Swn Festival, now five years old, once again enjoyed packed crowds and a cavalcade of live music across four days and numerous Cardiff venues from Thurs 20-Sun 23 Oct. Throughout the weekend, Buzz sent out a few of its intrepid reporters to capture the best of Swn’s bustling programme.
words: AMY PAY, IAIN PEEBLES, NOEL GARDNER, LLOYD GRIFFITHS
photos: SIMON AYRE
AIDAN MOFFAT & BILL WELLS
10 Feet Tall, Cardiff
Thurs 20 Oct
For someone known primarily for his apparent dourness, Aidan Moffat is a surprisingly warm and spritely presence on stage tonight. Bar some slight confusion caused by some appreciative but over-exuberant audience members, he is a picture of composure. His half-sung half-spoken lyrics are full of gritty detail: grubby sex, regret and loss. All this is underpinned by plaintive piano, sombre muted trumpet and languid bass. It’s late-night, smoky jazz for the most part and it fits the bill perfectly – the highlights, though, are when the band break from this template. The looped funk of Glasgow Jubilee lends an unusually upbeat vibe to the colourful description of a series of sexual encounters that comprise the song’s lyrics. Dinner Time is the most experimental offering with its haunting, repeated piano motif, dark, wandering bass underpinning Moffat’s deadpan narration. And their cover of Bananarama’s Cruel Summer is a minor revelation. But perhaps the most surprising revelation of the evening is the realisation that this collaboration with Bill Wells feels less like a departure for Moffat and more like the natural counterpoint to his darkly witty kitchen sink narratives. (IAIN PEEBLES)
MARTYN / CRST
Buffalo, Thurs 20 Oct
This review is bereft of Disclosure, a youthful electro-y dubstep duo, because they played from 2-4am on a Thursday night. If you want to know how they were, try asking one of the kids in attendance – someone in an animal suit, maybe – who clearly didn’t have work the next day. How I loathe envy them. Before them, we first got a bumper serving of CRST: four DJs/producers from South Wales who all have their own thing going on, but combine to roll out banger after banger after firecracker of uptempo dubstep, UK-to-US garage vibes and jacking house rudeness. A fair few of their own productions in there, to boot. Dutch beatcrafter Martyn turned in a great set here about a year ago, but this time he’s playing live, or at least off a laptop. Leaning heavily on his new album Ghost People, he largely follows the lead of that fine work by taking us down techno avenues. The Berlin-meets-Detroit spacey sleekness on show tonight may have been pioneered when a lot of people here were somewhere between sperms and toddlers, but it goes off regardless. His ‘PARIS 1981’ t-shirt is a good look, as well. (NOEL GARDNER)
AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR
Solus, Cardiff University Students Union
Fri 21 Oct
To be in this instrumental guitar-led band from Dublin, you needed to be male, pierced and hairy-faced. And So I Watch You From Afar was different to a lot of hairy, pierced male bands, though; they didn’t have a vocalist. At first this was strange to watch, with the crowd waiting for the lyrics to kick in, but once the lads started ripping up the rifts between heavy metal and hardened indie, it all fell into place. Laying three lines of fast-paced tremolo picking and manic tapping on top of off-the-mark drum rhythms, the four-piece played a sweaty set that sounded like Refused, Radiohead and Foals were sharing the same airwaves. (AMY PAY)
ASHTRAY NAVIGATIONS / TEAM SPORTS / ULTRAHUMANITARIAN
Fri 21 Oct
Put together by local promoters The Rusty Trombone Of God (in association with Bang The Bore) this line-up, judging by past form, was always going to be on the experimental side. It’s to their credit then that it ended up being such a varied and constantly engaging line-up.
Ultrahumanitarian’s exploratory set of synthesiser and drum duelling seemed to lose its way at times, in search of some kind of cosmic synchronicity, but when they did lock into a groove it was compelling stuff. Powerful, clattering drums underpinned some particularly tasty blasts of out-there Moog action which was a joy to behold.
