Barbed wire barricades, rusting watch towers, lasers that feel like searchlights: Into the Valley 2017 launched the first of its new global series of festivals in an ex-Soviet labour camp, in the now near-deserted town of Rummu, a 50-minute drive from Tallinn, Estonia. The prison operated as a limestone quarry until Estonia regained independence in 1991, and, abandoned, it was left to fill up with groundwater. Out of the lake poke a few ruinous buildings, missing windows and walls; below, lurks the unseen wreckage – lampposts, machinery, cell blocks – of the prison, notorious for its human rights infringements.
If it seems jarring to party on a site with such time machine-like power to its recent slave history, it’s very much in line with a tradition in ex-Soviet states, which lean towards writing new layers on such spaces, rather than erasing the past: redemption and renewal is a necessary part of living in a place peppered with so many remnants of their recent past.
The lineup promised too many of the best in house and techno, including The Black Madonna, Jeff Mills, Nina Kraviz, Sonja Moonear, and, very impressively for an electronic music festival, was 45% female.
So with all this excitement the forecast of rain didn’t feel like too drastic a problem. After some quick research on BBC Bitesize confirming that limestone is permeable and unlikely to create very dramatic puddles, we left the wellies at home and hoped for the best.
Festivalgoers arrived on the Thursday to a site that matched the online photos of a white sand beaches and turquoise waters, with the looming centrepiece of the white mountain (in fact a refuse tip from the quarry). A cool European crowd milled in Berghain black while the colours of tropical paradise lifted the intensity of the dystopian atmosphere, as did the verdant surroundings splattered with innumerable species of wildflowers.
But swallows were flying ominously low, and we all knew what was coming. After taking in the flaming, Turner-esque sunset, (which was to disprove the old adage of “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”), the Black Madonna bumped up the vibe on the quarry’s beach.
Due to some security issues, the festival was forced to shut down on the first night at 3am, before Sonja Moonear’s set. By the following afternoon, the rain had set in hard. The white mountain turned a sludgy beige, people were tripping over barbed wire and someone had graffitied a new name for the festival onto a wall: “Into the helli”. It became apparent that the only covered stage, which would have helped in the downpour, The Warehouse, had failed because of safety issues discovered the day before the festival in the sound check. It looked as though the lineup might be in free fall. Luckily, there was a spare, somewhat covered stage that was hastily erected and, with a bit of rescheduling, all The Warehouse acts would be rehoused to The Dome.
Braving Friday’s downpour, the crowd on the beach stage settled into a set from the Sofian experimental house and techno producer KiNK, improvising with piano riffs and accompanied by singer Rachel Row.
For its first two years, Into the Valley was in another limestone quarry (apparently the stone was used in ancient Greek amphitheatres, so notable are its acoustic qualities), nestled in a forest in Sweden. Now in its third year, they have left their birthplace to launch a global series of festivals in sites that have never been put to such use before. Other confirmed future events include Into the Castle, in a sixteenth century castle in Cape Town, a prized heritage site known as the oldest surviving building in South Africa.
Not only do they deserve kudos for the adept negotiating skills that have got them into such unusual spaces, but also for their technical prowess in tackling surrounds not built for purpose. Built on the water, just a few feet from the shore’s edge, the main stage used a prison building behind as backdrop with projections by a selection of eastern European visual artists. The smallest of the stages, The Yard, had an inexplicably good sound system, perhaps in part thanks to the limestone.
The final night’s highlight was a three-hour set from Kerri Chandler. When he played Danny Howell’s hypnotic 10-minute remix extravaganza of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, a euphoric tremble went through the crowd. The struggles with the weather had only deepened our pleasure. We’d made it through, to this magic moment on The Beach.