As long as blue skies remain more a British summer hope than expectation, the allure of the foreign festival looms ever larger in the collective imagination: why toil in the trenches of Glastonbury drinking £6-a-pint perry when a couple of hours from your short-haul airport of choice there lies a festival Eden where the money’s different enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re spending it, the beer’s served in session-friendly halves and sunrise is a thing to embrace, not dread?
At least that’s the theory – and nowhere more so than at Unknown, a festival at an upmarket beach resort a mile up the shore from a scruffily beautiful fishing village in northern Croatia, among enchanting forests and craggy coastline. At Unknown, though, it’s a whole week of abandon rather than just a weekend – a Monday-to-Friday rave that takes the slow-and-steady approach to losing your shit: DJs play out leisurely by the pools at the start, and five days later you’re hugging strangers in a woodland clearing. Indeed, the entire festival is geared towards being a marathon not a sprint, and as I arrive in 35° heat on Monday afternoon, the slow pace is a godsend.
That said, my first glimpse of Unknown’s central hub feels more like the location for a BBC Three documentary than any mythic Shangri-La. In front of a beach bar, two luxurious infinity pools are hosting an entanglement of waxed-chested boys in pink shorts and orange girls in denim hot-pants, while a pair of anonymous DJs deliver student union-friendly classics. By no stretch is this scene cool or subversive, but as night falls and the DJs begin throwing out chart-friendly house and club classics to the reddened masses still in their swimwear, there arises a sort of off-the-leash majesty to proceedings, a pungent sense of anticipation: “this is going to be the best week of my life”, I overhear one lad proclaiming to his mates at the bar, and the bare fact is that he could well be right.
On day two, I take in an island party. These are one of Unknown’s power-up attractions where you pay a little extra to be whisked off with 100 others for an afternoon on a volcano-shaped island twenty minutes out to sea, upon which are already marooned some of the world’s best DJs. Waiting for the water taxi there in the baking midday heat I meet Gordon. Gordon hasn’t been to bed yet, but despite that he remains chatty, telling me with meticulous and close-quartered insistence about how Daniel Avery and Erol Alkan are about to blow our minds. Unfortunately, by the time we make land the sun has sapped Gordon’s energy – and everyone else’s – and it’s not until it hangs lower in the sky that the party really gets going. From then on, though, Avery does his Orbital-meets-burbling-acid-house thing with aplomb, and the setting is heavenly: perched atop a Tracey Island idyll, and counting myself among a tiny minority of people who still have their top on, I watch the sunset to crisp techno. A muddy dance tent in the West Country is scarcely imaginable.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the festival’s only live stage is up and running. The Unknown site is essentially an outdoor superclub, with four separate DJ areas curating nightly bills of varying subtlety and popularity, and the result is that each evening’s live line-up feels more like an added bonus before the fun really starts than a star draw in itself. Accordingly, when Nile Rogers, arguably the greatest living hitmaker, strides on stage with his militarily drilled Chic Organisation band and delivers two hours of bulletproof disco pop, the awe that his songs command is heightened by the sheer unexpected euphoria. Indeed, so rapturously is the parade through the last 35 years of Rogers-helmed dance music that by the time of the stage invasion encore, no one has noticed that it’s started to spit. However, the weather soon disintegrates into downpour, and while DJ Harvey’s delightfully errant set of space disco and snapping techno does its best to deny the elements, there’s no avoiding the washout that persists until the afternoon of day four.
With the site now a far more familiar British quagmire I set sail again, this time on one of Unknown’s boat parties, another add-on that takes 100 or so seafarers on a six-hour cruise around the bay while DJs entertain above deck. As with the island parties, there’s a sense that the boat trips live or die not just on the strength of the performers but also the enthusiasm of the crowd, so when our boat is commandeered by the festival’s entire Scottish contingent, all of whom seem to know that day’s host collective Tweakaholic (the wedding DJ alter-ego of Glaswegian Jackmaster and two of his prankster Weegie mates) personally, there’s a palpable sense that things are likely to get quite daft for the next few hours. And lo, the tone is set as we cast off to the strains of Enya’s Orinoco Flow and the assembled mass of Yes voters belt “sail away, sail away, sail away!” to the vanishing harbour. What follows is an evening of joyous, exquisitely crafted silliness: Tweakaholic’s carefully navigated populism – they play songs you know, sure, but also plenty that you’d completely forgotten existed – combined with their deceptively skilful mixing generates an irresistible lightness and bonhomie that’s so often missing from the clubbing experience. Very simply, theirs is a set to grin to, and as the rain clears and the SS Irn-Bru bobs around the Adriatic to Luther Vandross and Ce Ce Peniston, all gorgeously mixed with flair and humour, it’s hard to recall a more jubilant way to listen to dance music.
Back on dry land later that night, Simian Mobile Disco’s sunrise set is a valiant and stirring blast of big-room electro that eventually spirals into delicious Balearic hippie wig-out, and the following evening Disclosure close the entire festival with a DJ set that rather graciously presents all the club classics they so expertly pilfered for their earth-conquering debut album. Despite the returning soft drizzle and expending stamina, the hedonism of day one has clearly endured for enough of the Unknown faithful: in the queue for the transfer back to the airport the morning after, I overhear another lad, who may or may not have been the same one from day one. “Best week of my life,” he enthuses. Turns out he was right all along.