Roskilde, the Danish mega-festival that trounces Glastonbury and Coachella in its sheer scale, kicks off in a month, but Copenhagen is already pre-gaming with a unique multi-tiered music extravaganza of its own. Launched in 1998 as an experimental “mobile festival” that unites international underground music and art, Copenhagen Distortion has grown into a free-form monster: it’s wild and dirty, it’s fractured and feverish, and it involves consuming music at eardrum-bursting decibels and exorbitant amounts of Tuborg, the Danes’ default brew of choice. Think of it as Europe’s own warped version of SXSW.
This year’s festival, which took place from May 30th-June 3rd, featured a broad lineup that reflected its growing popularity: the Streets’ Mike Skinner, Portland’s dark disco magi Chromatics, upsurgent Louisiana rapper Sissy Nobby, and the buzzworthy Los Angeles dance label 100% Silk’s entire roster were among some of the notable imports. Like SXSW, but with more aesthetically pleasing surroundings, it’s 96 hours of relentless hedonism done the Viking way – a physically exhaustive challenge that adventurous music fans gleefully accept. And accept they must: Distortion is by no means passive. It’s varied, semi-legal setup – blistering street corner dance parties, rooftop revelry, and an all-night raver bus (#666, naturally) – demands passionate participation.
The first night started on an encouragingly elegant note, with Chromatics headlining the “disco” night at the expensively spartan Royal Danish Theater, a glassy, canal-hugging setting extraordinary enough to make modern design enthusiasts weep with ecstasy (actually, the whole city is – everything looks like math; no wonder electronica reigns supreme in Scandinavia). After a spritely set from Danish electro-popper Kasper Bjorke (who sounds how Human League might sound producing 2012’s Top 40), Chromatics’ Ruth Radelet and Johnny Jewel and their kin took the stage around 1 a.m. and slid through an hour-long moody set that partnered their trademark minimal, fatalistic take on Italo disco with a new guitar-charged gusto. Highlights included material from their new record Kill for Love, like the soaring title track and “Into the Black,” their tenebrous take on Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My.” The venue’s supernal sound quality flattered their dramatic sound enormously; no doubt, the band wishes they could have it this good wherever they play.
Day Two’s unofficial theme, “global hip-hop,” played out over a series of rowdy outdoor block parties in Nørrebro – by Copenhagen standards, a “shabby” but enthusiastic young creative neighborhood favored by students and new artists, and peppered with fantastic record shops and bars. Lousiana upstart Sissy Nobby’s punchy set proved his buzzworthy status, the appeal of his New Orleans bounce shattering all regional barriers. In fact, Americans dominate this particular soundscape: while a myriad of local urban acts play, nothing quite sets off the Danes like a DJ dropping a gold Jay-Z or Biggie track.
The following day, California’s Extra Action Marching Band penetrated the Scandinavian tranquility with a rambunctious gatecrashing afternoon performance at a hotel reception. Taking the Southern marching band idea to insidious (and sometimes bloody) extremes, it was a wacky way to kick things off but one that embodied the gonzo, interferential spirit of Distortion – controlled chaos in a city that lives and dies by orderliness and decorum. Identity-conflicted Vesterbro, a former red light district turned arty, vibrant commune, was the ideal context in which to witness that tension. Some call the area the new heart of “C(open)hagen,” so it suits that producer Trentemøller, a contemporary national music treasure, would spin here. DJs Andrew Weatherall and Tim Sweeney, who inspire a rabid U.K. following, also performed energetic, provoking sets.
All good things come to an end, but in Copenhagen, the end rages on … and on. The final night of Distortion took place as a sprawl of genre-specific tents in a vast, remote field on Refshaleøen, an industrial island just north of the infamously permissive Christiania district. Despite unfriendly weather (45 degrees with ferocious wind) and the darker implications of infinite streams of Tuborg coming into play, it’s clear that for Distortion kids, this is Mecca, and they are in (and on, for many) ecstasy. German techno stalwarts Kompakt ran a thundering tent from 10 p.m. to dawn, with icon Michael Mayer closing out a fleet of fantastic electronic performers. Vice/Noisey curated an aggressive genre-defying stage of their own, the revelry from which spilled over into the booze tent, a slightly unnerving place to be for those who value their personal space (or eye sockets – elbows of 7-foot-tall Danes were freely flailing). Things were calmer in the 100% Silk tent, where Maria Minerva, James, Ferraro L.A. Vampires and Ital all showcased their dazed, slightly surreal dance music, much of it a loving nod to underrated Nineties house styles. Where the mood outside swelled to jubilation bordering on clumsy hooliganism, the tranquility here offered a much-needed portal to, as Minerva sings, “another time and place.”