Team Sports’ set was largely of the improv/free jazz kind, in the tradition of improv giants AMM and the whole European free jazz scene; particularly Peter Brotzmann, Han Bennink et al. But the subtle electronics of Ian Watson and the sheer force of their performance keep it from falling into a pastiche of their influences.
Coming from a different angle entirely are headliners Ashtray Navigations, which has morphed from being the solo project of Phil Todd into a full band. Mr Todd has long been an important figure in the UK DIY underground with countless limited run CD-R, cassette and vinyl releases to his name. This was Ashtray Navigations’ long overdue debut Welsh gig and they didn’t disappoint. A slow drone with a distinctly patchouli vibe gently unfolded into peals of Frippian guitar circa No Pussyfooting. The second half of the set moved into less laidback territory, building up into an enveloping warm fuzz and finishing with a brief, head-scratching, out-of-context electronic squiggle which seemed to purposely undermine any kind of grandstanding climax. Utterly brilliant. (IP)
Fri 21 Oct
Dempseys was Gallops’ first host late on Friday evening (they played Clwb Ifor Bach Saturday, such was the demand for them) and the queue snaking up Womanby Street would be enough to suggest they’re an intriguing watch, even aside from being one the most talked about bands of the weekend, their danceable math-rock asserting fascination amongst the crowd.
They don’t disappoint, their music instantly captivating without feeling cheapeningly catchy. To those who may superficially find their Battles-y instrumentalism repetitive, Gallops’ angular circularity builds around you live, leaving you shorn of the desire to wonder where the hooks are. Eukodol sounds like angular post-rock gone muscular – forceful yet creating enough thoughtful spaces which keep you enticed. One remembers less of them than most gigs strangely – and that’s a testament, not a criticism. They draw you in with enclosing electronica and layered guitars, the affect surprisingly familiar to anyone who has seen bands such as Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky live. The rare moments in which I flutter out of the intoxicating haze reveal the Dempseys crowd looking equally engaged: heads nodding, eyes closed in rapt ceremony. (LG)
THE JOY FORMIDABLE
Solus, Cardiff University Students Union
Fri 21 Oct
Luckily for their Welsh fans, the end of The Joy Formidable’s UK tour happened to coincide with Swn. The North Wales gang brought their energetic crowd-teasing show back to the capital, turning Solus into some kind of a homecoming party. With her beady eyes widened and a bounce in her blood, vocalist Ritzy Bryan sang in her mixed up Northern/Welsh accent in between running around the stage. The moans of their incredibly loud, feedback-laden rock were broken up by gong smashing and synchronised bass drum banging. It was the only gig at the festival with a nautically decorated backdrop studded with boating paraphernalia, crystals and a miniature lighthouse; if the music didn’t do it for you, the props kept things original. (AP)
THE SKULL DEFEKTS / THE GOOD WIFE / BRANDYMAN
Buffalo, Fri 21 Oct
In the unlikely event that anyone reading this cares, I was involved in the promotion of this evening, but have nothing whatsoever to personally gain from giving the bands a glowing review, so don’t start that. The glowing review, meanwhile, begins with Cardiff four-piece Brandyman, playing for the first time since March and with half a new band. Their local popularity is self-evident – they get a bigger crowd than both the bands after them, although being scheduled before almost any other band in town tonight may have helped – and their music remains a very potent intersection of classic boogie-rock, metalscraping 90s post-hardcore and ranting vocals. Do a bloody record or something.
The Good Wife, from London and the south coast, are nearly as studio-shy – an album is nearly recorded, but right now they have one single in about five years’ existence. They don’t appear to suffer for inactivity, however – their mode is heavy and discordant blues-meets-hardcore, with Nick Sharp a compelling guitarist and Emile Bojesen a confrontational vocalist. If you were one of the many people who left because you didn’t know who The Good Wife were, you played yourself.
