It’s mid-October and the sun is out in Cardiff like the world is being consumed by some kind of ecological catastrophe. The city centre is a seething mêlée of stag dos, escape rooms, late night shopping and squashed chips. We’re here partly because it’s where we live, but more pertinently because it’s time for Sŵn 2018. Sŵn, which means noise in Cymraeg, enters its twelfth year with a change of management. All the dear little cariads down at Clwb Ifor Bach are in charge now, placing the running of the show firmly on street level. The street in question is Womanby Street, a little passage by the castle, crowded with grassroots venues and independent bars. It’s the beating heart of Welsh music, a place where good things happen, and this weekend they get the chance to bring a bit of that old Welsh Club pizzaz to all their neighbours.
Clwb have spent the last year setting themselves up as the kind of entity that isn’t going to be restricted by its own bricks and mortar and have started putting on big-name gigs at other venues. They’ve got Ólafur Arnalds and John Grant coming up in the brutalist warren of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall and the sainted explosion of ecstatic delight that is Mercury Rev in The Gate in nearby, leafy Roath. There’s a lot of ambition behind those walls and hopes are high for their stewardship of the festival.
There’s an outrageous number of bands playing sixteen venues across four days, which is a lot of ground to cover. I’d love to fly the flag for all the local artists I go to see week in week out, but since Clwb have gone to the trouble of inviting a load of acts from out of town, it’s only polite to go and review some of them, yeah? So before we start, hats off to Gwenno, HMS Morris, Estrons, My Name is Ian, Quiet Marauder, Oh Peas!, Mellt, Adwaith and Boy Azooga. I haven’t forgotten you guys, you all give me so much pleasure, but there was just too much else to write about. Love you all and we’ll do a thing one day soon. Promise.
So Thursday night finds me catching up with The Orielles in the Great Hall at Cardiff University Student Union. They’re opening for Drenge and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and while neither of those bands is quite my bag I can see that in principle, this is a good bill. I can also see that the place looks pretty full and full of people having a damn good time at that. Drenge’s set ends with a random audience member waving a shoe in the air, and if that isn’t rock and roll I don’t know what is. It’s turgid and slightly blokey, but it kind of all works and bodes well for the future. If the festival is going to prosper rather than just survive, this is the show that had to go all right. And it did.
Back to The Orielles, though. I’ve been following them for a few years and while it’s gratifying to see their debut album do so well, I have wondered if they aren’t quite fully formed yet. Tonight though, they acquit themselves with considerable aplomb, taking on a big stage and a big audience like they were born to it. The guitar riff in ‘Sunflower Seeds’ is drenched in pitch-bent ‘80s cheese and ‘Sugar Tastes Like Salt’ sounds more and more like an indie-pop take on ‘Live and Let Die’ with every listen. Finding themselves in a position where a lot of bands might flounder they’re rising to the occasion and clearly having a ball while doing it. I still think it’s built a little too much around the virtuosity of the lead guitar, but he’s such an affable little tyke, with his green fingernails, cowbell and cheeky grin that it’s hard not to be utterly charmed.
Friday, I find myself at Clwb, and having said that I’m going to skip a lot of the local talent there’s no way I’m going to miss Farm Hand (a.k.a that chap from Islet). Solo, he plays gloomy, pastoral electronica with a dash of performance art. Frequently enquiring of audience members whether or not they’re going to be repeat customers while insisting that yes, he has done gigs before, he sings absurd lyrics while pacing up and down the venue with a blank-eyed stare. It’s intensely self-deprecating – he introduces the song ‘Search Engines’ as an effort to write something that would unite the whole of humanity before the big reveal that the lyrics consist only of the repeated refrain that “I never do anything unless I Google it first”. Jokes aside, ‘International Dreams’ and ‘I Hope She Knows’ are very beautiful pieces of music, hymnal and sombre and hilarious, and you should really go and see him if you can.
After such a masterful piece of showmanship it could easily all go downhill, but luckily Glasgow’s Rascalton over in O’Neill’s are a rather good example of this kind of festival at its best. It’s a simple set up, just a couple of purple lights and a neon sign against the back wall, and the morbid atmosphere of a pub franchise is a great context in which to experience their particular brand of high energy, in your face, pound-shop, garage punk. I have to hand it to O’Neills for putting up with Sŵn over the years. Wetherspoons wouldn’t poke us with a dirty fork, so cheers guys. There’s a palpable intelligence behind Rascalton’s anger, or at least it feels that way for the thirty minutes or so they’re on. The stage is actually the slightly raised area where people usually sit and eat microwaved lasagna. Props to fellow Glaswegians Heavy Rapids, who start a three-man mosh pit in front of it. It creates a vivid sense of someone else’s scene – a slice of Sauchiehall Street on St Mary’s.
