“I’m not even joking when I say this is like Christmas for us over here!” laughs local DJ and producer Optmst. “We have such a bustling scene here in Belfast. I’m so grateful we get to do things like this to show off all the talent we have.”
When you arrive at the site's entrance, you instantly feel a surge of high-spirited energy — full of revellers anticipating a day of music, dance, indulgence, and merriment. Just waiting in the festival's ticketing area, you know it's going to be a memorable occasion. Syncopated rhythms and the occasional beat drop can be heard while in the queue, sounds bouncing off one another — emerging from many spots where the early afternoon DJs are getting started and setting the mood for the weekend. You’re surrounded by the marvel of the shipways — the iconic shipyard once responsible for the construction of the Titanic. The site has been transformed into a colourful spectacle of tents, stages, and flags - kitted out in pinks and greens that contrast the grey cladding of the building structure of the Titanic Museum towering behind. “The building is in the shape of an Iceberg. Don’t say the Irish don’t have humour!” laughs Willis — the father of Bicep's Matt McBriar and festival founder Sarah McBriar.
“I’ve never seen this area look quite like this before!” chimes Plain Sailing’s Andrew Moore, who is excited about what lay ahead for the weekend. “This site brings in so many families and tourists, so it’s good to see it hosing some great music too,” he says with happiness.
This year gives plenty of opportunities for exposure to good music, with a stacked line-up featuring some of the best names in electronic music across Northern Ireland, Ireland, and from around the world. Music fans can expect sets from the likes of Northern Ireland’s own Bicep, Or:la, Cartin and Calibre; Dublin's Gemma Dunleavy and DART; and music from artists further afield including SHERELLE, Soichi Terada, Sama Abdulhadi, and LSDXOXO.
You truly feel as though you are immersed in Belfast — everything from the residual cart tracks under your feet - left over from a time of industrialisation — to the picturesque mountains that you are concaved by in the distance. Situating AVA in such a location cements the festival's position as a vital organ in Belfast’s arts and culture scene — a move that was well planned by the organisers of this year’s edition.
To add to the feeling of being immersed in Belfast’s stunning geography and expansive history - you are instantaneously sucked in by the warmness of those who inhabit the city. The greatest feeling of all is that of community, symbolised by the herds of friends who smile and hug unanimously to celebrate both a four-day weekend and time they know will be well spent in good company.
“Life is just so busy at the moment, for everyone!” explains one girl with her friends. She’s kitted out in an iridescent green dress, black boots and has a sprinkle of glitter on her face that juxtaposes the grey clouds of early Friday afternoon... clouds that do not take long to subside. “Me and my friends all have different schedules, so we barely get a chance to see one another anymore. We’ve been looking forward to this for months just because everyone has it off and we can actually just have fun without worrying!” As Optmst hammers home, AVA is a big date in the calendar for local music fans - electronic and beyond.
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The grounds are warmed up by some of the best emerging names during the early slots of Friday and Saturday — and they set the tone for the whole day. A standout set is from local icon Optmst, who had been looking forward to not only playing an eclectic live electronic set at The Grasses stage, enclosed by the waterfront — but also to learn from other acts playing at the festival so that it can improve his own artistry and event management. “I constantly feel inspired by new sounds, so naturally I’ll feel inspired by what I hear here today - like I do every year,” he explains.
“It’s so great to have a range here from not just a reveller's point of view, but from an artist’s point of view too. Seeing how well these sounds from outside of Belfast sit within the context and community of Belfast is great — because now I can see what people like and how as a scene and a dance music community we can start incorporating these sounds in our own events and music on our soil.”
Derry's Cartin also plays a live set at The Grasses stage, fusing electronic and live guitar work in a performance that leaves many in the crowd stunned by his virtuosity and versatile musical abilities. “I’ve been coming as a dancer for like seven years - basically since it started,” Cartin says as he finishes his set. “I’m absolutely buzzing from that performance, you know, I feel really grateful that so many of my mates from Derry showed up and are supporting me. I love having the opportunity to play alongside so many great names. This is a date in my calendar I always look forward to - it’s the best weekend of the year!”
2022 feels special for Cartin, as he is playing amongst some great names at The Grasses stage. As the day stretched further and the numbers in the crowds started to rise - the stage is soon packed with punters who are excited to see Japanese star Soichi Terada. Terada has a way with the crowd, by keeping spirits high by dashing wholesome smiles and playing unfiltered electronic beats as the grey clouds above turn into piercing sunshine.
Some of the best names from London’s scene also make their way over to the tent - piri and Tommy perform a live set featuring some of their most renowned viral tracks, from ‘soft spot’ to ‘words’, getting the gig-goers at the barrier singing along with them. SHERELLE shells down a mixture of jungle, footwork and juke - giving the fans a much-needed change in pace and tone needed to face a gritty night of music ahead.
