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Live Review: Output Festival

Credit: James Simpson

The support for Output’s sophomore outing—a boutique, multi-stage ‘dance music odyssey’ inside an abandoned naval base on the private Goat Island in the Sydney Harbour—was evident from the outset, with the event receiving a huge response upon going on-sale without having announced a line-up. Those familiar with the work of UNDR Ctrl and Motorik in the Sydney event landscape could rest their full faith in the two promoters’ combined decades worth of experience in producing and experiencing dance events to produce the goods. And that they did, hand-selecting a supremely clued-in lineup of house, disco and techno selectors—from Scandinavia to Berlin to Sydney—all contemporary artists united by the characteristic of having refined their emerging forms over the past few years to now reign at the apex of several different subcultures of dance music.

As a brand, Output was all class, running things with the highest level of professionalism, from the slick creative and marketing, to the regular comms, to the event day execution—everything felt like it was done with an extra layer of polish. And while transit is usually everyone’s least favourite part of any festival, in the case of Output it was one of the most pleasurable—a quick and painless boat ride over the blue waters of the harbour, champagne in hand, to Goat Island. Located just off the shore of Balmain and Millers Point, at the junction of Darling Harbour with the main channel of Sydney Harbour, Goat Island, which forms part of the Sydney Harbour National Park, has a rich history: over the years having served as a quarry, convict stockade, explosives store, police station, fire station, boatyard, and set. At Output, it takes on a new role as a dance paradise. Upon disembarking, there was a scenic, tree-lined walk along a nature path around Goat Island’s perimeter, before the trees parted to unveil Output’s temporary kingdom. While last year’s event took place in warehouses, Output capitalised on the great weather and transformed their 2018 event into an open-air festival, with acts spread across five stages,each designed to maximize views and sound.

And it wasn’t just the stages that were ‘open’, but the dancefloors: with Output’s participants noticeably respectful and mindful of each other throughout the day and night—there was zero ill behaviour to witness: Output created a kind, inclusive and safe space to party, for all persuasions and ages. The festival continually paid respect to Goat Island as a heritage site, too, and acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, asking its festivalgoers to do the same—an act that spoke volumes of the brand’s maturity.

The first stage you see upon entering the Output site, back-dropped by the Bridge and flanked by the CDB vista, was the Ricardo’s Stage, with the Potts Point club using their signature face logo as the basis of a creative stage design; that witnessed DJs playing in the eyes of a giant cartoon face. Snagging a premium position at Ricardo’s as the sun set over Goat Island was Adelaide’s Motez, one of the line-up’s more seasoned players, who presented us with a smooth and thoughtfully curated set (which at two hours was one of Output’s lengthiest). Classic house track Venus (‘Sunshine People’) was an apt description for the sizeable, sunset-drenched crowd, who moved non-stop as Motez delivered feel-good tracks from Basement Jaxx and more, expertly guiding the crowd from day into a deeper selection as night fell, with dancers frequently taking to each others’ shoulders to show their appreciation. A raised deck behind Ricardo’s Stage hosted the Silent Disco set-up, where Stoney Roads DJs got bodies moving with some electro nostalgia. The deck, fitted out with wicker lounges, umbrellas and a champagne bar—provided the perfect viewing platform to take in the Island’s sweeping views.

Earlier on, up the hill at the main UNDR Ctrl stage, DJ Seinfeld was in action. His 2018 Output set marked his third Australian appearance and hit a touring sweet spot, having already broken himself in on the Australian tour circuit during his debut mid-last year alongside DJ Boring, where he amassed a bunch of clued-up fans via a series of underground shows. Since then, there’s been more heat around DJ Seinfeld thanks to his well-received debut album, ‘Time Spent Away from U’ (a collection of his early material) and the DJ Kicks vote of confidence, with !K7 choosing the young Swede as the latest selector for their esteemed compilation series and corresponding tour. DJ Seinfeld’s Output set on UNDR Ctrl’s stage—hilltop, back-dropped by the Harbour Bridge and blue skies—is competent and assured and belies his 27 years, as he expertly feeds the audiences’ growing late afternoon energy, shifting seamlessly between lo-fi house, techno, house and electro, deploying Tribal Girl’s jackin’ ’90s house-sampling Push the Drums, the Bicep-ish number Roy Keane by Brame & Hamo (which regularly appears in DJ Seinfeld’s sets). The lo-fi house raconteur’s upbeat personality is evident throughout; an endearing smile and sassy head-bob characterise his physicality as a performer. This was one of the day’s highlight sets, he’s really come a long way since those early days of Internet meme mystery and tape hiss. The set winds up beautifully with an unlikely vault pick from fellow Scandi selector Lindstrom—I Feel Space—followed by U, with its emotive Bob Geldof vocal sample, shows DJ Seinfeld’s strength for evoking feeling and nostalgia, and the Output crowd feel as warm as those faux-analog filters DJ Seinfeld bathed them in.