Vive la Void back over in Clwb is different again, all electronica, darkness and lasers. She’s one half of Moon Duo, and makes for a commanding presence, silhouetted in a clear plastic raincoat behind a bank of equipment. Vive la Void casts a welcomingly hypnotic spell during a set that feels like it’s over too quickly. The songs are ethereal and melancholy, but with a gutsy, industrial backbone, a world away from Moon Duo’s twee brand of Krautrock.
I take a break to mill about some of the other venues before being caught in the queue outside Clŵb and miss the first half of Goat Girl’s set. It’s the dreaded one-in-one-out that is the bane of the multi-venue fest, but since I missed Bo Ningen when they first played Sŵn in 1968 or whenever it was for exactly this reason, I persist and am rewarded. And even though Clwb is full of people talking over the band, you know what? Goat Girl are so over your shit. They sing flat and look at you like you’ve just woken them up. And then they play ‘Cracker Drool’, which shuts down the chit-chat fast. Most of the songs are quick, just a few minutes each, and the sheer force of their indifference is quite a joy.
And where to start with Bo Ningen? They couldn’t be more of a contrast. Great hair, passion, epic riffs, weird time signatures and even, according to my occasionally wildly inaccurate notes, rapping. They throw everything at us tonight and are remunerated with what I can only describe as the most legitimate mosh pit I have ever seen. I would usually just roll my eyes at the toxic masculinity of it all, but tonight it feels earned. The way British audiences have taken this Japanese psych-rock quartet into their hearts is rather touching. They close their set with a mind-blowing wig-out of intergalactic proportions. Reports have been coming into me all night of the epic goings-on at the Tramshed, but to me, here and now, this is what it’s all about. Up close and personal with great bands in small clubs.
On Saturday afternoon I lose the urge to try new things and go find a couple of old favourites from the local scene. ACCÜ was the presiding genius of the incomparably brilliant, but ill-fated folk-rave outfit Trwbador. She’s spent the last few years releasing tantalising snippets of music here and there and is gearing up for the launch of her debut album in November. It’s familiar territory – treacly, Kraftwerk inflected folk tales, which build into powerful baroque structures. Singing in English and Cymraeg and dressed in a sharp, cadmium red suit, she’s an extremely inventive vocalist and deploys all the beauty the Welsh language can throw at you. It’s a quiet, thoughtful set, packed with recorder solos and out of phase woodland beats and beeps and should be getting a lot more attention than it is.
Then we saunter over to Fuel, where Cardiff’s metal and goth crowd usually hang out, to see Right Hand Left Hand, who are playing here to a small but devoted band of admirers. They really are magical. Two ordinary looking guys who somehow produce the kind of nuclear onslaught more usually associated with an armada of alien battleships. It’s nothing but a drum kit, a couple of samplers, a guitar or two and a row of effect pedals, and even today, beset with technical difficulties, they still intend to burn your entire primitive planet. It’s all new music today in advance of a record they plan to put out next year, and it sounds great to these ears. There’s a real drama to watching this kind of double act live and seeing how they set up each loop, switch positions and instruments, and nod and signal to each other. There’s something very warm and human about it – good friends locked into their own noisy and slightly private world.
We stay for Dead Method, another pair of local boys, the time with their sights set on jacking that most coveted of mantles the last of the great synth-pop duos. They’re what Soft Cell might have sounded like if David Ball had spent more time listening to Burial. The singer does big, yearning torch songs, religious imagery, velvety vocals, amazing trousers and has a guy dressed in converse crouched underneath a keyboard. At one point he actually has the chutzpah to rhyme the words baby and crazy and if there wasn’t a very tangible risk that it could all go a bit X-Factor at any moment then the dark, dub-step sound that underpins this would just be more bloody James Blake. I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend you see them. They’re supporting Public Service Broadcasting in Bangor and Swansea this week and I have no doubt they’ll be dividing audiences near you very soon.
