Experimental programming in a subtropical paradise: welcome to Tremor festival
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  • Post published:27/09/2021
  • Post last modified:27/09/2021

Fancy some whale-watching with your banging tunes? This little-known Portuguese island is hosting one of the most inventive festivals running today.

Sheltering under the pipe of an old factory building, I am drenched. My hiking expedition has been caught in a heavy downpour whilst navigating a rather hairy path through the Azorean forest. Around me, tall trees fade into mist. My fellow adventurers pause to admire a waterfall, plugged into a specially-commissioned track designed to complement their spectacular surroundings.

When I pictured my first music festival of 2021, I can’t say this is what I had in mind. With gigs happening across the island of São Miguel, Portugal – with its subtropical climate, dense forests and breath-stealing lakes and waterfalls – Tremor festival aims to immerse you in what makes its home so unique. Later today, attendees will be bussed out to a gig overlooking the rugged Northern coastline; yesterday we found ourselves hopping between a host of art deco venues in the capital Porto Delgada. In a lot of cases, the gigs are kept a secret from attendees; you just hop on a coach from Delgada’s port, where the festival is based, and see what happens.

With gigs spread out across five days, and mostly in the evenings, it’s encouraged to plan days out around them. Though it’s definitely better if you can hire a car, public transport on the island is reliable, and there are a number of small tour operators working from the port. When I wasn’t head banging by a lake, I managed to bag a trip to a hot spring at Furnas, and stopped off at a roadside restaurant to sample the local delicacy – meat and vegetables slow-cooked in the heat of the island’s dormant volcano. Whale and dolphin-watching are also options.

This year’s line-up is limited to whoever could jump the hurdles of COVID regulations, but Tremor is more about celebrating experimentation than pushing big names. Leftfield electronica, heavy alternative and wonky pop filled most of the headline slots – from drumming duo Valentina Magaletti and João Pais Filipe, who performed as CZN, to the psychedelic moods of Vanishing Twin. Kitsch is also a thread running throughout: it’s not every day you get to see an obscure Portuguese synth wizard playing a concept album about space. Whilst its unlikely anyone would come to Tremor just for the music, it’s nice to know you’re not just paying for a lengthy Airbnb experience.

Phobos – Orquestra robótica disfuncional

Phobos, The Robot Orchestra, was a performance that I enjoyed backwards. Sitting down in Estudio 13 – located in an industrial estate just outside of the city – my terrible eye sight meant I only caught the grand gestures of the four men on stage: one blowing bubbles into a mason jar, one sawing some string over a contact mic, and everything underscored by the mechanised pulse of what I knew to be the titular robots. The extraordinary nature of the beats they produced only become clear afterward, when the band invited the audience to inspect their rig. Here, you could see each DIY instrument up close; the glockenspiel hits provided by a quartet of mechanical dogs; the woodblock triggered by tiny woodpecker figurines; the carnival bells courtesy of some robot arms banging saucepans. An absolute marvel of engineering.

Ko Shin Moon

For the second secret show of the festival, punters were bundled into a coach near sundown and taken to a cliff-edge overlooking São Miguel’s dramatic coastline. In contrast, the duo who met us there were perhaps the least organic of the bill, dressed in shiny mint-green suits, with a set-up that included two suitcases stuffed with modular synths and drum machines. Ko Shin Moon’s sound – a concoction of acid house and traditional Middle Eastern music – made more and more sense as their set went on: once you got over the bizarreness of seeing a guy shred on a lute, and the occasional bursts of what sounded like a Turkish cop show theme, it was an entrancing opportunity to dance. As dusk settled in, I turned around to see a previously spaced out crowd of festival-goers making shapes in the auburn glow of the sun.

Mário Raposo

Audiences descended on Mário Raposo’s performance at the grand Teatro Micaelense with an air of ‘what is this?’, Raposo being relatively obscure even in his home country. But as the keyboarist hurtled into a set of hyper-melodic electronica – galaxies, oceans and images of ancient cultures projected above him – it was clear: this guy is basically Portugal’s answer to Jean Michel-Jarre.

