Review: inner city electronic 2020

Eleven venues, a mind-blowing fifty-one artists – and you love and want to see 90% of them.  Where do you even start?! 

When Inner City Electronic Festival lands in Leeds it is beautifully VAST!  We have a great deal to thank RalphLawson for, not just his two decades of loyal service to electronic underground dance music as a world-renowned House DJ, but also for him being the curator and co-founder of the event.

I was completely spoilt for choice: Orbital, Peggy Gou, HAAi, Surgeon, Or:la, Kosh, Mr Scruff, Detroit In Effect – the list of world-class electronica DJ’s all together in one city for one night was genuinely epic for me to get my head around.  There were a lot of set clashes, but there’s nothing you can do about that really, except pick your favourites; sacrifices have to be made etcetera.   After a little bit of deliberation, I opted for The Refectory and Warehouse.  Practicality dictated I could only cover four artists.  One thing was for sure though, there was one set I was definitely seeing, as I have on and off for nearly thirty years.  No guesses who.  They did not disappoint, they never have really.  But we’ll come to their show (and interview) as you read on… 

Inner City Electronic is fundamentally a festival where for one day (and more importantly night), you’re able not only to see internationally renowned performers show their live set skills but also learn how to develop as an artist yourself.  At Leeds College Of Music in the afternoon and early evening, there were seminars from many of the producers and DJs who would be performing later.  Such topics as creating visuals, starting your own label, workshop sessions, crate-digging, the future of clubbing.  There was literally nothing that wasn’t covered in the world of techno/electronica.

There was a touching tribute to the late Andrew Weatherall, a truly inspirational producer, DJ and Mercury Prize-winning remixer.  The intelligence and artistic prowess behind Screamadelica, amongst so many other incredible productions, is his forever.  Think for a minute about Future Sound Of London, Happy Mondays, Björk, New Order. He’s behind all of them, and obviously so many incredible fellow DJs all thought highly of him.  

In a moving moment at the end of Peggy Gou’s set, she dropped Loaded as a really touching tribute to him.  There’s actually a few seconds of Peggy looking out at the crowd that she posted on her Instagram feed, showing the crowd’s response as the song played.  It was brilliant and heartwarming to see. Andrew Weatherall was absolute class at harnessing what any artist had and magnifying it into something quite beautiful.  He really was a true genius; a very sad loss, but my goodness he has left his mark.

At sometime before Peggy’s early hours tribute, though, there was a moment that really did send that fizz down my neck.  The time had finally come for Orbital to kick off their set, and it was phenomenal.  Standing just behind the FoH mixing desk and all the midi systems for the lighting and visuals, I suddenly heard Professor Brian Cox stating scientific theories! Amongst other things he said ‘There are few certainties in science…whether human or star…life is precious…how long do you want the human race to survive?’

‘How long do you want the human race to survive?’

‘How long do you want the human race to survive?’

This sample kept repeating to the sound of an ECG flatline, slowly descending in pitch.  The crowd knew it was time; the cheering kicked in as the legends known as Orbital finally took the stage, as always wearing their trademark head torch glasses.  The flatline had descended into an ARP synth style three note sequence.  It all sounded so cool, then the full power of their set kicked in with the lead track Monsters Exist from their album of the same name.  Two thousand people were in their element, all lit up bright primary red from the stunning visuals and lighting.  Their set just kept on ramping it up in such a way that the crowd just bounced.  Everyone was buzzing.  When they dropped Chime there was such a massive cheer.  This song launched the 90’s dance scene and played live it still grabs everybody.  When I say everybody, I mean three generations of people in the crowd loving it.  How many festival memories this song brings back!  No mean feat for a techno/trance track of thirty years.

Eventually, their set had to come to a close, and I was mesmerised from it.  How does sound do that to you?  The crowd were in awe, cheering and whistling, shouting for more.  There was no room for encores – Phil and Paul of Orbital had delivered an absolute masterclass in performance; their racks and racks of stage gear had authentically delivered the goods.  Now it was time for them to sit down.  Fortunately, they sat down with me. 

You can read Stal’s conversation with Orbital here. 

So while interviewing Orbital, I missed the start of the set from Or:la, one of the most captivating DJs I’ve ever heard live. 

Thing is she’s actually quite straight-faced all the way through, whatever she’s playing, and with good reason.  The complexity of what she can create on the fly beggars belief.  This is fundamentally why she’s so sought after as a live DJ.  One of the first words I picked up on someone describing her sound as was kaleidoscopic.  I thought ok.  Then basically for the past couple of years, I’ve turned that kaleidoscope a lot, so the chance to see her live was a treasured one. 

