The Bloc-Mess Monster: The View From Inside

An in-depth review of Bloc, as seen from within the premises of the festival (with a bit of music before the evacuation started to happen)

We sent two people to fully cover Bloc, one of the best festivals –or at least it used to be– in the UK. But it all ended in a disaster that brought giant queues, an evacuation and ultimately the cancellation of the whole event. Kier Wiater Carnihan could get in (and then out) and here’s his review from the inside.

It was supposed to be Britain’s most exciting electronic music event of the year, featuring a stellar line-up, an incredible setting and an enthusiastic crowd. What could go wrong? As it turned out, pretty much everything. Attendees may have been enthusiastic, but there were, for reasons that remain unclear, far too many of them for Bloc’s ill-equipped organisers to handle. It’s the first year Bloc has been held outside a Butlins/Pontins holiday camp. It could well be the last - within hours of opening, the event was shut down for safety reasons. The scenes of police barricades, crowd crushes and hordes of dissatisfied punters are what Olympics naysayers have been predicting for London 2012, but no one expected it at a relatively niche event at the Docklands. So how did a festival that promised so much end so disastrously?

The warning signs were there right from the off. At 6pm a humungous queue was already snaking out from the entrance, to groans of dismay from those exiting the nearby DLR station. Stewards on the bridge were suggesting that people chill out in a nearby park rather than join the line, despite the fact that doors had been open for several hours. Several groups dotted about drinking lager had evidently taken that advice, perhaps anticipating that a £1 can of beer outside the site would cost almost a fiver inside.

Seemingly-unending queues are far from uncommon at British music festivals, but this was ridiculous. If it wasn’t for the separate press entrance I’d probably still be standing next to a dual carriageway in Pontoon Dock. Stories later surfaced about people who queued for over two hours and others that never got in at all, while some ignored the queue completely and simply walked straight in. Reports later came through of fence-jumping and wristband-swapping, as well as one person supposedly managing to get forty people in with just one ticket after officials gave up scanning them. It’s impossible to verify such rumours, but judging by the scenes later on it would be foolish to dismiss them just yet.

"One area that certainly wasn’t neglected was the line-up. An incredible array of talent was booked, including Flying Lotus, Four Tet, Hype Williams, Carl Craig and Squarepusher"

Inside everything initially seemed promising, despite my managing to maintain a festival tradition by immediately getting mud all over my jeans (at a festival in the middle of London! How?!). However, it has to be said that a surprising lack of imagination had gone into the site itself. Many of those involved in Bloc are also responsible for running the mind-blowing Shangri-La area of Glastonbury, where entire dystopian mini-cities are built from scratch, with astonishing attention to detail.

There wasn’t much of that in evidence at Bloc, save for a few haphazard sculptures and a steampunk punch bar that never opened. Considering the calibre of the designers Bloc have access to, that’s a little disappointing. Whether this uncharacteristic lack of attention to aesthetic detail is indicative of a wider dereliction of responsibility is debatable, but it did give the event the air of an unfinished rush-job.

One area that certainly wasn’t neglected was the line-up. An incredible array of talent was booked, including Flying Lotus, Four Tet, Hype Williams, Carl Craig and Squarepusher. Yet none of these ended up playing, which ultimately just makes the premature finish all the more frustrating.

Fortunately at least a handful of performances did manage to take place, and Steve Reich’s collaboration with Bang On A Can Allstars would’ve undoubtedly remained a highlight even if the full schedule had been fulfilled. I enter the tent to find two guitarists onstage, one of whom looks like he was sacked by Ben & Jerry for being too much of a hippy. The musical proficiency on show is as dazzling as his pink tie-dyed t-shirt. Together they lay down some incredibly fluid interlocking melodies, repeating them with typically Reichian variations but playful rather than monotonous. Both grin widely as they play, obviously deriving huge pleasure from the rippling effect they conjure.

