After the success of last years outstanding event, ATPs London mini-festival has paradoxically both expanded and contracted. Its grown to cover a whole weekend with multiple headliners (last year Portishead headlined both days), but has contracted by only using the smaller halls within Alexandra Palace. This actually works really well, leaving them free to select artists of real merit without needing bigger names. The palaces West Hall also arguably works better for music too – the sound is largely superior, and theres at least an illusion of intimacy distinctly lacking in the vast space of the Great Hall.
ATPs musical open-mindedness will be laudable for some but it does lead to some unusual programmes. Whilst this closing day is dominated by some big names in American alternative rock, it begins with some challenging sets from some growing names in the field of left field electronica. The flow of Forest Swords opening set (clearly intended to be continuous) is undoubtedly hampered by a power supply failure but their combination of minimal electronics and electric guitar is occasionally beguiling. At times, the textures are richer and fuller than expected, although the music still feels a little introverted. There is no doubt a carefully considered reason for the visuals of ballet dancers, even if it all appears a little baffling. More focused and successful in combining images and music is Blanck Mass, a solo project from Benjamin John Power of Fuck Buttons. Again disrupted by the power supply issues, his music nonetheless emerges as triumphantly menacing and disconcerting, dominated by unsettling bass frequencies and unnerving, constantly shifting textures.
Comfortably the highlight of the men with laptops phase of the day is Demdike Stare, a band around which a consensus of admiration has developed for their recordings but who divide opinion as a live act. Although it begins with a rude awakening from a near-deafening siren sound, it still takes this set a while to kick into action. For a while, they abrogate rhythm in favour of a combination of attacking high frequencies and punishing sub bass and its a while before the strange, mesmerising visuals begin. It eventually becomes clear that the band are much more adept at handling dubby, hypnotic grooves than simply experimenting with sound and the black and white imagery suggests psychological horror, working very well with the music. That being said, a substantial section of the audience choose to absorb this set whilst lying down. Are they immersed or asleep?
By the time San Franciscos Thee Oh Sees take to the stage, the audience has more than doubled in numbers and the response is considerably more adventurous. They play an enjoyably loose, vigorous and frazzled garage rock-meets psych pop. Its thrilling in as far as it goes, but its all pitched at the same frantic level of dynamic intensity and pacing. Even at a concise 45 minutes, its still somewhat exhausting.
Apparently, Archers Of Loaf have not reformed because they never officially split up. Well, whatever the correct terminology for their unexpected return, it feels as if they have never been away or perhaps its simply that they have been thoroughly revitalised by their time away. More melodic than Thee Oh Sees, they tear into some classic American college rock from their impressive back catalogue with obvious abandon and enjoyment. Highlights include a storming Web In Front (considerably punchier than the recorded version on the Icky Mettle album) and a turbulent, captivating take on The Greatest Of All Time.
It would be hard for anyone to follow this, but the subsequent lull is proceedings proves more than a little frustrating. Scheduled at the same time, the ’70s retro stylings of Sleepy Sun is almost but not quite engaging. Their songs seem to grasp for sophistication and intricacy but end up mostly preoccupied with overly-familiar heavy riffing. Meanwhile, over on the main stage Yucks combination of drone and introspective meanderings is terminally boring, not least because its anchored by a plodding, unadventurous rhythm section.
Ian Svenonius and The Make-Ups joyfully absurd, unrestrained and scintillating gospel yeh-yeh sound couldnt come at a better time. Who better to shake things up and wake everybody up? This isnt quite the bands original line-up (drummer Steve Gamboa is not involved), but its difficult to complain when Svenonius still looks and sounds so great. Hes a crazed, imperious ringleader, exhorting and preaching to the audience (he delivers a rampant sermon whilst held aloft by the first few rows of the crowd). Later, Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli refers to him as a feral animal and attempts by security staff to keep him away from the audience certainly seem futile. The set veers heavily towards their classic singles (Walking On The Dunes, Every Baby Cries The Same, I Want Some, Untouchable Sound are all present and correct) and sadly leaves no room for anything from the brilliant albums In Mass Mind and Sound Verite. The band is now perhaps as tight and professional when one might wish them to be as wild and untamed as Svenonius himself. Still, this day certainly needed a showman – and Svenonius provides this and so much more. Its good to have them back.
Back at the tail end of the nineties, Afghan Whigs fizzled out rather than splitting acrimoniously. Although their albums had been loved by many and acclaimed by critics, the commercial breakthrough never quite arrived. A few in the audience tonight are clearly too young to have ever seen the Whigs live and their presence is heartening. The rest are a loyal coterie for whom the bands astonishing run of albums from Congregation through to 1965 are unmatched pillars of drama and power. Given that the group has often been reductively associated with the grunge era. its remarkable how potent they still sound. This is a supremely tight and imposing band able to sustain a tremendous level of intensity and the songs of sexual torment, jealousy, misdemeanours and angst still sound dark and dangerous.
References are subtly interpolated, from Dulli quoting a couple of lines from Little Red Corvette, or Rick McCollum adding the coda from Purple Rain into Afghan Whigs own superb power ballad Faded (which closes the main set). The selections from Gentlemen and Black Love provide inevitable highlights, not least tempestuous readings of the latters title track and the still vital My Enemy. Selections from Black Love bookend the set, which emphasises the conceptual, thematic streak that runs through all of Dullis work with this band.
More surprising is just how well the material from Congregation stands up here. Whilst it could easily be dismissed as a somewhat tentative, transitional phase in the bands catalogue – the songs are now executed with commitment and confidence. The asymmetrical, angular punch of Im Your Slave sounds great early on and Miles Iz Ded provides a stirring final encore.
Even in a set that generously extends their scheduled time (perhaps due to El-Ps cancellation), there are notable omissions. Theres no Blame etc, Honkys Ladder, Somethin Hot, John The Baptist or Be Sweet. It seems churlish to complain, however, given how robust and impressive a set they deliver. Its a triumphant end to a somewhat weird, occasionally wonderful day of music. The nostalgic focus of these events can be problematic – but ATPs mission to introduce cult favourites continues to yield surprising results.