The Skull Defekts are from Sweden and release music at a prolific rate. Some of it is noisy and unfriendly, but in recent times – since signing to Chicago label Thrill Jockey and collaborating with shamanlike vocalist Daniel Higgs on two records – they have inched towards almost orthodox and anthemic territory. As a live band, they fall between … no, stand astride both stools, with a heavy percussive element (including two mic’ed-up plastic water containers) feeding into cyclical guitars and a general primitive No Wave feel. It’s great, and they also have a winning crowd rapport – especially when talking about their boots, which are also great. (NG)
Cardiff Arts Institute
Sat 22 Oct
There are a glut of sepia-tinged alternative pop acts around at the moment, and at times it can be difficult to be bothered to differentiate between them. It seems a genre hard to get properly wrong, and Twin Shadow, Washed Out and Best Coast all furrow similar musical paths well. But, at a distance, it’s a genre easy to dismiss as drunk on its on pretence. Luckily Summer Camp are altogether more charming live at Cardiff Arts Institute. Given a 5pm time and unusually small venue for their size, there are things that could not quite work abound. They however demonstrate why when you get musically intimate (and luckily enough for some audience members, physically, as Elizabeth dances in an around the crowd), there is no reason for such cynicism. As well as complementing their coy yet swirling dream-pop, it also gives their sound an edge on tracks such as I Want You, which has the stylistic qualities of their other songs, but with its coveting narrator is all the more disquieting. With Jeremy Warmsley providing his usual intricate songwriting, there’s certainly room for Summer Camp to develop into more than a mere ‘summer’ band, and their acoustic performance suggests they will have plenty of dimensions to their future work. (LG)
BENJAMIN FRANCIS LEFTWICH
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
Sat 22 Oct
Like a little mole emerging from the dark, the 22-year-old singer songwriter shuffled to the front of the stage. Leftwich, in a worn-out beige t-shirt and well-washed jeans, appeared comfortable, humble and timid as he picked up his acoustic guitar and thanked the crowd for turning up. Then, from behind the shy ordinary face came the distinctive voice that sets Leftwich apart from the hordes of single singing male guitarists. Breathy, dusty and vulnerable, it unfurled fragile phrases about memories, lost love and future hopes over unhurried, lingering strums. A mid-set cover of Springsteen’s untouchable Atlantic City played on an overfuzzed electric guitar paid tribute to Leftwich’s inspiration. The young Yorkshireman needn’t have played anyone else’s material, mind, because, as the captivated gathering before him demonstrated, he has his own fragility, honesty and mildness to hypnotise impressed listeners. (AP)
Sat 22 Oct
Amongst 180+ new bands, there are bound to be a few troupes where the love and passion inspired by more established acts doesn’t quite land right; and who end up being derivative or worse, parodical. There were plenty of bands who sounded like Battles and strangely enough, several who seemed to have taken specific inspiration exclusively from Animal Collective’s most recent LP, the beatific, glimmering and dizzy Merriweather Post Pavilion. Beaty Heart are the best exponents, offering an Afrobeat-infused offshoot which has the same sense of tribal, ecstatic haziness which made MPP so exciting, but their songs do not feel like poor b-sides; instead fresh and original. Slush Puppy has a rhythmic syncopation which drives it forward, making the opaque vocals feel more immediate. It’s not that all of their songs remind you of Animal Collective though, one song toward the end of their unfortunately short set is more versed in Mount Kimbie style cracks and bleeps – electronic, but with a slow-burning sense of place and physicality about it. They left the Dempseys crowd (many waiting for Y Niwl and Gruff Rhys’ expected appearance), both beaming and tired, after a short yet viscerally satisfying set. (LG)
JIM JONES REVUE
Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff
Sat 22 Oct
From a 21st century perspective, it’s difficult to imagine what all the hoo-ha over Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations on The Ed Sullivan Show was all about. But any doubts regarding the power and potential lewdness of a few well placed thrusts of the hips from a lithe, handsome gent were dispelled tonight by the performance of the Jim Jones Revue. Watching suited and booted frontman Jones all but force his groin into the faces of an enraptured front row whilst guitarist Rupert Orton spits out classic rock’n’roll licks, it quickly becomes apparent that The Jim Jones Revue are well-versed in the clichés of the genre. But the sheer force of their performance and a liberal dose of charm keep this from feeling like a pointless nostalgia fest for an audience whose parents, even, were probably too young to experience the paradigm shift rock’n’roll brought about. (IP)
