Houghton Festival 2022: A tantalising reminder of the beauty of underground music

    © Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

    There was a nagging thought in my mind that Houghton festival would become something of a short-lived legend. Those who attended the 2017 and 2018 editions would tease and tell stories about the sets they saw at Terminus, the morning sets they saw at Pavillion, and the overall aura of the festival.

    After the 2019 edition was cancelled an hour before the start of the festival due to bad weather, the 2020 and 2021 editions fell victim to covid-19 restrictions, the mental strength needed to go again after three cancelled editions in a row can’t be understated. But then again, Houghton isn’t just any festival and they don’t have just any festival team behind it. As Craig Richards and team showed in the 2022 edition.

    The premise of the festival remained the same from the 1st and 2nd editions, long sets (three hour minimum at most stages), an emphasis on vinyl, musical tastes from across the entire spectrum, not just electronic music, all underpinned by world-class DJs playing at their best across versatile stages of design and setting on a scenic British estate in Norfolk.

    After an unfortunate late arrival on the Thursday, I managed to catch the last hour of Dyed Soundorom’s three-hour set at Pavillion, a sloping stage in the woods of Houghton Hall with the back of the DJ booth edging onto a beautiful lake and most importantly, was positioned so the sun would rise above it for those early morning sets.

    Jane Fitz playing at Pavillion was the first set I got to properly experience, who got stuck straight into whipping up a frenzied crowd even further. A smile broke out on my face just thinking about the selection of records she must’ve brought to the festival, playing three sets across Houghton totalling nine hours. On Thursday, it was pumping trance, sprinkled in with gnarling acid and pulsating techno, with the wiggling 303 of Jolly Roger – Acid Man best summing up her set.

    Kicking proceedings off on the Friday were The Ghost, playing a five-hour set from midday, which is practically unheard of for a UK festival. In news that will surprise precisely nobody, the boys duly delivered. Spinning to a packed out Earthling (formerly known as The Clearing), the duo reached for the bags of bouncy basslines to compliment the blistering British sunshine, with the cheekiness of tracks like Black Spirits – Hey Hey (Kings Of Soul Dub) and PDS – Freed From Desire (Mix 1) serving as tantalising reminders as to why they remain two of the best party starters in the business.

    The Ghost at Earthling stage on Friday afternoon. © Photography by Daisy Denham (www.daisydenham.co.uk)

    The running order for Friday evening into the night at Earthling was the stuff of digging dreams. Nine and a half hours of consecutive music from Omar, Michelle‘s live set, Binh, before DJ Masda closed things off at 5am. With the DJ booth centred in the middle of Earthling, and dancers surrounding it from all sides, the stage lends itself to an intimacy that you simply don’t get to experience at UK festivals, and in particular with names like Binh and DJ Masda.

    You always know at festival you’ve heard a special set when in the hours or even days following, people are still talking about a particular set. The mere mention of the words ‘Omar, Friday, Earthling’ was enough to ignite people into a giddy childlike conversation about what went down. The Panama-born artist set the tone from the off with the slicing pads of Red Axes’ Flawless (Club Mix) alongside the whirling bass of Rebolledo’s Meet Me at Topazdeluxe. As he delved further into his record bags, with Michelle’s live set following, Omar descended into full-on festival going for it mode with the headspinning breaks of The Crystal Method’s Busy Child.

    Michelle’s live set was a real treat, not least because a performance from her in the UK is incredibly rare (only two since Houghton’s 2019 cancellation), but because it treated my ears to a selection of forthcoming and potentially never to be released music from one of the finest producers in the scene.

    The promise of Vlada and Francesco Del Garda playing understandably, albeit unfortunately, led to queues at Quarry to get into the stage, and at festival like Houghton, with so much music to be heard, it led to a trip back to Earthling to witness DJ Masda’s three hour closing set.