Yet not all the crowd seem to share that pleasure. On the fringes of the tent people are more interested in locating their friends and loudly conversing about how difficult it was to get in - it takes a good couple of minutes forcing your way to the front before you can drown them out. But it’s immediately worth it when clarinettist Evan Ziporyn appears onstage. He loops ostinato after ostinato until the whole thing spins into a contrapuntal whirlpool, an effect enhanced by a shimmering synth noise that intermittently skims over the surface, oddly reminiscent of the party scene in “Midnight Cowboy”.

Movements then segue into one another, but the best is saved till last. Ziporyn starts with a jazzy bop loop, to which is added unexpectedly loud, syncopated bass notes, which create a sound similar to a lopsided 303 loop. The crowd reacts accordingly, and the first attempts at dancing begin. The clarinettist wears a wry smile of triumph as he exits.

Five Allstars then reconvene on stage to give a superlative demonstration of what can only be described as Math-Rock. Reich recently spoke of his admiration for Radiohead, and the music the band play is probably what Jonny Greenwood would have their next album sound like if he assumed total creative control. Other moments suggest Three Trapped Tigers or Battles, with phenomenally tight rhythms and chiming guitars. Percussionist David Cossin’s kit may only consist of three snare drums, but it’s remarkable what he does with them. In fact, though the music grows quite proggy in places, the way they create so much from so little is almost anti-prog; there is no grandiose excess here. Though a drop in tempo briefly causes the sound to become slightly enervated, when it all ends with a sudden snap even the previously indifferent audience members respond rapturously. Some are humming ostinatos on the way out, aware, no doubt, that they’ll be lucky to see anything better tonight. As it turned out, they’ll be lucky to see anything at all.

Still, right now we’re all happily ignorant of what’s to come, and those who stay in the tent at least guarantee seeing one more performance. Nicolas Jaar’s set begins slowly, with blissfully drawn-out, cinematic chords swelling up while digital raindrops scatter across an atmospheric soundscape. A saxophone player launches some sweet refrains over the top, and for a second it’s like Jan Garbarek has joined Vangelis onstage. Presumably the intention is to build such a heightened sense of expectation that people will be dissuaded from leaving halfway through to catch Amon Tobin’s ISAM set, which now clashes having been brought forward half-an-hour.

Sadly, when the beat kicks in the effect is slightly underwhelming. This is partly the fault of the sound system, which just doesn’t seem loud enough for a tent of this size; everything is rich and crisp at the front, but muddies horribly towards the back. The occasional screech of feedback courtesy of the live musicians is sadly the most audible of their contributions. It’s a worthy gesture towards making electronic music more interesting to watch live, but it’s a gesture sadly compromised by technicalities.

No compromises over in the Main Arena however, where Amon Tobin’s celebrated ISAM show is about to start. The curtain falls, and something akin to a gigantic cubic tumour is revealed. Immaculately prepared footage, designed to fit perfectly onto the three dimensional sculpture, starts being projected as the first whirrs of Tobin’s fractured electronica creak into motion. Plumes of smoke, sugar-cube Death Stars, brutal turbine battering rams, cracked heat-wave eggshells and transient alien static are all beamed onto the blocks, before the man himself appears in his central control-block. It’s a triumph of precision.

The cube structure itself is recalls Rachel Whiteread’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation, but the visuals, though impressive, are probably a little too Sci-Fi, a little too iTunes Visualizer, to be considered by the Turner Prize panel anytime soon. It is entertaining though, and does successfully make Tobin’s music, which sometimes sounds like it was composed by a hive of insects rather than a single human, more accessible.

Herein lies the question – is it intended as an accompaniment to the music, or a distraction from it? Would so many people be watching him play the Main Stage it wasn’t for the visual promise? When a girl near the front gets on her boyfriend’s shoulders, and is immediately told to get down by those around her, it suggests the visuals are pretty essential to enjoy the show. Indeed, the experience would be no less diminished if it took place in a cinema, as for the most part any ‘live’ element is difficult to decipher.