I say see her.  The thing is 90% of the time nobody could see her because the fog machines were truly maxed out.  But Or:la has said in so many words before now that she doesn’t want people to be looking at her, rather focusing on her sound.  I can assure you that from the second I left Orbital’s dressing room and I could hear her set, I was transfixed.  She details it, big time.  I actually kept still, just to concentrate on where she was taking it.  For me (at least with this set) it was as much IDM as it was electronic/techno.  I kept going ‘woaah!’ to myself at what I was hearing.  She moved things around, from breakbeat to eclectic polyrhythms, to funk, to hard trance; she took things back to acid for a little while.  Her set went on a real tour of styles, but at no point did any of it feel sandwiched together.  It truly was audio eloquence all the way, and my attention was held, albeit in a fog machine pea-souper.  I think it’s most definitely deliberate though, and in a way I understand.  Certain live set DJs don’t want to be gawped at. Richard James (Aphex) has before now said he hates that aspect of live performance.  Certain artists want you to focus on the sound and not them.  Overall, Or:la’s set was absolute class, and I cannot wait to hear her live again.

So, Peggy Gou finally entered the frame, in what was a seamless stage link with Or:la.  As Peggy walked on, the crowd were lit right up; a few were borderline euphoric.  Being a Yorkshireman through and through, it’s a bit surreal hearing twenty or so of the two thousand strong crowd at an electronica gig screaming ‘Peggy!’ while flailing their arms around.  The last Peggy I knew was an old neighbour who once asked me if I could buy her some ‘durex’ batteries.  Crossed lines were eventually put right but I was mildly traumatised. 

Anyway, the gig.  It was quite touching to see the genuine love and respect between Peggy and Or:la on stage, having a cuddle, bit of a catch up in each other’s ear, then another cuddle, then a bit of a dance, Or:la checking her phone, Peggy subconsciously drifting into a bit of a Napoleon Dynamite dance with her hands in her pockets, all very relaxed and cool.  A couple of techs swapped Or:la’s MPC desk for Peggy’s.  Both remained on stage for a few minutes as Or:la’s set drew to a close, a mutual celebration of keeping a couple of thousand people very happy with their sounds.   

Peggy’s set was subtly kicking in now as Or:la’s mixed out, and it was still euphoria from of the front of the crowd.  I did at one point earlier in the evening actually hear somebody say ‘Peggy Gou’s so hot right now’, by someone staring wistfully at the stage, no irony whatsoever.  Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a brilliant producer and performer, but the whole world of fashion has propelled her beyond the frame of music production into that world that I’ve personally never really cooed over.  Never really been the same since watching Zoolander I guess.  But Peggy’s music is internationally as cool a sound as you can get.  She packs a punch and her set had the crowd well and truly eating out of her hand.  Anybody who has the power to make somebody scream with joy simply by smiling at them is somebody with a serious set of skills.  Peggy is awesome, an international star.  I can’t quite put my finger on it though.  There was something that made me enjoy Or:la that little bit more, Orbital that little bit more and as I headed down to Warehouse I felt certain I was about to enjoy HAAi’s set a little bit more, too. 

HAAi is one of my personal favourites as a producer and as a live performer.  She’s naturally gregarious, from Australia, cool, down to earth and informative whenever she’s discussing music.  

HAAi performing at Inner City Electronic 2020 in Leeds
HAAi | Photography by Wisdom Makubile

Her posts on Instagram can be very funny, too.  So all in all, you get a picture of somebody who’s quite warm hearted, a good laugh and is an absolute oracle on the techno/electronica music scene.  Recently she’s launched a new record label Radical New Theory.  The first artist she’s backing is a young producer DJ from Amsterdam called Ozzy Jones.  His EP ‘Een’ is released on 13 March and I can’t stop listening to it.  So HAAi’s music taste is also very much to be trusted. 

Her set in Warehouse was hard and gritty – she really does pack a lot of punch.  She’s very good at reading and responding to the crowd too.  Everybody’s attention is held.  But best of all as far as I’m concerned is her real-time ability to manipulate various aspects of a mix without you even realising, unless you’re watching real close.  I know plenty of other DJs do the same, but HAAi seems to do it with that bit more flair; you can tell she’s definitely passionate about what she’s creating live –  it just flows and she gives it everything.  Crouching down at the desk mid-set, hands-on a few effects, then she launches.  The way she plays grabs your attention, and for me as much as Or:la is technically incredible at what she can create in real-time, HAAi’s speed and real-time sound manipulation is breathtakingly precise, and so, so good to watch.  HAAi is animated, she moves, it makes you love and believe her music more if that makes sense. 

 In the middle of tracks there were little pockets of applause in the crowd for what HAAi was doing on the fly.  There were a few times I shook my head in disbelief at her speed and dexterity. I’m talking simultaneously looking after filters, reverb, delay, trem, on several channels at once, some staggered, some offbeat.  Talk about spinning plates while making more pottery.  If you don’t get chance to hear HAAi live, I recommend you order Systems Up Windows Down.

Then finally at 5am, my time at Inner City Electronic 2020 had drawn to a close.  It was just eight hours for me, and what a night of incredible music.  The bed was calling me now, though.

Unless otherwise captioned, all photography by Mark Wheelwright.


Stal writes on contemporary music, covering gigs and festivals in and around Leeds with huge energy and enthusiasm, teasing out interesting snippets of information from the artists he interviews.

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