A tolerable but persistent midday sun, a short bike ride hampered by sleep deprivation and tired legs, fuelled by caffeine and enthusiasm. The fifth and final time, bittersweet, brief. I really need to fix my gears, what with riding to a velodrome and all, you think I’d at least have my bike together. Lock it, lonely, to a fence, there’ll be hundreds later.
“Get there early.”
This is the best piece of advice you can give anyone getting into dance music. Special things happen at beginnings, things that don’t happen any other time, casual chats with a relaxed security guard, no rush to get through bag check, and only 5 others in the line. Stange Interactions play to a small but special crowd; friends, family, and community are interviewed, mid-set, by one-half of this duo about their New Year's resolutions, spoken through giant speakers and met with supportive cheers and applause. It's early, there is time to celebrate us all. Dubby, dark, broken open sounds for open space, these 2 always play it bottom end heavy, tastes that complement each other perfectly and palpable chemistry. Caucasian Opportunities plays the perfect host, she celebrates the selectors and the crowd, cascading positivity.
Arriving a day earlier than normal hasn’t thrown the Now Hear This All-Star band at all, a bigger stage, a midday Monday sun and a festival opening spot are simply revelled in. Those of us who have ventured up the most formidable flight of stairs in the CBD for their regular Tuesday night spot would be familiar with the sound, live house basslines, RnB grooves, and soaring horn lines pour out of the group, guest vocals add angelic melodies or cutting verses as they see fit, Young Shogun, Cazeaux Oslo, Emma Vollard, Ed Moon, thndo. Bruce guides the band with timeless class and a fit to match; we all move, the cobwebs are gone, and the enthusiasm builds.
Stretch tents guard carpets, a wooden dance floor and High Note’s 4-point sound system sprawled across the carpets groups and individuals Simmer Down. Poli-Pearl spins jackin’ house, African rhythms then DnB accompanied by a visual artist bringing a canvas to life in swathes of brown and blue. The dancers are drawn off the carpet and onto the boards, and things simmer up.
Kalyani is so many of the things I aspire to be in 2024, present, open, sincere with immaculate taste to boot, she mixes to match timbre and energy, bpm often pushed aside as an irrelevance, its ghetto-tech, soulful house, hip hop as is seen fit.
“This is a sad time of year. I’m sad. I’m playing all my comfort songs. I hope you enjoy them.”
Swaying together in the shade of the Ironbark trees, there’s no doubt it is enjoyed and welcomed by those of us present. Miss Kaninna hits the main stage, and her energy draws me.
“I want monnneeeeeeyyyyyy.”
Pinnacle Bitch is one of my favourite songs of ‘23. The message is clear, and the delivery is cutting; she knows what she deserves and how she’s going to go about getting it. It’s politically charged (how could it not be?) Free Palestine, Land Back is uncomfortably familiar, persistent chants led by someone at the forefront of the local trap scene, a scene that’s quickly approaching the level of its overseas influences. The opening chords to Bob Marley’s One Love ring out from her band, and although the message is strong, positive and taken up by the crowd, my reggae aversion kicks, and I rotate again.
There was much made of the closing acts clashing during this festival, but I don’t really see how that can be avoided during a 1 day 3 stage festival. What can easily be avoided is having only 3 first women's voices playing at the same time and this early in the day. I look again at the set times for this event and laugh sadly to myself, mostly women at the start, mostly dudes at the end. I’m frustrated, I’m angry but in no way am I surprised. Token representation still runs deep in the minds and actions of our major event organisers. Look up the management structure and talk to the people of colour who feel pressured to work in ways they don’t want to within these structures; it's easy to see why. Do better.
Zakia is stepping into the role of tastemaker like it was built for her, deep crates with deep grooves; the songs are all new to me but welcomingly familiar. Bag check is taking longer at the entrance, the dance floor fills, pupils dilate, and collective energy hits feedback loop mode.
At the Resident Advisor stage, Maara has the masses in her hands; this city has played a part in the careers of many world-class progressive trance producers, and the love for this genre still runs deep. Soft rolling bass, rezzy arpeggios and persistent 4-to-the-floor kicks capture and hold the stage at its capacity. For many I spoke to, this was the highlight; try as I might, I just can’t lose myself in these sounds; the repetition wears thin. It's clear Progressive isn’t leaving Narrm any time soon, but I'm personally grateful that the palette of club music played here is diversifying.
Ass-shaking positivity, body-popping bass and a posse in effect surround Vv Pete. She’s all in black, belting her songs out from the very front of the stage. The crowd can’t keep still, and neither can the Auslan interpreters. The latter is a welcome step forward in accessibility; this and a noticeable lack of strobing (although God knows Overmono’s lighting engineer tried) are both welcome changes; credit where it’s due.
Sophie Forrest has been on the main stage interstitials all day and channelling the vibe between sets with practised ease. Often queer, uplifting house with smatterings of electro and juicy booty bouncers, but it's the buildup to Mildlife that stands out, Kamazi Washington into a classical piano movement into 170 bpm juke has me up against the railing shaking ass in no time. The relentless kicks fade out as a synth line fades in. Mildlife summon the dancers to Inner Orbit.
“I hear it call to me. It's calling out to me.”
Return To Centaurus opens their set, and things soften, the mechanical gives way to the organic bass rolls, flutes soar, and bodies sway. Familiar melodies soon sweep in, and everyone sings their favourite synth lines like a Taylor Swift audience raised only on analogue keys. They close with their newest single, Musica, bookending a set otherwise filled with classics. I venture onwards as Baby G takes control of the interstitials, proggy house keeping an increasingly full velodrome engaged.
