After four modes of transport, two particularly long and dodgy border crossings, a handful of calories and an overall travelling time of fifteen hours, we arrived in Bansko, Bulgaria for the relatively adolescent Horizon Festival.
Expectations were varied prior to arrival; the festival’s debut was last year and the transfer from Macedonia to Bulgaria didn’t suggest that either country was at the forefront of economic or socio-cultural development.
Oddly enough though, Bansko seemed to sit neatly as a solitary microcosm of relative prosperity in comparison to the rest of the country we saw on the way in. Its streets are lined with fully equipped four-star hotels, neon-sign covered restaurants and an abundance of stereotypically eastern European bars and clubs selling pints for the equivalent of a pound, hosted by men asking if we’d met their friend “Mr. Charlie”. Having travelled abroad for festivals before (notably Outlook & Dimensions) I knew that this somewhat comedic difference in culture would only serve to add to the overall feeling of adventure instead of trepidation. Taking everything with a pinch of salt, or in this case a pint of cheap beer, was all it took to feel right at home.
The main hotel and artist accreditation was The Gardenia, a four-star establishment that greeted us with an open fire and more cheap and welcome drinks. Logistically, on first impressions, everything seemed to run relatively smooth. The festival was small, there wasn’t an army of demanding artists trudging through the gates twenty-four hours a day and the hospitality of the hotel probably helped keep everyone content with waiting ten minutes for their information. We were then transferred to our hotel, The Aspen, which once again delivered across the spectrum with a swimming pool, sauna, spa and restaurant.
Will aka Snare Surgeon providing the pints in front of the open fire whilst waiting for news from artist accreditation. Not a bad place to wait at all!
Anyway, enough about the hilarious price of booze and the lavish amenities.
Horizon Festival has two main assets; music and skiing. The music this year was spread across a diverse selection of venues including; the Tofana Main Stage, the Gardenia, the ‘Club’, Jack’s House and a number of secret locations that were announced throughout the week (a strip club and a hotel pool party were favourites). The line up seemed slightly disjointed with no particular focus of genre; nonetheless it provided a combination of household names and exciting up and comers, from Roy Davis JR and Detroit Swindle to Geode and Applebottom.
My experience of skiing extends only to a couple of high-school trips and indoor slopes in the UK, but overall I thought it was exceptional. The festival lands at an awkward time of year for everyone from students to families; which means that if you’re a student and taking time off is as easy as snoozing your alarm, then you’ll be treated to a fairly empty resort and practically no queues on any lifts. There were three to four feet of fresh snow in the first two days and then blazing sunshine for the rest of it, which made for prime conditions. You could certainly go out to Bansko during Horizon Festival purely for the skiing, and enjoy the festival on the side; we spent up to 6 hours a day skiing with no problems at all.
Horizon Festival isn’t particularly comparable; it doesn’t fit into the standard template of sitting around attempting to drink through last night’s hangover whilst waiting for the stages to open at 6. In fact, there would be a stark juxtaposition between Horizon and most other festivals; it never really had that consistent ‘festival’ feeling. I think in part this was due to the amount of attendees compared to the size of the town. The venues were all a considerable distance away from each other so there would often be only a small crowd of people in each. On the Wednesday evening however we made the trip up to the Tofana main stage to watch Detroit Swindle, Andreya Triana and Kerri Chandler.
The setting of the stage was something else entirely; intelligently placed outside the Tofana hotel surrounded by woodland with a genuinely impressive line-array soundsystem and a lighting rig that was absolutely stunning. Kerri Chandler’s set was the pinnacle of music at the festival. Using a keyboard and various pieces of hardware, he intricately blended jazz infused soulful deep house with bass heavy rolling techno at a speed I’ve never seen before. There was an overt sense of seriousness and intelligence about his set that was projected in a nonchalant and entertaining manner. I’m definitely not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to deep house; but Kerri Chandler had me hooked start to finish.
Another focal point of the festival was the Gardenia hotel. During the evenings the club in the basement was open, and the unassuming innocence of the main reception was replaced by festival attendees en masse. The floor of the hotel reception vibrated about as much as the jaws of the people in there. The club itself was down a short flight of stairs and boasted another impressive soundsystem with back wall lighting projections, a balcony and fully equipped bars.
The secret venues added yet another engaging dimension to the festival; a favourite of which was the Critical Music takeover in a particularly seedy strip club (with live pole dancers). The intriguing combination of strippers and electronic music was something I doubt I’ll experience again anytime soon. Kasra and Enei took it straight through to the early hours and provided the best in technical and experimental drum & bass.
There are a number of obvious risks with running festivals abroad, especially in the Balkans, which has experienced civil unrest for many years. During the Brotherhood Soundsystem x Hit&Run takeover of the Club on Wednesday night, a rotund Bulgarian bloke (who’s arms were about as thick as my thighs) came on stage followed by an agitated stage manager and demanded we play his CD. It transpired that he was part of the Bulgarian mafia, a reputable local company that owned a large portion of the village, and his boss had demanded we play his Bulgarian Euro-house for the remainder of the evening. As expected the club cleared out and that was that, we shut it down. We left knowing that in reality this was no one’s fault other than the criminals who run the town, but at the same time surely the festival promoters must have known this was the case? There have been similar stories of criminal activity at other festivals abroad, but in actual fact no one was in any real danger here and it was quickly turned into a running joke. It certainly didn’t take anything away from the festival experience overall.
Horizon Festival has a very few minor logistical and communicative problems that will undoubtedly be ironed out over the course of the next year or so. With that in mind, the week I spent in Bansko was up there with the most enjoyable and entertaining festival experiences I’ve ever had. The combination of amazing skiing during the day and seeing a plethora of remarkable and interesting music in the evenings made for a standout experience start to finish.
Uprise Audio’s Joe Raygun getting to grips with some locals
The relaxed atmosphere drew out the best from the artists performing. Due to its relatively small capacity and its niche remit as a skiing festival, the crowd at Horizon was friendly and welcoming throughout. The wide diversity of nightclubs, bars and the main stage provided a really unique and special backdrop to showcase some of the best artists in electronic music.
Horizon Festival will continue to grow and develop, and is highly recommended and praised on all fronts.
Peace, love and respect.