En Masse 2022 in review

After the preview build-up, Joseph Francis presents his thoughts on the second edition of Batu and Sam Schaeffer’s Bristol city-centre festival.

Bristol is DIY. Proudly independent. Home to anti-fascist football teams like the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls and buildings adorned with all kinds of street art. Then there’s the music. Just as counter-culture, yet harder to find. Normally it minds its own business, just off the beaten path, but once a year, it’s given the red carpet treatment by one of its longstanding fans Omar McCutcheon, aka Batu.

In a recent feature for DJ Mag, he spoke about how, as a globetrotting DJ, he had grown detached from Bristol’s music scene. But the pandemic was a time to regroup and this is where the idea for En Masse was born. With the help of Sam Schaeffer and Alisha Harrison, the festival’s first run in 2021 was a success, offering a glimpse of what makes the city’s musical underground community so strong. A look at the line-up for its second year revealed exciting newcomers from further afield, like renowned DJs Ben UFO, Josey Rebelle and Tom Boogizm. And not only that, but they decided to stretch the festival from three nights to nearly a full week of events across five different venues. All of which were ambitious steps for a small, independently-funded event. 

Besides some all-star additions, the focus of En Masse was still to support local and lesser known artists. At least two on the 2022 lineup have been supported by the non-profit organisation Saffron – which aims to tackle inequality in music by giving more creative opportunities to women, non-binary folk and people of colour. Chloe Sage, an alumni of Saffron’s Mix Nights series, was due to play at The Black Swan on Saturday, and Sarahsson, who recently released her debut album, The Horgenaith, received a grant from them which she used to make her own bowed instrument, the daxophone. It features prominently on her album and it accompanied her on the Thursday at Strange Brew where – dressed like a nymph, with pointy ears, eyes painted on her cheeks and a stringy one-piece – her performance embodied the festival’s unpredictable yet brilliant second outing.

Bruce live at Strange Brew

Every show from the Cube Microplex on Tuesday to Strange Brew on Saturday was carefully curated, so much so that there was always at least one pair of artists who complemented each other especially well. Sarahsson and Bruce, for example, might have wildly different styles, but their vulnerability and openness were a perfect match on Thursday. Sarahsson’s theatrics throughout her performance were captivating – seductively kissing the tip of the daxophone after she’d scraped it raw; thrashing over strobe lights before tumbling down the stage steps; and ditching a faulty microphone during her grand finale for the chance to frolic to some cheesy pop tunes with her audience. Bruce on the other hand, dressed like an emperor in a gown-like top, dominated the space differently for his debut live show. The producer, famous for his dubby and amoeba-like techno on labels like Timedance and Hessle Audio, commanded centre-stage, singing powerfully of anguish and longing. At his best he was delicate, like on one song where he craned for higher notes amidst jarring intervals of breaks. [more on Thursday night here 🤓]

A bolshier duo were at the heart of things on Friday at the Trinity Centre, with i-sha’s selfless and bold opening set being riffed off expertly by Batu who followed. For the bulk of it, i-sha led her audience through a quagmire of dubbed-out sub-bass. Tunes like Sunun’s ‘Ishe Roots’ and John T Gast’s ‘Bad’ were highlights, as the Accidental Meetings resident teased bits of percussion throughout. Whenever there was a whiff of a kick drum, dancers would scurry forward, desperate for more. Cue Batu, who, aboard such sturdy and reserved foundations, was free to unleash polyrhythmic euphoria via Shackleton’s ‘Dominion Rings’ and then juggle brainier electronic tracks – like two from Objekt’s Flatlands LP – with some no nonsense Commodo dubstep. It was a wonderfully nostalgic trip that paid tribute to both a period of music that inspired him and to the very roots of the soundsystem it was blaring out of.

i-sha at Trinity

With Sheffield’s Sinai Sound System making a reappearance at Trinity, it was clear that just as much (if not more) thought had gone into the surroundings as last year. Nowhere was this more rewarding than on Wednesday night at Loco Klub where k means’ opening mix of bassy and unsettling ambient lured you onto what felt like the set of Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre – with tired circus props peering out from the shadows, showered in a bloody red glow. Before the festival, she had joked that she wished a filter existed that took away melody so you only had drums. Well SÕN were quite literally her answer to that dilemma. 

Stationed at the other end of the tunnel to her, the percussive duo of Jordan Martin and Isaac Stacey faced one another before trading rhythmic blows in what can only be described as a capoeira of drums. Toying with all manner of percussion, they tapped their sticks together, clinked around the sides of their drum kits, played an ancient-looking relic with a bow, and, of course, gave everything a good old thwack. At times it was complex and provocative, at others it felt like a light reminder of our primal connection to rhythm. Driving that point home further were Lucien Freud-esque portraits and monochrome landscape line drawings in constant flux, projected on the walls behind like cave paintings.

SÕN live at Loco Klub

Sadly, the crowd at Loco Klub only filled out for Scalping’s set of live industrial-tinged noise and techno, which meant some weren’t there to witness the whole of SÕN’s spectacular show and many missed k means’ sultry and sweaty blend of footwork which followed. But the biggest blow was that En Masse had to cancel their day party on Saturday at The Black Swan due to a lack of ticket sales. Although it was a loss to not see local dub diehards Dubkasm in their natural environment, the worst thing for a festival hell bent on supporting local talent was losing up-and-coming selector Yemz and Saffron alumni Chloe Sage. 

To somewhat rescue the situation, Ben UFO was moved over to what had originally been billed as the afterparty back at Strange Brew. As you might expect, the Hessle Audio boss’ set was slick, playing a selection of wonky bass music  like Henzo’s excellent ‘Finola Shake’. But credit to the curation once again because, since the rest of the festival had been characterised by its measured lineups, having both him and Boogizm playing on one night was too much. Only one of them could stand out and here it was Boogizm whose wild variety mixed best with Saskia’s music and, between them, they turned Saturday into a triumph. 

Saskia live at Strange Brew

Saskia immediately locked the dancers into a tribal sway, playing a fluid live set of afrobeat-spliced productions akin to the likes of DJ Nigga Fox or DJ Lycox on Lisbon’s Principe label. Her militant rhythms morphed from icey, to gristly, to skeletal and when Boogizm’s turn came, he emboldened these earthly textures with a vast array of genres, tempos, and a healthy dose of rebel spirit. If you’re familiar with the Shotta Tapes don you’ll know his disdain for the posing that plagues much of the music industry. Well, the way he mismatched popular music with underground music, head down, bucket cap pulled way down low, was a schooling for any hipster one-dimensional DJs out there: the steely grime of Chunky’s ‘Studio Floors’ followed his dancehall opening; a sped-up 2-step/garage run of Wizkid’s ‘Essence’ later lightened the mood, before Busy Signal’s ‘Mi Deh Yah’ toughened things up again; and, from the swagger of bashment’s 86 BPM, Boogizm flew into the pounding mutant techno of re:ni’s ‘Revenge Body’.

Tom Boogizm at Strange Brew

As the lights came on at Strange Brew and Boogizm rounded off his set with Wizkid’s ‘Come Closer’, Batu, Harrison and Schaeffer were all dancing at the front, smiling. Yes, they had to sacrifice a few valuable artists but this year had already opened up more space for local musicians than the previous year and, in drawing out the week, had given those of us travelling from outside of Bristol more time to dive deeper into this bubbling music hub. If my new French friend who travelled over from Lyon is anything to go by, word is spreading globally about En Masse, too. This year, more than last, proved it to be a well-curated, DIY festival where, for a whole week, music fans can be immersed in a thriving musical community that is totally independent.