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Now in its fifth year, AVA has achieved a status on the electronic music calendar that few festivals ever manage. Christened ‘Ireland’s Glastonbury’ by The Irish Times, it’s grown quickly to become one of the UK and Ireland’s premier festivals. Known for its newfangled lineups, its Buckfast (although you can’t purchase on-site, a fact I quickly discovered), its enthusiastic crowds, and some of the most iconic Boiler Rooms known to man.
You know exactly what I’m talking about: The Midland set from last year? Bicep on the docks? And definitely That Space Dimension Controller set from 2015. You may also have salivated as he hints the opening bars to Taucher’s iconic 1996 trance remix of ‘Ayla’. The pure unadulterated joy of that crowd as the drop approaches – it’s emotional, nostalgic. There’s that sense of community reminiscent of the early rave scene, and it’s a wonderful thing that it still exists in this tiny pocket of the UK.
Me and many others, it seems, have been captivated by the AVA appeal. 2019 saw the biggest attendance to date. Since its beginnings in 2014 it has hosted dance heavyweights such as Bicep, Marcel Dettman, Midland, Ben UFO and Helena Hauff to entertain the Northern Irish throngs. Beloved by Belfast, the festival has taken a caretaker role as far as the city’s scene is concerned; attracting big names to play (and then convincing them to return) and nurturing local talent.
For the last two years AVA has been held in a former B&Q on Boucher Road, and the irony of holding a mostly-industrial techno festival there wasn’t lost on organisers. The Boiler Room stage was in what used to be the garden centre, complete with hanging baskets filled with ferns and paw-prints painted in neon on the floor designed to lead shoppers correctly around displays.
The Red Bull stage was in the former loading bay – with a descending ramp towards the stage providing a perfect vantage point no matter where you happen to be in the space, while the other two stages were located in the vast warehouse that once made up the store.
This, however, did provide some issues. The vastness of the indoor area sometimes made the stages feel disconnected – the flow of the festival was a straight line from entry, ending in the Red Bull stage. This meant a lot of the time the UNIT 4 stage was somewhat empty, while people seemed to be naturally attracted to the most limited capacity of the arenas. The sound, however, was perfectly contained; with each stage in its own enclosed space, this ensured the sound was both all-encompassing and intimate.
The crowd varied greatly, but in a way that complimented AVA and its general approach. A great mixture of glammed up girls, leather-bound techno heads, cheeky Irish lads and Stone Island-clad urban types. There seemed to be little preference between the different factions and the artists/stages they frequented either – providing a real sense of coming together to discover new artists and appreciate the most established masters. I noticed quickly the amount of wheelchair-bound ravers and people of limited mobility enjoying the festival – and the venue appeared to be heavily, if not completely, wheelchair accessible.
Palms Trax delved into his AVA debut with a Belfast-appropriate, ’80s-heavy set. Hands were thrown enthusiastically in the air as he upped the synth with Magic Men’s ‘Popcorn’, earning further yells towards the end with ‘Glowing in the Dark’ by Echo Droids. Canadian IDM DJ LNS played a vinyl-only set to the sparser attendance at UNIT 4, but nevertheless had even the floor sweepers moving to her chronicled selections, jumping from mellow techno to dub and jungle to electro in quick succession, closing out with Skatebard’s spine tingling ‘Compurhythm’.
Avalon Emerson held a hypnotic focus over the much larger turnout of the main stage just an hour later, starting off slow and bassy, before slowly increasing the bpm towards a crescendo – her name embossed in the visuals above her as she broke into DJ One Finger’s ‘House Fucker’, providing an exhilarating sense of captivity.
The most spectacular set of the first day was headliner Len Faki, continuing the constant rhythm from Emerson but bringing an intense, deep Berlin-flavour to proceedings. The scheduling of his set, being pitted against Mall Grab, ensured those in search of a more forceful experience gravitated towards the main stage.
The Breakdown of SRVD’s ‘Talking 2 B Mad’ sent the trance-obsessed Northern Irish into a frenzy, while a sped-up version of Prince of Dance’s ‘Move & Dance’ seemed to re-establish their sanity… briefly. Faki cleverly allowed the assemblage to have a breather before pulling them back beneath the surface with ‘Snox101’ by Bri, rounding out with the chimey ‘The Kitten’ by Dusty Kid.
On the second day there was a tangible separation between the main crowd and those at the Boiler Room stage. The atmosphere in the garden centre was hazy, full of eccentric outfits and bleary eyes – with DJs playfully trying their luck at getting one of those coveted, excitable reactions from their audience. Mancunian girl Willow graced the decks in the late afternoon with a mixture of toe-curling acid and speedy electro, dropping the Transparent Sound remix of M-Twelve – ‘Time’.
Myler of DSNT Records really turned up the voltage with a fast, almost ridiculous 50-minute set consisting of techno that verged toward gabber territory. It was really, really fun. He opened with The Advent vs Industrialyzer – ‘T1’, a bass-heavy banger ensuring fists were in the air from the outset. The intensity of Diarmaid O Meara’s ‘Selfish Bass’, his second track, was hilarious juxtaposed with people grabbing foliage from the baskets overhead and waving them around. The apex came in as he dropped ‘Techminator 02’ by P.A.F.F – the classic floorfiller earning pats on the back from anyone close enough to reach him.
With energy high it was Courtesy’s turn to take the Red Bull Stage – treating the throngs to some of her favourite records. First up was Bomb Club’s ‘Get Out’, earning an appreciative applause from the clearly familiar audience, which was followed quickly by Schacke’s ‘Automated Lover’. The Danish Kulør boss hit all the right spots for the synth-loving Belfast crowd, rounding out the set with just a “light” detour into jungle.
A personal favourite of the festival had to be North London’s own Randomer, a set full of euphoric trance and hardcore – that managed to be both hard but also joyful in the same beat. As he pushed towards breaking point thrilled ravers swung glow sticks and threw around their bodies to keep up with the 170 bpm Brisk & Ham – ‘Get Down’.
Call Super made an appearance at UNIT 4, pulling in all those taxi-bound souls heading for the exit and dragging them back for more. Call Super is at his very best when he gets a little cheeky, pushing the crowd to the limits and daring them to try and leave. The punchy ‘Freaks on Hubbard’ by DJ Rush had those who remained grabbing each other in pure delight before mixing into ‘The Bells’, creating a late contender for one of the festival’s best moments.
If I were forced to pick one reason to visit AVA, it would probably be the look on local’s faces as they describe the festival. Swelling with pride, they talk about the homegrown heroes, the Boiler Rooms, the new artists they’ve discovered. It’s so apparent that there’s a mutually caring relationship between them and the DJs who play here. The crowd do their best to welcome performers, displaying the hospitality that has made Belfast one of the most exciting cities to play in Europe, and DJs reward them by being at their (very) lairy best.
Find out more about AVA Festival here.