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Review: RBMA Tour with Derrick May and Surgeon

Alan Wragg went down to Sankeys to witness a techno masterclass curated by the Red Bull Music Academy.

Mike Warburton

Date published: 21st Apr 2015

Photo: Derrick May

The Red Bull Music Academy has grown over the years to become a proper juggernaut in electronic music. To round off a small UK tour they dropped into Manchester with a weekend of lectures, workshops and club nights. We headed down to Sankeys for a night of top-flight techno.

It’s fair to say that Sankeys has had a rollercoaster of a season so far with injuries and departures, but also the news of their return to warehouse events. What has remained a constant this year however is the quality of their bookings. From Legowelt to Green Velvet, the Hessle Audio crew to DJ Sneak, the season’s been a mix of top young talent and Sankeys legends of lore, and it’s still only April.

Friday April 17th featured a bill spanning the decades and continents, with a truly unmissable double header of techno giants, Surgeon and Derrick May.

The session started strong with local boy Acre playing to the early arrivals, followed by Dana Ruh running the line between house and techno. Playing a more techno-orientated set than her recent productions would suggest, all the same the vibe was kept funky, drawing us in.

Surgeon took charge of the room in a nice and early set (coming on at 12:30am, practically doors by Sankeys' standards). Using just a laptop and a small Eurorack modular setup, he immediately brought us round to his signature style of twisting, precise techno.

Having seen a few sets using modular gear and external equipment fall flat, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the set wasn’t beset with any of the volume or dynamics issues sometimes associated with this approach. Indeed, you wouldn’t even know that he was using this setup based on the consistency of sound and quality (as is the case with his Dekmantel set below).

Surgeon's modulars brought beautiful bleeping arpeggios and drums to a soundtrack ranging from the heavy to the lush and spacious.

At times the twangs of sharp delays brought the crowd up, at others slowly exploding hi-hats pushed us forward. The bass drum kept switching roles, here background pulse, here melodic device, here hammer. Leaving us gasping with a final curveball of Aphex Twin, the set was pure techno in all its tonal mechanic glory.

Following the innovative approach of Surgeon we had the company of the original innovator, Detroit legend and creator of Hi-Tek soul, Derrick May. The RBMA tour may have included workshops and lectures, but here was the masterclass.

May immediately set himself apart from Surgeon with an altogether funkier sound. Using tried and tested DJ techniques, two turntables and two CDJs he brought us in to his ebb and flow.

Delving through the genre’s entire history, we were treated to a two hour beginner’s guide to techno as good as any we’ve heard. Tough but with a light touch, this was techno with the aggression turned down, but with the swing, funk and euphoric moments turned right up (as heard below).

The Sankeys sound system was on top form throughout the night, providing heft, punch and clarity, without being ear-splitting. In fact you could still carry a conversation in the middle of the floor if you wanted to, not that many did when the Belleville innovator was hitting beats in and out so flawlessly. 

Following that, and bringing in the early morning shift, was Leeds own Happa. Just as May had judged precisely what the crowd had needed after Surgeon, responding with a lighter touch, so Happa judged what the room craved at 4am, and gave it some heft. The room responded as one with a collective 2nd/3rd/5th wind.

The dubstep-influenced techno of Happa's productions gave way to straight out industrial sounds, giving a wonderfully brutal, Tresor-like end to the night for us. Acid aficionado Tin Man was to follow at 6am, and melodic and minimal acid would make the perfect end to the session.

All in all Sankeys once again proved that for big name techno nights the old club can still pull tricks out of the bag. A mixed but knowledgeable crowd and staff matched with an awesome roster truly is all you need for a night that will live long in the memory.

Follow Alan Wragg on Twitter: @tacetmusic

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