Live Review - Hospitality @ O2 Academy, Oxford

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After eighteen years of progress and popularity, each birthday party bigger and better than the last, Hospital Records is one stubborn teenager. It adheres strictly to its own philosophy, presenting us with five Drum n Bass DJs in five hours, and while veteran names are replaced by new talent, there’s something about the O2 tonight which feels just as much like a celebration of history as a showcase for the future. The queue is a chain of stories and Hospital heritage, each going further back than the last, and as I enter, a hoarse chorus of Happy Birthday fills the smoking area with an address to the latent nostalgia: we might be getting older but we are still all here tonight.

First up to marshal the gathering crowds for the dance music marathon is recent signing Krakota, who poses an immediate challenge to us and the genre itself, his set densely textured with an eclectic palette of sounds. Industrial screeches and the muted keyboards of deep house flavour are sideswiped by dubstep wobbles, and for his parting shot, a surging synth build up drops through the floor to leave a sparse jungle riddim. Krakota leaves us blissfully disoriented, eager but clueless as to where the next minute, let alone the rest of the evening, will take us. As Etherwood’s liquid pianos and velvety vocal samples fade in then, our sights are narrowed, but the DJ ushers in the new funk with no suggestion of compromise. Hold Your Breath epitomises Etherwood’s blend of ethereal melody and frenetic, ground-level drive, and here the bass is more of a physical presence than ever: hovering just above head height, it ruffles my hair at the roots, but under the low ceiling, bodies become lightning conductors as the bass plunges down in shockwaves to our shuddering feet.

London Elektricity channels the energy of the room now from piano power chords into one sinuous synth line that leads us onwards through the night, and the electro notes of his first selections are as glossy and as European in style as the pages of Italian Vogue, with clean blue flashes of light guiding the sound out from the front. At last though, for one crucial silent second, the DJ stalls, and in the lapse it is evident how delicate a balancing act Hospitality truly is. A number of the crowd take a break, and while the beats continue more repetitive and insistent than before, the demoralised ensemble cannot. We fall out of sync, even MC Wrec moves in half time now, and the beat ticks like a desperate clock until headliners Fred V & Grafix take to the decks at 2am.

But no sooner have the DJs announced the arrival of the hour, as the second in a cascade of bass boulders hits the floor, when the crowd with all its energy is drawn close once again, and we find just what we were missing. Hands are raised for a charged vocal build up, but quickly drop into a dark, starchy skank, and in the tunnel-like focus the tuned snare drums have the urgency of fractured sirens. Their sound is fine-tuned, and as one of the pair tweaks the levels the other can bounce, sway and confidently survey the chaos below. Whether with a wordless roar or a heartfelt sing-along, every tune is given a hero’s welcome, and as couples bellow the lyrics to Sigma’s Nobody to Love at each other, it seems Fred V & Grafix really do have something for her and for him early this Valentine’s morning. There are moments in the set when it feels like not only the music of this evening but the music of all Hospital’s time has been building up this point, this release, as new Sub Focus hits follow on from Chase & Status’ classic Take Me Away, and the pair’s own euphoric blowout Major Happy is mixed with a Prodigy favourite in a fusion of old and new that comes to seem almost inseparable.

By the end of the set, even the industrial coolers cannot keep the temperature down, and as people clamber down off their friends’ shoulders and out of the thick human vapour above, others emerge topless from the purge at the foot of the stage. The thirty-somethings, the original nuttahs come to pay their reverence to Hospital now as it ever was, are satisfied, and Metrik’s graveyard set falls indeed on a largely dead room. For Hospitality, the masterclass is over and the Academy dismissed.

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