Review: Draaimolen 2023

Draaimolen 2023 was a bold edition that confirms Draaimolen’s position as one of The Netherlands most forward-thinking music festivals. Despite all that, it did sometimes get lost in its drive to experiment.

It must have been one of electronic music most hyped b2b’s of the summer: two hours of Blawan and Skrillex going at it in a forest near Tilburg, a town in the southern Netherlands. It was the trump card of this year’s Draaimolen festival, and a lot of people must’ve travelled to the festival for that one set given the amount of English heard at the festival on Friday. Ironically it was one of the most uninspired and grotesque sets of an otherwise memorable weekend.

Things started out hot, as a late heatwave struck the southern parts of The Netherlands in the festival weekend. Located at the former military MOB-complex just north of the town of Tilburg, Draaimolen had plenty of shade on offer in the more forested areas. At some of the bigger stages though, the sun was soaring. Extra water taps, makeshift chill areas beneath the trees and free sunscreen luckily provided some solace.

Programming at Draaimolen is bold and extensive, which meant that there was over 12 hours of music planned both days. Especially on Friday the festival was truly set in motion a bit later on the day, as people peered in from their day jobs and the heat was getting a little more bearable. They were greeted by two of The Netherlands’ biggest dj’s going back to back at the main stage: Job Jobse and Benny Rodrigues. Both are highly versatile veterans that have played everything from melodic electronica to bare bones techno in their careers, so it was interesting to see what style they would land on. They ended up reading the crowd well, serving up middle-of-the-road house and techno that kept people dancing as the sun did its last damage on the huge main stage area.

A festival by the artists

Draaimolen’s six stages were hosted by artists or collectives themselves, working together with the festival’s crew on the programming and stage design. As with earlier editions, this led to spectacular results that don’t really have an equivalent in the Dutch festival landscape. The main, hosted by Job Jobse’s Strangelove, chose a setting with elevated sides and a gigantic LED-cube above the podium, whereas Eris Drew & Octo Octa chose curtains and fairytale-like lasers through the canopy. Each stage had its unique vibe, and the whole festival breaths a cool DIY-vibe. That same formula unfortunately also meant some technical problems, such as the abovementioned LED-cube not functioning most of the Friday.

Every year the Tilburg festival has a secret b2b, where (often world class) dj’s go back to back unannounced. This year it took place at the Aura stage, hosted by Rotterdam’s Nous’klaer audio label. Formerly known for colorful electronica and experimental deep house, the label recently focuses on hypnotic techno with a distinctly modern feel. UK dj Batu fits that sound perfectly, and the combination with Italian techno veteran Donato Dozzy worked out nicely. As they stood in front of a meters high steel waterfall, they laid out their sparse beats in style to a head bobbing crowd. It remains a mystery though why the Aura stage was not given the Funktion Ones that The Pit had, as these speakers are basically made for the music played there. The sound sometimes was slightly too soft and muddy for the music, which meant that the heady groove was all too often interrupted by people talking about their weekend plans.

Once the dark had settled in, trance heroes Evian Christ and Torus took over the main stage. Luckily the visuals were in working order when they started, as they treated the crowd to a trip down memory lane with classics from artists as Tiësto and Marcel Woods. It worked like a charm and the main turned into a place where the vibe was good and people were smiling. The main stage proved to be a happier haven during most of the weekend, which was a nice change from the uncompromising programming on the rest of the stages.

The b2b that did not work

Because uncompromising it was. Especially so at The Pit, curated by Blawan and Pariah, where a variety of high-speed UK styles dominated the weekend. Unfortunately, most of the sets here were brain-meltingly harsh and constantly interrupted by plainly annoying mc’ing. All of which culminated into Friday’s big headliner (although not programmed on the main). Blawan b2b Skrillex was a downright clusterfuck, where the pair’s styles simply refused to match. The result was intolerable, even more disgraced by Skrillex EDM screaming into the mic (and did we really see him holding a CDJ above his head?).

