Ahead of the launch of Red Bull's "Unlocked" party in Manchester, headlines spread all over the internet about the glorious return of rave to one of Madchester's most iconic spots. Victoria Baths is famous for its rave heyday, perhaps no more so than the iconic 'Wet Nights', such as The Other Side of Midnight party thrown by the Haçienda in 1988.
So it's with keen anticipation we head up to the North West for this incredibly ambitious event, aiming to pay a tangible tribute to this metropolis of the rave with a line-up consisting of some of the city's greats: A Guy Called Gerald (who dropped Voodoo Ray at the 1988 blowout), DJ Paulette and Mr Scruff. It's gearing up to be a real spectacle, a proper knees up, just what Manchester needs after a tough few years for the city's club scene.
Unlocked is taking place just after remaining COVID protocols have been removed across the country — no more curfews, capacity caps or COVID passes. There's a distinct buzz in the air around the entrance of the venue on approach, it feels as if nightlife has finally gotten back to the way it was two years ago. There's a mix of Manny locals, those coming from all over the North and every character imaginable - but in a way that's undeniably Manchester. Whether this is artistically dressed drag queens gliding around in altitudinous heels, a group of lads with a drink in hand and chatting away with their mates, or revellers dressed up ready for a night out.
It's a sensory overload. Flashing lights, high ceilings, enticing smells of food stalls and an array of overbearing event welcomers sporting branded bucket hats and blowing whistles at every person who enters the corridor.
Visually, the event space is spectacular, and attendees can feel as though they are transported into an alternative universe, emblematic of a bygone era of Mancunian clubbing. Victoria Baths is a 1000-capacity building that originally opened in 1906 that boasts three — now unused — swimming pools, all of which are bordered by old changing booths. It's got a rustic, vintage feeling and a uniqueness that takes your breath away upon first entering. “It’s a swimming pool, that’s just fucking sick," a fellow raver tells us excitedly. "This venue is actually perfect for rave environments, I hope there are more club night events here in the future.”
The three swimming pools host the three "main" stages — while a smaller room with a large industrial-style boiler in and dark walls also host an array of up-and-coming DJs from the area, including ThtGrl and Preacher. Every room in the venue is taken over by local club businesses including YES, XLR and Dusk Til Pawn. Local hospitality businesses including El Capo, Escape to Freight Island, Junior Jackson’s, and Twenty Twenty Two transform the old wet rooms of the pools into reincarnations of their respective restaurants, pubs and bars. “They’ve even brought the stools and cutlery used in their actual sites,” an organiser says to me. “We wanted this event to showcase Manchester. This whole night is about championing local talent, so everything from the DJs to the bar staff to the Mariachi band we’ve hired and the tattoo artist!”
Throughout the night, audiences are blessed with stellar DJ sets from some of the best in the game. Over at the Dusk Til Pawn stage, Dusk Til Pawn stage, crowds are treated to the expert selections of Afrodeutche and Annabel Fraser, who gives a gritty vinyl set, laced with crawling tracks that can be felt up your spine. While over in the YES room, DJ Paulette delivers a high energy house-fuelled set, accompanied by striking visuals that are a truly mesmerising spectacle to intoxicated eyes. “What’s mad is that I actually learnt how to swim in these pools! And now I’m DJing at the deep end!” DJ Paulette says cheerfully.
DJ ThtGrl, who plays in the small industrial room hosted by XLR, says: “This venue is honestly just something else. That set I just did was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. The organisers are so hospitable, and they don’t differentiate DJs who are just up and coming or widely renowned. I played in a really intimate literal boiler room, the crowd were just so fun.” ThtGrl delivers a raucous set full of uptempo breaks and garage beats, as well as some house-infused tracks which get people moving. She plays tracks including a Conducta remix of ‘Boasty’, a Roska remix and a Mosca tune - all of which had gun fingers in the air and left a sea of eyes hungry for more. DJ Preacher also delivered a high energy, jungle, breaks and garage driven set over in the industrial XLR room. “I loved shelling down the intimate room hosted by XLR. It was great to see people dancing among the old Victorian machinery, the setting really added another element to the night. This space is certainly not your average club and it was a pleasure to be part of something so different”, he says after his set.
Read this next: Manchester is the beating heart of new music in the UK
The XLR Room really captures the essence of underground, gritty parties that made this city famous — but sadly, that isn't the case for much of the venue.
The other rooms have fallen victim to over-saturation — it feels more like a theme park than a rave. Do we really need a 360 photo booth? a mariachi band? a tattoo artist? a fortune-teller? an arcade room? There simply isn't time to see all of these things, and it comes at the cost of the vibe of the rest of the party. Distractions rather than additives, dividing attendees up and dispersing them when raves are supposed to be a gathering together. It's clear what organisers were thinking - wanting to highlight the talent of Manchester on every level but instead resulted in a lack of overtone that every successful club night should have. It would have been so much easier to strip back the "rave guards" blowing whistles in your face, the oversaturated neon lights blaring at you — more reminiscent of a comic con than a club. The whole experience felt jarring, even for the sober, and at times felt obnoxious.
Mr Scruff echoes the sentiment that the event was far from what a traditional rave is, but was happy that people were still appearing to enjoy themselves: “I mean this event isn’t really a rave, but it’s still nice to see so many people connect and dance together. While I was performing my set I saw lots of familiar faces in the crowd and I managed to reconnect with them which is always great”. Mr Scruff plays an hour and a half long set of house bangers, and he manages to get in one of the biggest crowds of the night — but outside of the XLR he's the only one who appears to pack out their stage, other DJs sadly see a lack of footfall on their dancefloors as people are too distracted by getting the perfect picture or by bagging one of the many freebies to offer. One punter said: “Not gonna lie, it feels a bit like a student night. There’s just too much going on and the soundsystem is a bit jarring, and it looks like too many people are only here for a drink with mates. I saw the lineup and thought it would be full of eager ravers. It feels empty.”
Several of the rooms, including YES Manchester’s room and at times the Dusk Til Pawn room, have absolutely no one dancing, and the YES Manchester room even has a litter picker cleaning the dance floor as Luke Unabomber was playing a high-energy and carefully selected set of classic pumping house tracks — a shame to have wasted his peak time selections from artists such as K-Lone, Zero One and Alert at the expense of people queueing two hours to get a free tattoo. To add to this, the soundsystem appears to be a bit of an afterthought. In the main Red Bull Hub room, the percussion is at times piercingly loud. In the Dusk Til Pawn room, the bass at times was overconsuming and swallowed up the rest - ultimately making the music sound monotonous. Though it's understandable that the soundsystem problems could be due to operating within an over-100-year-old building, it is so persistent that it impacted the overall experience.
Read this next: Manchester DJs smash the world record for largest B2B relay
While the event had its meritable qualities, such as an iconc and unique location, brilliantly selected DJs, and a clearly eager to party cohort of attendees — it ultimately lacked the ambience of togetherness expected at a rave. Of course, this was no fault of the artists, who all keep their spirits high and keep the tracks spinning. But it's a depressing thought that maybe this event does capture the spirit of the post-pandemic club scene. Have people ditched the communal sense of coming together? Has raving become a commercialised hobby? Would we prefer to queue to get our fortune told than to come together and dance? For the sake of the legends of '88, we hope not.
Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter