. When Plex eventually traded balearic warmth for steely electro though, whispers began to ripple through the crowd that there was nothing to worry about – Hauff was still due to play, she was just delayed by Moderat’s impromptu extended set. Without a doubt one of the world’s best party DJs, Hauff proceeded to hammer out robust bangers, looming behind the decks and chain-smoking while effortlessly blending electro-funk with nosebleed techno and acid.
In contrast to Hauff’s icy cool on-stage look, Israeli techno selector Dr. Rubinstein sported dungarees and a beaming smile while performing one of the best sets of the weekend over on the Anti Stage. She was visibly having a bloody great time and it was impossible not to get sucked in as she spun bangers from science fiction-inspired Berlin techno fantasist Blind Observatory, the acid-caked ‘Tales From Space’ by Milton Bradley and tracks from Drexicya, Regal and Adam X & Perc. Rubinstein’s star is rising and in the wake of unrelenting sexism in the dance community, it’s important to applaud Neopop’s commitment to hosting so many amazing women. Jane Fitz and Paula Temple – the latter performing her renowned hybrid live-DJ show in the blistering 7am sunshine following electro visionary DJ Stingray’s sunrise set of razor-sharp intensity – bashed out two of the weekend’s best performances, so all we can hope is that next year more exceptional women will be promoted to main stage slots.
As it charted the growth and evolution of the unrelenting global techno phenomenon, Neopop brought to mind a storied quote from Derrick May about techno being “George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.” It may sound cheesy, but as people moved in unison to the pummeling kicks, industrial filth and ricocheting 303 basslines on offer across the three days, the idea of the festival as a utopia truly came to life. The robots are closer than ever before in 2017, but at least we can be certain they’ll still have the funk.