Now in its Sixth year SWN (pronounced Soon in Welsh, meaning ‘noise’) the sprawling four day multi-venue festival came back to Cardiff on the week(end) of the 18th to the 21st of October. Just in terms of organisation alone, bringing over 200 artists to the capital is no mean feat. So from the outset let me give a big hand to those involved for maintaining SWN’s presence as a important flag pole in the map of the musical year for most of us Cardiffians.
In the past the line up has boasted acts such as Los Campesinos, Yeasayer, Beirut, Lucy Rose and The Joy Formidable. Inspired, apparently, by John Rostron and DJ Huw Stephens’ trips to the SXSW festival, it retained a certain Welsh character and, rather like Manchester’s In The City, in recent times it has bolted on various new events such as screenings, art showings, music seminars, and club nights. SWN isn’t just once a year either: to give them their dues in these difficult financial times, the same promoters often produce quality shows from name artists throughout the year.
However this year’s line up threw up just as many questions as it provided musical treats. When SWN began in 2006 it kept its shows to a strict set of quality venues in the capital (Clwb, The Globe, Coal Exchange, The Point, Howard Gardens) and restricted them to all day events headed mostly by local promoters. This added to the sense that you could stumble, still blinking in the sunlight, from a small dark venue like Howard Gardens into a show and see an artist you may never have heard of before in, say, Buffalo Bar. It also led to a sense of camaraderie (as bands shared kit and stories generally adding to the gaiety of the occasion) between the artists on the day. I know I attended a Loose Event that featured the likes of pirate-anti-folk-nutters the Bobby Mcgees, local indie popsters The School, and headed by a talent in the form of Emmy The Great. There was also a sense that the vast range of genres that flourish within the capital were catered for with more emphasis on different local promoters who work throughout the year rather than the more, maybe, necessarily centralist scheduling that has come to characterise SWN recently. Sure there are other promoters involved (just see the programme) but many of them aren’t from Wales and the point remains SWN is steering this ship both away from and onto the rocks.
Scanning this year’s schedule (when I finally got the programme) was like piecing together a puzzle that would never fit. Laid out in alphabetical order it was a job to put the artists you wanted to see together onto a bill at a venue, at the same time, let alone work out the colour coded map in the middle (colour blind bastards need not apply!). Also, I was still unaware of special events like a screening of a Manic Street Preachers film in Chapter on the Saturday or John Grant at the National Library (and if I did know I’m not paying two quid extra either!).
Clearly built for the energetic student and the weekend tripper in some respects SWN does a good job of bringing music lovers and bands that may not take the trip over the Severn bridge to the capital. However the patchiness of the line up this year was reflected by a sprinkling of buzz bands (the most enticing of which included Palma Violets, PINS, No Ceremony, Stealing Sheep and Cold Pumas), a cluster of local bands that many hardened local gig goers will have seen on the circuit before, and the odd exception like, um, Charlotte Church, The Cribs in the Great Hall or Scritti Politti in Chapter. But what it lacked were really big names on the indie circuit (even last year we had the Fall and Aidan Moffat) and a true diversity. Indeed, the point has been made to me that this year’s line up lacked much of the burgeoning afro beat scene in the capital; or more than a tip of the hat to the Welsh language, metal and hip hop scenes. Probably worst of all much of it ignored the more folkier element this year, in favour of a preponderance of noise pop bands in central venues like Undertone and both O’Neils. Whilst it’s understandable that SWN will reflect new musical trends it felt a little bit like those trends were dominating a bit too much this year, to the point where they swamped out some of the more interesting local musical pockets.
What it did have, in fairness, were a couple of line ups of real quality that reflected some of the good music Wales still produces every year — see the events in The Full Moon, Clwb, Chapter and Dempseys for instance. Whilst we’re on the subject of venues, as a less than fleet of foot person these days, I prefer to stay in one place rather than venue hop too much. When SWN started out you could move around at your leisure; now, you are a bit more constrained by the line up and timetabling. If you want to get to everything you wish to see then you have to compromise or get some good foot wear for scarpering around the city. Saying that, I spent most of Saturday in Chapter and most of Sunday in Dempseys (from which I had easy access to Clwb and The Full Moon), so I was better placed on the second day where things seemed a bit easier to get too.
Anyway, down to the music as that’s what you’re really here for right? I was unable to attend the first two days because of other commitments. But, going by other people’s reports, the acts to see included Manchester’s garage grunge types Milk Maid, in the cosy confines of the Moon Club, and Dylan-esque German born, Irish based, songsmith Ygnave in 10Feet Tall. While Bella Union artist John Grant was apparently ”a poor man’s Rufus Wainwright” live. Anyway moving on from the hearsay and to my SWN in reality and not on paper.
Verity Susman is perhaps the most bizarre act I’ve EVER seen on a stage. There I’ve said it. The first thing you notice is that the Electrlane lady has a beard, and from there on in you are constantly caught off guard by her avant-garde noise. Positioning herself in front of a screen that would display everything from dismembered Star-Trek characters floating across a purple sea to large breasted ladies accompanied by a male robot voice that asks us repeated erroneous questions about the meaning of life and love. All of this is accompanied by Susman’s experimental use of a saxophone: first she breathes in and out like the waves, then she screeches like a whale, next she’s riffing jazz-like and off key above a thumping apocalyptic beat and when she puts down the sax, she’s randomly running her hand down a casio keyboard repeatedly with little regard to a tune. I understand that Susman probably thinks she’s pushing boundaries of the audience and her own work, but the whole edifice is such a mess that it becomes nonsense of the worst kind.
I decide to escape the nightmare upstairs with local stalwarts No Thee No Ess whose delightfully scorched brand of psych-pop ushered in the autumnal season upon waves of delicate country-tinged instrumentation and quivering collective harmonies. Tonight they showcased four new songs from their fourth album, due in 2013. No Thee No Ess soothe and are frankly a blessed relief following Susman’s assault on my senses. Out Of The Woods are next up, sons of Dylan Thomas’s ‘ugly lovely’ Swansea, they produce a poetic ghostly Americana sound, pears from that coast seaward with a deep longing. They are brother and sister duo Pierre and Carys Donahue and Raymond Church. A track like ‘Calling Out Your Name’ highlights their quiet grace, Pierre’s vocals breathy and affecting like a voice from the depths of a cave, whilst his siblings provide textures of cello, Spanish-like finger picking and brushed percussion. It is indeed a treat.
After a little bit of waiting I head back downstairs to see local noise adventurers Islet who battle through the providing a sonic journey via the means of art rock and krautrock rhythms, chanting and thwacking everything that comes to hand. As people attempt to gain access to a venue that is now limited to one in one out policy.
On Saturday I ventured to DJ Adam Walton’s Cracking Vinyl show at Dempseys in the heart of Cardiff. Sadly I missed most of Mowbird‘s set I was hoping to catch their tasty lo fi surf pop. I did catch bluesy rock of Rhyl’s Bright Young People consisting of vocalist/guitarist Lee Dawson, bassist Jamie Cardno and drummer Casey Ingram their three piece sound has plenty of sneer and power. Likened to the Stooges and QOTSA sadly for the most part they lacked the dexterity of either, nevertheless their brand of noisy pub rock impressed their followers, but left me a little cold for the most part. Apart from a rather impressively clattering track near the end that fired messers Dawson and Cardno to notch up the swagger, spit and retorted vocals ante.
The undoubted highlight of SWN 2012 was North Walian collective Shy and the Fight. They are – deep breath – Michael Deponeo (Guitar, Vocals), Christopher Done (Bass, Vocals), Thomas Hyndman (Guitar, Banjo, Vocals), Carrie Anderson (Violin, Glockenspiel, Vocals), Jackson Almond (Keys, Electronics, Banjo), Tom Wootton (Drums) and Samuel Williams (Drums, Percussion, Cornet). Their multi-instrumented sound replete with two drummers (something I haven’t seen up close since the Arcade Fire) weaves a deliciously life affirming sound, their intertwined harmonies headed by Deponeo’s brittle harmonies that pump with a heart stopping power held aloft by a chorus of voices that lift these songs higher and higher skyward. Flanked by Anderson on violin and glock and Almond on keys and banjo, comparisons are useless but perhaps one could compare it to the intricate crashing sound of early Broken Social Scene or the swelling gorgeousness of Iron & Wine. They provide a wonderful set from the enveloping ‘How To Stop An Imploding Man’, the rushing waves of percussion on the majestically affecting ‘All The We See Or Seem’ and it’s rippling flipside ‘Brakes’ that comes armed with the glorious communal chorus (“So put your camera down/enjoy yourself we don’t need evidence of this”). To the tender ‘Living’ which is the sound of a lovelorn leaving letter gradually building to the wonderful refrain (“With your arms in the air/Shout I’m not afraid to die”) on a bed of twinkling glocks and sparring drum beats. Then rounding it off with the country-esque stomp of ‘First The Birds Fell’ replete with furious strums and screaming-along refrains. Shy And The Fight’s evocative sounds raise your senses, lift your heart and make you feel like a different person at the end of it all. That’s what makes them a very special group indeed.For a taster of their wonderfully graceful sound you can listen to the entirety of their St Giles show here:
Finally came the delightful Liverpudlian Laura J Martin whose armory of instruments which includes piano, flute and violin is as impressive as her chirruping off-kilter vocal playfulness. The insistent ‘Spy’ uses its stuttering flute line and Catherine wheel of vocal ticks to induce dizzying affect upon the listener. At one point she offers a song about a Chinese tale of arson to rival that of Guy Fawkes. Martin shows she has a range too taking to the piano flanked by Gareth Bonello (of local folksters The Gentle Good) she provides us with a superb version of the cabaret plink-plonk of ‘The Lesson’ that bares comparison with the work of Amanda Palmer. Martin lives up in part to the Joanna Newsom comparisons; her catchy vocal harmonies with the right song may see her make a break in the way Stealing Sheep have in 2012. Crucially her unique psych folk world is teaming with enigmatic characters and historical reference.
Shy and the Fight Image the property of :http://www.thisproject.co.uk/home/archives/938
There we have it my SWN 2012, I’d have like to have seen more acts in town over the weekend but I enjoyed most of what I actually saw. I’d be interested in what were your highlights and low lights and what you think the future of SWN should look like in the coming years?