Detroit techno exemplars Octave One headlined Mad Racket’s party at the Beck’s Festival Bar at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum on the last night of Sydney Festival.
The event was sold out long before the gorgeous late-January Saturday night arrived, a heartening sign of the perennial demand for quality electronic rhythm and soul far from their cold home in the American Midwest. Exemplifying the “second wave” of Motor City techno, Octave One is a collective spearheaded by brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden who produce, remix and run their own label, 430 West. Over two decades they’ve become known for a unique brand of crisp and often blistering minimal techno, garnished with melodic keypads or chopped up jazz samples, always featuring soul in the mix.
When the Burdens hit the stage (after some suitably pumping warmup tracktion by Mad Racket resident DJs Ken Cloud and Simon Caldwell), the huge marquee’s dancefloor was overflowing with anticipation. It was by far the busiest night I’d seen at the Festival Bar this year – great weather, a great venue (you can’t beat partying outdoors in the middle of the city), great expectations for a typically smoking set from Octave One.
The two guys wasted little time in whipping up a satisfying brew of sound – layers of metronomic but vaguely tribal beats, tweaked synth lines and blanketing keyboards, unspooling from the machines onstage metronomically but dynamically.
They kept the beats rocking sequentially like DJs, but truly played their instruments, shifting layers at will, adding dubby echoes to the various repeating sounds – and, most importantly rocking out and enjoying themselves. Their energy and grinning, head-bopping enthusiasm was matched by the crowd, which kept their momentum on the dancefloor over a long set, cheering the breakdowns and buildups and treating the unpretentious pair like rock stars.
The set was programmed expertly, mixing thumping minimal stuff meant for zoning out with older, looser, more melodic and classically “Detroit” material. At two hours, it was the longest set I’d ever heard from a live electronic act, which speaks to the Burdens’ passion and the sheer amount of material they possess; the show had its flat moments, but it was never boring. And the hard work they’d done building the vibe with instrumentals paid off when towards the end they dropped their modern-classic vocal track Black Water and the crowd reached a spirited peak. A driving, piano-based burst of soulful joy, it’s essentially a techno-ish house record instead of the other way around, and confirms Octave One’s status as modern urban electronic masters at work. It capped a splendid night on the part of Mad Racket – and it was a capital way to bid farewell to Sydney Festival.