I feel like I’d better hate something so I go to see Cosmo Sheldrake at Clwb because I want to find out how completely insufferable someone called Cosmo Sheldrake could possibly be. It turns out he’s disappointingly brilliant. He’s introducing ‘Pliocene’ as I lurch towards the stage full of belligerence, and explaining that he’s using samples taken from U.S. military intelligence recordings of fish. The idea was to be able to tell the difference between the sounds made by Russian submarines and the sounds made by fish. ‘It’s also about extinction’, he adds, and I’m immediately hooked. He crafts unwieldy electronic pavanes, folksy little jigs and improvisations out of found noises, dropping William Blake’s verses and the call of the willow warbler into the mix like an estuary-vowelled sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s nonsensical, playful and deeply serious. His song ‘Wriggle’ gets a big cheer from a small but very engaged audience. I’d go see him again. A cult in the making.
Then we make an expedition to Gwdihŵ, snuggled between Cardiff gaol and an excellent Thai restaurant, to see L.A. Salami. It’s another silly name, but this time I think I might like it, and this time I’m right. A dreadlocked and strikingly handsome fellow with pockets full of harmonicas and poetry scrawled on the back of his hand, resplendent in a brocade jacket, you could make facile comparisons with Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, but weirdly, if anything he puts me in mind of Mark E. Smith. It’s nothing like the late, great, hip-priest, but as I listen I cultivate this unbidden fantasy that L.A. Salami was thrown out of The Fall one day for playing stuff that was way too elaborate, and having imbibed that ‘Container Drivers’ little Englander take on the Mississippi delta he somehow turned it back on itself. One of his songs is entitled ‘Anything’s Greener than Burnt Grass’ and it’s my favourite song title of the weekend, and one day I’d like to experience his undoubted capacity as a wordsmith. Don’t get me wrong – tonight’s set drenches his lyrics in noise, and I’m glad they’re consistent about that. It would look a bit wrong to suddenly pull out an acoustic guitar in the middle of all this. ‘It’s about things being as bad as they can be,’ he explains. The free-festival vibe wears thin at times, but with songs like ‘Who’s Cursing Us Now?’ I can live with that.
Later we pop into Clwb to see Alfa Mist play jazz, just because we can, and then it’s down under a railway bridge and into the basement of Jacob’s Market for Snapped Ankles. I’m still not sure if they’re just a novelty act, and there’s a lot of people here clearly wondering the same thing. For the first time in a while, I run into some of the local scenesters and we kind of nod at each other without really making eye contact like we’ve caught each other somewhere sordid. Perhaps it’s just been a long weekend. Pleased to report that Snapped Ankles are a total blast. A musical cocktail, one part KLF to three parts Mad Max, infused with The Ramones and just the tiniest smidgeon of freshly zested Atari Teenage Riot, they take the stage encased in yeti costumes and bombard the room with pumping synth and squalls of noise. One of them wears a set of antlers with a glowing light on it. But then halfway through their set a drunk and confused old man knocks over some of their kit, reminding us of the social contract upon which civilisation hinges. A woman in the front row deals with him while Snapped Ankles do a very efficient job of rescuing their gear. ‘Johnny Guitar Calling Costa Berlin’ follows, and it’s a magnificent bit of cold-war gloriousness. I’m still humming ‘Hanging With the Moon’ two days later, forcing me to concede that Snapped Ankles are the real deal. They go just far enough with the joke without becoming a cartoon and let the costumes create a context for what is undeniably quite exhilarating music.
So what now for Sŵn? I’ll be frank – I’ve avoided it for the last several years finding it over-priced and underwhelming. There’s a lot of this stuff competing for your attention, plus it’s the same weekend as Made in Roath (whole other story folks). It’s not like any excuse to traipse around Womanby Street and Cardiff’s assorted venues will do for me, but it’s a beautiful city and a lot of exciting bands work here and there are a bunch of fine venues to support them. So it’s fun, and I’m glad to report that it feels like Sŵn is back on track. But even though it’s a great showcase for Welsh music, it’s hard to imagine that many people come here just for Sŵn. I saw Gwenno on Wednesday and she was aces as always, and I thought that maybe with the Cornish language synth-pop, she’s pointing in the right direction. Sŵn is a great way to spend your weekend, but if it was a tad more outward looking it could be something really world class. Cardiff as the new Berlin? Maybe when the economy tanks after Brexit. Let’s see what next year brings.