Last year’s Focus Wales festival saw a minor makeover in its new hub of Ty Pawb, the brilliant new arts and community venue-cum-market hall. This year the hall is more literally central as the de facto main stage has moved from Central Station to Memorial Hall, Central having closed its doors for the last time just a couple of months earlier. As a venue where this writer saw the likes of Bloc Party and Mystery Jets in their early days and Laura Marling more recently, its loss won’t just be felt by Wrexham but Wales as a whole. It’s fitting then that we begin our weekend at Memorial Hall. The main room feels huge compared to most other venues, partly due to the high stage and crowd barriers which Faded Strangers are making the most of as we arrive at the end of their set, pulling every rock star shape they can think of. Fortunately Adwaith are on in the much more intimate smaller room, filling it out nicely with their laid-back, bilingual indie pop. It’s been a year since we saw them last at Focus 2018 and the difference is marked. They’re so much more confident, and rightly so; they’ve settled into their sound and improved dramatically. If they were full of promise a year ago, it feels like they’re ready to deliver on it.
“This next song’s about the end of the world, were pissing into the nuclear wind and David Attenborough won’t save us.” Back in the main room, Habits‘ brand of noise rock isn’t all doom and gloom, but then they are from nearby seaside town Colwyn Bay so its hard to be too apocalyptic. Their singer ends set highlight ‘Nosebleed’ halfway over the barrier.
Outside Undegun someone’s thrashing away with a practice amp and a bunch of kick drums, yelling about all the other venues he’s planning to play his rough and ready ramshackle blues outside of over the course of the weekend. “I might be shit but at least i’m entertaining!” Inside, BC Camplight sits down in sunglasses and a trucker cap pulled low, announces he’s very drunk and proceeds to swig from a prosecco bottle throughout. The band launch straight into the title track of recent album Deportation Blues‘ chugging, Grandaddy-ish college rock. As the set goes on, so does the story of them getting here: the guitarist couldn’t make, the van broke down, they got drunk and now they’re here. The band leave the stage so he can sing about his dog Frank who he missed “more than anything when I was deported… and my fiancée”. The chatter of the crowd at the back of the room threaten to drown the heartfelt piano ballad out, until he starts howling and someone makes a shadow puppet dog against the projection at the back of the stage.
Back at the Memorial Hall, the Lovely Eggs are letting their defiantly lofi, proudly northern take on classic punk do the talking. Half their songs are built around just one chord, because you’d have to be some kind of poser to think you need more than that. One man starts dancing facing the wall to ‘Magic Onion’. ‘Hello I Am Your Sun’ gets as epic and spacey as a weird reverb effect on the vocal allows. ‘Wiggy Giggy’ is positively epic, what with its verses and breakdowns and looped vocals. Singer Holly Ross jokes that male masturbation is being banned in Alabama because sperm already knows how to swim, before going on to say how they’re a DIY punk band without a manager, agent or label, just a 6 year old: “he does everything”.
The next day Yes We Mystic are a highlight of the Canadian showcase. The stage is littered with equipment, three-fifths of the band with racks of synths in front of them as well as guitars strapped to their backs. Theirs is an accomplished art pop, complete with charming tape sample intros (of course there’s a cassette deck amongst their gear) and frequent shifts in tone and palette. It’s easier to admire than love, although that might be because I’m distracted by the guy playing the modular synth who looks like an extra from Portlandia and the drummer who looks like Ste from Hollyoaks.
Martyn Joseph at the beautiful St Giles’ church provides some brief acoustic respite from the hubbub of Ty Pawb. He’s a bit of a singer songwriter legend, sparking singalongs that reverberate through the vaulted ceiling with its cherubs and seraphs. The title track of recent album Here Come the Young is a righteous celebration of youth-led revolution with a call-and-response vocal that the hallowed room rises to.
Back at Ty Pawb, Islet arrive moving through the crowd with handbells. The bells fade into a haunting two-note ambience, underpinned by a remarkably funky bass line and a chant of “we love you as you are”. Drummer Emma Daman asks if we like music when it’s done incorrectly, which sets the tone for what’s to come. Flickering synths and tambourine rhythms ebb and flow, squeaking shoes on the floor of Ty Pawb’s performance area become percussion. It doesn’t matter that we can’t really hear the noise the cymbals make as they’re spun round by hand, it’s as important to the performance as the keyboard. The ambience is dropped in favour of pounding polyrhythms and hiccuped vowels. A clicking, fidgety drum machine prompts weird interpretive dance both onstage and off. The release of the tension that comes with the simplicity of a repeating synth bass and live drums is palpable, so much that the room starts whooping in unison for the final couple of minutes of the set. You need to see Islet.
