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Houghton Festival 2022: the hot, dusty but triumphant return of the UK’s electronic music marathon

Houghton Festival returned for the first time in four years earlier this month after surviving against the odds. DJ Mag’s Rob McCallum steps into curator Craig Richards’ musical world to rediscover a meticulously programmed audio/visual masterpiece

Set around a lake in the stunning parkland belonging to Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Craig Richards’ Houghton Festival has survived against the odds. After being forced to cancel in 2019 due to localised high winds, the following turmoil of coronavirus and related complications mean it’s been four years since the event last took place. In the build up to this year’s festival, parts of England endure the driest July in almost two centuries, and East Anglia spends a week basking in searing sunshine. Local crop fires raise alarm bells that another cancellation could be imminent in the week before the event. 

Thankfully, the worst attendees have to deal with is a site that’s turned into a dust bowl. Ravers are forced to refashion t-shirts or Houghton tote bags into makeshift masks, while the worst-affected parts of the site begin to look more like Black Rock Desert’s Burning Man festival than anything in the British countryside. When Rush Hour boss Antal takes to the Pavilion — a wooden structure that overlooks the lake and hosts the festival’s famed sunrise sessions — on Friday evening, waves of dust can be seen blowing over the seemingly unphased and up-for-it crowd (a meme showing “Houghton dust” for sale on eBay as a memento does the rounds in the days following the festival).

Houghton is something of an anomaly for the UK festival circuit, with a programme of music running for 63 uninterrupted hours after starting on Friday lunchtime (there is also music on Thursday for early arrivals). Made up of a meticulously booked selection of artists that exist within Richards’ musical world, the vast majority are afforded extended sets — also a rarity at modern festivals — to express themselves and explore their individual sounds. The longer sets mean Houghton has less of the high-octane energy of other events, where DJs hammer out the hits for an hour before handing over the decks. Richards’ and Nicholas Lutz’s sunrise sets on the Pavilion, Palms Trax at the Warehouse and Joy Orbison on the Derren Smart Stage are all examples of artists being allowed the freedom to take the crowd on a sonic journey.

There are still adrenaline rushes aplenty, but artists being given space to breathe means the music is more nuanced than at your average festival experience — and there is something almost nostalgic about seeing DJs able to express their craft more thoroughly on a festival stage. Those who arrive early at a set, find a good spot and properly engage are given more of a club night experience musically, but in one of the most visually stunning locations the UK dance music calendar has to offer.

Houghton Festival Earthing stage at sunset

On Friday night, Richards takes us around the site. After spending part of the afternoon at a cocktail bar beside Trevino’s — Houghton’s on-site record shop named to honour the late Marcus Intalex — greeting festival friends and family like Bobby., he goes from stage to stage meeting others. When we arrive at the Derren Smart Stage — the festival’s main stage, named after the late London promoter who was a close friend of Richards — Ricardo Villalobos is midway through his closing set. The pair, who have shared a long friendship and working relationship, share a warm embrace. It’s clear that, as much as he is the curator of the festival, Richards is a keen host to those he invites to play, and he does it with an energy and enthusiasm that belies the fact he’s well into his third decade at the forefront of underground electronic music.

Later, we bump into the festival’s lead set designer, whose team builds the myriad temporary structures out of wood and corrugated metal each year. In 2017, DJ Mag wrote about how it seems as though Richards and the Houghton team must have been on site tweaking, tuning and testing every minor detail for weeks before the event in order to deliver this visual masterpiece. Not only is the production of each stage impeccable, but the installations and work that goes into the areas between the parties fuses music with art and sculpture at every turn.

That attention to detail has only been refined for the festival’s return. The visual identity that Richards’ has created for Houghton has been turned into giant metal sculptures littered across the site. Wandering around the lake, the festival’s stages and production are a sensory overload like nothing else. Each area seems to have its time through each day. The Pavilion comes alive in the morning, when the music is perfectly paired with the sunrise over the lake. The Quarry is at its prime when illuminated with a barrage of lasers in the depths of the night — perfectly matched to the UK techno of Pearson Sound and Pangaea on Saturday.

The smaller areas at Houghton are just as impressive, too. Here, we highlight some of the best, both new and pre-existing but developed for 2022, all showing why Houghton Festival remains a jaw-dropping audio/visual masterpiece.

 
Earthling

A four-channel quadraphonic soundsystem, Earthling is nestled deep in the woods at Houghton behind the Pavilion stage, and offers an immersive listening experience. The speakers surround a wooden structure with a corrugated iron roof, with the DJ booth set deep in the centre slightly below ground level. The result sees dancers facing each other in a full 360 degrees around the hidden booth, rather than staring at the DJ, in an environment that regularly becomes an intense pressure cooker of energy. Highlights come in the form of Calibre’s Saturday evening set — which goes from a slow, breaksy sound through to the d&b euphoria of Marcus Intalex’s ‘Step Forward’ — and Saoirse’s trance-infused festival closing set.

 
Giant Steps

Travelling soundsystem Giant Steps comes from the team behind Brilliant Corners in Haggerston, East London, having temporarily set up in an intimate London attic venue in Hackney Wick from May 2018 through to the following summer. When Giant Steps shut its doors for the last time there, the capital lost one of its most unique party spaces, where DJs including Hunee, Floating Points and Pender Street Steppers dug deep into their record collections for exploratory sets of funk, soul, disco and far beyond. The four-channel quadraphonic soundsystem returns to Houghton each year with unannounced guest appearances, alongside residents Cedric Woo, Eliphino, Aneesh and many more. A truly unique listening space.

 
Outburst

New for this year’s Houghton, Outburst is another stage nestled deep in the woods towards the back of the site. It can take a little searching through the trees once the sun goes down, but the small clearing in the woods behind the Stallions stage — which has been present since the festival’s first year — places the crowd right on top of the DJ. Saturday’s programming fits the space perfectly, with Dresden (the b2b name of Manfredas and Ivan Smagghe), Vladimir Ivkovic and Lena Willikens all playing the kind of deep, unconventional sets — traversing pitched down psytrance, no wave, cosmic sounds and psychedelia — that made Salon de Amateurs so renowned.

 
Pinters

Another new addition for 2022, Pinters offers a largely different musical programme to the rest of the festival. Situated right next to The Orchard — which hosts sound baths, yoga, meditation, cacao ceremonies and more over the weekend — Pinters offers live performances from jazz, ambient and experimental musicians including Mathew Halsall, Freedom Engine aka Mathew Jonson and Higher Intelligence Agency. Between those performances there are also genre specific sets in its intimate setting from DJs that have played elsewhere across the weekend. Harry Pepper does jazz, Wes Baggaley plays nu wave, Craig Richards delivers a reggae set and Midland plays ambient sounds. Surrounded by reclining wooden benches, it would be easy to pitch up in front of the bar here for the weekend and miss everything on Houghton’s main stages.

 
Tantrum

A favourite of regulars at Houghton, Tantrum is the closest thing to an industrial clubbing space that the festival offers. A DJ booth set amongst stacked shipping containers below a fabric roof, the programming generally presents artists that surround the electro world, with standout sets from Jensen Interceptor, DJ Stingray 313, Craig Richards b2b Nicholas Lutz, and a wild Saturday night closing set from Helena Hauff. There's no bad sound quality at Houghton, but Tantrum’s system is a particular high point. 

Photos via Khroma Collective

Want more? Read our recent feature asking whether a DJ ever play a festival for free?

Rob McCallum is DJ Mag's digital editor. Follow him on Twitter here