    The Cabaret labelboss duly delivered on his closing duties, issuing his selection of rare gems, unreleased teasers, and certified Masda classics. Masda delivered quite easily the most eclectic set of the festival, bouncing from speed garage, to trance, to techno, and all the way back again. It was the most raucous I’ve seen him play, with the gliding 303 zaps within Jack Michael’s Rampage UKG wobbler fitting in seamlessly alongside the jacking drums and mean bass of Fear-E’s Jump on the House Train.

    He delved deeper and deeper into his bags of wax, pulling out sought-after tracks you simply don’t hear out, like Frequency X’s Hearing Things and Dook Moyza’s Goody Goody, a head-spinning ’90s techno track with it’s cheeky cartoonish vocals, ear-worming bassline and scintillating snare rolls.

    DJ Masda closing Earthling on Friday night. © Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

    Festival karma works in mystery ways, and after the disappointment of not seeing Del Garda at the Quarry, the Italian wizard ended up playing a morning set at Terminus, Houghton’s secret 24 hour stage where set times remain a guarded secret. Although I didn’t catch him at Quarry, from word of mouth it seemed his terminus set suited him better, rather than the larger stage of Quarry. In typical Francesco style I left scratching my head after a marathon of unrecognisable music thinking ‘I didn’t recognise any of that…’ But that’s the sort of set which makes him one of the most respected artists in the scene.

    When the festival set times were released, there was one set in particular which seemed the perfect combination of DJ and setting, My Own Jupiter boss Nicolas Lutz playing a sunrise set from 5am to 8am at Pavillion. Lutz did not disappoint those lofty expectations.

    Houghton Festival’s secret stage, Terminus, where set times remain a secret. © Photography by Daisy Denham (www.daisydenham.co.uk)

    Even for someone who has seen Lutz well into a double digit number of times, I’ve never seen him play as he did, and from what I know, you’re likely to only seen him play like this in places like a Sunday morning at Closer or Club der Visionaere. When Lutz plays in the UK, it’s often a peak-time set in the middle of the night, meaning he plays his pulsating style of thrashing techno and gritty breaks.

    But the sunrise set allowed for a deeper Lutz to emerge, and the three hour set would’ve done no harm in allowing him to gradually build things up. As the sun began peeking through the Pavillion woodland, the esoteric aura of tracks like Lake Haze – At The Gates Ov Futron (Creme Organization) and Persistence of Vision – Sanctuary (After On Sunday George’s Mix) gave a hint as to the magic that was about to unfold.

    As the sun rose higher, Lutz leaned more more usual style, albeit not nearly as tough as you’ll see him play as somewhere such as 5am at FOLD. The Uruguayan ended on a pitched down play of Voiron’s Hardchore, with each bubbling of the 303 prompting whoops and cheers from weary dancers, especially from the likes of fellow Uruguayans Michelle and Z@p who were on the dance floor throughout. As the set ended Lutz broke out in a weary smile, but as I began the trek to Terminus, I couldn’t quite believe just what I’d listened to.

    Nicolas Lutz during his phenomenal sunrise set at Pavillion on Sunday morning. © Photography by Rob Jones for Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

    The Sunday morning Terminus session, which would sadly be my last of Houghton 2022, was soundtracked by DJ Masda followed by Nicolas Lutz going back-to-back with Craig Richards. The intimacy of Terminus allows artists who played bigger stages in the festival, such as Richards and Lutz who played at Tantrum 12 hours earlier, to select more intricate and endearing records.

    Although Masda played at the fairly small Earthling, Terminus allowed him to go in a different direction with his records, with his 2am-5am Earthling set, the Japanese selector played at his most pulsating, hopping through speed garage and trance, whilst his Sunday Morning Terminus set allowed for an afterhours vibe of sorts, with the robotic vocals and melancholy of Red Axes – Some Lights proving to be a particular highlight.

