Maddeningly, owing to an ‘interesting’ budget airline flight and the difficulties inherent in trying to decipher bus timetables without being able to read Spanish, I reach the festival towards the close of My Bloody Valentine‘s set, although ‘assault’ would be the more befitting term.
Sure, a MBV performance brings with it a certain array of expectations, a few days of resulting tinnitus perhaps chief amongst them. But this wasn’t the usual garden-variety feedback being piped across the crowd – this was more your Guantanamo Bay brand, replete with people everywhere screaming out confessions in the hope that it would stop.
Even as far back as the VIP area – itself something of a military compound – the sheer volume turned brains to cake. ‘Enjoying’ the set wasn’t even an option: afterwards small groups sat huddled trading stories, trying to rebuild their shattered lives. Apparently the band’s Friday performance in the Auditori – the exact same set, just at a volume that adhered to the Geneva Convention – was outstanding, although that’s unlikely to appease those who endured this one.
Given Richard D James’ predilection for delivering whole live shows comprised of sampled pneumatic drills, it’s with a measure of trepidation that we head to see the Aphex Twin, although our fears are quickly assuaged by a set that’s as close to being straight-up danceable as the guy gets. That’s not to say it was anywhere near conventional, of course, with any compromises in the aural delivery quickly mitigated by visuals that added autopsies and surgery to the usual twisted, nightmarish renderings of Aphex’s own face, which by the end pretty much reflects how we feel. In a good way.
It’s only upon returning to the festival in daylight that we can fully appreciate just how strange a venue the Parc del Fórum actually is. Entering to the left of a colossal shard of dark-blue rock that doubles as Primavera Sound’s indoor venue, the Auditori, it’s clear we’re not at Glastonbury. Comprised of vast pillars of concrete shorn of any real purpose, it’s difficult to shake the sense that we’re in a set from Halo: some dystopic future state where giant solar panels have succeeded oil and all surrounding landmass has been swallowed by the sea. It’s also one of the only festivals where it’s possible to hear every stage at once from a plastic seat in the food court, providing at any one time a rather intense snapshot of everything going on any given moment, like the split-screen used in 24.
It becomes obvious very quickly that, despite ostensibly being a Spanish festival, many of the attendees wear a distinctly British Nosferatu pallor of skin, eyes masked by shades as they hiss violently at the sun. What with the English signage and a heavily Anglophonic line-up we could actually be in England – aside, of course, for the lack of mud.
An early-evening slot means that Bat For Lashes‘ usually mist-shrouded nocturne is bathed in sunlight, with only a deer’s head and a burlesque lampshade to provide their usual theatricality. Not that they have any need of mere aesthetics: new album Two Suns provides them with songs strong enough to transcend even the Spanish heat, Natasha Khan’s voice is impeccable against the harder, heavier live translations of openers Glass and Sleep Alone, the latter significantly augmented by a pulsing synth line. For many their set proves a highlight of the whole weekend, the only negative the sound bleed from the Vivian Girls‘ set on the Pitchfork stage which sabotages quieter moments, a stripped-down Priscilla the primary casualty. Recent single Daniel gets the loudest response, although trying to pick out highlights from a set this strong seems churlish.
The first of three appearances at the festival for the band, Black Lips are 20 minutes late to the Rayban tent owing to “not being let in to our own show”. Not that many can hear their excuses: the monumental folly of siting an acoustic venue dead centre within the no man’s land between the Pitchfork and Rockdelux stages becomes apparent as soon as they attempt a song, their efforts indistinguishable within a mix that’s one part Black Lips, two parts soundcheck and seven parts Spiritualized, midway through their own set a mere hundred metres away. The band make a brave but doomed attempt to play through, their frustrations borne out as they scale the Rayban display unit (isn’t sponsorship great?) repeatedly before wisely accepting defeat with a promise to “play a proper show tomorrow.”
Art Brut must be one of the only bands to play a major festival where the between-song banter vastly overshadows the actual songs. That’s not to denigrate the band or their material, but when they have a front man as animated and engaging as Eddie Argos it’s tempting to start viewing the chords, drums and rhythms as mere fluffing, a pleasant if inessential pause between the anecdotes and wry social commentary that precedes each track. “I genuinely believe that if you have a bad record collection, you should not be allowed to vote,” he says – a contribution to political reform that should be implemented immediately. For a short-lived period, the late Bill Hicks attempted to marry his stand-up routine to a live backing: it failed, but Art Brut seem to have cracked it. They’re an exceptionally entertaining live band, although you’d forgive the other members for maybe feeling a touch superfluous, their front man’s frank disregard for setlists and habit of restarting songs midway with a taut “Ready Art Brut?” a seeming sign of a band bereft of the collectivism that the term implies.
Over at the ATP area Sunn O))) provide the most alienating hour of the festival, and possibly our lives. Garbed in robes and only half-glimpsed within the swirling mists permeating the stage the duo treat the crowd to a set formed as though from rock, monolithic power chords sustained forever in an unsettling evocation of what purgatory is probably like. Needless to say it’s a divisive experience: around half of the considerable audience stand rapt, their only movement the tremble as the bass courses through them. Those left unenlightened mutter incredulity, some staring out to sea as though to check that we’re not actually beneath it, suffocating slowly to a soundtrack of sit-on lawnmowers.
LA three-piece The Mae Shi are more performance than music, their set a furious rush of noise and kinetics. Band members abandon their instruments at random, apparently superfluous to the process of playing the song: by the end all three members are in the crowd, with just a laptop left holding the fort. It doesn’t screw up once, just as our attention never wavers.
One of the day’s key draws, Jarvis Cocker‘s performance carries a weight of expectation that his solo material can’t really live up to. He remains as charismatic a front man as ever, but with the exception of excellent closer Leftovers the songs lack the charm to make them much more than intermissions between Cocker’s infinitely more entertaining crowd addresses.