Hidden Door Festival first opened its doors in 2014 and ever since the organisers have wowed Edinburgh’s residents and visitors with an annual programme of expertly curated arts and music. I was very late to the party, first attending the festival at Granton Gasworks in 2021, but Hidden Door has quickly become one of the highlights of my year.
This year, the festival took over the former Scottish Widows headquarters on Dalkeith Road – a sprawling polygonal structure reminiscent of The Pentagon when viewed from above. With stunning views of Arthur’s Seat from the site entrance (at an angle that shows off its lion-esque silhouette) it’s an immediately iconic locale. Completed in 1976, the building, a honeycomb structure of tinted glass, glistens with that decade’s futuristic style. Evocative of classic science fiction, it’s something that the organisers leaned into, simply dubbing it ‘The Complex’. This bend towards retro-futurism and sci-fi continued throughout the festival’s five nights of music, dance, spoken word, and art, including a couple of key experiences.
triffid, a multi-disciplinary audio-visual installation curated by artistic partnership Ghostbag, encouraged visitors to explore The Complex on a self-guided tour. What started as a gentle, calming experience, walking through the site’s lush garden areas, quickly became something far more sinister. Listening to an audiobook inspired by John Wyndham’s classic tale The Day of The Triffids while tentatively moving around the venue’s dark, abandoned industrial areas was lonely, unsettling and immersive.
The Environments, a series of dynamic and interactive performances where the audience was guided from one area to the next, was arguably the centrepiece of the festival. Starting with a mandatory induction and followed by Carbon Copy, an enthralling office-based dance sequence (imagine an 80s synth wave music video being performed live). The rest of the performances could be experienced as they unfolded, or at your leisure, in several different locations around The Complex. During the day (when the festival was free to explore) these spaces seemed vast and, despite a few art installations, felt quite empty. However, in the evening these spaces came alive, completely transformed with music, dance and performance art, each with its own theme including mountains, wasteland, forest and gardens, the sea bed and the centre of the earth. An inspired idea, executed to perfection.
Over three of the festival’s five days, I also had the pleasure of enjoying a tonne of great live music. On opening night I caught Pozi (a trio of violinist/singer, drummer and bassist performing avante-garde indie pop), Deadletter (rollicking, danceable, post-punk), and the just incredible Porridge Radio (modern indie rock at its finest) who played all the hits from their incredible 2022 album Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky, and much more besides.
I spent most of Friday night at the Loading Bay Stage (literally the building’s old loading bay) enjoying a couple of hours of burgeoning Scottish hip-hop starting with the effervescent Billy Got Waves (check out our interview with Billy here). It was a powerful, energetic performance, featuring several songs from his new three-part album Rocket Boy, elevated by a full live band, some special guests, and some seriously cool merch. A tough act to follow it would seem, but Bemz was up to the task. All smiles, beaming and brimming with enthusiasm, he was overjoyed to be at Hidden Door and whilst the set was a self-confessed slow burn, singles like ‘Flex’ (the audience participation was unreal) and ‘Zidane’ (a joyous banger) were huge.
The final night, for me, was all about the rock quartet Pillow Queens who closed the main Cabaret Stage. It’s easy to see why they’re signed to Sub Pop Records with their grungy, melodic brand of alternative rock and their soothing and catchy style was perfectly suited to a Sunday night. They played all the hits, but crowd favourites ‘Holy Show’, ‘Liffey’, ‘How Do I Look’ and a rare performance of ‘Gay Girls’ were the big highlights.
Simply put, Hidden Door 2023 was yet another stunning transformation of a unique, unused space in Edinburgh. If you’re yet to experience the festival, do yourself a favour and grab a ticket for next year. You will not regret it.
Hidden Door will be back in 2024. Early bird tickets are on sale now!