On entering Salford arts hub and festival HQ Islington Mill, you’re greeted by a corridor of coned hats, akin to dunces’ caps, draped from the ceiling. Wading through them brings back memories of Fun House on cITV.
You can’t help but smile, especially when you walk back through the corridor after collecting your wristband, start reading your programme and forget they’re hanging there. This sets the tone for this year’s Sounds From The Other City: chaotic art installation, comedy and surprises.
Now in its ninth year, Sounds has become one of the country’s foremost festivals showcasing new and emerging talent, as well as the odd bigger name thrown in.
In the process, the festival has helped re-invigorate the Chapel Street area of the city, with Islington Mill now a vibrant centre for artists and a key venue for gigs. Indeed, for many, it would have been unthinkable to walk through the estates surrounding the mill in the dead of night only a few years ago.
With 13 stages offering everything from the best up-and-coming indie to avant garde and electronic music, the wealth of music on offer is quite staggering – overwhelming, even. It all adds to the festival, though, making it the equivalent of a musical pick ‘n’ mix: some you’ll love and want to savour, while others will leave a rather unwanted taste.
The first lucky dip was at the Now Wave stage in St Philip’s Church. There seems to be a bit of a panic, with the stage running about 45 minutes late – bound to happen with a festival this complex. Still, Fun Adults, who have recently garnered some Radio 1 play through their new single For Water, eventually arrive.
But alas, it wasn’t worth waiting for; despite their intricate melodies, math-rock time signatures and keyboard-created loops, they veer too much towards Alt-J (who, incidentially, once played Sounds before becoming Alt-J). Meanwhile, when played live, For Walter makes for rather turgid listening despite the funk tinge to their bass lines. Seeing many checking the football scores on their phones suggests they didn’t capture the imagination of many – although more on the St Philip’s Church audience later.
Despite the lacklustre start, the Red Deer Club Secret Session promised something intriguing. Announced on Twitter, those hoping to attend are told to meet a cloaked figure in nearby Bexley Square at 4.45pm. With each session limited to just 10 people, those who arrive early are the fortunate ones and receive a small, rectangular piece of cardboard. “Red deer club secret session one,” mine says. It seems to be cut out from a corn flakes box. We’re told to keep them safe – they only have 10 tickets and have to be re-used throughout the day.
The cloaked figure – wearing grey Converse – takes us to Islington Mill and up many flights of stairs. Red Deer Club Secret Exercise Session more like. When we step through into the large studio, breathless, we’re told to mind the artwork on the floor and not stray over the candles, which create the appearance of a stage.
In front of us are two other cloaked musicians, sat on couches, one of whom has her back towards us. The one facing us, a bloke, begins softly tooting discordantly on a saxophone, while the female singer begins to sing in a soft, beguiling manner and pick her guitar, creating something avant-garde folk like. It lasts no more then 15 minutes and we have no idea who performed, but we all leave rather stunned.
Dog and Bowie
Downstairs, Manchester Scenewipe are well into their SceneSkype series, with two members of The Travelling Band playing live from Hungary. During their performance, you wonder whether this could be a feasible model for gigs in the future: the quality is high, the sound is decent and everyone enjoys the novelty of it, especially when TTB’s Jo Dudderidge holds his dog up to the webcam several times. Saying that, novelty is probably why it wouldn’t work long-term – it would soon wear out.
Still, it showcases the festival at its best: a sort of working digital art installation, with Dudderidge and fellow band member Adam Gorman doing a brilliant rendition of David Bowie’s Oh! You Pretty Things on the piano.
Further down the road is The Crescent pub, where Marx and Engels once drank the ales of the day and discussed Communism together. Today it’s home to Underachievers Please Try Harder, who hoped their line-up would harness some of that revolutionary air.
Haiku Salut begin their set with no notice amidst the chatter, waiting for us to switch on. Debut album track Sounds Like There’s a Pacman Crunching Away At Your Heart sounds almost album perfect – indeed, with beats for each song pre-recorded, their timing is pretty much perfect when playing over them.
After each song, Louise, Sophie and Gemma switch instruments – from keyboard to guitar to accordion – with no fuss. They don’t talk to the audience, although this is by no means pretentious: they just want to perform. This, coupled with the electric blue stage lights, is reminiscent of an early New Order performance.
Things get a little chaotic towards the end – they enter into their final song but are cut off by the dreaded playlist – but it’s taken with good humour, with the three giving a warm wave to the crowd before sneaking off. Utterly enjoyable.
It’s then back down the road again for Deptford Goth – aka Daniel Woodhouse – at St Philip’s Church. It’s busy, with people heading upstairs to get a better view.
However, this proves to be a curse more than a blessing. As Woodhouse begins with what sounds like Life After Defo, with cello and melodies swirling around the church space beautifully, it begins to be spoilt, then ruined, by the rude and the pissed talking throughout. This isn’t surprising – it’s a Bank Holiday and it’s a festival – but it’s clear many are only there because of the relative comfort of the venue. And glaring and telling people to shut up doesn’t work.
Fortunately, Hiss Golden Messenger – aka MC Taylor – and William Tyler, formerly of Lambchop, offer a way out. The New Oxford, a real ale pub, has let out its tiny back room to experimental promoters Buried Bones. It’s uncomfortably packed and, considering the sun outside, dark, with Taylor having trouble setting up.
Taylor and Tyler haven’t had a good time of it on their way to Salford – Taylor’s luggage was lost by his airline and now he can’t seem to get his equipment working, while Tyler has been bitten by a dog. “I can’t play like this!” he jokes. Then, the power cuts out in the pub. It comes back on, only to cut out again a few minutes later.
In the end, Taylor and Tyler play a joint set: “Only in Salford!” says Taylor. With the power back on, Taylor takes requests and plays a beautiful rendition of Jesus Shot Me In The Head and one other, before the power cuts out again. “If y’all really quiet I’ll do this!” says Taylor, excitedly. Unlike at St Philip’s, everyone here remains silent – and savours it in the process. A bar man collecting a broom from the back room and carrying it aloft adds to the surrealistic nature of set.
With the power still out, Tyler borrows Taylor’s acoustic guitar and launches into his own.
He plays what seems to be A Portrait Of Sarah, from new album Impossible Truth. Watching him play brings astonishment and wonder, with everyone fixed on his guitar as they watch him produce elegant and graceful melodies effortlessly. He’s a privilege to watch, with the calamity behind the scenes and the intimacy of the venue only adding to the occasion. As Taylor later says, “The most fucked up situations often produce the most beautiful of things.” Absolutely.
By now, Letters To Fiesta are playing at The Crescent. They’re ferocious and quite irresistible to watch; singer Anna-Louisa Etherington has the attitude of Karen O and the octaves and howls of Kate Bush, contributing to what’s best described as a sort of ‘atmospheric grunge’ sound. Meanwhile, Leeds-based Post War Glamour Girls blend post-punk indie with touches of hardcore punk: singer James Smith has a Mark E Smith attitude coupled with an almost Henry Rollins style delivery. Entertaining.
The breadth of Sounds meant it was impossible to cover everything. Robert Gordon at The Old Pint Pot, Daedalus at Islington Mill and the four hour improvised set at The Creative Media Centre were unfortunately missed. There was also the after show party, which included a Chatroulette Disco – frightening and hilarious in equal measure.
Still, this is a good thing – for next year, you want to go back and savour new, different and equally surprising things. Exciting, occasionally disorganised and haphazard, but prized by the majority who went. One wonders what to expect hanging from the Islington Mill ceiling next year.