The best is saved for the encore, which is emphatically live, with Tobin incorporating REAL FIRE into a brief DJ set featuring, to be honest, some much better music than his own. Tobin is undoubtedly in the vanguard of a generation that recognises the power of unprecedented visual technology to enhance their live shows, and ISAM cements his reputation as a ground-breaker, yet some perverse part of me kind of wants an error screen to suddenly pop up and disrupt things. Like his music, Tobin has accomplished something fearsomely ambitious and technically impeccable with ISAM, but it does just feel a little inhuman.

It matters not, for there are plenty of humans outside; many still queuing for ISAM even as it finishes, despite the tent not seeming unreasonably crowded. Indeed, the queues everywhere are now expanding rapidly. Getting in to see Shackleton certainly takes longer than expected. One steward eyes my can of cider with suspicion when I show them my press pass. “You don’t LOOK like you’re on duty”, she says disapprovingly. Clearly she hasn’t met a music journalist before.

The crowd inside is the bounciest yet, and with good reason. The music is perfect for Bloc, satisfying both brain and feet, with fresh beats colliding against poly-rhythmic organ patterns that strongly recall a certain Mr Reich who graced the same stage earlier. “I was expecting a much darker set to be honest”, says one bloke on the fringes, although his disappointment doesn’t seem to be shared by the majority. He wanders off to find whether his friend has managed to get in yet. His disappointment is about to go stratospheric.

"Inevitably, a sudden crowd surge causes a barrier to fall and several people are sent sprawling to the floor"

Attempting to watch DOOM in the Main Arena brings this home. With several hundred already impatiently queuing, a bunch of Express ticket-holders, who have paid extra to skip any queue on the site, are told they have to line up with the rest. Someone with an Artist wristband is also told to join them by an increasingly panicked steward. I wander over to the MS Stubnitz, a 1960s East German fishing vessel converted into a multi-floored party venue. Here, no one is getting in at all. Stewards try to convince the crowd that the ship has been closed for the night and no one will be allowed on, but the crowd ain’t buying it. People begin to get agitated. While we British are famed for our patient queuing habits, a Frenchman behind me is less forgiving, yelling, “This is shit! The worst festival ever! Merde! Merde!”

Inevitably, a sudden crowd surge causes a barrier to fall and several people are sent sprawling to the floor. The stewards struggle to keep people back, before eventually managing to get the barriers up again. Though most people are fairly placid (or in some cases simply too wasted to argue), others are getting riled by the lack of information. One girl says she saw a man being led away in handcuffs, and a bloke from Leicester describes a bigger crush elsewhere. “It could’ve been like Hillsborough”, he insists.

It’s a hyperbolic comparison, but some people are genuinely shaken up. Everyone has harsh words about the organisation, the queues, the volume levels and the booze prices (although why anyone’s surprised by alcohol prices in London these days is beyond me). Most are convinced that the event has been grossly oversold. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the many who’ve travelled across the country and from overseas to be here.

"Back at the boat the crowd has been pushed back still further. With new blockades being hastily assembled, it’s clear that Bloc has become the most appropriately-named festival in Britain"

With every tent in the main area now virtually inaccessible, I attempt to wander round to the quieter side of the site. No dice. Another barrier has been erected which effectively splits the site in two, and the police have arrived to man it. They have little more information than the stewards, but it’s clear things are going badly. People are told they can pass through to the other side of the site, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be allowed back.

At one point a dozen guys manage to break through the cordon, and are half-heartedly chased by some stewards who seem to know that it’s a lost cause. Back at the boat the crowd has been pushed back still further, but a crowd continues to stand, frustrated, mainly because there’s nowhere else to go anyway. A fire engine arrives, and sits on the edge of the site in anticipation. Rumours that Snoop Dogg’s set is going to be cancelled start circulating. With new blockades being hastily assembled, it’s clear that Bloc has become the most appropriately-named festival in Britain.

