Heavy Congress is a free Sunday party that will celebrate the heavy-hitters of Melbourne’s thriving sound system culture.
There’s few buildings in Melbourne’s CBD that are as historic as the Melbourne Town Hall.
A classically designed, ornately furnished bluestone wonder that dates all the way back to 1870, the building has acted as a thriving civic hub for the better part of 150 years, serving as a chamber for council meetings, exhibitions, classical concerts, theatrical performances – and soon, a rave den.
Going down on the final night of RISING festival, Heavy Congress promises to see a party unlike any other take to the Town Hall to truly test the toughness of its age-old foundations.
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The event will see no less than nine sound systems cram their immense speaker-boxes into the Hall to pay tribute to the rich tradition of a sound clash: a custom derived from Afro Caribbean diasporas that sees sound crews face off to see who’s got the loudest – and bass-heavy – speaker setups in town.
While sound clash culture was undeniably born from Jamaican styles like reggae, dub and dancehall, one look at the Heavy Congress bill will reveal the true extent of just how far the culture has grown outside of the Caribbean.
The rave will cater to everything from dub, roots and blues all the way through to punk, hip hop, Colombian picó, Afrobeat, techno, dubstep and jungle, demonstrating the true power – and personality – of each system involved.
“Sound system culture in Australia, for me, has always been a much broader culture. We really came from this politically driven, free party culture that was loosely linked with techno and drum and bass,” says Monkey Marc, a veteran producer who’s also a key part of Melbourne crew DIY HiFi.
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His crew – consisting of himself, Phil Boutle and Rich Allen – run a fully off-the-grid, solar-powered sound system that was born out of a mutual passion for music and sustainability, with the crew’s roots harking back to the 2000s when they used to lug their system between environmental rallies around the Australian bush – providing a soundtrack to the resistance, if you will.
“These days, when people think of sound systems in Melbourne, they often think of the reggae sound systems, which is where the original clash comes from. Our version of clash is when we did a sound clash in front of the Roxby Downs uranium mine with another crew, and whoever got the best reception won,” Monkey Marc says.
“In London, I went to proper reggae sound clashes, and it’s a very different environment to what it is here,” Boutle chimes in, reaffirming the authenticity and individuality of Australia’s scene.
“I get the Jamaican thing, and I totally love and respect what they’re doing, but we come from a different angle. We promote the environmental and political side of things much more, and above all, we’re a community sound system – anyone can come play on our rig.”
DIY HiFi’s community-first sentiment is also echoed by one of the other crews set to appear at Heavy Congress: the legendary Virus Sound System, primarily operated by the eponymous Chris Virus.
While he fondly reminisces about attending authentic reggae sound clashes and feasting on delicious Jamaican jerked chicken, Virus – who refuses to reveal the details of anyone else involved in the crew, due to their longstanding underground status – declares that his crew’s roots span all the way back to the UK’s Second Summer of Love in the late ‘80s, where a combination of acid house and ecstasy kicked down the door for an exciting new era of music history.
“We went to a lot of festivals back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that were called traveller’s festivals or squat raves, and would take to the road in summer months with all our sound equipment, sculptures, backdrops, projections, bars – providing a sort of Vaudevillian nightmare,” he says.
“By the time acid house actually hit the UK in ’88/’89, we were going around doing 95% underground raves, which were all against the law, going at it from Wednesday night to fuckin’ Monday morning, 24 hours a day.”
One of the most discernible aspects of any sound system revolves around how much bass one can output from their speaker setup. It’s one of the culture’s most cherished aspects, and crews get off on the sheer amount of power that feeds into their sophisticated array of speakers.
“In a nutshell, we’ve got about 20,000 watts of RMS power, which is ran from five amplifiers, two of which are quad amps,” Chris Virus says, flexing the unfathomable power of his third generation Virus Sound System (the crew were forced to upgrade to Virus 3.0 after a New Year’s Eve rave at Footscray’s Bradmill resulted in some of their gear being stolen).
“We’ve also got these “bass bazookas” that inhabit either side of the system, which are these moving sculptures that are nearly three metres high that also function as kinetic speakers and breathe fire out of the top,” he adds. “They basically take the system all the way up to 22,000 watts, so there’s a bit of power there.”
Although DIY Sound System’s overall output is almost equally as powerful as Virus Sound System’s power load, the nature of their system is inherently different due to its sun-fuelled, battery-operated construction.
“Essentially, the system is designed to be able to run our basic rig all night without worrying about solar,” says DIY’s Rich Allen, the engineering brains behind the system. “The core of the system is the batteries, and the solar array is used to charge them.”
Sticking true to their environment-first ethos, DIY’s system toes the line between striving for pure sound quality and pursuing eco-friendly power consumption, and despite the unique nature of their setup, they’re anything but possessive of its solar-powered secrets, noting that they’ve inspired – and even assisted – a number of other solar-powered sound systems get off the ground in recent years.
“There’s a whole bunch of other systems around that try do the same thing, and the more the merrier I say,” Monkey Marc states. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the planet – if people want to pick our brains about how it runs, I’m more than happy to tell them.”
Although the nature of the Melbourne Town Hall means that there’ll be no solar panels – nor “bass bazookas” – in attendance at Heavy Congress, both DIY HiFi and Virus have got big plans up their sleeves in anticipation for the event.
“We’re going to bring edgy, dark, street-tough kind of sounds that range from techno, breaks and dark funk through to electro and acid techno,” Chris says. “ It’s going to be a good day. A lot of the members there have done a fair bit of collaborating in the past, so it’s going to be good too see them all come together.
“It will be a bit out of the box,” Boutle says of DIY’s involvement in the bash.
“It’s almost like presenting sound systems in a gallery or something, so it’s unusual for us, and we’re also playing a shorter set, so there’ll be a different vibe.
“For the DIY stuff – and sound system culture in general – you’re doing it because you love to do it. You love it even more when you see someone getting excited, and taking what you do and doing something else even whackier.”