Having thrilled Strawberry Fields’ festivalgoers by jumping on stage with Seinfeld a few days prior, HAAi tag-teamed with DJ Seinfeld as he departed the stage, the two sharing a quick hug before the West Australian-born, London-residing female DJ—now a stalwart of the new UK dance scene—confidently took the controls. While others on the line-up may have gone larger, or harder, HAAi’s set felt like one of the memorable of the day: the way she moved through her house-tech set was unpredictable, and exciting—euphoric melodies, deep grooves, chunky percussion with a worldly touch. And then it was time for the return of Sydney/Newcastle’s prodigal son, Mallgrab, who appeared at the first Output in 2017 and was back for a second helping. Since Output 2017, he’s made an indelible mark on the scene from his new home base in London, recording mixes for Rinse FM, Mixmag, and a BBC1 Essential Mix, playing Dekmantel São Paulo, launching his own record label and release, on top of last year’s Pool Party Music, and a collaborative EP with Loods for Steel City Dance Discs. So yeah, the 23-year-old has not been up to much between drinks. As the sky fell to black, and was cut through with green lasers, Mallgrab took to the UNDR Ctrl stage for what can only be referred to as an all-out assault. Mallgrab can do unhurried groove in his DJ sets – disco, funk – but he didn’t choose to on this occasion, it felt less like a summer pool party and more like a dark underground Berlin bunker vibe. Building tension with well-timed cuts and the occasional spinback, Mallgrab’s mad passion, high-energy and harder BPMs were lapped up by the crowd (that included Mr and Mrs Mallgrab, seeing their son DJ for the very first time!) who all stayed firmly on board as Mallgrab moved from house into faster techno, and trance. The young DJ later described his Output set as ‘the perfect welcome home… made my heart swell’.

Those who retreated over the hill to the side stages, in search of different rhythms, were rewarded with the oddball warmth of the magical Multi Culti stage, nestled in natural bushland at the back of the island, a new addition to Output in 2018, run by the Muti Culti label heads—Turbo Recordings A&R Thomas Von Party and Sydney DJ Angus Gruzman (FKA Gus Da Hoodrat from Bang Gang DJs). Dreems (Gruzman) and Von Party created their own shamanic dreamland at their stage, hosting an intimate family of 50 – 100 guests through a non-stop soulful, house grooves, replete with light installations, and costumes. Back over at the Ricardo’s Stage, Sydney’s own Human Movement were expertly holding their own, and had a core crowd seeing out the night with them as they dished out the low-frequency vibes. The moon shone overhead and brightly-lit night party boats ferried past on the Harbour beside the dancefloor, loaded with people that were definitely not having a good a time as those at Output dancing on the banks of Goat Island to the boys’ selections, playing The Hacker, and DJ Koze remixes, alongside their own originals. Meanwhile, masters of the roaming rave cave, Output co-founders Motorik were hosting Berlin import Amotik. Community dancefloor spirit was in full swing, with pre-printed road-style signs being passed around and people dancing on stage and fanning Amotik. With his raw, unyielding heavy techno, the grinning DJ drummed the crowd into a collective euphoria. It was the ultimate Output showdown.

We’re all indebted to Output team for the work they’ve put into Output 2018—firstly, getting the requisite permissions to make something like Output happen, secondly the logistical effort of mounting a music festival on a site surrounded by water (carrying in production elements bit by bit via boat ramps and footpaths is no mean feat!). We all felt felt privileged to have a party playground as stunning as Goat Island—the setting made it an instantly quintessentially Sydney experience, and yet simultaneously it felt like we we’d been transported to a European electronic festival—how wonderful to play tourist in our own backyard, and have something like Output contributing to the fabric of our future Sydney cultural identity. With so much discouraging stories currently in circulation in regards to Sydney’s nightlife scene, it feels damn good to have Output as a positive story we can all be proud to tell about our city.

Written by Dani Marsland