Phase Fatale and Black Merlin at Shelter
The light of the hotel shone across the street, lighting up the facade of the Royal Palace on Dam Square. It was around 1 am in Amsterdam and chunky-house spat out of the speakers on the sixth floor. Inside, the people around were dancing, and drinks were being poured and spilt in equal measure. DJs beamed and span vinyl, and I perched up in the corner, with a taste for something heavy.
I knew that I would get it. In a city famed for red lights and green cigarettes, the real pleasures laid inside a sprawl of nightclubs, from ‘de School’ out west, to Overtoom 301, techno beckoned. But I was heading north, to the basement of a beacon-topped-building, emblazoned with the letters XXX. I took a final look across the skyline, and made for the nearest taxi. At Centraal station, I boarded a boat full of bikes, and glided across the river.
The steel shutter clamped down on the shore of the North, and fifty feet shuffled and span towards solid ground. Within minutes I reached the base of the XXX building (The Amsterdam Lookout). Outside was a short queue of revellers clad in black and draped in scarves, smoking in the cold of the Amsterdam morning. The line led to a small hole, guarded by two bouncers and a green-haired girl with a clipboard. It was almost silent, save for the odd drunken-scream in the distance of this nighttime economy.
The short queue grew in the 40 minutes it took to reach entry, and young men were turned away, their faces bewildered and spirits dampened. The couple in front of me was asked by Green-hair: “Who’s playing tonight?” to which a German man in his mid-twenties said: “Black Merlin… and Phase Fatale.” With this, I knew it was time to enter the depths of club Shelter, where the artists, both Berlin-based, promised a night of the rawest techno.
Smoke curled about the black walls, which were indistinguishable except for stainless steel strips and bolts. Black and chrome were the order of the night, and it wasn’t long before I spotted delicate, gorgeous women and moustached men walking in black leather straps and studs. I filled a locker full of coats and made it to the bar.
I drank a little glass of beer and lit a cigarette whilst surveying the room. It was nearly completely dark. Red, blue and green lights shone sporadically- muted, in the corner of the ceiling. It was a small club, but big enough to fill a few hundred. Just as I took it in, it happened- the first drop into techno, which let up an unruly cheer from the crowd. Feet were moving and smiles crept across the faces of the dancers. It was loud enough to be artillery shells, as Black Merlin introduced 125 beats per minute (BPM) techno to the undulating masses.
Now, this room was really dark, and what made it more so was the instantly recognisable sight of no-phones. The crowd wrapped around the back of the room, behind the DJ and marched as the tracks grew darker. Black Merlin played minimal, ear-splitting techno, which grew steadily faster and more sinister. A characteristic of his set was my inability to identify one of the tracks played on his CDJ-vinyl setup. This, alongside the lack of phones in the air, made me feel as if I had been drugged and ‘came-to’ on another planet. It is a sight seldom seen in the UK- that is for sure.
There were discordant voices and sounds of heavy machinery peppered over the top of piston-like kicks and hissing hi-hats. There were build-ups lasting for five minutes and a decibel so loud, that basslines took on life forms of their own- cackling in tongues or some long-lost language of giants. Hours passed as sweat-poured. Dancers took partners and were getting into a violent throe of raving.
In those moments many things made sense- it is rather odd, but there you have it- the feeling of all being in it together, all of these freaks, from all over Europe. A special union, free of violence and full of drugs. Well, I had been to weirder places. But this was not Berlin, this was Amsterdam and the vibe was absolutely electrifying. Hours shot by and I didn’t see a member of security- not that it was needed- the feeling was communal and jubilant.
Then came the big event. Phase Fatale beckoned all members of the club into the room with his first track that looped the robotic vocal sample: “ARE U READY?” New lights emerged from the walls, casting an orange-glow upon dancers. The club was real basic, stripped back- raw- just the ticket for the kind of music that Phase Fatale was beginning to spin. Long, fuzzy sinister synthesisers fought their way through an ensemble of sharp snares.
From here it was peak time. Hours melted away to the beat of 130 BPM techno. Then the real fast weapons, which made the bass crackle- pulsating vibrations that echoed through the throngs of sweltering bodies and acrid smoke. Fists were raised, beating drums unseen. A solitary kick drum held the room in a trance, until it was sliced into two with a laser-sharp hi-hat. This was Berlin techno, with deep, booming samples made for factories.
Phase Fatale did not slack for a moment. It was go all the way, with a ferocity unmatched in any venue yet seen. It was 7am as I took to the steps of the Shelter, the freezing Dutch rain bringing me back to earth.