Live Review

Aphex Twin, Kelela, Moderat & more cut through sound issues to stand out at Field Day 2023

19th August 2023

Richard D. James does his best to lift the roof off a day of patchy sound at London’s Victoria Park.

As it did last year and the year before, Field Day’s 16th edition shares a weekend and a location with All Points East in Victoria Park. Some people are harebrained enough to attend the two events on consecutive days, and Saturday morning in east London is filled with reports from those who braved the rain for Stormzy and co the night before. Field Day need not contend with issues of weather, blessed instead with glorious sunlight.

The collaboration with All Points East has also signalled Field Day’s return to its original home. Before moving uncomfortably between various London locations, it took place in Victoria Park between its 2007 inception and 2017 - which was also the last time Aphex Twin played here. Back then, however, Field Day was its own festival; it offered a purpose-built rave hangar, big enough for a jumbo jet, seemingly just to do justice to Richard James’s batshit electronica. This year no such luxury is extended, with Field Day’s impressive line-up instead confined to the more standard festival set-up of All Points East. Even before arrival there’s talk of disappointing sound quality in previous years. Surely this year they’d fix that.

The day starts around one o’clock with a selection of attractive acts on so early that almost no one is there to see them. Hagop Tchaparian, Actress, Sudan Archives and LSDXOXO B2B with Juliana Huxtable are all finished by 4pm. Around this time the crowd turns up; after weathering the bottlenecked entry queue, most of them flood to the East Stage for Jayda G’s mid-afternoon set.

The Canadian DJ arrives looking like the Disney princess of rave, clad in an emerald dress that glitters like a disco ball every time she wriggles her hips. An hour of house, funk and hands-in-air disco follows as a crowd of already sunburnt twenty-somethings jig around approvingly. So far so good.

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The site effectively offers two main stages on either side of the park, with three smaller stages in between. Starting around 4.30pm on the West Stage is the talented DJ Tsha, but much of the crowd heads towards the Cupra North for a live set from the recently returned producer SBTRKT. Sadly, it proves disappointing; playing to a hopeful audience that spills well outside of the sizeable tent, the artist’s mix of new tunes and classics from his 2011 debut album is barely audible over the sound of people complaining that they can’t hear. It feels like being inside one of those shaky festival videos you see posted on YouTube.

Never mind. Fever Ray starts back on the East Stage not long after, but by the time you’ve crowd-surfed your way out of the Cupra there’s long enough to catch the start of Jon Hopkins on the nearby West Stage. He’s good - as long as you don’t mind crushing your way into earshot - and offers an early play of his career-best tune ‘Open Eye Signal’ to the delight of those who can hear it.

Then it’s Kelela at the Cupra. She emerges before a bright red LED screen wearing what looks like a sort of translucent onesie with a hood, singing the opening coos of ‘Washed Away’ from her recent third album ‘Raven’. As a breakbeat kicks in, the crowd gasps - awe, admiration, relief maybe - and remembers that there's almost nothing better than the sound of this woman’s voice over a jungle rhythm. Throughout the set, the stage is given to her, with no band, no backup, no visible DJ and no question that the audience is completely rapt. Everyone in the tent is motionless when she sings, then pops when the beat drops. She’s like an underground Beyoncé.

Moderat come next in the same spot, building walls of technoid sound through which Apparat sings like a club crooner from the future. They play all the hits - ‘Rusty Nails’, ‘A New Error’ - and the tent fills with goosebumps. By the time their closer ‘Bad Kingdom’ hits, night has fallen and Victoria Park is a sesh.

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En masse the ravers head east for Aphex Twin at 9.25pm, by which time all the other stages are finished: if you don’t like Aphex, your best bet is The Crown pub just outside the exit. The lack of an alternative means the stage is all but saturated and the best remaining vantage point is a nook between the second speaker stack and the bar, where the view is obscured by a fence. As it happens, some of those in front start to drift back during the set, complaining that the sound is better here than further forward. Many others leave before it’s over, apparently unable to stand James’s unholy din until its bitter end.

Mercifully that makes it slightly more comfortable for those who worship him. A set that's largely indecipherable and profoundly unshazammable, among the racket you can make out fresh versions of tracks from Squarepusher, Slikback and the obscure reaches of the Aphex catalogue. On giant screens Weirdcore’s visuals judder epileptically, flashing up images of Harry Kane, Alan Partridge, Mr Bean, Boris Johnson, Ricky Gervais, the King, Captain Tom and - in a brief, touching tribute - the late Sophie.

The mix is an onslaught of noise, typically unpredictable and engaging until the last, but it’s nowhere near the levels of his 2017 appearance. And so, it’s hard not to question the value of what you’re getting. Not just the price of the ticket - for there is little better use of your money than a hedonistic earful of artful noise. But as a drone floats through the night sky throughout the Aphex set, those of us below it are reminded that there is, in fact, plenty of budget behind this event. Just not enough - evidently - for a decent set of speakers.

Field Day, Victoria Park, London

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