© Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective (www.instagram.com/khromacollective)

Houghton Festival, 2023

The weeks that precede any musical festival are defined by a sense of the unknown. Apprehension, expectation, and excitement bundled together in equal measure, a number of questions pop up internally. Even after scanning the forecast, inspecting the programme, and checking whether your tent’s missing any pegs, this inescapable feeling of mystery continues to linger. 

Houghton is the definition of a festival’s mythical potential and unpredictable nature. Pulling up to see the isolated hall standing proudly behind towering white gates, it’s hard to imagine you’re about to immerse yourself in an otherworldly realm of sonic sorcery.

Centred around a shimmering lake, the main festival site brings another layer of mystique to the celebrations; a black hole for phone signal, you’re not only disconnected from the real world but your festival friends too. Without a plan or meet-up points, the only option is to go with the flow and see where your ears take you.

The site is split across an open plain decorated with artistic architecture—including a torch-shaped tribute to the late Andrew Weatherall—and the colour-drenched canopy of the woods. Home to 12 of Houghton’s 13 stages, revellers can find themselves skanking amongst wildly different surroundings in a matter of minutes. 

That one missing stage, however, may be the most enigmatic element of the entire festival. On the other side of the site, far removed from the other stages, Terminus proved to be its own outright destination. Cloaked in secrecy and suspense, the undisclosed lineup, ever-stretching queues, and non-stop music created a dancefloor of unparalleled energy. Enter the cauldron at your own risk; you might never leave.

© Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective

Each stage served its own purpose, took on its own vibe, and contributed to the evolving, shape-shifting character of Houghton. Every system was perfectly balanced and beyond crisp, complementing the stellar selection flawlessly. 

There was plenty of space to chill, too. Hammocks lined the perimeter of the lake and Derren Smart stage, cocooning horizontal bodies within earshot of the electronic ecstasy filling the air. Pinters’ pews perfectly propped up party-goers whilst experimental sounds and mesmerising visuals played on-stage.

Full of beans and with the tent set up, I headed in for night one of the festival. Despite Thursday’s smaller programme and music finishing at 2am, the atmosphere inside the site was electric: smiles stretched across countless faces as an energetic buzz filled the grounds. Sensing the opportunity to acclimatise to the map and check out the different stages, I sauntered around and dipped my head in and out of a number of performances. 

Standing in front of Tantrum’s tripped-out television displays, the shadowy figure of Wes Baggaley layered punchy drums with piercing hats in a dynamic display of techno power. Next up, Craig Richards played the first of six (maybe even more?!) sets across the weekend. The festival founder dug deep into his seemingly endless arsenal of tunes, showering the crowd with flowing rhythms and addictive melodies. Closing the night, Ralph Lawson took the Quarry to the cosmos and back as the stars glowed. 

After kick-starting Friday with soundsystem legend Aba Shanti-I, dolloping thick, warming dub down upon the Pavilion crowd, and grooving along to Shy One’s soulful selection, the masterful tag team of Vladimir Ivkovic and Lena Willikens were next on the menu. In true Ivkikens style, chugging, off-kilter frequencies rung around the Outburst stage, sending headtops spinning and minds soaring as punchy pitched-down beats crashed into their ears. Next up, Shanti Celeste showed why she’s one of the best in the biz, seamlessly weaving together pumping house and chord-laden techno with characteristic sleight of hand. 

Strolling around the lake to the Warehouse, nothing could have prepared me for Bjarki’s AV Live set. The vantablack walls severed any connection to the outside world whilst computer-generated visuals of demonic faces, twisted vocals, ethereal synths, and bludgeoning drum work sent the crowd into an inescapable realm of mesmerising energy. Topping off an already stacked day of music, Sonja Moonear concluded Earthling with a sweltering selection of trippy techno.

© Photography by Jake Davis | Khroma Collective

Saturday’s lineup boasted electro royalty and some of the most influential names in the UK scene. DMX Krew and his MPC sprayed bouncy basslines and crunching snares over the Derren Smart audience in trademark fashion. Billy Nasty lived up to his name under the stooped hood of the Tantrum stage, engulfing the tent with sinister robotic sonics. Back at Derren Smart, Radioactive Man rumbled and roared with another expert live set. 

It was hard to peel myself away from Tantrum from that point on. Freakenstein’s ghetto house classics and funky 808 electro brought some flavour to the dancefloor, before Animistic Beliefs’ snarling live set combined violent kicks, imposing mechanised melodies, and raw vocals. Next up, DJ Stingray and his infamous balaclava continued to scorch the crowd with relentless techno and mutant electro.

Finally prying myself away from Tantrum, Ben UFO delivered one of the sets of the weekend, closing the Earthling stage as only he would. Sewing together seemingly every genre under the sun, the Hessle Audio head honcho’s feral exhibition of gunslinging selection was emphatically unpredictable and slapped just as expected.

As the Sunday sun started to set over the lake, Peach brought her signature sound to the Pavilion, serenading the crowd with a lively selection of choice house cuts. Peverelist’s pulsating percussion brought the noise to the Outburst stage, producing a set that grew in intensity and pressure.    

Following on, sonic shaman Shackleton produced a hypnotic performance dominated by wild percussion and bewitching vocals. Closing the stage, D-Bridge created a forcefield of bass with his rolling drums and leftfield breaks. Knowing this was the last dance, feet stamped and limbs flailed until the music cut.

Despite the rain, a few expected technical difficulties, and the odd toilet that made Mordor look cute, nothing could stop the crowd from vibing. Coming together as one, there was a genuine sense of collectivity and a mutual desire to have the best time possible. Growing in energy and enthusiasm with each day, it was the people above everything that transformed the Norfolk estate into the magical place it is.

Check out the Houghton website here.

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