Words by Angus Paterson
Photo by Matías Altbach
Australian music obsessives on the hunt for an international festival adventure will be well aware of how much Europe is overflowing with amazing events, which really deliver the goods in terms of amazing lineups and top-tier production. However, when it comes to the true ‘bucket list’ festivals, there’s a handful that take place in unique locations that are as much the star as the headlining acts themselves.
Dimensions Festival for example takes place at Fort Punta Christo, a 19th-Century naval port on the Croatian coast, while Serbia’s Exit Festival inhabits the tunnels and moats of the Petrovaradin Fortress, which was built in the 17th century to hold back the marauding Turks. However, Germany boasts arguably the most unique location of them with Melt Festival, an event with a 20-year history that takes place in the grounds of the “Ferropolis” open-air industrial museum that’s just a few hours from Berlin.
Known informally as the “the city of iron,” the Ferropolis is scenically perched at the tip of a peninsula, surrounded by water on all sides, and is the site of a former strip-mining operation from about a century ago. Its defining attribute is that it’s populated by a motley crew of hulking industrial excavators, which can be best likened to the noisy monstrosities that wreak havoc in Michael Bay’s Transformer franchise.
Seriously, these things are bloody huge. They’re full of personality too, to the point where you half expect them to uproot and begin stomping around in the dust. In stark contrast to the aforementioned Central European moats and fortresses, there is something unmistakably German about the Ferropolis. It’s steeped in the country’s grand cultural tradition of taking old industrial spaces and transforming them into places of culture, music and partying, and Melt Festival is drawn from the same mentality that informs iconic Berlin clubs like Berghain and Tresor; both built within the steely surrounds of former power plants.
Photo by Johannes Riggelsen
Music wise, Melt Festival also owes its strong reputation to a clever mix of accomplished live performers and purist techno, and it delivers a connoisseur’s selection on both counts. While there’s a lack of marquee headliners on the level of an act like Radiohead, for example, the organizer’s skill for recruiting acts who are on an upward ascent is an impressive one. When it comes to the DJs, it’s a slightly different story, as they’re typically drawn from some of the biggest names that the house and techno scene has to offer, supported at the smaller stages by a selection of Berlin’s finest dancefloor stalwarts.
As far as this festivalgoer is concerned, the superb music programming is actually just indulgent window dressing for the divine atmosphere that is simmers in the festival grounds from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. To a degree this is a kittle unexpected, as looking at photos of those hulking excavators, with their towering cranes and menacing buzzsaws, you might expect a darker, ‘Mad Max’ style apocalyptic festival adventure. However, It’s actually quite the opposite, as entering the festival grounds at dusk on a Friday afternoon is one of the most serene music experiences you’ll ever enjoy.
The music shifts into gear while the summer sun is slowly setting, with a picturesque orange in the sky slowly darkening into a sublime navy blue, a prelude to the night sky being punctured by the colorful lights that illuminate the excavators. The water surrounding the grounds adds to the serene vibes, with several waterside stages taking advantage of this, and the punter energy tends to be chilled rather than intense.
The Melt main stage that hosts the headline bands is just a short walk form the entrance, and sees you descending down a series of stairs into a spacious amphitheater pit, which is flanked spectacularly on each side by two of the Ferropolis’ biggest excavators. Combine this setting with pristine sound quality, and the Melt Stage represents arguably one of the best festival mainstages in the world.
Photo by Stephan Flad
Glass Animals are an early highlight on Friday night, bursting into a spirited rendition of Life Itself, before dialling it back a little with material like Gooey from their earlier, slightly more sedate debut album; it’s even more in tune with the divine energy floating in the air. The good vibes are peaking by this stage.
Kate Tempest brings her confrontational poetry-slash-MCing to the smaller live stage that’s just next door, and she’s a perfect fit for the edgy musical programing that Melt Festival excels in, though towards the end of her set the heavens decide to open up and start raining. So much rain. It’s consistent with the non-summer that Europe has been dealt this year, but it certainly puts a dampener on M.I.A.’s performance at the mainstage, as well as techno don Richie Hawtin who is showcasing his special CLOSE live show.
The ‘Big Wheel’ stage is home for the bigger DJ names over the weekend, though on Friday there’s no denying that the relentless downpour puts a dampener on sets from Berghain resident Marcel Dettman and Swedish titan Adam Beyer. On Saturday night once the weather clears up though, it’s a completely different story. Over at the mainstages, the seductive croons of UK beatmaker Sampha brings some welcome soul to the early evening, while German pop/rock experts Bilderbuch do an perfect job of bringing the party. However, It’s the extraordinary sprawl of punters gathered at the Big Wheel stage by midnight that makes your jaw drop (as does the production spectacle that accompanies it all).
Photo by Stephan Flad
Irish duo Bicep rule the evening with a live electronic set full of ravey breakbeats and trancey melodies, and it matches the euphoria of the crowd perfectly. And what a sprawling crowd it is, stretching right to the back of the festival grounds, and adding a welcome sense of scale to the spectacular laser show.
However, these bigger stages are hardly the only choice you’re given over the weekend. The Gremmin Beach stage is situated literally on a sandy beach, where you’re free to cool down by dipping your toes in the water if you’re so inclined. Venture deeper into the forest and you’ll find an elaborately constructed children’s cubbyhouse, hosted by Berlin’s infamous Sisyphos club, faithfully recreating its famous open-air vibes. And for those who don’t like to call it quits at 7am, just outside the gates of the festival is The Sleepless Floor, Melt’s 24-hour, non-stop stage, featuring a rotating cast of Berlin’s favorite DJ regulars.
The overall musical lineup of this year’s Melt Festival was admittedly a little on the light side – it’s definitely no Glastonbury. However, in terms of the all-round festival experience that you get at the Ferropolis, this matters little. The pure serenity that hovers in the air at Melt Festival is difficult to capture in words, but it certainly deserves to be experienced at least once in your life.