What can top that? Over at Undegun, Snapped Ankles give it a good go. They arrive swathed in synth noise, heads wrapped in foliage, microphones tied to tree branches. They’re all rhythm and repetition, nothing else matters. As a squelching baseline emerges, singer makes reference to Ty Pawb’s past life as a Sports Direct, inviting shoppers to get “down with the Ankles”. Some sound difficulties herald the arrival of a sound engineer with brightly coloured dreads conversing with a man with a bush, antlers and a red light on his head mid song. The singer then decides, for reasons known only to himself, to take a tape measure out into the crowd, only to head back to the stage again. Where on record they seem to struggle with the necessity of structure, the chaotic energy allows for each element to bleed into the next, like a feedback loop of unpredictability. ‘Jonny Guitar Calling Gosta Berlin’ is a prime example: on record it’s relatively straightforward psych rock, here the burbling synth and motorik drums spark blissed our pogoing and crowd surfing.
Over at the Parish there are framed records by the Stereophonics and the Enemy on the walls: an ill omen. But Working Men’s Club‘s flickering drum machine and chiming guitar is no dadrock. They build from a stutter to a roar, shoegaze-y whooshes being reined in by a taut sense of focus. Their energy is super infectious. When singer isn’t staring into the middle distance with a haunted look he’s bouncing around shirtless with a cowbell. Their electronics alternately pound and stammer, swathed in seemingly free form guitar. For a band so young to have hit upon such an exciting sound – seriously, their combined age can’t be much more than your average Stereophonic – is startlingly impressive.
The next day Peaness have a slow start, partly because the doors to Ty Pawb’s performance space are still closed when they start playing, partly because bassist has a bad throat. Their harmonies might not be as syrupy as usual but the songs still sparkle. Introducing their song about Brexit ‘Breakfast’, they explain that they were going to release it on Brexit day but that got pushed back to Halloween, which is too far away when the single’s ready to go, so now it’s coming out next week.
The Beths have no such issue, the room filling up well in advance of them arriving onstage, half of them dressed in Peaness merch. They launch straight into the title track of Future Me Hates Me to much dancing and singing along. There’s no stopping them, they barrel straight into ‘Not Running’ and it’s super tight, urgent, vital. ‘Happy Unhappy’ even gets the local MP Ian Lucas dancing in front of the sound desk. The sweat might be stinging our eyes by the end of ‘Little Death’ but we’ll be lucky to see them in a room this small again. Stunning.
Chroma are running late at the Saith Seren pub, which may or may not have anything to do with the tables getting in the way of the stage. When they do start though, they’re a revelation. It’d be easy to dismiss their cited Gossip influence as them just being bass-and-drums-and-female-vocals but singer has voice and charisma to boot. Their blistering disco punk is exactly the kind of workout we needed. Singer Katie Hall is passionately sloganeering in Welsh, she’s screaming in faces in the crowd, she’s whipping the mic lead like a punk as fuck ringmaster. The grooving ‘Try Me’ sees the drummer stood on his stool, bent double, before the deafening double-time hardcore finish.
As we arrive at Memorial Hall, Rachel Collier is still bringing the rave, giving away stickers and making sure people know that her drummer is from Wrexham. Kero Kero Bonito‘s J-pop-from-London has been beefed up to a full band for live purposes which translates as a more electro-punk sound, complete with drum solos and the bassist eating a banana mid-song. Singer Sarah Bonito brings a stuffed flamingo onstage for ‘Flamingo’ and lets out a bone chilling roar halfway through ‘Only Acting’, which descends from sparkling pop to face-melting glitch. ‘Break’ sparks a call-and-response singalong with (despite?) it’s daft phone call middle eight. Unfortunately when the house lights come up the crowd is sparser than when they started, but it’s fair to say they’re not for everybody.
Up in Undegun’s Void, Mart Avi is crafting a sinister electronic soundscape, stalking the stage in a velvet jacket. He struts back and forth, stating “Your future smells like perfume” over clouds of static. He hisses and pouts and point accusingly at his video backdrop of aspirational muscle cars. Modem dial up tones dissolve into soft focus synths and clicking and popping drum machines. It feels like he’s disappointed to the point of angry with us, but in a really flamboyant, retrofuturistic way, and it’s utterly captivating. The sound breaks down to a burbling synth and is that an oboe? Anyway it’s gone as soon as it arrived, and it doesn’t matter now because he’s put an umbrella up to serenade us over woozy, fizzing lounge rhythms and a sample of a numbers station reading seemingly random letters from the NATO alphabet. He staggers to the ground as a car explodes on the video behind him and an snapping electronic kick and snare take over. We’re urged over and over: “Its the end of an era/Try not to fall”.
Back downstairs in the main room, audiobooks are bringing the mood back up with a set of electro pop bangers. They’re very much their own thing though; there aren’t many acts doing a similar thing who can also get a big cheer from yelling “I don’t want to sleep with you!” at the climax of ‘Friends in the Bubblebath’. “I want you to get up right now!” goes from being your standard partystarting holler to something much more intimidating. “Please forgive me, I’m only just a girl!” she deadpans over the noise disco closer. Terrifying, brilliant.The lineup for this year’s Focus Wales is the boldest, most sonically diverse they’ve put on and fortunately it’s also the strongest. For a festival whose reputation as the best showcase event in the country (yes, including Brighton’s Great Escape the weekend before) is quietly growing, this lineup has easily cemented it. Ian Lucas certainly agreed, giving the festival a mention in Parliament in the week that followed. A truly remarkable weekend in north Wales.