Dita’s set is filled with euphoric vocal hooks, her selections an expression of the ongoing connection between local organisations and Potato Head, Bali’s growing dance music institution. Hands are in the air, and cheers fill the tents at the climax of every track. Dita’s smile is infectious and bounces around the faces of the crowd with a comfortable ease. It’s engaging, but there’s something I have to do.
I first saw Lady Shaka take the stage one afternoon at Gaytimes last year. I can’t remember where I first saw Stev Zar play, but I can’t remember ever standing still whilst she has. Wubs, edits, crowd pleasers, more dirty bass faces than you can count, but more noticeably, a community on stage, a queer community, a trans community, a community of colour. Support, encouragement, and a clear reminder to not take yourself too seriously. The bunch of homos I find myself a part of are thoroughly hooked, twerking, daggering, and cheering each other in encouragement; it’s just plain and simple fun. An all too often heard Vengaboys edit comes on, and I take this opportunity to stash my parasol with my pushbike (no longer lonely) and then catch a few songs from Erika de Casier.
I’m instantly entranced, a cobra dancing to a snake charmer, enthralled. Live footwork has this effect on me, clinically accurate drumming, deep, filling bass lines, celestial vocals, just bliss, and space to breathe. I’m transported back to Meredith, where I first witnessed her. It’s a calming and grounding experience, but Lady Shaka drops another filthy bass line, and I’m drawn back in.
Moktar is currently the fastest rising and arguably the best DJ in the Narrm scene; DJ Plead, a Rinse FM stalwart, Dekmantel experienced star with a catalogue of diverse and beloved tracks. I was looking forward to this set, but it just didn’t hit right for me at the time. A slight mismatch in seemingly similar styles made for a landing point that sat awkwardly in my place and time, a little too fast and hard, a bit too much rave, the nuance and subtlety that I admire in their individuality seemingly struggling to find a place in their collective.
I walked through the crowd whilst Jayda G warmed them up, festival-pleasing house/tech house delivered with the energy of a thousand Energiser bunnies that know where their hips are. My body is on a mission; however, it knows what it wants, and I know where to find it.
Wax'o Paradiso are no longer referred to as such. Waxo is all you need to say to a Narrm local, and they know.
“Start hard, finish soft.”
An ethos that underlines so many of their sets and plays so well into their time slot here, matching Dita’s high house energy with precision and then guiding us into a deep, boogie-laced and vinyl-heavy finish. The packed Simmer Down tent collectively oscillates and pulsates, and murmurs of appreciation pass through the crowd. We know how lucky we are to have this, and we want to share that appreciation with others.
I climb the hill to get a view of the sunset just as Jayda G drops into I Just Want to Be With You, well timed, the beginning of the last ending, it’s impossible not to feel and reflect, impossible not to cheer as 2 punters use the velodrome for an impromptu running race, impossible to resist the pull of Marcellus Pittman. The lights drop even lower, a single red flood lighting the canopy, Chicago house records perfectly match the sound system, shuffling percussion and clean kicks, rolling bass and smatterings of keys. It grabs you right in the middle of your chest, right where your groove lives and lifts upwards.
It’s hard to move on, but there are world-class performances happening all around me. Overmono drifts into their Streets edit, and my enthusiasm for their tour grows, singing along to every word, doing my 16-year-old self proud. Overmono continues their amphitheatre-style buildups, the drops delivering everything as promised; it’s not only tension and release but also music you can dance to, music that encourages movement. Screens flicker with distorted images of the now famous dobermanns, then flashing black, green and red, a keffiyeh appearing on stage, whirled around frantically to the beat, not the first showing of support. This is a message that has been clearly delivered by many of the acts today and a message that remains clearly absent from the promoter's content. We couldn’t risk making such a strong statement on such a clearly divisive issue, heaven forbid, it might affect ticket sales. Silence is complicit. Do Better.
Open, experimental electro pounds out of the Body Heat speakers as Objekt takes the stage. He’s one of the most forward-thinking producers in the world, and half of his set showcases this; the other half seems there just to keep people engaged. 3 songs that challenge and subvert, then 3 that hold interest, distorted mid-bass, guttural sub-bass, broken electro percussion, then techno with house sensibilities and none of the feel. At a different time on a different day, I would have had the patience to hold on, but my legs have had enough. I make my way back to my bike and parasol a tactical 5 minutes before the mass exodus.
I ride away from Sun Cycle for the last time, grateful but content to close the chapter. I admire the ability to coordinate multiple promoters and draw massive names from across the world to an old, run-down velodrome in Coburg. The setting is wonderful, the stages are well placed, and the lineups are star-studded; however, my strongest and most lasting memories are those that our local community made, Now Hear This, Kalyani, Waxo, Mildlife, Stev Zar, a cute group of queers, a lovely little sound system. My biggest let downs, silence from the promoters, encouraging lineups that turn to virtue signalling once the set times are released, tokenistic sustainability branding, an outsourced AB InBev only bar (look ‘em up, they own everything.) Pulling into my driveway, exhausted to my bones but filled with love for so much of what I see and hear happening around me, I close the book on Sun Cycle, hoping for a new opening in 365 days' time, something less silent, more considered and ready to give.
Words: Brenton Aylward