For a decade, Seattle’s Decibel Festival has been expanding across the venues of the city, drawing renowned DJs, experimental electronic artists and up-and-coming producers to venues more closely tied to the launch of grunge and alt-rock. In 2013 the iconic, chart-topping talent that flocked to Seattle, and the fans that followed, redefined standards for the festival, as well as the city’s role in the growing popularity and subsequent exploration of EDM and pop at large. Despite a prohibitive geographic sprawl between stages and capacity issues that shut out some from the more sought-after acts, Decibel achieved this in spades.
Decibel isn’t explicitly about beats, dubstep breakdowns and rallying concertgoers with the promise of a major DJ spectacle a la Deadmau5, Skrillex or Calvin Harris. It’s more a collection of curated experiences that push the envelope of electronic music expectation. This was demonstrated best by Saturday’s dueling set times, when the toughest call patrons had to make was whether or not they should spend an hour transfixed by Zola Jesus or Lorde. Lorde brought Showbox Market to capacity with rousing renditions of “Royals,” the single that catapulted the 16-year-old to international prowess, and a surprisingly gutting take on Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor.”
Meanwhile, around the corner at the Triple Door, Zola Jesus – who referred to her return to Seattle as a hometown show of sorts, as “all [her] stuff is in storage here!” – was accompanied by a fit, futuristic orchestra consisting of a small string section and a laptop-wielding conductor who followed the singer’s transcendental reimagining of her latest album, Versions. In both cases, you had timeless voices launching the choruses of the hits that earned them higher-up slots on the festival’s roster, and yet their respective performances – one a straightforward, stadium-ready pop operation seamlessly adapted for an intimate stage, another an innovative spin on digitally infused chamber music – showcased Decibel’s ability to yank fans out of their comfort zones and into an unexpected electronic landscape through live mixing, Ableton and looping pedals.
This benchmark was established earlier in the week, with pop stalwarts, infamous DJs and composers allergic to categorization amping up endorphin levels and anticipation alike. Peter Hook and the Light set the bar high by inviting Moby (who would DJ a Decibel set of his own the following night) to sing a handful of Joy Division songs before closing out the evening on Wednesday. Thursday night resulted in a blight of earplugs at Neumos, as Big Black Delta and their two drum kits fleshed out every addictive hook in the loudest, body-rockingest way possible. Friday blew minds across the board: Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds employed an iPad to record his audience singing before working their chorus and his piano strains into an entrancing symphony at the Nordstrom Recital Hall, while Nicolas Jaar, awash in some of the most stunning visuals seen at the festival, plowed through a mix that banked on “Mi Mujer” and other club favorites as he danced harder than the front row freaking out before him.
An ambitious electronic music festival with a jaw-droppingly good lineup made for a refreshing closer to a season shadowed by tragedy, one that forced the shutdown of other electronic music events due to drug use and Molly overdoses. At Decibel, the stages of Seattle played host to an inventive, eclectic array of talent that celebrated the festival’s 10 years while securing a spot on the international electronic music radar.