Cardiff Arts Institute
Sun 23 Oct
Dancers played the early afternoon set at Cardiff Arts Institute on the Sunday of Swn, attracting an impressive audience for a point at which the accumulation and accretion of three days of hangover was beginning to show for some of the more lightly constituted Swn-goers. Fortunately, they were not to be allowed to retreat into any solipsistic pity, as Dancers displayed their quietly resilient noise-pop to great effect. Their songs’ quality is borne of a confidence of the band’s beginnings as a ‘mere’ bedroom project, giving more meaning to the description ‘organic’ than is usual. They are slow-burning emotionally, the secrets of their cacophonous melancholy becoming more and more self-evident as the gig goes on. What’s most impressive is that their newest material has managed to contain both the cathartic-pop of Excuses? Excuses and a slow burning hazy and gut-wrenching side that allows their newest two tracks to really knock you off your feet with its vitality, especially in the soup of noise that the CAI provides. Dancers are a most pleasurably unpretensious band, one for whom pop (albeit of a fuzzy-rock variety) is no barrier for their artistry remaining distinct and who should remain weighted in your mind for some time. (LG)
Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff
Sun 23 Oct
Rounding off Welsh Club’s Swn was another acoustic-playing singer, Ben Howard, accompanied by a drummer and double bassist. His still, seated positioning contrasted with the powerful aura that rolled out into the rammed room; he gave folk music an injection of vigour, playing intricate polyphonic pluckery without sucking the rustic life out of it. Howard mixed tempos between sleepy station platform territory to the practically danceable, juxtaposed his rich Dan Mangan-meets-David Gray voice against lyrics of solitude and experimented with woody harmonics, knocks and taps to his guitar. What became of this was an atmosphere similar to that on the last night of a group camp, where the warmth and presence of an enthusiastic music maker brings everyone closer together to savour the moment. (AP)
SHAPE RECORDS EVENING
O’Neills, The Hayes, Cardiff
Sun 23 Oct
Cardiff-based label Shape Records curated a top line-up of local talent for the final day of Swn, kicking off with Them Squirrels, who I missed but were reportedly excellent. First on the agenda was The Failed NASA Experiment – a last minute replacement for Gentle Friendly who were afflicted with tonsilitis. The one man project of Murray Ward, The Failed NASA Experiment’s set opened with a droning klang via a bowed cymbal atop a guitar which merged into an eastern tinged guitar solo of the Sir Richard Bishop variety. It was a short, but perfectly formed, 15-minute set with a relatively meditative tone compared to the next band who, judging by the queue forming outside the venue, were the main event on this bill.
Truckers Of Husk’s muscular math-rock is almost too big for the room to contain tonight. The recent (ish) addition of former Future Of The Left bassist Kelson Mathias has bolstered their sound and added a nice line in arch banter to boot. But it’s the pre-Mathias material, particularly closer Panther Party that gets the crowd shaking the floor of the packed venue. It’s a triumphal set that even ends with an impromptu conga line that lifts the spirits of the crowd. Not that they needed to be lifted. Up next was H Hawkline, always a joy to watch. Primarily the solo concern of Huw Evans, H Hawkline has largely morphed into a trio, and a different proposition to the early shows of tentative John Fahey-esque finger-picking. Tonight we’re treated to confident psychedelic pop with the occasional satisfyingly jagged guitar solo, opener Hells Bells being a standout.
With all previous bands being in such fine voice it was a shame that Sweet Baboo literally wasn’t. But losing his voice didn’t stop him from delivering a set full of warm, self deprecating humour which is what sets him apart from the twee crowd. It almost seems like a set up when he introduces The Day I Lost My Voice with a croak but it proves not to be. But for someone who embraces the rough edges, Sweet Baboo isn’t likely to be put off his stride by a lost voice. He isn’t. He is magnificent and a fitting end to a great gig and a brilliant festival. (IP)