That description may or may not float your boat, but for this synth anorak, watching Raposo command a bulging rig of Korgs and Yammahas was a transcendent joy. Song titles included “Alien Ritual” and “Concerto for Unexpected Visitors” – the latter a filmic odyssey that began with an angelic choir, and ended with a grand herald of operatic vocals and harpsicord.

Raposo also brought out a few local musicians – including one startlingly good electric guitarist, who shredded over his compositions. When I Googled him after the gig, I was shocked to find he only started making music in 2011, when sonically, he echoed the 70s stadium works of Mike Oldfield et al. Nerdery at its best.

Solar Corona

In Sete Cidades, there is a twin lake nestled in an old volcanic crater – one side blue, and one green. Legend has it that a princess and a shepherd boy once fell in love here, but – forbidden to marry by the princess’s father – they cried into the lakes, turning each the colour of their eyes. The myth gives you a sense of the actual lake’s magic, which is surrounded by towering mountains, haloed in mist.

And what would illuminate this serene landscape? The pounding prog rock of Portugal’s Solar Corona.

It was probably a rude awakening for the occasional hikers who’d come to experience the peace and quiet of the lagoon, but for the Tremor crowd, it was a welcome smack in the jaw. The four-piece were just that loud, with languorous crescendos that collapsed into no-nonsense heavy metal. Their quieter moments invoked Mogwai, with various members twiddling knobs and dials to create endless delays and feedback loops. Mastermind bassist José Roberto Gomes made a particular impression, his thick moustache and permanent shades carving a rock star silhouette in the gloom of the tiny tent Solar occupied. The description of the band on their label’s website says they will ‘rip your consciousness off’; it is not hyperbole.

Casper Clausen

I laughed with a new friend about how Tremor become more and more like a ‘normal festival’ as it went on, our final evening spent in one of the islands many protected natural reserves, sipping beer in plastics cups and wandering between two temporary stages and a makeshift food court. Having somehow dodged any prolonged ‘bad weather days’, the Saturday crowd – which had filled out with more locals – were bullied by wicked fronts of wind and rain as they watched the opening acts.

Trust Casper Clausen, synth-pop dynamo and possibly the tallest man in Portugal at the time, to reset the vibe. Clausen’s solo work – a mix of dreamy electronica, vocal dance and folk – translated well to his diminutive set up of a single sequencer and a (rarely utilised) drumkit. He was also aggressively charismatic: a cheeky bit of call and response, and a confident leap into the audience to have a dance with spectators, saved what could have been a gruelling 6pm slot. I find out later that when Clausen said he’d been to Tremor four times previously, he meant primarily as a ticket-holder; he’s a life-long devotee of the Portguese music scene and a former resident of Lisbon.

Some other things to note

  • São Miguel’s climate is especially changeable; during our stay, we experienced searing heat, torrential rain and some grey and mucky weather. If in doubt, bring everything.
  • Also, don’t forget your swimming trunks! There are places to swim across the island – from the aforementioned hot springs at Furnas, to a cute port-based swimming platform right in the capital.
  • Portugal isn’t known for being very vegetarian friendly, but São Miguel was especially tricky, with few vegan options available at restaurants. If, like me, you have an embarrassing list of dietary requirements, make sure you grab yourself an Airbnb and stock up on local produce.
  • Don’t make the mistake of staying in Porto Delgada the whole time: there really is a wealth of things to do outside the capital. Extend your trip one side of the festival, so you can visit Ribeira Grande’s amazing Contemporary Art Center, Hotel Monte Palace, an abandoned hotel which gives a wonderful view of Sete Cidades, or Fábrica Chá Gorreana – the only place in Europe to manufacture green and black tea.

A whirlwind romance

There are very few experiences like Tremor – a festival where you can hike, dolphin-watch and wild swim alongside some genuinely brilliant musical performances. The passion of the team behind the festival pours through every element, from the sensitive pairing of artist and venue, to the decision to showcase some of Portugal’s hidden sonic gems. And if 2021’s edition was constrained by COVID, all eyes are on 2022 for something even more extraordinary.

Tremor festival ran from 7 to 12 Sept 2021.

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