Lydo and Peachlyfe’s groovy techno at The Tunnel was much better, as was Octo Octa playing live in the Forest Rave. When we entered the stage we experienced one of the weekend’s magic moments, as a sea of lasers ran through the trees and Octo Octa’s melodic house put the crowd into a blissful trance.

On Saturday we arrived a little earlier than the day before, and the dynamic on the terrain had changed. While Friday was busy enough to have a fun party for sure, Saturday was sold out to the brim and stage migrations proved a little more challenging.

After a brief stop at Gigi fm and Quelza’s nice hypnotic techno we went to another one of these odd b2b’s of the festival: Dirty Dutch legend Chuckie sharing the stage with modern bubbling powerhouse De Schuurman. Luckily the pair didn’t take the underground setting of Draaimolen too seriously and did what they do best as they made the crowd bounce around. This was one of these cases were the dj’s themselves had an unmatched enthusiasm that seems so unique to Draaimolen. Chuckie even produced a bunch of new records especially for this set.

Good live music

Two stages were high on our list for Saturday, as both the Aura and The Tunnel had mouth-watering line-ups. The Nous’klaer crew had clearly booked themselves b2b’s with their own favorite dj’s as Oberman would play with Nicola Cruz and Konduku with Jane Fitz. But before all that, we payed our first real visit to The Chapel.

As the organisers’ own everything goes stage, The Chapel hosted a whole array of acts on the fringes of electronic music. Here Legowelt played reggae-like tunes with Japanese dub musician Take Noda, while somebody was doing acro yoga in the sand (no joke). For most people the programming here was a little too far from the dance festival experience, as the stage was quite empty at times. But a proper crowd amassed as modular synth hero James Holden took the stage. Apart from a horrible out of tune flute duet, Holden gave a beautiful rendition of his latest album.

Good live music was a recurring theme on the Saturday, as we headed to the Aura stage to see Dorisburg do a live b2b with Arkajo. It was an interesting combo of more minimal vibes from Arkajo and the shimmering synth melodies of Dorisburg. A shame they lost the crowd a little in the end with a bit too static minimal music.

By nine, the Tunnel stage had been taken over by Sandwell District. Also playing live, Regis and Function played a whole two minutes of their atmospheric Falling The Same Way track before heading into earth-shattering Berghain style techno. This was one of the weekend’s highlights, as they kept the crowd on their toes all the time, moving between four to the floor kicks, breakbeats and ethereal percussion.

It was a big contrast with the modern day techno that dominated a lot of the festival (mostly the main stage). Whereas Sandwell District slowly unfolded their beats, spanning string melodies over as much as 64 beats, artists such as Anetha and Mama Snake did quick mixes of laser-fast trancey techno. Often larded with r&b samples, air horns and cheap 90’s resonant synths, this Tiktok techno did land well with the crowd at all times, but it does make one sourly remember the days were techno had a headier crowd and wasn’t main stage music. Whereas earlier editions had acts like The Blessed Madonna and MCDE on the main stage, there was simply no escape from the pummelling beats this edition. That felt like a missed opportunity at times.

A breath of fresh air

What a contrast it was with Nicola Cruz and Oberman playing at the Aura, where the tempo was at least a solid 20 bpm’s slower. This was the most the stage at its most melodic, and as we only caught the last 30 minutes of the set it was easy to feel like we missed out on something here. As the visuals went wild, Cruz and Oberman played slow burning, trancey electronica in the vein of the early golden period of Nous’klaer. Epic.

Technical issues ruined the start of their successors Jane Fitz and Konduku. Needle skips and strange crackles were not a good match with the slow, dry but entrancing music the pair planned on playing, and the set never caught wind as a result. As we tried to catch a glimpse of Eris Drew and Helena Hauff, it turned out that the Forest Rave stage had been hermetically sealed by security, probably because of large crowds flooding the area.

Apart from occasional hiccups like these, Draaimolen felt like a breath of fresh air in the Dutch festival landscape. The music’s good, the programming is unlike anywhere else and the stage design and terrain are absolutely on point. That does come, especially this edition, with the major caveat that it’s not always easy to find a spot where to just dance. The experimentation tends to get in the way of the festival sometimes. But we’ll try and return next year for sure.

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