It’s getting hard to see how things can carry on, and indeed it’s not long before we hear that the organisers have decided to shut things down for the night. Some of the more optimistic ticket-holders desperately seek assurance that Saturday will still go ahead, but despite it being fairly obvious that it won’t it’s several hours before it’s officially confirmed. The shuttle buses laid on to ferry people to Liverpool Street station are apparently unable to reach the site as the police have shut down access roads, so soon punters are sprinting to the DLR station in order to catch the last train back to civilisation. Each carriage is full of people venting bitter recriminations.

"It’s hard to envisage any situation where the people behind Bloc won’t ultimately be held responsible"

So who’s to blame? As yet, no one is completely sure, but there are plenty of candidates. The unfortunately-named ticketing company CrowdSurge have drawn accusations ranging from a lack of wristbands to a failure to scan or even check tickets upon entry. The security and stewards have also come in for criticism, although in most situations I witnessed bad planning and understaffing seemed more to blame than individual incompetence. Britain’s notoriously stringent Health and Safety regulations undoubtedly played their part, with ticket-holders forced to queue for virtually empty tents to keep track of numbers; then again, with rumours of injury and a fatality so far appearing to be just that (touch wood), maybe that was the right decision.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to envisage any situation where the people behind Bloc won’t ultimately be held responsible. Considering a free festival took place at the same site just a week earlier with only minor teething problems, it’s hard to see how a paying event with such a strong reputation can have failed so miserably. Promoters may regularly oversell events under the assumption they’ll be a certain amount of no-shows, but whether that applies here, and to what degree if so, is unknown. We can also only speculate on who hired security, chose the ticketing company and decided on crowd control strategies.

Bloc are, of course, unequivocally responsible for keeping people informed, but seem to have elected not to. Even as people were being turned away from venues and complaining of being crushed, the official Twitter account was still happily bigging up DOOM’s appearance in the Main Arena, seemingly oblivious to the chaos outside it. Angry comments have allegedly been deleted from their facebook page (although there are still plenty on there at the moment), and their website is, at the time of writing, off-line. Social media could’ve been used to keep people informed, but that didn’t happen (a professional reaction to the Bloc’s social media failure can be read here.

When it finally came, the official statement claimed organisers were “devastated” to have had to cancel the event, but stopped short of offering an apology. The London Pleasure Gardens venue itself, which surely has to share some responsibility in terms of planning and capacity issues, also declined to apologise in their official statement, more eager to assure people that future events will be unaffected. Perhaps both are reluctant to accept fallibility for legal or insurance purposes, but the lack of contrition is only making people angrier. Happily, the festival spirit has not been completely crushed by this epic balls-up. Despite having their weekends ruined, and with (at the time of writing) no information on refunds available, most people tried to remain positive (even the two attendees who haplessly dropped acid just before the site was evacuated). Bloc are lucky that they attract a decent audience; a less patient crowd might have resulted in something much, much worse. Despite anger at the organisers, there was a weird sense of community spirit among festival-goers, bonding in their ire.

"If Bloc returns next year we can only hope they learn the lessons of this nightmare"

This has been borne out in the aftermath, with people desperately trying to organise last-minute events to satisfy Bloc ticket-holders who might otherwise have had their weekend ruined. Sets by Jacques Greene, Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never, Theo Parrish and many others were all quickly scheduled by independent promoters across the city, all free or discounted for Bloc ticket-holders. Flying Lotus committed to playing two different gigs, and a local brewery even offered free beer to anyone who hadn’t already ripped off their wristband in frustration.

No Glastonbury, no Big Chill, a washed-out Isle Of Wight, half-a-dozen festivals cancelled, many more struggling to sell-out and now Bloc, potentially the success story of the summer, cancelled after just a few hours - and yet, the British festival spirit remains undiminished. If Bloc returns next year (which admittedly seems unlikely at this point) we can only hope they learn the lessons of this nightmare and reward the many people they’ve let down.

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