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Over on the main stage, we’re blessed with some of the biggest names in electronic and alternative music. One highlight is Ewan McVicar. He plays raucous tracks that get the crowd moving. The sun is beginning to make its way down the horizon and at this point revellers are adequately geared up for non-stop dance. “I’m excited!” he coos as we have a drink before his set, echoing the sentiment of everyone else present. “When I have a main stage set, it can often stop me from being my true self. But people are heads here! I’m able to be myself, so I’m excited to play more music that feels like me. I’ve got this Factory record, I played it on my BBC Radio 1 Residency last night! So yeah being able to play more tunes like that that I love while on such a high is just great."
Also on the main stage, we see Logic 1000 who plays breaks, electro and Yaeji’s ‘Raingurl’, which gets the crowd dancing and singing along. The Nomadic stage, which is hosted by Boiler Room, is packed full from the opening acts to the closing names. Raucous sets by DART, LSDXOXO, TSHA, Skin on Skin, Prospa, and more all get bodies moving and throats cheering. Scarves, flags, cowboy hats, and other accessories were strewn across the audience at the stage, and the excitement is palpable.
As the BPM rises, the crowd lose their minds. Whether this is Partiboi69 playing the iconic bridge singing “I love Ketamine” from his track ‘Ketamine Dreams’, a raucous rework of Soul II Soul’s ‘Back To Life’ played by Kessler at The Baltic stage, or a remix of Groove Armada’s ‘Superstylin’ played by house extraordinaire TSHA; there is a naughty banger to be heard everywhere at the festival. As each of these tracks gets played, the mood of the crowd changes from giddy happiness to raw exhilaration - keeping the energy consistently high throughout the weekend.
The atmosphere, as well as the cadence and mood, changes by dusk. The pink generated in the sky by the setting sun was now refracting off the pink of the AVA logo-emblazoned flags sprinkled around the festival's perimeter. The sinking sun and gloomy light visually produced a small sphere within the event grounds, unifying festivalgoers in ambience. The warmth in the surroundings carries over to the spirits of the partygoers, many of whom make their way to the stages to see the last performances.
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Bicep’s closing set on Friday night helps AVA live up to its name of being a true spectacle of audio and visual arts. The Belfast-hailing duo have the crowd euphorically singing back the noises in their infamous tracks ‘Glue’ and ‘Apricots’ while embracing the moment that they are sharing with friends and loved ones. Jon Hopkins also gives a show to remember, playing pumping house and electronic to an audience who are keen for a good time. Overmono is also a real highlight for many fans there - “I mean, how could you not like them,” says one fan who had been eager to see the duo perform a live set for weeks prior. The famous drop in ‘So You Kno’ gets some cheers in the crowd as festival goers link arm in arm with their peers to enjoy this moment.
For the night-time, festival-goers have an array of afterparties to choose from, all of which are also taking place in venues well known within Belfast on both Friday and Saturday. This includes A Banana Block party with Prospa and Nikki O on Friday, and Skin On Skin and Inside Moves on Saturday; A party at Thompsons featuring Bklava, DART and more on Friday; and a party at Ulster Sports Club. Also keeping up with tradition, AVA also hosts a series of workshops and talks prior to the main two days of music — including talks about funding for musicians, and a talk with Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi.
All in all, despite setbacks caused by scheduling issues beyond the festival’s control, the weekend is nothing but a success. The best thing to take away from 2022’s edition of AVA is that after eight years, the festival has created a visible ongoing feedback loop cycle with the city itself — whereby local music fans mark the date on their calendars and continue to support the festival, and the festival provides a union of key players and talent to keep Belfast’s music scene and community thriving.
“You know,” starts Timmy Stewart, a resident DJ at Belfast’s The Night Institute, “the special thing about this is that the crowd are very reactive! It’s good for DJs, and for promotors, because they see what works, they get the energy up, and this cycle just repeats itself. This raises the game a fair bit.”
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Belfast’s nightlife is shaped by AVA, as the key players in the scene are impacted by the things that happen at AVA. Timmy explains that “AVA definitely has an impact on the actual nightlife scene in Belfast - undoubtedly. AVA were the first people to bring all the independent organisers together, a lot of individual collectives put on events alone - whether it be techno, house or anything else - but this brings everyone to the same space. People who play the festival also have success, and we get to platform some of the great talent here - to people such as Mixmag.”
As AVA prepares for its ninth year running - it will undoubtedly continue to be a success as long as it keeps its ethos and core values at heart. It serves as a playground for Belfast’s hungry revellers, as well as a showcase of homegrown electronic music talent who are billed alongside staple names of the wider dance music scene - all taking part on home soil. As long as the festival continues to merge talent, spectacle and good craic together, fans in Ireland and beyond will not stop marking their calendars in anticipation anytime soon.
Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter