Monday, 29 November 2010
It is perhaps fair to judge the film and music both individually and collectively, as the soundtrack music to the film more than stands up on it’s own. Included in the disc are two bonus recordings, another 14 minutes of wonderfully recorded music, and on the dvd, a whole plethora of noteworthy supplements.
Having opened at the Vienna International Film Festival, Wurld represents Elfin Saddle’s devotion to performance art and installation pieces. Both Jordan McKenzie and Emi Honda, the artists behind the project, are devout inventors, instrumentalists with an eye to DIY and the ad-hoc.
Wurld, the film, can be loosely surmised as a narrative retelling of a society’s evolution and fall- filmed in stop-motion, rendered in a quaint archaic style that captivates your inner child’s imagination. Opening with television static, this gives way to muddy voids, from which horizons form, green shoots and the beginnings of what you might call civilisation. What is interesting about the composition here is how technological development is animated much in a similar fashion to the natural evolution. As plants stutter and arc toward the sky, so too do the beginnings of infrastructure- timid building blocks dancing across the screen, positioning themselves into a semblance of civil order.
Just as form materialises, so too does it disperse. The film is broken into numerous sections, each transitioned with a knowing fade to black. These epochs allow for a passing of time, a skipping of centuries, as the diorama’s structures take on greater development. This is a film about nature and culture, how both are subject to evolutionary spurts and moments of waning, recession- the inexorable linking of these two oppositional modes. As pre-industrial mining and monarchic theocracies give way to highly technologised societies, does Wurld imagine these existences any differently? One development gets layered over another and evolution’s rebuilding, it’s process of continual renewal, is revealed as one of fairly arbitrary determinism, a causality without thought or pre-consideration, only impetus for change.
Elfin Saddle similarly have constructed a soundtrack that befits this narrative exposition, a layered sound recording that is foreboding and enchanting in equal measure. Sourced from an array of acoustic instruments, found sound and assembled kit, the soundtrack to this short film is a lovely piece of music, the kind of avant-garde instrumental folk that is as progressive as it is timeless. The two extra recordings on the LP are similarly interesting pieces of music, crafted from choral chanting, evocative chord progressions and intricate homemade percussion. Their music is enveloping and hugely beautiful, but so unconcerned with notions of grandeur- even when reciting such a grand meta-narrative as a history of society’s evolution.
Accompanying the short film on Wurld’s DVD is a full concert recording as well as a selection of outtakes from the edit. Lovingly put together and fully realised as a conceptual work, Wurld is a small, assured statement of artistry and example by one of Constellations most intriguing new bands.
Monday, 22 November 2010
In the business of marketing super-stardom, record labels enjoyed a near-monopoly. I remember the fervent clamour with which young bands chased recording contracts, and the romanticised retellings of this narrative through such Generation X films as Wayne’s World or Bill & Ted. If the process was hard, it was also inevitably rewarding- this was the message the industry gave off- that really, it was a case of filtration, and once you’d signed your first contract- the number one’s, obliging lady friends, suitcases full of cash- would come rolling in.
This, of course, is a bygone era- and you would perhaps forgive those more closely involved with record production and promotion if they regarded it with rose-tinted spectacles, staying awake late at night wistfully remembering how it used to be. As compared, of course, to how it is. For whilst they attempt to claw back some of their relevance, to re-establish themselves as crucial, essential players in the process dividing band and audience- it’s becoming increasingly difficult to articulate how ‘what they do’ could possibly be in anyone’s interest, besides their own.
In 2000, the highest selling album shifted 9.9 million units (N’Sync) and in 2006, a mere 3.9 million (High School Musical). With these statistics indicating a continuing trend, the likelihood that a band will get burdened with a major label’s expenses is more realistic than ever. Why? A record label's main concern is the monetary return on their initial investment (or ‘advance’), but an artist's main passion throughout any negotiations is the quality of the music being produced, and their ability to keep making it- regardless of financial minutae. That is, of course, if you even get signed- with such low returns on investments, record labels are much less inclined to take risks on emerging talent, instead pumping their funds into either established artists (with a proven track record of selling records, playing theatres) or more malleable artists, whom they can fast-track to the spotlight through a process of characterisation and branding.
In this environment, competition for places is paramount; a sense of limited resources being fought over by bands desperate for what spotlight is available. Artists are already forced to compete for the interest of fans; they shouldn't have to compete for that attention within their own record label. As such, unprofitable artists may get dropped at a whim after failing to live up to the record label’s short-term expectations, or have their releases pushed back to accommodate marketing a label’s other, more prioritised releases. How is the record industry responding to these trends, their diminishing necessity? By changing the way they write record contracts.
A 2010 survey found that those who download music illegally spend an average of £77/year on music (including concerts and merchandise) - £33/year more than those who claim they never download music dishonestly. This indicates quite clearly that the emotional value of music remains there for listeners, even if the economic value of the recorded product (album, singles etc) has diminished- and arguably remains a good model for bands to operate under. If you can generate a strong fan base through the quality of your music, then there’s every likelihood that by playing out and connecting with your audience directly, a band can see generate a decent amount of income. On the basis that you can print a t-shirt for less than £2, if you sell 500 of them over the course of a tour at £10 each, that’s a return of £4000 on your outlay.
In traditional agreements- labels recouped their investment through record sales, leaving band’s earnings to be made from touring, merchandise and sponsorship. Now, 360-degree deals are the norm. Warner won’t sign anyone now unless it’s a 360 deal- a package which is more akin to a management deal, whereby the label will take a cut from any future sponsorship, seeding, use of material, touring and merchandise. And while this may remove the need for an ‘immediate hit’, in real terms it means that bands will earn even less, and have less control over their image, presentation and rights. Labels traditionally made money from the process in which they were involved – ie/ recording and distributing records. Is it coincidence that now that recorded music sales are significantly declining, they change their business model? What gives them the right to impede on touring, merchandise, sponsorship or the use of music in films or adverts? How does this benefit either the artist or the audience?
This isn’t the 1980s anymore though, and record labels shouldn’t presume they can operate with such impunity. Similarly, it is the responsibility of artists to challenge this, and exist on a self-sustainable model that is more edifying to both audience and their own career. The benefits of doing so speak for themselves.
1. Maintaining ownership of rights over any/all your produced material and image- In an age of 360 licensing deals, you may have little control over how your material is used, and see little return on that use. Maintaining ownership here can be both artistically intelligent (as you define your public identity) and prudent (as you will own all funds generated by use).
2. Control of cash flow- Rather than being the last to be imbursed (after retailers, distributors, promoters and rights-owners), the band can enjoy a direct relationship with their paying audience and cut out all these middlemen.
3. Success or failure on your own terms - There are lots of ways you can clash creatively with a label, and depending on what kind of deal you have, sometimes the label will win. When you're the one putting out the music, you release the music you want, and only the music you want, when you want to release it. The marketing, the touring - all of the decision will be made by you, so there will be none of the typical conflicts.
These things in mind- we must turn our attention to the third and perhaps most vital part of media reception process, that is to say audience. What motivates an audience to part with their hard-earned cash in respect of recorded music? What generates the notion of fandom, or devotion to a particular cause/band/independent label?
In many respects, the record industry today is like the bottled water industry. You have a product that is widely available for free, and yet remains a market for people who want to pay for it. The question is: what motivates them to pay for something they can easily get for free?
1. Quality- Just as bottled water may come from volcanic riverbeds, or mountain glaciers- so too does a successful album release come at a higher quality that a peer-to-peer downloaded MP3 can allow (ie/ vinyl or a digital download in a lossless format, like FLAC) or it comes in a beautifully crafted box with stunning artwork, as opposed to the overtly mass produced plastic jewel cases. Vinyl sales have reliably shot up nearly 20% year on year for the past 5 years- and this trend shows no signs of abating. Special, limited editions are becoming an increasing norm as well- packaged with exclusive art, remix CDs, full size posters or other exclusive content- engaging the audience with a feeling of privilege, and removing the ‘album’ from this notion of being a mass-produced, faceless product- reeled off with the sole purpose of being sold.
2. Convenience- 2010 is the year that digital record sales equalled with physical formats, after years of increase and decline in either sector. Of these digital sales, over 70% of that will come from iTunes. The iTunes model has proved a success, unlike p2p networks, or the failed digital models set up by labels directly, because it is convenient- providing liner notes, digital artwork, website information, links to tour info and the digital file is trustworthy and easy to transfer between media devices.
3. Ethics- Using conventional, historically prevalent music publishing models- one could argue that there is little in the way of a moral obligation involved in the purchase of music. Labels, having bought up the artists, promoted and distributed the records- were then rewarded for having brought the artist to your attention, rather than for the content of the record. In fact, it’s something of a backhand step: That most people presume a record purchase will further the career of the artist, whereas in truth this is something of a convoluted argument. Whilst notes will be made in that artists’ sales, therefore will encouraging the label to invest further resources in them- the artist receives little or nothing directly as a result of this. As mentioned previously, old arrangements (pre-360) afforded musicians their bread and butter through touring and merchandise. Now, it’s even worse- artists enrolling in what nearly amounts to slavery in exchange for little more than the privilege to record and publish. In this model- can there be any ethical obligation to buying the recordings?
And yet, our notion of moral responsibility prevails. If we are to ascribe emotional value to recordings, do we not also feel obliged to offer financial reward in exchange? The imperative is direction: that the correct source finds themselves rewarded, in this case the artist(s). When musicians can demonstrate a direct causality between this artist creativity and audience response, audiences are much more inclined to part with their cash, and feel justified in doing so.
Production, publication and distribution are no longer elitist industries that record companies have monopolies on. Simply put, they need the bands more than the bands need them: the rise and democratisation of home recording suites, use of communications and social-media technologies allowing for bands to operate on an entirely self-sustainable promotions model, without need for the recording industry conglomerate’s “expertise” or input.
Monday, 15 November 2010
Each recording here is ripe with character, subtle arrangements and a studio-mastery that makes for an engaging listen both on stereos and headphones. The collection is beautifully arranged- some of the segueing, as between Revival and Sailing, just seems natural- as though those songs had always followed each other. And therein lies the beauty of a successful album, records like Kid A or Liar's Drum's Not Dead manifesting as collective wholes- cinematic, literate. Listening to the entire work is the essence of it.
Halycon Digest is a record it's hard not to enjoy as a whole- the sonic turns between tracks allowing for an enjoyable, rewarding 45 minutes- an expectancy and eagerness drives your ears throughout. It's a record I keep coming back to, quietly persistent, without quite understanding exactly what precisely is motivating that. And honestly, I didn't expect that. I didn't throw a listening party when it came out, I can't even really remember for how long I've felt this way about it, but it's crept up. Being so gently surprised is nice, especially in an age when over-hyped releases like Arcade Fire disappointed me and my unreasonably high expectations of Jonsi's work led to inevitable dissatisfaction. Pleasant then, that such a modest release stole my heart. And it lingers, like all great records do.
First published in the405.
Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Red Sparowes hit the stage just past nine, after a soundcheck in which the filling theatre had been made to endure a terribly rendered ‘waiting room’ image cast upon a projection screen behind the stage. In one corner was that most iconic of marble statues, Aristotle, crumbling. From this was blended tree leaves, branches, and in the left-most corner, a sparrow (I’m guessing it was a sparrow, I mean- I’ve really let my ornithological knowledge slide recently, but if it wasn’t then either they’ve missed a trick or it’s a cruel double bluff). Towering over this grand ambiguous portmanteau, proudly lay emblazoned their band name, layered crudely in a font which evoked the gothic myopia of Camden’s seedier fashion outlets or the kind of Olde English Storye Bookes that get written by folk writers enamoured with Wiccan lore and similarly vague mysticism, tongue in cheek. As fervent roadies swarmed over arranged kit, tugging cables in earnest and working quietly toward a shared enterprise or collective will larger than themselves, band members briefly soundchecked on that expectant stage (a stage whose solitary raison d’etre was found to be the accommodation of live music, by process of naming accordingly and justifying thus). All the while, this projected image, appropriating classicist imagery, evocative of nature’s Autumnal wane, reminiscent of cheese-inflicted Goth yarns, grew more and more ridiculous, resonating distinctly as if it had previously enjoyed a life being knocked up in a ‘five-minute MS Paint challenge’ set half in jest to a class of accident recovery students, who by no small coincidence had all lost use of their mouse-wielding palms, and who had to struggle defiantly in their task, and would endeavour unflinchingly. For a small second, you began to feel pity, judging such matters on the gravity of context and the sweeping egalitarianism of merit.
So, Red Sparowes hit the stage just past name, and the now filled theatre was treated to an opening salvo cast lucidly off their most recent LP ‘The fear is excruciating, but therein lies the answer’ (an album title to which the only appropriate response can be ‘well, what then was the question?’)- their large ensemble of six musicians, spread out across the wide Scala stage with an appropriate amount of spacing between. Stage right, Bryant Clifford Meyer (also of wondrous doom mongers Isis) riffed. A wood-crafted slide guitar rested between him and bassist Greg Burns, a well shaven and respectable looking man who cut a striking silhouette, occupied centre stage and would shirk to the audience- one foot astride a monitor speaker, bass aloft. Adrift and tucked distantly in the bosom of the far left, guitarist Emma Ruth Rundle arced at the heavens with her reverb/echo drenched finger picking, a process mimicking the ethereal cawing of an e-bow used correctly. Hers was to carve the melody lines amidst the upper register, as grungy men took to burying themselves within the weighty sludge of eternal riffing. Such gravitas, such disparity. And sludgy it was- for unseen hands deigned the bass to seem irritatingly quiet, within eyesight but forever, tantalisingly, ever and ever, out of reach. And low, was the delicacy of individual notes at points compromised by the dopamine-addled wall of sound, a wall so impervious to being assessed on it’s construction as to bely the noteworthy musicians I didst see before me. On drums, David Clifford afforded both the kind of middle parting bowl-cut not seen since certain mid-90s boybands, and a kind of puritanical rhythmic certainty to proceedings: Ample servicing of beat-identification and meagre pickings of inspired fills, nothing by way of impassioned drum thumping. I suppose one could admire his professionalism- but the band sorely needed a fitting visual centre point, a talismanic figure who could draw the captured eye from the otherwise dull movements and introverted musicianship the band were engaged in, headbanging slowly, fret-staring madly with eyes of a focused intensity. Which perhaps explains to no small degree why Sparowes opted to employ the service of a giant mystical video screen, fittingly accorded to a projector mounted high at the very rear of the room, which would aim, through declared manifests, to provide inspired accompaniment by way of animated visual imagery throughout.
And oh, how we lowly audience members didst stare in wonder at this giant mystical video screen, and how we didst wait in reverie and nervous harmony for it to reveal it’s many secrets! Considered as a form, the onstage video screen has mind-blowing potential, perhaps especially so when complementing such purportedly psychedelic, out-there, progressive rock. Remind yourself of the onstage theatrics Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour, or the way a good Godspeed You! Black Emperor show can have you enrapt by the intricacy of the edited ‘found’ video being. Here, an alternating pattern quickly emerged, set carved in stone, tacit, glorified, muted tongues: shots of birds in flight and mathematical equations, of bombs exploding, Google Maps sourced images on a quick ‘zoom out’, more bombs, the words “There will always be conspiracy theorists” shortly before the modest use of 9/11 newspaper cuttings, the golden BAFTA heads usually associated with over-rated Hollywood fodder like Kiera Knightly and industry types circle-jerking at gala events- what had this to say to, or transmute to the Sparowes music? Perhaps most furiatingly- a CGI ‘demonstration’ of brain synapses in work, poorly imagined synaptic nodes and conduits as if created using the very best Commodore 64 their collective will could muster- good grief. This repeated over an over, a pattern of electricity cruising over a membrane, to the next, the next, repeating and repeating. And after your eyes had lulled, an incomprehensible cut to some birds, or a low res photo of a naturally occurring spiral formation. It was staggeringly obvious that Sparowes had not filmed any of this material, nor had it been made on their behalf, bespoke to their shows or music- it was sourced imagery, scavenged and harvested coldly after a few hours armed only with a search engine and an unregistered copy of Movie Maker. Visual cliché after visual cliché, and edited together with an absolute disregard for the apparent need to ‘make any sense whatsoever’, it defied you not to believe that it was really happening. As an exercise in reality testing, it was a magnificent success.
There’s a reason bands use video screens, and a methodology to their use: When I saw Sigur Ros some years ago, their video screens dulled between songs- each vignette had been designed and moved in accordance with the specific musical performance. It gave nuance to each piece. Red Sparowes video continued on an eternal loop, as if once the Gods had given colloquial thumb of approval to the play button, there seemed no going back-and indeed, was none to be found. Furthermore, when GY!BE uses such technology to provide countenance and complement to their music – the imagery is fitting to their music, style and ethic: They enlist local artist Jem Cohen in collaborating on appropriate film. Red Sparowes utelised a hodge podge of alternative lifestyle clichés, from ambiguous Golden Spiral references, UFO shots, 9/11 conspiracies, the Earth’s magnetism, shamanism- arbitrarily included for reasons of kitsch or perceived subcultural appropriation. And whiles noone should take issue with discussing these individual theories and perspectives, they at least merit a proper deconstruction, rather than their glib inclusion in a rock band’s onstage video montage- Red Sparowes seemingly threw all these elements up in the air and caught the falling debris, catching few raindrops on the fingers, watching as the water trickled along their fingers and onto the ground, paying no heed to the multitude of dismal raindrops to have slipped through their clawing fingers, nor to the now fading vapour trails where moisture collided with skin, exacting wetness where dryness once was.
If this review has seemed indulgent, overblown, arrogant in places – then I confess, I have only been following where Red Sparowes led. From their preposterously long song titles and album names to the profound seriousness with which they perform on stage- (not saying a word, not so much as a ‘hello’ to the poor beggars in the crowd) to their half-assed use of video tech that only served to undermine their effort. They genuinely seem caught between the allure of the rural avant-garde and the embrace of celebretarian ‘rock star’ musicianship- trademark Spinal Tap poses at the ready, entirely unfitting of the occasion. When all your imagery and literarature sets out this very particular oppositional ‘doomed’ worldview, at least come out on stage and be nice to people. Dude, when A Silver Mt Zion play out they have real conversations with the people in the audience, that’s how it should be. Red Sparowes posturing onstage can only serve to reify that flimsy divide, us and them, band and audience. Fuck that.
This concert represented so much that is wrong with the continuing post-rock scene. Sparowes seemingly tick all the now clichéd boxes that have come to define such bands- extravagant linguistics, post-apocalyptic worldview, inflicted naivity, a musical aesthetic that seems stuck forever on ‘slow/fast, quiet/loud’ dynamics. Yeah we all know it had its time and all but it keeps on keeping on, bands like Red Sparowes writing 9 minute instrumental jams and calling them names with like 20 freaking words, man, which evoke all this real-deep ‘end of the world’ classicism, yeah we get it, truly- but they don’t back it up with anything like the necessary attention or depth.
Being preposterous, archaic, overblown, indulgent, classicist, dramatic, apocalyptic and so on and so forth is easy if you don’t back your pretensions up with depth, authenticity, the due attention those subjects deserve- and much like this review, Red Sparowes really didn’t do that. It’s a shame because a lot of their recorded output has really got a groove, especially on their 2006 LP “Every red heart…” (I’m not typing the rest of the title, sorry). Live, they were beyond disappointing.
Monday, 27 September 2010
Themselves dodge this argument by opening Crownsdown&company, their second remix album, with the self-mixed Back II Burn- an intensely rhythmic number featuring distorted vocals and in-vogue glitchy synth stabs which replace the original’s orchestral hits. Besides the creative angle of remixing your own work, it is an astute move to open the record this way- but one that seemingly sets the stage for open floodgates of remixes.
The remixes are sourced entirely from the 2009 album Crownsdown: Crownsdown&company seeks to take Themselves’ avant-garde material and repackage it for dancefloors and warehouse parties worldwide. So where paranoid multitracking and disorientation were calling cards of the original material, here the effect is unmistakable. Similarly avant-enamoured hip hop artists Dalek take on Oversleeping, producing a relentless scattershot sound- a style which is repeated across the record. Gangster Of Disbelief is assimilated by Alias to more melodic effect, but again the drumbeats are intimidatingly huge. A feeling of taught pressure exudes from the record, the notion that playing it at home just doesn’t do the material justice: this are remixes with one context in mind.
It’s fair to say the album gets more melodic as it unfurls -the more straightforward melody of You Ain’t It (Lazer Sword rmx) could almost be the hook to a pop song, but for the playful insistence on glitch and arpeggiated synth chords.There’s a consistent sound throughout though, despite the many producers and remix artists on board. That’s to the record’s credit, that at no moment does the sound feel out of place or too disparate. Crownsdown&company will probably appeal more to the partisan audience than new listeners searching for an entrance point into Themselves’ canon, but it represents a fine addition to that collection, and will no doubt give fans and club-goers many moments of happiness, curiosity and dancing.
Saturday, 11 September 2010
It’s rare that for a debut album to sound both so musically accomplished, carefree and confident of itself- but this is what Fang Island acheived, labelling their music as ‘for people who like music’. Blanket statements aside, that’s not far off the mark. Their sound traverses technical musicality and indie-pop accessibility, and in truth it’s hard to refuse their infectious melodies. The opening salvo ‘Dream of dreams’ and ‘Careful Crossers’ sets the tone, a cascading wall of arpeggiated fretwork building to a rousing choral chant, before descending into a power-riffing and headbanging. These moments took in all the joyous elements of classic rock, reperformed with elation. The shared vocal duties of ‘Daisy’’s lyrical ambiguity brought all four guitarists to the fore, whipping the crowd into a joyous frenzy with it’s indecipherable ‘ooh’s and ‘woah’s.
Fang Island’s appeal is simple: it’s enjoyable music, both to listen to, to watch, and seemingly to play. The band smile gleefully throughout, bassist Michael Jacober frequently pogoing as the guitarists in the band headbang through colourful, starry hoodies. Epic, impatient number ‘Sideswiper’ closes the set, it’s juggernaut riffing and harmonised solo-work giving way to a touching vocal line over a reverb-drenched four-chord round. And then the song’s coda, a euphoric piece of music that elicits smiles all round, a playful guitar line darting over a strummed rhythm. It’s a majestic moment and a towering feeling of warmth and love spreads through the crowd. We look at each other, beaming. The band leave the stage to a rapturous applause, only to come back for a real, proper encore. Initially, the band seemed to tune up- but this bled through to the opening bars of a song that seemed familiar, but it couldn’t be, could it? And in hindsight, an indulgent retelling of Mariah Carey’s ‘Always be my baby’ was perhaps the perfect way to end this concert. It had the crowd with lighters in the air, arms waving high, everyone in the room singing along. Fang Island seem rather good at effecting that kind of atmosphere, and this deeply enjoyable concert was strewn with such moments of connectivity between band and audience. It’ll almost be a shame when the band inevitably gain their deserved recognition and start playing the larger venues, because seeing them at the height of their powers in an intimate and close venue like this was a real treat.
First published in The405.
Monday, 6 September 2010
On the back of a summer’s transatlantic touring, Neon Indian brought their sundrenched chillwave to London’s Cargo venue on Thursday evening. Named one of Rolling Stone’s best bands of 2010, the project represents a new direction for one man outfit Alan Palomo, who here recruits three friends for a backing band. The result is transformative, as the hazy and lackadaisical songs from their debut LP Psychic Chasms are performed with insistence and vigour.
Neon Indian seem at times as much enamoured with nostalgia as they are with progression- their array of modern synthesisers and technologically astute production lending their album a contradictorily, but enjoyable, 1980’s feel. It’s as if the music is half dreamt, or struggling against two decade’s of wear and tape-decay to get out. But it’s more than a gimmick, songs like 6669 and Ephemeral Artery displaying memorable hooks. It’s a shame that often the band are overtly referenced by the aesthetic in which they operate, rather than judged on the merits of their songwriting and performance.
In a live context, Neon Indian shine. The tape-warped, tonal bending aspect of their music is lost in lieu of a pressing instrumentation.The live drums of Jason Faries replace drum machine, guitarist Ronald Gierhart shreds picked riffs before slamming power chords, keyboardist Leanne Macomber jumps, wails and dances and enigmatic singer Alan Palomo is a spectacle. Surrounded by an array of pedals, synthesisers, samplers and pleasingly, a theremin- Palomo seems caught between enacting menace via his tools or embracing rapture through his staccato dancing. It’s in this setting that the strength of the music is allowed to shine, against a backdrop of brightly coloured psychadelic visuals, and with a consistent soundbed of arpeggiated noise throughout. Neon Indian perform for just under an hour, playing nearly all of Psychic Chasms and a couple of unknown numbers. They leave, giving warm regards to a beaming crowd. A thoroughly enjoyable gig, and one that showcases the difference between studio LPs and live performances. Neon Indian appear to be masters of both, articulating both contexts distinctly and with confidence.
First published in Sound Screen.
Friday, 27 August 2010
Those who had filled the Green Man’s lush main stage field in anticipation of The Flaming Lips’ Saturday headline concert had done so under duress of some significant rainfall. Not the kind to relent after a mere day either, since festival goers had been allowed on site to pitch tents on Thursday, the rain had bucketed down. But by Saturday evening, the drenched attendees of this charming little festival were afforded some respite, as the downpour eased to a soft, lulling drizzle. It is worth noting the staggering beauty of Green Man’s main stage- set against the towering, endlessly rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons in the middle of a valley. The stage, placed at the foot of an ancient outdoor ampitheatre, lined ridges carved into a hill- providing a breathtaking view of the stage and surroundings.
What better setting for The Flaming Lips majestic live show? Surrealism doesn’t begin to describe it. Over the last ten years or so, or since Yoshimi Battled The Pink Robots brought them to proper European attention, the Lips have gained a reputation for staggering, bizarre, carnivalesque gigs- but of recent years many have argued that the necessity to fire a confetti cannon has superceded the need to play songs. 2006’s At War With Mystics suffered from that
outside perception, but 2009’s Embryonic was something of a rebirth- the band were raw, impassioned, and rediscovered the basic tenets of psychadelic rock with authenticity. It’s at this point in their career that The Flaming Lips are more than worthy of headlining a festival- and they don’t disappoint.
The gig began with a vision of a naked woman, radiating solar energy all around her. As she lay down, a bright ball of cosmic light pulsed from between her legs- and from this, the band emerged, all smiles and friendly waves to the crowd, who at this point had just lost it completely. Whilst lights and smoke enveloped the stage, the band rocked out to an instrumental jam as enigmatic singer Wayne Coyne stepped inside his inflatable ‘space-ball’ (think: hamsters) and rolled it toward the crowd. He made it from the stage to the sound desk, the crowd rolling him as he went, and back again to jump on stage for the opening number proper, ‘Silver Trembling Hands’, a bass led Embryonic number that riffed like a heavy duty machine as guitarist Steven Drozd scaled the heavens with shrieking stabs at his guitar.
Back in the day hit She Don’t Use Jelly went down spectacularly, spurring a huge singalong- but it was the double header of See The Leaves, a tragic paean to futility and strife, and it’s following number I Can Be A Frog, that encapsulated the gig’s inclusive, celebratory mood. At each respective call the entire audience responded in turn, “She said I can be a bear!/helicopter!/tornado!/monkey!” each line letting us act out those sounds- a memorable, transcendental moment that had us all acting like children. It was truly beautiful, especially having followed such a (wonderful) thrashy, minor key rock song.
Playing Do You Realize? as an encore was a masterstroke- it’s such a perfect pop song, at once uplifting, sad, both specific and open-ended. It’s euphoric chorus perpetually rising til a climactic, joyous crescendo as Coyne sang of a philosophy of kindness, love- with a crucial knowledge that ultimately, all of these precious moments are transient. And as the crowds departed the field, the rain began to fall.
None of really describes just how spectacular an experience a Flaming Lips concert is, let alone one in such an idyllic location. A stage full of dancers in gorilla costumes and orange jump-suits dancing blissfully throughout. Coyne’s giant hands, which eminated the most breathtaking laser-light show. The cerebral, friendly nature of the between-song banter, which had us all at one point coo-ing to the moon to beckon it from behind some ominous rain clouds. The blinding array of lights, smoke, confetti, cannons. The continual insistence on beauty, hanging out, freaking out. The Flaming Lips seem intent on assaulting every one of your senses and it’s a mindblowing experience- one that leaves you feeling invigorated, never more alive than in that moment. They offer a performance that elevates their records to near-religiosity; these are songs that scrape the sky and scream at the heavens, played in a way that celebrates humanity and togetherness. I can’t think of a finer way to conduct a festival headline set, and as the crowds dispersed late into the night, that feeling seemed universal.
Tuesday, 24 August 2010
When time did draw for bands and artists’ performances, we set off to the Main Stage, where Sound Of Rum were about to engage the audience with a set of politically astute hip-hop jams. Their music was broadly influenced and humble: whilst their drummer Ferry Lawrenson played inventive beats, guitarist Archie March spun a collection of ragged folk numbers and electronically influenced riffs. He was lost in his instrument at times, eyes shut and head bobbing as he looped hooks for vocalist Kate Tempest to rap over. And how remarkable she was. An incessant flow of wry social observations and personal epiphanies came forth in waves, belying her slender 20 years of age. The band were visually less spectacular than previous main stage offerings, a young three piece- but as soon as they played it became clear they more than merited their billing. Tempest’s rap skills are staggering, her mind quick and dextrous in a way you wouldn’t think possible. Scroobius Pip has referred to her as ‘annoyingly good’, and you can see what he means- this group are attracting attention from all the right people in the London hip-hop scene. Between songs, she joked with the audience with self-depreciating Britishness and displayed a maturity that serves both her and band well. The main stage field may have been sleepy and rather horizontal, but Tempest coaxed the crowd into dancing and it certainly wasn’t regretted.
We camped in front of the Main Stage and awaited the afternoon’s next act. Gabby Young and Other Animals are an 8 piece vintage swing band that have been touring relentlessly and building up quite a head of steam along the way. There’s a lot of vintage revival going on in East London at the moment, and with all popularised scenes you get the impression that a few are merely along for the ride, bearing false pretenses. But Gabby Young is the real deal; her involvement with = fashion, young designers and similar creatives enabling her band to perform with a joyful air of authenticity. Indeed, so enamoured are the festival organisers with her, they allowed Gabby her very own shop in the festival’s faux high street. The Gabberdashery was an emporium of beautifully crafted vintage mash-ups, garments beholden to a post-apocalyptic past. It all reminded me of steampunk; a fascinating aesthetic which draws from Victorian histories re-perceived through postmodern, technological eyes. And so as her band took to the stage, clad in matching waistcoats, they were joined by the effervescent Gabby Young- boasting an elaborate multi-layered beige dress that tousled endlessly and would move in ripples with every dance she made.
Their music is a lovingly crafted combination of swing, jazz and ballad. The instrumentation lent a fantastic presence, double bass, horns, accordion and violin combining to evocative effect. Over this, Gabby’s voice was a thing of ethereal beauty. She glided from the upper register to bassier notes with ease, offering delicate vibrato one moment before crying out boldly the next. Having cut her teeth singing jazz standards in professional outfits, she boasts a powerful voice that is capable of staggering things and is used intelligently, modestly even, throughout- as if it were another instrument to dampen at moments, building crescendos where appropriate. The set was a real joy.
Up next was a band from that revelled in party atmospheres. New York’s Phenomenal Handclap Band have toured pretty consistently since their eponymous debut record’s release last year- taking their nostalgic indulgence of 60s psychedelia and classic rock motifs to audiences across the world and building a reputation for incendiary live shows. Their set at Standon Calling was to prove no different, as the lulled, sun-kissed intro of ‘The Journey to Sella Estrada’ erupted into a funk. Numbers like ‘Disappear’ and ‘15-20’ showcased similarly minded
perspectives and allowed good opportunity for the audience to shake dat tang, but it was the tender motown ballad ‘Baby’ that stood out. A crooning ode to a girl’s beauty sung over uncomplicated descending chords, you could argue the tune borders on cheese, a throwback too far- but it doesn’t come across as insincere, or parodic. Throughout their set, Phenomenal Handclap Band demonstrate a profound love for that era of popular American song, reperforming in style with invention. As such, it’s hard to fault them. A couple of new songs trialled at the gig were slower numbers, and it’ll be an interesting 2nd record for them when it does come out.
After running off in search of sustenance, we returned for the evening set on the Main Stage, a lovely blend of archaic instrumentation set against digital micro-pops and a revelatory sense of the grandiose. Efterklang are not a band inclined for modest statements, although their epic songwriting structures are performed with real modesty at times as climaxes build from austere roots and are never dragged out ad infinitum. Their 10 onstage performers craft an indie-pop that is broadly influenced, yet whose sound will be quintessentially familiar to anyone well-versed in Scandinavian pop; cooing harmonies glide in the background, strings reverberate as processed beats carve precise, uptempo drum patterns. Efterklang’s performance got stronger and stronger with each song, cuts from debut album Tripper appeasing a cult of fans at the crowd’s front, later numbers from major label debut Magic Chairs offering more accessible material for newcomers. They performed with a collective joy and enjoyed smiling interplay on stage that was as infectious as it was pleasurable to watch. Simultaneously though, a seriousness about their craft came across- an utmost professionalism with regard to songwriting and performance that was admirable, and something lost on so many performers. Efterklang seem taken with the ethereal, yet able to capture it’s majesty through tight orchestration. They give a wonderful performance, as epic as it is modest, and leave the stage to rapturous applause.
And so Standon Calling sadly came to an end. Sound Screen had seen an array of fantastic bands this weekend and spent the time with wonderful friends, new and old. The overall impression of the festival is that it is a remarkable thing, and quite unique in this regard. Both the size of the festival and the number of participants entail a close-knit feel, a community spirit of likeminded folk. Similarly, where other festivals attempt the spectacular with their line-up, Standon Calling boasts a number of bands that you just can’t see anywhere else- there is a real sense here that every band or musician on show will be someone’s favourite- merely ‘liking’ the band deemed not enough. And long may all this continue; festival organiser Alex Trenchard is onto something very special here and it’ll be interesting to see how long they can keep it up without bowing to commercial pressure or licensing folly. At the moment, they’re punching well above their weight- and that’s largely down to the kind of bands the festival attracts, and the kind of person inclined to attend.
Saturday, 14 August 2010
Standon Calling’s 2nd day was an overcast affair; thunderclouds menaced and we woke in a tent which was considerably damper than when we retired the previous eve. But Sound Screen wasn’t about to let a little rain get in the way of a good time, and Saturday’s line up promised fine things.
After witnessing a kidnapping carried out by the theatrics of the Heritage Arts Company, we lost some of our troupe to involvement in the festival’s ongoing murder narrative. Our friends would soon return, having been recruited for the Standon Calling Constabulary, waxing on about finding the kidnapped Bingham and getting to the bottom of this nefarious mystery.
We caught an afternoon set from Steve Mason, formerly of Beta Band fame. He played through new solo album ‘Boys Outside’, backed by three session musicians. Opener ‘Lost and Found’ was a highlight, but the crowd’s appreciation was tested by an almighty downpour during the set’s midpoint. Using a backing track for synth, drum pattern and piano overlays, Mason gave studio-perfect renditions of the album tracks. Mason swayed with the music, but in truth it was a performance of little emotion. Spotting an old school friend in the crowd, Mason struck up conversation that ended when said friend humourously requested “Dry the rain” (a reference to the Beta Band’s breakthrough hit). Mason dismissed the opportunity. The band soon departed and Mason did stick around to play a Beta Band song, an acoustic rendition of fan-favourite Dr Baker, which was sung in calls to the sky whilst the guitar strummed a repeated chord. The band returned for the finale of ‘Walk the Earth’, a track gleaned from Mason’s immediate post-Beta Band EP ‘King Biscuit Time’. Slow burning electro, the song bears a catchy chorus but was dragged out and out with repeated bridges. There was an awfully choreographed moment where the music cut outs, leaving a solitary drum track- and the band fell to the ground like puppets whose strings had been cut.
We headed inside the Crooked House tent and hung around whilst The Sparks indulged the crowd’s desires with some live karaoke. This was a neat idea, pick a song and then yell it while a 3-piece band rock out behind you. A tuneful-enough ‘Ride Sally Ride’ had the room in fine voice, a faux-theatrical singalong of the hook becoming funnier with each repetition.
Hotly tipped London based duo Joe Gideon and the Shark were up next, and a sizeable crowd was drawn in from the rain by their jangly blues-inspired garage rock. Joe Gideon slashed at guitars and basses whilst younger sister Viva (aka The Shark) assaulted her drum kit in acrobatic fashion, together carving out a messianic racket.
But that wasn’t it, as she would later play a drum-mounted piano and employ a wonderfully vintage 8-track recorder, hooked to an array of pedals- providing atmosphere and resonance for Joe’s whiskey-drawl. It was otherworldly, a perfect symbiosis between the two players, and the crowd duly noted. They’ve cut their teeth in bands previous and had albums recorded by Steve Albini, but it’s in this current incarnation that things are really beginning to pick up for them, and justifiably so.
As the evening drew in, we headed to the main stage for the promising double-bill of Casiokids and Etienne De Crecy, our best dancing shoes most definitely on. Casiokids came out to a rapturous response. Their eternally bouncy music struck a chord with the audience, who after a day of being rained on, were in dire need of cheering up. Casiokids didn’t disappoint, their euphoric indie-pop lifting the spirits of all as the sun set behind the stage and the rain began to relent. Glorious 8-bit chords resonated across the Main Stage valley as glitchy drum patterns cut with precision: the set comprised mostly tracks from breakthrough LP ‘Topp stemning på lokal bar’, a wonderful collection of rousing pop numbers performed with kitsch instrumentation.
Saturday’s headliner was something of an enigma. After years spent making music under one pseudonym or another, Etienne De Crecy is going by his own name, and had brought a 20 foot high light box with him. Comprising nine individual cubes stacked 3×3, the apparatus was reportedly so big that festival organisers had to hire a larger stage simply to accommodate him. This was to be money well spent though, as De Crecy offered up a scintillating light and laser show as backdrop for his electro-house hits.
Now releasing tracks via the Pixadelic label, De Crecy’s music draws influence from Daft Punk, Ratatat et al- but the sheer spectacle of his performance made it an unmissable draw. The audience danced, but with eyes transfixed on the enormity of the light show as 3d cubes spiralled over our heads and patterns danced in impossible fashion. It was a wonderful headline gig from an artist that not too many of the festival goers had heard of but with his lights and magic, he will surely have enthused a few. When the lights went up and he was revealed in the central cube, laptops and mixing desk, looking a little sheepish- it was to an almighty cheer, from an audience that had been blown away. And then De Crecy too, elicited a smile.
Thursday, 12 August 2010
We first caught a mid-afternoon set from Bo Ningen, whose almighty racket from inside the Twisted Licks tent was drawing quite a crowd. Hailing from Japan, although now based in London and signed to Stolen Recordings- their four members elicit a triumphant cacophony from their guitars and drums, a masterclass in math-rock.
As vocalist Taigen shrieked, guitarists Yuki and Kohhei traded power-riffing with sky-scraping wails- they made for an engrossing sound. The band unassumingly demanded your attention throughout their short set, their awkward movements giving way to a rapturous implosion at their eventual end: a 15 minute long jam imploding under oceans of feedback, and thunderous crashes as the guitars were thrown around and the drummer exhausted himself. But this wasn’t some rock-parody, it was an exorcism that worked on every level and made for a fantastic opening concert.
After catching a Thai dinner from one of the festival’s hand-picked foot outlets (discreet, reasonable and delicious)- we journeyed over to the main stage, where Spanish DJ El Guincho was performing with band. Fans will understand that theirs is the kind of music which would benefit from sunlight, an aural smattering of carnival beats and tropicalia- but some could have told the Hertfordshire weather. As skies greyed and the first raindrops fell, a small crowd fought the immediate conditions to enjoy an alternate reality where sun was plentiful and the mojito’s kept coming. It was an interesting set of jangly-looped numbers, eventually coming around to the songs they’re most known for- and the crowd were largely appreciative of the effort and sympathetic for the weather.
At the gig’s end, the rain was pouring but fortunately our next appointment was to back inside the Twisted Licks tent. One of the subtle beauties of Standon Calling is the scheduling; when one band finishes, another starts, and so you can move between stages without missing a great deal. Unsuspecting festival goers strolled in to escape the rain. An excited throng packed the immediate front of stage, whilst Fucked Up sound-checked their own instruments. And then it happened, the band tearing through the opening numbers as the crowd immediately went ballistic.
Classics from recent LP The Chemistry of Common Life were belted out with an utter passion, and vocalist Damian Abraham (Pink Eyes) soon found himself shirtless, amongst the crowd, jumping with us. As the band performed immaculately on stage, the audience began to resemble a riot-scene, security guards hoisting the microphone cable over people’s heads. There was a feeling of sheer euphoria amongst the crowd, and it made for a joyous occasion- an outpouring of jumping and headbanging married to a collective spirit of good-will. When someone fell down, they were picked up with immediacy. Fucked Up were electric, spurred on by the crowd’s enthusiasm- it truly seems that wherever this band go, whichever corner of the Earth they play in- the results are the same; a staggeringly good performance and blissfully riotous crowd reaction.
By this point, the sun had set and the crowds were making their way to the Main Stage for the Friday headliner. Sound Screen was particularly curious as to how Liars would go down in a headline slot- for all their critical acclaim, they (sadly) remain a fairly niche outfit. These fears were to be proved groundless though, as the New York by Berlin alt-rock band tore through a set which took in their entire back catalogue. Opener ‘I can still see an outside world’ was a slow burning prophecy of what was about to happen, soon after this quiet paranoia had been replaced with the outright schizophrenic shredding of ‘Scarecrows on a killer slant’ and it was becoming clear that Liars had come here to be uncompromising. After five albums honing their unique craft, the band have accumulated an enviably strong repertoire and they performed with a passion, reinventing ‘The garden was crowded and outside’ as a fiery confessional, devoid of all pretense. Vocalist Angus Andrew was in fine mood, heckling the crowd and stalking the stage doing his best bird-dance.
Cuts from seminal LP ‘Drums not Dead’ were a percussive interlude from the manic rock indulgences of their eponymous record, but where ‘Freak Out’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ offered stadium-rock sized behemoths (in an alternate reality, where stadium rock is good), it was the austere ‘The other side of Mt Heart Attack’ that really captured the moment, arriving at the set’s midpoint. It’s gentle refrain of ‘I can always be found’ resonating around Standon’s hills and trees, drenching the audience in a warm reassurance. Their encore was less comforting, a triad of percussive jams that took in two numbers from their ‘difficult’ 2nd album. Liars fans in the audience were unabashed- as the set finale ‘Broken Witch’ enticed an eerie chant amongst the front few rows of ‘We are the army you see through the red haze of blood, blood, blood, blood…”- it was fantastically chilling, and made for a fitting end to a set which was as uncompromising as it was inspired. Any doubts about Liars suitability for a headline slot cast aside, they had come to Standon Calling, had been unequivocally themselves- had utterly triumphed for it.
The night was seen in with a 1am DJ set from German electronic music producer Pantha Du Prince (real name, Hendrik Weber). Granted it was late and on the first night, but a small crowd had massed to witness his otherworldly beat work; a blend of gliding strings and textures over precise drum patterns, clicks and pops.
Weber seemed on fine form, mixing cuts from his last two records with ease, providing a lulled dreamscape of perpetual motion. For whatever reason though, the Twisted Licks PA didn’t seem loud enough, and a low warble of people’s conversation was audible over what could have been an engrossing gig. Perhaps the crowd didn’t take to it- but they hung around and were dancing.
At the set’s end, Weber nodded to a few in the crowd who had paid him their complete attention- it was clear that he’d enjoyed the set but felt it could have gone better- quite why he was so quiet was inexplicable especially considering the sheer volume of the drum and bass that was emanating from the Alcatraz dance stage not 40 feet away. All this considered though, Pantha Du Prince put in an enjoyable shift that highlighted his many strengths as a DJ and producer. Musically faultless but sullied by an at times indifferent crowd.
Opening the bill were Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a 9-piece horn section of brothers that riffed through a 30 minute set of funk-inspired numbers that took lines from New Orleans swing. It was a fantastic spectacle, the band lined up and bouncing in unison as souxaphone riffs set the bass, and a lively effort on the drums cemented the sound in hip-hop tradition. The horn players took turns MCing, gleefully ratcheting up the vibe over brass crescendos. Highlight of the gig was by far the rousing ‘Kryptonite’, a jangly bass riff underpinning the Motown trumpet calls as two of the group’s MCs offered tight verses and a memorable chorus (“That’s that kryptonite, baby that’s that kryptonite”) that took in the audience’s full attention. Elsewhere in the set, the dual burdens of the opening slot and the famed (for all the wrong reasons) Brixton sound system conspiring to dim the carnival atmosphere: these were party songs, but this was lost to a 8pm audience here only to see one thing- their music in all likelihood far better suited to an after-party environment.
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Next up was Mista Jam- a London DJ known for his late-night Radio 1 slots. Hard to pin down the quality of his performance; he gave a run through for 90s New York hip-hop that referenced Biggie, Nas and Jay Z’s seminal records, and it’s hard to fault those LPs. Frequent calls from the mic that “if you don’t know this record, you aren’t a real hip-hop fan” did little to assuage the notion that Jam was merely going through the motions, playing a selection of records that picked themselves, to an audience (again) that was only after one thing.
After what seemed an interminably long set and prolonged periods of Wu chanting, Mista Jam relented the stage to ironic applause- fair enough, he came what he did to do and did exactly as he said he would, but this audience hadn’t come here to be schooled in rap authenticity.
As the stage lights dimmed, so the LED backdrop revealed the Wu icon, to a mass of cheers. And then they took to the stage, one by one, introducing each other to a rapturous response. Ghostface Killah is in the house. Oh look, Raekwon is in the house. We got the GZA Genius in the house. Where’s my man the RZA? Oh shit, the RZA is in the house. One of the most alluring things about the Wu Tang is their breadth of individual stars and styles; over their 18 year career accomodating numerous fine solo efforts. When these distinctive characters come together, their styles become greater than the sum of their parts, a collective flow that is engaging and hard to pin down.
Their set focused mainly on debut LP ‘36 Chambers’, and soon in the set they had the crowd pumping to early hits like ‘Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin To Fuck With’ and the anthemic ‘Bring Da Ruckus’. From there, the GZA took centre stage as the set took in four jams from his classic LP ‘Liquid Swords’. Duel of the Iron Mic displaying the kind of sound that has become synomymous with the Wu Tang Clan’s output: a heady concoction of a looped soul riff, marshal-arts film samples and fearless microphone work.
If the crowd were missing Method Man, they weren’t showing it- the spectacle of the touring Clan proving more than enough: Raekwon huddled at the back of the stage, overseeing the performance like a kingpin, Ghostface and U-God trading verses and high-fiving with an enjoyable interplay, whilst master of ceremonies GZA marauded the stage, ramping up the crowd. It was an energetic set that sadly only lasted an hour, without encore- a fact which seems staggering considering the sheer volume of the band’s recorded output, and that DJ Mista Jam’s had been afforded a trying hour and a half on the stage.
Wu Tang Clan
Similarly, (and this applies to all the performers on the bill)- the sound system at Brixton did noone any favours- and rendered sonically rich numbers like ‘One Blood’ to little more than a thumping bass hit and a shrieking top- there was just no subtlety nor middle in the EQ- reducing good pieces of music to just their drum beat and vocal lines. As an aside, this is something that the Brixton Academy needs to sort out as a matter of priority- this reviewer has witnessed far too many great bands and paying audiences suffering under the weight of that sound system, and this gig was no different.
All these things considered though, and it’s hard to pick too many faults with the gig- merely witnessing the spectacle was perhaps enough.
As the weekend unfurled, so too did the sunshine- Secret Garden Party’s Saturday morning was an incredibly warm affair. We woke in our tents, which by 10 am bore closer resemblance to a greenhouse than a rudimentary shelter. Dragging ourselves up and out, we started the day the only way we knew how: a quick sojourn down lakeside for a nip in the alluring Secret Garden Lake. And we weren’t the only ones who’d had this bright idea, an eager queue of bleary eyed Gardeners had formed. Swims aside, and our day was already looking promising.
Walking back from the lake, we passed the Jungle Fever tent and were caught up in an impromptu ball-fight started notably by those already inside the ball pool (no gardener was hurt in the production of this article- Ed). Chaos ensued, kids joined in and rest assured, Sound Screen gave as good as it got.
Exhausted, and in need of some more cerebral stimuli, we set off towards the Guerrilla Science tent- not entirely prepared for what we were about to witness: An eye-popping lecture on post-humanism and body-modification that at times proved hard to watch; surface piercings and self-harming only paving the way for the main event- a display of ‘body hooking’, where ringlets were cast into the skin and a person then suspended using giant ‘meat industry-esq’ metal hooks. Each to their own, we noted, (and how!)- but perhaps it was a good thing that we hadn’t had our breakfast yet.
Returning to the relative normalcy of the festival line up, we took in a jovial gig from Afrik Bananta, who djembe’d through a set of lively funk numbers backed by an impressive brass band. Moving out of the tents and ‘into the light’, we caught the surprising I Blame Coco on the festival’s main stage. Coco Sumner impressed as a natural frontwoman, displaying a kind of endearing awkwardness whilst simultaneously appearing very natural. She gave a rousing performance, backed by a solid and energetic band that looked like it had been found wandering the streets of Hoxton in need of gigs. Essentially, this half hour was probably the height of trendmonger indie-cool at the weekend- Sumner donning a vintage gentleman’s smoking jacket as her band blasted their way through songs which were immediate and enjoyable, if sounding a little similar to The Police at times (come on- sparse bass riffs, cascading vocal harmonies, ska-punk?!). But still, the kids seemed to love it and it was nice to see Coco and band stick around to experience the festival after their gig had ended.
As the evening drew in, we happened across rapper Dizraeli and the Small Gods, a backing band of folk musicians, horn players, and The Boxettes’ own Bellatrix on double bass and beatbox. There is an ingrained skepticism whenever a white boy takes to the mic to spit, but Dizraeli silenced these latent doubts within moments. His was a fast but precise flow, each syllable delivered clearly as he lamented the state of England and implored at his audience to bomb Tesco. Yeah he had beats and a plan, but Dizraeli is not the sort of politically-motivated artist that would allow ideology to usurp the communal experience of a gig- he smiled broadly, spoke fondly when introducing his band, and came across as modest and funny- despite his obvious talents. And a talent is what he is; both lyrically and in deliverance, this is a rapper to pay attention to- his flow cascading over itself in a style reminiscent of Eminem; running down a particular flow before doubling back on itself and arguing back against the beat. It’s an engaging style that rewards those who pay attention, highlighted during the a-capello recital mid-set that recounted an impromptu rap jam amidst the myriad aisles of a supermarket.
It was then that we heard the fireworks, and hurredly made our way back lakeside for the annual burning of the Garden centerpiece. The Secret Garden Party organisers are openly influenced by American festival/temporary-community Burning Man, where similarly, a burning pyre is used as a communal ritual in bringing people together. Here, it was a spectacular event, fireworks scraping the sky as the blimp-ship that many of us had swam to and partied on not 24 hours previous was set ablaze, lighting up the night sky.
All of which gave us ample time to make it back to the Chai Wallah tent for what would prove our festival highlight, Hackney’s own The Correspondents. The electro swing two-piece had clearly built up a degree of expectation following last year’s extended set on the Secret Garden main stage, and the tent was filled to the rafters in anticipation. And then they appeared: effervescent vocalist Mr Bruce in trademark two-tone brogues, lyotard tights, shirt and waistcoat, hair slicked back with an immaculate swagger. The lights were dimmed but you could see a beaming Mr Chuckles tucked behind a desk of laptops and turntables. And for an hour, that room bounced and danced like it had never before.
They performed in the best traditions of British cabaret, their vintage caricatures full and fleshed out. Coming across like a 1930s high-society lothario, Mr Bruce was master of the stage as the band tore through renditions of older material like ‘Washington Square’ alongside the overtly more club-ready songs that will comprise their debut LP proper. Mr Chuckles span track after track of swing-sampling, drum n bass influenced grime- Mr Bruce shimmed and hopped across the stage, his relentless onslaught of hip-hop verses and skat-influenced MCing that sent the audience into a frenzy.Rarely have I witnessed a room quite so taken with a band’s performance: they could have played all night and we would have followed them anywhere. Sheer euphoria as the set closed, and those present departed knowing that they’d witnessed something truly extraordinary.
You will excuse us if we admitted to waking on Sunday morning feeling slightly more feeble than we’d prefer to admit- but a game of ‘keepey ups’ sucked us, and a few passing strangers, in. A shared goal bound us together as we tried to keep 10 keepey ups, up. Then 25. And then 50. After no small celebration, we resolved that ‘starting the day’ properly might be an idea.
And so we made our way towards the main stage, although not to it. By this point in the festival proceedings, we’d become quite accustomed to mere meandering.
Through a wooded glade, and after bumping into friends not seen in years (how does that always happen at festivals?), we’d stumbled across a small crowd, huddled on the side of a path which itself hugged a stream. At it’s centre, afro’d and donning a sharp grey Armani suit, Lewis Floyd Henry sat with a 30 watt amplifier, custom drum kit (operated by his feet) and a mean electric guitar- screaming through a vintage microphone over the thrashiest punk jams. It was inspired. Henry was on fire, a captive audience of no more than twenty of us huddled round- someone started head banging, Henry responded in turn.
Onwards, and we’re overtaken by a rabble of folk carrying a long tarpaulin. Someone runs past with soapy water- we see where this is going. A Secret Garden Sunday is famed for it’s indulgence of whimsy, it’s sheer ludicrousness, it’s inviting silliness- we were beginning to understand. From the centre of the Colisillyum (a 10 foot high coliseum made from hay bales- DJs just didn’t stop in that place, ever)- hawks and shrieks rang out, so we investigated. Where once a dancefloor had been, now was a hollowed mess, dug into the earth: mud wrestling was afoot. Further on, in the ‘dance-off’ ring- a 9 year old boy was body popping and breakdancing to rapturous applause. The poor chap he was up against didn’t stand a chance- we’d never seen anything like it, this kid flowed like liquid- he moved in ways we didn’t think possible. Then we met his mother, sat watching her son from the hillside- “He’s been practicing for months.”- we couldn’t think of enough compliments.
On the main stage and by this point the evening was drawing in: Horace Andy entertaining a full field of gardeners getting their dance on. Reggae classic after reggae classic as the sun set behind the stage, Andy showing no sign of tiring with age and proving his oft-unsung credentials. His band were tight, the vibe was easy and I don’t think any other performer could have imbued that field with such good feelings.
As the night faded away we found ourselves stumbling neither to nor fro, in search of chai, or coffee- our legs did take us to the Never Ever Land Theatre where the Tax Deductable Theatre Company had taken residence. Upon entry a bearded man took the stage to solemnly announce: “It is ten minutes until Ruckus O’ Clock”. Confused, enticed- we waited. And then the lights dimmed, a classical score blared from the PA- an arcane voice orated the history of Ruckus, as zombiefied folk appeared as if from nowhere in the crowd and made their way to the stage, arching their backs, walking stunted. And then they erupted- the place a blur of movement, hard to make out people- flour being thrown everywhere, party poppers. Until the compere announced that today was no ordinary day, for it was someone’s birthday. Cue the entire room, of near 200 people, singing happy birthday, at a rather bemused actress. A cake appeared, enormous and creamy- and was thrown over her. Ruckus continued, before the birthday games- a carnivalesque round of ‘pass the parcel’, with a good 15 odd layers, each holding different prizes- ranging from the sublime (novels) to the grotesque (a box of dead fishing maggots)- Sound Screen got lucky and won a luminous yellow jacket. Before long ruckus ensued once more, and in the blink of an eye the room had turned red, Santa Claus was right there, right there in the room, snow began to fall, and for 20 minutes we celebrated Christmas. We hugged and danced, kissed under the mistletoe, had snowball fights and sung along to all those cheesy, but wonderful Christmas anthems.
Saturday, 31 July 2010
We arrived around Thursday lunchtime and after a brief fumble with our tent, began a once-over of the festival site. First impressions left us wide eyed with wonder: rolling hills and sparse woodland clung around a magnificent lake at the site’s epicenter. A tour of the site only perked our curiosity further. At seemingly every turn, it was noticeably that immense care and consideration had gone into transforming this private estate into an alternate reality. In every nook and cranny was tucked some small beauty, from the matchstick house that adorned the inside of one tree, to the cryptic signposts (“you are now entering a reality-testing area”)that were strewn throughout the site. The overall impression was one of immense vibrancy, the glorious July sun providing the perfect foil for this beautiful place to blossom.
Whilst the festival proper would start the next day, our Thursday was not spent in any state of anticipation. Stumbling upon a museum of curiosities aboard a disused train carriage, we were invited by two dashing chaps in Victorian get-up to bear witness to the shocking power of electric cucumbers. We moved around the site, and happened across the Guerilla Science tent where a seminar on lucid dreaming was happening. The lecturer offered insights into how we can raise our awareness during dream-states, and testimonies from the audience of fellow gardeners attested to the power of the human subconscious. It was noticeable that whilst music hadn’t started on the main stages, a lot of the tents and independently –run venues at the festival were putting on music that begun that evening. On a recommendation, we caught a set from one of London’s most interesting outfits. The Boxettes are a five-piece a-capella girl group, ostensibly led by Female World Beatbox Champion Bellatrix Ehresmann. Theirs was a finely honed set, delivered with precision. It was short, but held the audience captive. Boxettes have an unconventional a capella sound, with tight beatbox work set against dreamy, sundrenched harmonics as each of the girls took turns narrating through melody over the top. Lyrically, their work seemed to focus on classic themes of love and lust, but were retold with a omniscient sense of distance. These were yarns to recount, folk tales of love lost and of self-empowerment, made for recital in a soulful hip-hop. By it’s end, the tent was full and bouncing to every beat and scratch.
Friday came, and with it the first full day of music. We started our day, however, with a swim in the lake. A quick hop off the custom-made ‘wibbly-wobbly’ bridge, and the cooling lake waters provided the perfect start to our day. Onto the music , then! It all started with a dreamy set from Leeds’ Submotion Orchestra. A tight mix of dub-influenced bass and live electronics overhead, it was a relaxed and emotive introduction to the day’s bill. Following their set, the six members of Tin Roots took to the stage and the tempo was raised. Vocalist Ruby Taylor gliding soulfully over her bands’ genre mashing, a style that took in reggae, soul and contemporary blues against an everpresent metronome of hip-hop beats. The lively set went down a treat, and was topped by an inspired cover of Miike Snow’s recent hit single ‘Animal’, here reinvented with trumpets and sax as a bouncy ska number.
On the main stage, pop starlet Marina was entertaining the kids with all of her Diamonds, a rabble of tweens forming a pseudo-pit in front of the stage and gleefully singing along with her. Frankly, this reviewer doesn’t see quite what the fuss was about, but the inclusion of a couple of token pop acts on an otherwise musically sound bill shouldn’t detract from what was an altogether fantastic line up. It’s hard to say whether punters attend Secret Garden Party in any way for the music on show, but the line up didn’t relent in providing wonderfully summery tunes, immaculately performed.
Steve Mason followed, performing tracks from recent solo album ‘Boys Outside’. This reviewer has always had a soft spot for Mason’s introspecting crooning, throughout his career with Beta Band and that affection continues. For me, this set could have lasted forever. Mason was warm, conversational, inflicted with the mood of the occasion. Although his songwriting has never been that musically complicated, this simple craft allows for an enormous outpouring of emotional weight. Closing the set with the rare ep track ‘Walk the Earth’, it was a euphoric ending to a set that many people seemed to genuinely appreciate.
And so we made our way back to the Chai Wallah tent, where accomplished Bristol act Yes Sir Boss were preparing for by far the day’s heaviest set. A fine group of musicians, YSB seem able to draw from a multitude of influences whilst rounding these into an impressively cohesive whole. Their five members, including a two piece horn section, gallivanted through a rousing set which opened with the stomping ‘Christian Soldier’- a ska-influenced rock number that had the entire room pogo’ing. The band were clearly in their stride and enjoying every moment; the interplay between guitarist Luke Potter and bassist Josh Stopford was a fine thing to see, and the audience reciprocated with an outpouring of love. Arguably, though, it was vocalist Matt Sellors who captured the hearts of this captive audience; growling in hisses and fits at the microphone, thrashing at a disheveled guitar, at once both coy and brazen. It was an enthralling set, closed with a monster rendition of their eponymous single- it’s juggernaut riff sending the audience into a frenzy.
This moment was only topped by what was about to occur. After a short break, they returned, promising a very special guest, and they did not disappoint: R&B singer Joss Stone appearing, clearly beaming, to a rapturous response. Stone and the band (with help from Smerin’s Anti Social Club) whipped through a electric performance o f ’Come Together’, an explosion caught somewhere between the Beatles’ croon and Michael Jackson’s showmanship. This was a fitting end, a euphoric opportunity to ramp guitar amps to eleven- Stone was impeccable, from the moment her mouth opened and that first note resonated around tent. It is a sad irony that in her, we probably have one of a generation’s finest voices, but that too often not been self-evident. Here she was in her element, set against a proper band of rock musicians, making the kind of noise that makes R&B sound like elevator music. This was a ‘festival moment’, there was no doubt about it, the kind of gig that confounded expectations and raised the bar for the rest of the weekend.
Monday, 19 July 2010
It’s refreshing to encounter such an effortlessly forward thinking hip-hop record as Sir Lucious Leftfoot:The Son of Chico Dusty. Big Boi has made a masterful album of perfectly crafted and hugely inventive pop songs, whilst showing off the full extent of his microphone repertoire. It’s an assured example of what commercial hip-hop should sound like in 2010.
Commercially oriented hip-hop, which is to say- music which embraces the mainstream, has always tread a precarious tightrope of authenticity, from it's knowingly pandering to audience expectation, to confounding it and pushing the culture forward. But whilst the stage has never been better set for rap artists to get their fifteen minutes- too often, the ones that make it have fallen into the former category, only for their original fans to cry "sell out" (read: Dizzy Rascal). Prominent artists have been reduced to bit-part raps on a chart-topping middle-eight (Clipse on Justin Timbalake’s Like I Love You), or the parodic re-performance of nihilistic street-hustling, real or imaginary. That posteuring and game-playing could’ve become an inherent part of the lexicon- of course some swagger is perfectly valid, but not for it’s own sake.
Whilst no serious hip-hop fan could doubt Antwon ‘Big Boi’ Patton’s mic credentials, it’s been a shame that he’s had to live in Outkast compadre Andre 3000’s effervescent shadow. A new audience of casual hip-hop listeners bought the Outkast double album, but only ever spun 'The Love Below', dismissing 'Big Boi's offering as juvenile thug-talk, therein irrelevant to their existences. Rather than comparing the records on merit, Patton was ignored on the basis of an incorrect presumption. But were it not for his bandmate releasing 'Hey Ya!', Big Boi would have been sitting on single of the year for 'I Like The Way u Move'. But with his debut solo album for Def Jam, Big Boi should dispell any of those comparisons. This is his moment, and he knows it.
The record is enamored with the grandiose, but whereas similarly pop-inclined rapper Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was a triumph of style over substance, watching it's central performer became more fascinating than listening to his records- Sir Lucious Leftfoot is a collection of wonderful songs, delivered with a flawless consistency- it’s central character only a conduit for the craft.
It’s refreshing that whilst he's no philosopher, Big Boi avoids the trappings of gangsta-nostalgia. Yes, he pays it lip service- but only by indulging it with irony. Predomionantely, it's a relentless flow of puns, aphorisms and word-play. Even on songs like Be Still, where after a minute’s music you can’t really fathom how Patton is gonna find space to rap between the avant-garde beat work- it’s an unwarranted fear. As soon as he opens his mouth, the music instantly twists to his voice, as though there isn’t a beat in the world he couldn’t rap over. His is a dextrose and malleable voice, able to shift and turn in a microsecond. On the carnivalesque Night Night, he seems to invent new ways of rhyming in metre, putting syllables where they just didn’t fit before. Pay attention, and your jaw drops. His flow is playful, unpredictable but engrossing, flirting with rhythm- never staying in a groove for too long. One moment arguing against beats, only to then conspire with them.
Over the record’s 57 minutes, there’s a staggering amount of ideas fighting for competition. Rather than establishing a globe-trotting style akin to Mos Def’s fine recent work The Ecstatic, Patton crafts these into a cohesive whole. The first listen might seem daunting- at any single moment there’s just so much happening. On opening track Daddy Fat Sax, dreamy 80s synths compete with military drums, vocoder samples are twisted, and casiotone glitches fly in the stratosphere. The effect is powerful if completely uncategorisable- it’s ability to effect a feeling of both serenity and momentum at once.
Similarly, after Tangerine’s fuzzed guitar has lulled you into a driven haze, a wild electric lead trades places with a reverb-heavy jazz piano- taking turns to enforce a change on the track’s mood. It’s forever inventive, a trick carried over the 16 tracks, employing both respect for loops and full mastery of both studio and songwriting. The results are dynamic, transformative, joyful songs. Patton just makes it sound easy, an impression that betrays the 3 years plus that went into the record’s production.
You put it on for the tunes; numbers like Shutterbugg and Tangerine showing off the grace of quality instrumentation and bright arrangement- but you stick around for the rhymes. Describing the record as his ‘Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi moment’, it’s the sound of an enormously talented rapper with years of experience on his peers, knowing that when you’re good- go with it.
Wednesday, 2 June 2010
But a growing number of festivals here in our very own United Kingdom are seeking (to coin a recent election phrase) "to do things differently". Of this small but increasing number, The Secret Garden Party is by far the most exciting, rewarding and plain 'out-there'. Imagine a festival where punters were treated not as cattle to be herded in and out of the arenas, but as individual members of a temporary society. A festival where the bands on show are just as excited to be there as you. A festival where the non-music activities didn't feel so 'corporate experience'. A festival where your bars are staffed by bartenders, your beer's a freshly poured one, the food is organic and restaurant standard. I'm barely scratching the surface of this unique, beautiful, often staggering festival.
Since it's inaugural year in 2004, where some 1000 people attended that first and now mythologised weekend- The Secret Garden Party has attracted a cult following. Devotees from previous years return with wide-eyed wonder and eager anticipation. You will know someone who can tell you a Secret Garden Party yarn, usually with glee, recounting the absurd and amazing things they have seen and done in previous years. A previous festival indulged itself by constructing an enormous ship on the lake which makes up the ground's centrepiece. After bands had finished performing on it, at the end of the weekend- it was blown apart in an explosion celebrating the carnivalesque, acknowledging creation and destruction. This ethos of participation in, towards and becoming 'grander events' is central to the Secret Garden Party ethos. Like America's infamous Burning Man festival- an event from which SGP's organisers draw huge inspiration, emphasis is on utter freedom and community-binding acts that bring out the best in people as well as inspiring awe.
And so Secret Garden Party is something of an enigma in the British Festival circuit; for whilst other festivals may entice through the location itself or the quality of the line-up, SGP places the emphasis firmly on those who attend. In their own words "We provide the Garden and plant the seeds, but you nurture its life and allow it to blossom. It is your party – your creative participation allows the festival to rejuvenate & regenerate." Would you ever hear those words eminating from a festival-behemoth like Mean Fiddler? Is it even possible to consider Reading festival 'a garden'? This commendable focus on you the festival goer, you the individual, collectively entails that a sense of pleasant freedom and community is native. An impossibly long list of activities (don't think Butlins), including Giant African Land Snail racing, life drawing, a scientific experiments area and academic lecture theatre- ensure that you are never bored, never drifting off, never thinking about 'heading back to the tents for a lie down'. In fact, if you're that kind of person- Secret Garden Party probably isn't for you. The Rejuvination Field is on hand to cure what ails ye: with a multitude of global massage techniques on hand, reflexology, yoga, even a giant-sized version of the classic board game 'Operation', for when you're feeling yourself again. A conspiracy camp explores debate and conjecture between peers. This year's festival falls on a full moon, so gardeners (as festival goers are lovingly referred) are invited to spend a while howling at the moon, rediscovering our inner wolves. Restuarants with such delicacies as free range guinea fowl and sweet potato dauphinoise. Oh, and lest I forget- if one requires quick but essentially bourgeois transportation across the site- there is of course, the fully working steam train with carriages. And one of the carriages is a club. But when you have eventually tired of the all-night roller discos and you do retire to your tent, a samba band will parade the festival every morning at 10am sharp, ensuring all gardeners are awake and atttentive, excited about the coming day.
With some much going on to become involved and lose yourself in, it's almost forgotten that a large number of very good bands happen to be playing the many stages at Secret Garden Party. Previous line ups have included Phoenix and Jarvis Cocker, and this year's can stand tall: From well-known names such as Mercury Rev and Eliza Doolittle, to upcoming indie star Darwin Deez and the delightful Belleruche. Across 14 stages, all colourfully named (from the Great Stage, the Remix Bubble, to the Where the Wild Things Are stage- where performers play from a wooden tree house)- Secret Garden Party's line up is designed to both please and surprise. "Favourite new band" discoveries are common here; the organisers hand-picked artists who will both fit into and appreciate the festival's aesthetic.
Every year, the Secret Garden Party is themed- and this year is no exception. Previous themes have included the myths of 'Babylon and Eden', 'Past Present and Future' and 'Revolutions'- mandates open to interpretation in one's decor, but promising a host of thematic and unexpected events throughout the weekend. In 2010, the festival will seek "prize open the chinks in man’s most carefully constructed edifice: Reality. The Garden will be exploring the illusions, visions, theories, fantasies, mysteries and legends that have created a rich world between Fact and Fiction." A hugely enticing brief, no doubt- calling to mind postmodernism, solipsism, nihilism, the art of Escher and Dali, Homeric thinking, construction of fictions, retelling of Histories. This year's Secret Garden Party promises a festival dedicated to wonderment, imagination and the impossible. It might be a secret now, but probably not for much longer. It's festivals like this that reaffirm your belief in the central premise: fields, music, people. That simple formula so often spoilt by unthinking corporate swipes, misunderstood by the global festival machine- enacted, for one weekend in Cambridgeshire, to within a whisker of utter perfection.
Secret Garden Party runs from 22nd to 25th July 2010.
Tickets are priced at 142.00 and are available from seetickets.co.uk and secretgardenparty.com
Boutique camping (of which yurts, tipis, centrally heated wooden huts, your own butler, door-men and other luxuries are available) starts at 350.00