Snowbombing - Chill out at the coolest festival of them all
It started as a gimmick to sell more ski holidays, but these days Snowbombing, a dance bonanza in the Austrian Alps, is a highlight of the musical year.
In a tiny, crammed room, 300 people are dancing to the cutting edge beats of DJ Seth Troxler. But this is no ordinary club night – there's no sticky floor, no stale smell of beer hanging in the air – it's in an igloo perched 2,000 metres up a mountain. The air is fresh – in an igloo, it's always minus degrees, after all. We're at the Arctic Disco at Snowbombing, the week-long festival where 200 live acts and DJs, and more than 5,000 dance music fans, take over a tranquil Tyrolean Alpine village.
In the morning, when keen snowboarders and skiers have taken to the slopes alongside some of the acts playing at the festival (guitar-pop band The Vaccines stayed five days to make the most of the skiing) and others are sleeping off the night's excesses, Mayrhofen is in its natural state. By the evening, the village's quaint chalet-lined streets are transformed into a party site, where streams of revellers in outlandish fancy dress make their way to the venues to enjoy some musical après-ski.
Festivals in the snow, blending live music and DJs with snow sports, are a recent phenomenon. Several have sprung up in the past few years, such as the Big Snow in Serbia, which launched in 2010, and the tiny electronic music festival Basscamp, new this year to Morzine, in France. But Snowbombing, launched back in 2000, was the first, and still does it best. With its bill of big-name indie-rock bands, live dance acts and DJ sets which has in recent years included The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Groove Armada, Doves, Ms Dynamite, Pendulum, Wild Beasts, Editors, Friendly Fires and De La Soul, it's no surprise that it's been dubbed the Glastonbury of the Alps.
This year's attendance was 10 per cent up on last year, the number of people attending limited by the amount of accommodation that the ski village has to offer. As many as 85 per cent of Snowbombers are British, drawn to the event for its reliable line-up, which this year included Dizzee Rascal, Labrinth, The Vaccines, Wretch 32, Example, DJ Shadow and Groove Armada. Chase and Status, whose live set featuring Maverick Sabre and Delilah, the rising stars of their album No More Idols, was a hit last year, returned to DJ at the site's largest of 10 venues, the Racket Club.
It's the venue where the 26-year-old Tottenham rapper Wretch 32 performed his anthemic rap, his expressive delivery pouring emotion into "Forgiveness" and its follow-up, "Don't Go", his first UK No 1. The crowd sang back his thoughtful rhymes.
The biggest headlining acts were to be found on the festival's final night, at the Forest stage, nestled deep among the trees. Labrinth played a greatest hits set, including a cover of rising dubstep producer SBTRKT's "Wildfire" and a collaboration with chart-topper Tinie Tempah, reminding us of his beginnings as a producer before he sought out more exposure as a performer. Flanked by a live band and performing as both singer and guitarist, Tinie Tempah's "Pass Out" was a highlight, as was his uplifting "Let the Sun Shine".
He was supporting Dizzee Rascal, an inspired choice of replacement for the cancelled Snoop Dogg, having cemented his status as a national treasure at Glastonbury in 2010. "I was snowboarding today," the London rapper told the crowd. Accompanied by mesmerising green lasers slicing through the trees, his set warmed up to its riotous finale of "Holiday" and "Bonkers", the latter proving such a success that he performed it twice. As fireworks erupted to his chart-topping hit, the crowd followed.
When it was first launched, Snowbombing was dedicated to dance and electronica. Four years ago, it expanded to incorporate indie-rock; this year The Vaccines performed an energetic set. But as guitar music has fallen out of favour, this year the festival's focus returned to its dance roots. It's a winning formula: the high-octane mix of electronica, dubstep and house is an exhilarating follow-up to the adrenaline rush of the ski slopes.
The Arctic Disco, hosting sets by Mr Scruff, Seth Troxler and the Cuban Brothers among others, is said to be Fatboy Slim's favourite venue of any festival, which is why you'll find the DJ spinning records here year after year. It's not often that the instructions for a night out include wearing the most sensible shoes, to keep dancing (to stave off the freezing temperatures), to not keep your hands in your pockets (if you slip, you'll need them to break your fall) and to watch your alcohol intake (factoring in the heightening effects of altitude). Smoking is strictly forbidden (a cigarette will leave its trace for up to 24 hours as the smoke can only seep into the igloo's ice walls). The igloo also became a chill out venue during afternoon hours, when Mr Scruff took to the decks as festival-goers laid in deck chairs soaking up the vibe of his soulful set.
There were five music parties on the mountain each day, from the Reggae Shack 1,900 metres high, to the Good Times Carnival party 2,100 metres up, where Norman Jay played party music for 1,000 fans from a London bus.
It's the festival's eighth edition in Mayrhofen, but when Snowbombing was launched, it was merely a clever marketing ploy designed to sell ski holidays. Festival founder Gareth Cooper recalls: "It was just a gimmick – we thought we'd put some DJs on the mountain." Success was far from instant, though – it took him seven years to turn a profit. What made him continue? "We just didn't give up," says Cooper. "We believed in it." And the 5,000 fans that went this year will be glad that he did.
Peak times: 5 more snowy treats
Winter Sessions Weekender, Chamonix, France
Hip-hop, reggae and dubstep abounds at this two-day festival in the French Alps. Zero 7, Norman Jay and Trojan Sound System were some of the names appearing on and off piste with parties going on until the early hours this March.
Zermatt Unplugged, Zermatt, Switzerland
For five years Zermatt has presented big name international musical talents. This year, Lauryn Hill (right), Aloe Blacc, Amy Macdonald and Chris de Burgh and James Walsh were on the bill.
The Big Snow Festival, Sauze d'Oulx, Italy
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Competing with the summer festivals with its strong dance and indie-pop line-up, round two of SnowBall saw performances from Snoop Dogg, The Kooks, Big Boi, Rusko and TV on the Radio. The multi-stage event at 2250 metres welcomes 15,000 people.
Caprices Music Festival, Crans-Montana, Switzerland
The ninth edition of Caprices featured Charlie Winston, Earth, Wind and Fire Experience feat. Al McKay, Carl Cox, Sean Paul, Gorillaz Sound System and Lamb across its five stages.
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