    Lutz and Richards followed suit with the afterhours vibe, grinning, chatting, and spinning records like two life-long friends playing in their living room on a Friday night. The otherworldly melody of Corp’s 9am captured the energy at Terminus perfectly, with the speckling acid bassline gripping everyone on the dancefloor, bedtime had never felt further away.

    Nicolas Lutz and Craig Richards at Terminus on Sunday morning. © Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

    The final day of a festival is always bittersweet, thankful for the last few days of memories you’ve made, but devastated that the hours are now numbered. Still, with Zip playing at Pavillion on Sunday evening, there was absolutely no time for sob stories.

    The Perlon boss has always been famously allusive, only playing a fraction of the gigs that equally big names do, but in recent years Zip has somehow become even more elusive. As a certified Zip fan boy I can attest to this, with him playing a single English club-night since February 2019.

    The man himself unsurprisingly delivered, capturing the carnival atmosphere of the final night of a festival perfectly, but he wasn’t without his signature Zip build up. After he’d suitably lay the foundations of his set in the first hour, Zip went fully Zippy mode, playing classic Zip tracks that seemingly only he can get away with and would result in an eye-roll if played by most DJs. The unapologetic bouncing basslines of George Morel – Let’s Groove and Kerri Chandler – Rain serving as the best testaments to this.

    The classics were of course just a smaller part of the Zip appeal, with his set compromising of those signature deep cuts, with FMC – Up and Down (Club Mix) acting as the perfect example. Houghton’s programming felt almost perfect from top-to-bottom, factoring the time and which stages the artists played at, but with every bouncy bassline that come out of the Pavillion speakers, all I could think of was how special a Zippy daytime set would’ve been,

    It felt as though Houghton had only been on for five minutes and now it was time for the festival’s closing sets. Festivalgoers were spoilt for choice, needing to choose from the likes of Sonja Moonear, Saoirse, and a special guest at Outburst, which turned out to be non-other than Zip himself who’d headed there straight from Pavillion.

    Zip handing over to Sonja Moonear for closing duties on Sunday night at Pavilion. © Photography by Daisy Denham (www.daisydenham.co.uk)

    I opted for Saoirse at Earthling, mainly due to Earthling being my favourite stage of the festival, but also because I had curiosity about how she’d close out the festival. In a Houghton-inspired turn of fate, it was most likely my favourite ever closing set of a festival. It was as if Saoirse had summed up all the energy from the past three days and channelled it into her set. She probably did do that.

    Saoirse closing out Houghton Festival 2022 at Earthling, Sunday night. © Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

    Straight from the off of her three-hour closing set, Saoirse dished out pumping bassline after pumping bassline, showcasing her love of trance throughout the first hour, the punchy drums of ‘The Kings Tribute‘ of Innershades’ Emotive Response alias was instantly recognisable and gave an early indication as to just how good this closer was about to be.

    It wasn’t to be in-your-face bass for three hours though, with Saoirse diverting her path into deeper sounds with Fortran 5’s Heart On The Line (Bassline Mix) capturing the melancholy of a closing set of the festival, before it was back to business as she transversed house, techno, breaks, and everything in between.

    When the last track at a festival plays out, it always feels anti-climatic, “Oh. Is that it?” But that feeling felt extra pertinent at Houghton. After a four year wait from the 2022 edition, the heartbreak of the cancelled editions, the two year Covid editions being cancelled, there was so much build-up, so much excitement, and so much energy released over the four days at Houghton Hall.

    There was so much expectation and anticipation alongside that excitement, a cynic may say it’d be impossible for anything, let alone a festival, to live up to the standards everyone had set in their mind. But Houghton 2022 did.

    In the weeks leading up to Houghton, I’d felt a little lost musically. Blind buys on Discogs felt as though they were constant misses, record hauls weren’t generating the same childlike buzz as before, and club nights weren’t leaving me grinning from ear-to-ear for days afterwards. But sometimes all you need is one event, one occurrence, to reset your amazement and make you fall in love with something all over again. And Houghton really did make me feel in love with underground electronic music all over again.

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