Last year’s Ja Ja Ja Festival at the Roundhouse featured a few minor organisational quibbles that prevented some punters from getting the whole experience of what it had to offer. This year, it’s moved to the Great Hall at Queen Mary’s University near Mile End, a gorgeous art deco building with a grandiose theatre.
Once again, films are being shown (such as Björk‘s Biophilia tour film) and regionally appropriate cuisine is on offer (the catfish cheeks come heavily recommended). There’s even a bunch of reasonably priced Nordic cocktails and Icelandic pale ale. This all feels very DIY and authentic – something that perhaps got lost in translation last time.
Of course, it’s an event with two sides. If the music itself doesn’t play its part satisfyingly then all the nice extras are in vain. It starts very promisingly. Byrta‘s debut appearance in London attracts a handful of the early birds but the outfit clearly left a mark. Guðrið Hansdóttir and Janus Rasmussen (the latter also of Kiasmos) released their eponymous debut earlier this year and their ’80s-influenced electropop hits hard. Their material sounds big and substantial without coming across as trying too hard.
Sin Cos Tan from Finland bring a lot more in the way of style and theatrics to their performance – widescreen visuals are constantly in the background, but this feels like style over substance and the vibrancy that punctuated Byrta’s opening half-an-hour begins to slowly evaporate. That said, it’s very hard not to like the melodramatic synthpop of Heart Of America, which closes their set.
Positioned all around Highasakite during their performance are giant light bulbs that flicker and glow in an attempt to add atmosphere to their live sound. That, combined with the sprawling and celestial songs they perform, make it difficult not to conclude that Sigur Rós are a huge influence. They devote time to allow songs like Hiroshima to build and soar until they can’t ascend any higher. It’s pleasant; but this Norwegian quintet rarely manage to illicit a stronger reaction.
On the other hand, Sweden’s Jenny Wilson is adamant in starting the evening with a bang as she skips around and wanders into the crowd, all but demanding that they dance along. Tracks like The Future and Opposition are fierce but they have infectious grooves, whilst Pass Me The Salt is immensely hypnotic. The longer the set goes on, the more willing people are to go with it.
Denmark’s When Saints Go Machine, whose last record Infinity Pool came out last year, use their set as a reminder of why they’re such a fascinating band. The main focus is really on a couple of core sonic features during their 40 minute performance, one that’s replete with pulsating keyboards and the startling, intriguing voice of frontman Nikolaj Vonsild. Church And Law and Parix make good use of both of these elements and are the standouts. At their best, their incredibly rhythmic sound is enough to leave audience members completely entranced.
The evening’s headliner, Emilíana Torrini, is a world away from the rest of the bill in that her music is more folksy and organic than just about everything else, but it’s a welcome change of pace. It also proves to be the most dynamic and engaging set of the day. As well as being a wonderful singer, Torrini also has a charming and easy-going stage presence and that personality comes across in breezy tunes like Big Jumps and Home. Quieter moments such as Today Has Been Okay and Echo Horse are heart-stopping, whilst the fantastic When Fever Breaks is a wonderfully extended and epic conclusion. It’s a warm and good-hearted end to a much-improved Ja Ja Ja Festival; the problems of their inaugural edition have been ironed out and it’s a considerably more relaxed and enjoyable experience this time round.