Romania's most sophisticated music festival celebrates an astounding 2017
Cai Trefor
17:19 17th July 2017

The fifth edition of Romania’s Electric Castle festival has drawn to a close after spell-binding sets from the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Trentemøller, Alt-J, and UNKLE.

The four-day camping festival, held just outside of the small city of Cluj-Napoca, was blessed with beautiful sunny weather and only a smattering of rain. Conditions that delightfully contrasted to previous years which were sodden.

This left festivalgoers with unhindered freedom to bound around the beautiful site that is dominated by the majestic view of the 14th century Bánffy Castle, and make the most one of the only festival's in Europe to operate a 24-hour drinking license. Many who attended every previous year praised the festival for being the most successful yet.

Capping off this astounding weekend for Gigwise were Franz Ferdinand. The Glaswegian five-piece sauntered on to stage with all the confidence and energy of a band reborn. The energy and desire to prove themselves with their new members showed as they brought a stadium sized wallop of sound and blasted it out on the massive speaker rig. It gave Kapranos great pleasure to introduce Dino Bardot on guitar and Julian Corrie on keys, vocals and guitar – both of whom have replaced former guitarist Nick McCarthy.

To the delight of fans, Franz' hit-laden set included three new songs – ‘Paper Cages’, ‘Lazy Boy’, and ‘Always Ascending’ – all of which sounded phenomenally well-crafted and hinted towards yet another brilliant studio album. The reaction from the crowd was as rapturous as it was to their biggest hits, and the inclusion of these new cuts means their live set has never sounded so lean.

Shortly before Franz Ferdinand won over the Romanian audience, Denmark’s Trentemøller surpassed all expectations. The crowd started out relatively thin but as their heavily instrumental set inspired by the likes of industrial dance legends Suicide, early Cure records, Bauhaus and Joy Division got going, the crowd blossomed. Some sections of it were flailing their bodies about with more carefree energy and spirit than at any other point of the festival. Part of the success of this band is that their sound was one of a kind for the weekend. It was a refreshing change to allow their dark, euphoric melodies and an intense combination of live beats and drum machines wash over us and it fit so brilliantly with the demographic of EC.

Of course the elated feeling the crowd had to Tremtemøller wouldn’t have been as intense had the days before not been such a seamlessly enjoyable experience. One set that truly got us was Moderat, the phenomenal collaborative project from the duo Modeselektor and solo artist Apparat.

The group, who have been hailed as the best live electronic act in the world in the press previously, provided a show that substantiated this claim. They're special because their progressive techno-influenced tracks were complemented by jaw-dropping visuals.

Unique and captivating psychedelic images flooded the sky meaning no matter how far back you were stood, you felt intimately involved in the show. It felt profound to see the boundaries of what's expected of a live show from an electronic act smashed so far out.

Over on the Hangar stage, Slaves played songs from their first two albums to an adoring crowd of punk fans. The brotherly Kent duo played with the frenetic pace and energy and choreographed stage banter that's garnered them such a strong reputation as a humorous high-octane live act. They were one of few modern British guitar bands to make it onto a stage dominated by DJ's.

Friday night's highlight was easily UNKLE. The band took the sunset slot on the main stage and showed why head honcho James Lavelle should be up there with Damon Albarn as the coolest serial collaborator in the game. Hearing the new single 'Looking for the Rain' (feat. Mark Lanegan and Eska) nailed in the absence of the original collaborators was sublime. Hellish kaleidoscopic screen visuals (screen visuals were sublime throughout) and moody black attire heightened the theatrical impact and sophisticated sense of drama.

Other hits, originally recorded with Ian Brown, Keaton Heston, and DJ Shadow, were played and nailed thanks to the high level of musicianship by the touring musicians in their place. The show did feel more like more of a hit-laden band set than its ever done - watch them soar when the new album's released.

Earlier that evening, Estonian rapper Tommy Cash was up on the Hangar stage. Far from sophisticated, Cash is quite obscene in his approach to hip-hop and bizarre like Die Antwoord. Likewise, he's a powerful enigma and rarely will you see one man on stage captivate so many thousands of people. The ill-fitting tracksuit and slick backed long hair and over confident body language merely add to his charm.

Something far more serious than Tommy Cash but more broadly appealing to the masses stormed Saturday night. Close to 40,000 people gathered for headliners Alt-J, who are on a world tour in support of their new album, Relaxer. Having earned themselves such a coveted slot they were well equipped to live up to expectations and delivered an invigorating visual display and proved their songs sound best belted out on a huge stage with enough bass to unsettle the tectonic plates.

Visceral and tender moments combined as they meandered through their highly original and inventive back catalogue. Their ability to push the synths and multi effects on the guitar to the limits of capacity was captivating to watch, and Alt-J proved they are a band that have to be seen live to be get the most out of.

The high point of a rapturously received set came, naturally for their global smash, ‘Breezeblocks’ – there wasn’t a roar that loud from the crowd the whole weekend, the London-based band have evidently captured the hearts of so many over here in Romania.

Having a marginally bigger attendance than Alt-J were Subcarpati, Romania’s most popular hip-hop group. They combined elements of dancehall, Romanian folk music, and even classic rock with their hip-hop. The cadence of the Romanian as a Romance language like Spanish or Italian was stunning to hear rapped. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics it was evident from the crowd connected with them in a big way.

The collection of above musical highlights has certainly endeared us to Romania. For a country that is only just beginning to get the reputation for having the infrastructure to support major touring acts, Electric Castle is surpassing all expectations. The respect with which these artist are held by fans and music critics is incredibly high. And if this is what they can achieve within five years, it will be exciting to see this festival in another five years.

On this form and with such a beautiful location and inventive festival directors pushing the boundaries of what to expect for a mid-sized festival, EC has a healthy future. Definitely a festival with the potential to become a staple in the European festival market like Oya, NOS Alive and BBK Bilbao et al. We recommend you get down next year whilst it's still a relative outsider and enjoy a relentlessly entertaining festival experience.