AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

A fervour has been building around Belfast in recent years as a must go place for anyone looking for a vibrant house and techno scene. The city’s rise to prominence has been attributed to many different things, but the biggest factors contributing to Belfast’s new found fame are undoubtedly the vision and self-belief currently permeating the scene and wider arts community. Nowhere has this vision and self-belief been more apparent than at this year’s AVA Festival.

Entering its fourth year, AVA 2018 was a shining example of what can be achieved when a festival has a clear sense of identity and purpose. Unlike anything else currently being put on in the UK or Ireland, AVA brings together artists, industry figures and enthusiastic crowds for two days of talks and music. That’s if you don’t include the opening night on Thursday, which saw both an opening show at the Bullitt Hotel as well as a screening of the one-take masterpiece Victoria at the Queen’s Film Theatre, or the closing party on Sunday evening, where Rush Hour Records label boss Antal treated those still standing to a three hour set at the Art Department.

As the festival’s unabbreviated name suggests, Audio Visual Arts is about so much more than music. It’s about bringing individuals together from within the arts world and nurturing the talent of up and coming artists in the community. With its geographical isolation, Belfast has always been a city that has had to rely on its own artists and there has a always been a sense of mentorship within the scene. However, AVA’s creator Sarah McBriar has taken this to the next level by not only fostering talent, through the emerging DJ, producer and visual artist programmes, but also by connecting those in Belfast to industry figures both on the mainland and south of the border.

With regards to the visual side of things, this year’s AVA see’s the festival partnering with both Red Bull and the Sasakawa Foundation. In collaboration with Red Bull, Belfast’s Guerrilla Shout collective created a fantastic installation that utilised the reflective qualities of light and provided a fitting visual backdrop to the Red Bull Music Stage. Also working with Red Bull were Belfast artists Paul Doran and Mark Ervine who created a beautiful mural using mixed media and collage. Finally, Japanese filmmaker Yu Nakajima’s ‘January 2015’ was exhibited with the help of the Sasakawa Foundation.

In a year when Belfast waves goodbye to the legendary Mandela Hall, home for many years to clubbing institution Shine, it seems fitting that AVA also moves on to newer pastures in 2018. No longer located at T13, gone are the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes Samson and Goliath, which for three years loomed high and mighty over the Boiler Room stage. However, if you thought that this meant a move away from the industrial atmosphere that has characterised AVA over the last three outings, you would be mistaken. The festival’s new home S13, a disused B&Q building located in a retail park in the south of the city, is a fitting location to continue to grow and expand AVA. From the Red Bull Music Stage being located in a loading bay to the incredible Main Stage space, the former DIY supply store provided the perfect setting for partygoers to enjoy the sights and sounds on offer at this year’s festival.

It was never going to be easy to choose, but here are our highlights from AVA 2018.

The Talks

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

The AVA Conference continues to go from strength to strength each year, with attendees treated to an ever-growing list of international speakers from within the industry. With topics ranging from ‘Creating Longevity in an Evolving Scene’ to ‘Breaking into the Music Industry’, it’s at the talks that you can really see McBriar’s commitment to using AVA as a means of promoting and fostering homegrown talent.

This year’s opening keynote was delivered by Belfast duo Bicep, real names Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson, who discussed the process behind their first live album and their recent run of live performances.

“We had to work out everything ourselves,” admits Matt, on the process of moving away from more dancefloor friendly eight-minute anthems to the three-minute album track format. “Less face melters, more freakouts” quips host Seamus O’Reilly to laughter from the audience. Citing Aphex Twin as an influence when it comes to production techniques, Matt continued: “We wanted to make something that you could listen to when you’re out riding your bike.”

The pair seemed pleased with the response to their year of live performances, stating that it was a good opportunity to see how the album “translates to live.” However, they made clear that the coming months will see the duo return to playing sets, with Ferguson highlighting the need to focus on the label, as well as their desire to play the large pool of new records they have been collecting over the last year.

The closing keynote was delivered by the legendary Larry Heard. As is to be expected with someone of Heard’s stature, the discussion was more of an anecdotal affair. Within minutes he was telling stories of how as a young boy playing in the streets of Chicago he was oblivious to the fact that the band he could hear rehearsing from a nearby studio was in fact Earth Wind and Fire.

Heard comes across as a gentle, genuine character who has little time for overanalysis of his work. When asked about his thought process when producing and writing, he simply states: “I don’t think a lot I just kind of dive into things. I’m usually more impulsive when it comes to making music. Just be wacky.”

Discussing the influences that shaped him, he cites his family as one of the biggest factors in shaping his tastes. “Before the TV, every house had a piano for entertainment,” he jokes as he talks about his musically talented parents. Both his parents and brothers would bring music home, ranging from jazz artists like Wes Montgomery to the funk of Parliament, and a smile spreads across his face as he recalls the day he danced around the house in joy after his father brought home Donna Summers ‘Love to Love You Baby’.

Now a longtime resident of Memphis, Heard recently released his first full-length album as his Mr Fingers alias in nearly 25 years. When asked about future lives shows, he simply stated: “I don’t know, we just take it day by day,” before host Lauren Martin handed over to eager audience members to ask the legendary producer some final questions.

Boiler Room

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

As with every AVA to date, the party started at the Boiler Room Stage and the energy of the crowd was palpable from the word go. Debut performances from local artists Bobby Analog, Holly Lester and Quinton Campbell stood out as great examples of the talent coming out of the country at the moment. If ever AVA’s ethos of supporting new artists was on display it was surely when Campbell took to the stage on Friday afternoon. Having won the AVA Emerging Producer competition back in 2016, it seemed fitting that he now represent the festival on the international stage that is Boiler Room.

More established acts like Midland and Mano Le Tough provided the stage with a number of memorable moments, but it was Sunil Sharpe’s high intensity closing set on the final night that stood out as the highlight of the entire Boiler Room weekend. The Dublin DJ’s fusion of fast-paced techno and breaks could not have been more aptly suited to the location and the crowd showed their appreciation in the only way a Belfast audience knows how; through an ever louder series of ‘yeos’ and whistles. Sharpe’s sound perfectly encompasses the passion and energy of Ireland and as his set came to an end on Saturday evening it felt like those in attendance had witnessed a true vinyl masterclass.

Red Bull Music Stage

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

Situated in a former loading bay, the Red Bull Music Stage was by far the most aesthetically pleasing setting at AVA, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Guerilla Shout light installation that sat nestled behind the DJ booth. Irish duos dominated the stage throughout the weekend, with Extended Play head honchos Timmy Stewart and JMX providing the highlight set on Friday. I doubt anyone knows how to work the Belfast crowd better than the pair behind the city’s top label, and their track selection was second to none.

Hot on their heels on Saturday were Belfast boys Swoose and Cromby. With both lads now living abroad you could see from the start of the their set that they were happy to be back playing their brand of house to a hometown crowd. The former Shine residents were followed by the final Irish duo of the weekend Brame and Hamo, who built on the lively atmosphere established by their Belfast companions. It was then up to the fantastic Hunee to close the stage on Saturday evening and he did so with his usual blend of party-friendly disco and house. It was a fitting end to what was debatably the best overall stage of the whole weekend.

Live Performances

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

As Larry Heard took to the stage alongside longtime collaborator Robert Owens on Friday night, crowds began to trickle in from the other stages. Accompanied by visuals that had an almost 90s Windows screensaver feel to them, the music pounded along to a rhythm that you only find when listening to the greats of the Chicago scene. Hypnotic, arpeggiated synths and even more hypnotic vocal lines from Owens, who at several points could simply be heard repeating the word ‘Belfast’, were met with cheers from the crowd who knew they were in the presence of a true legend.

Heard was then followed by Bulgaria’s finest KiNK, who provided the stand out moment of the weekend when he was joined on stage by several samba drummers from Belfast’s Beat Carnival. The crowd exploded with cheers as the drummers gathered in front of KiNK. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any producer with a bigger smile on his face as he held his drum machine close to his chest and banged out a rhythm in unison with his samba ensemble.

The only live performance of the Saturday was that of local producer Mount Palomar, real name Neil Kerr. Having recently returned from playing Berlin’s Berghain, it was obvious from the start that Kerr really knows his way around his hardware. With his octatrack in tow, he delivered a pounding analog sound that brought so much energy and freshness to the day.

Main Stage

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

The Main Stage provided so many individual high points over the course of the weekend that it’s hard to choose which ones to include. With outstanding visuals and a fantastic soundsystem, the stage was testament to the hard work and effort put in by the team behind AVA. From the aforementioned live performances of Kink and Larry Heard, to the closing set from Bicep, who made a return to the decks on Friday night, the crowd gathered at the stage were treated to a relentless mix of house and techno throughout the weekend. However, it was on final day that things really descended into madness on the Main Stage. Great performances from Sally C and Or:la set the scene for what was to come but it was the moment Mall Grab played the Chris Liebing remix of ‘One Night in New York City’ that the energy that had been building up throughout the day spilled over into complete chaos. Belfast favourites Floorplan took over from Mall Grab, bringing their gospel infused brand of techno with them, and it was then left to US techno producer DVS1 to bring things to a close on Saturday night.

Moxie Closing Set – Smirnoff Stage

AVA Festival 2018 sets a new standard for Belfast nightlife

While DVS1 was closing the Main Stage, those looking to get away from the pounding techno of the main room took solace at the Smirnoff Stage where Moxie was providing a more feel good sound to bring the weekend to an end. There was a real sense of joy amongst the audience as Moxie played a set peppered with disco classics like Donna Summers – ‘I Feel Love’, as tired legs found that little bit of energy to keep going. The great atmosphere was helped in part by Jayda G’s brilliant set before Moxie too, but it was the last fifteen minutes of the night that really encapsulated the entire mood of the weekend. Smiles were etched across faces as people danced, hugged and cheered and there was a real sense of inclusivity and happiness amongst the crowd. It was the perfect ending to a great weekend at AVA Festival 2018 and we at Soundspace can’t wait to see what Sarah and her team have in store next year.

Image credit: Luke Joyce, Lewis Mclay and Grant Jones