Before Thursday even hits its full stride, attendees are alreadybeing let in to venues on a one-in, one-out basis, which puts theexperience of queuing for prolonged periods of time firmly on theagenda. No such problem is encountered during a visit to thewarehouse-like giant of a vintage clothing store, Beyond Retro. Thecrowd is relatively dispersed during Treetop Flyers‘early-afternoon set. Tracks taken from 2009’s To Bury The Past EPflutter by from the raised platform stage, sprinkled witheccentrically-dressed mannequins standing inches away from the band.As the recent winners of Glastonbury’s Emerging Artist’ competition,they draw a somewhat curious crowd, but not nearly to the same extentas Australia’s Cloud Control. A genuinely rousing set albeitcut to a mere four songs brings a previously sedated group ofonlookers into more of a step. Synths soar across the high ceilings asAlister Wright’s beautifully-applied vocals make single There’sNothing in the Water We Can’t Fight a soaring, smile-inducinghighlight from a short-lived appearance.
If Beyond Retro seems like a quirky addition to the festival’scollection of stages, it doesn’t come close to trumping theold-fashioned attire of Brighton Pier’s Horatio’s. Whilst there’snovelty in seeing some of your favourite bands on a Brighton landmark,it soon wears off as you become frustrated by the venue’s lack ofcharacter and very-far-away-from-things location. Such annoyances hinder an otherwiseexhilarating set from Fixers. A song like Crystals deserves a carnivalatmosphere and the urine-stained surroundings of this bar providenothing like it.
At the same venue later, the audience do their best to grasp the appeal of Cults. Such is the level of buzz that’sbeleaguered the two-piece over the last year, a more crammed setting was expected. Not only is the turn-up underwhelming, Cults’set transpires to be nothing of the kind of refined guitar pop that gives GoOutside and Abducted their appeal.
Big Deal‘s appearance sees the two-piece exchanging awkwardglances between their songs, suggesting a history and a sexualtension, even, that gives a lyric like All I wanna do is talk, butseeing you fucks me up a relevance and sense of candidness. A cynicmight call the shy looks towards each other a stage tactic: itcertainly makes them more fascinating to watch from close-up.
Still glowing from the critical acclaim received for Eye Contact,Gang Gang Dance. prompt what has to be the largest queue ofthe opening day. When eventually squeezed into a pocket-sized spaceamongst the Pavilion Theatre, what is witnessed is an almighty,multi-textured, almost spiritual experience. The alien elements of theband’s records match entirely with the tribal live show. A flag iswaved on stage continuously, as audience members seem to physicallylose control of their limbs, bouncing and swaying in conjunction withthe thick bass and Middle Eastern rhythms that sky-rocket from thespotlight. It is easily one of the most unforgettable performances ofthe weekend, peerless to anything else on display throughout thefestival’s tenure.
Alone on stage and poised behind an array of buttons and wires is Brighton’s Beardyman, warming up for DJ Shadow‘s headline set in the Dome. It’s a venue sharply at odds with the basements and sticky floors of the rest of the festival, tiered seating and a brutal entry system a far remove from the ad-hoc and slightly frenzied approach found everywhere else.
None of that matters for Beardyman, of course. He makes even the city’s grandest performance space seem like a tiny club, his semi-improvised beatboxed take on a varied playlist of tracks and genres captivating from the off. As he – Darren Foreman – states midway in, bar a few synthesised notes every sound comes from his voice, looped and layered and skewed and warped into parodies and approximations of other artist’s tracks, a covers set by way of a fever dream. Nods to Dizzie Rascal, Cypress Hill and Daft Punk garner rising cheers and increasingly dropped-jaws, with the most audacious moment a launch into DJ Shadow’s Organ Donor: Oh god, I promised I wouldn’t do this but the setting’s right there…’ he offers by way of apology, entirely unnecessarily as it’s a better version than the one heard 90 minutes later.
The expectations were probably too high for DJ Shadow to ever meet, his new show hyped in glossy Brighton Festival brochures and extensive online features to such an extent that the stage set-up – essentially a papier-mache globe with a few projectors dotted around – couldn’t help but underwhelm. And indeed, Shadow’s own understated entrance, with his trite invitation to join him on a journey’, didn’t help to allay fears of a repeat of his disappointing last tour in support of 2006’s The Outsider. A new performance experience that reimagined the potential of live visuals’ screamed the marketing with its usual zeal, a promise that the show never – predictably enough – met. There was much to enjoy, certainly: the 3d effect created through projecting onto the sphere was genuinely impressive, and the visuals overall were extremely arresting. But they came to define the show, Shadow’s music relegated to just a volume behind the flicker, the man himself largely unseen and never really a presence.
Musically his sound hasn’t really progressed, the new material aired doing nothing to disrupt a flow of reverbed beats and moody samples, although it’s still a potent setlist, wisely drawn primarily from Shadow’s first two albums. But then the audience weren’t here tonight in search of change: Entroducing was a formative album for so many, and for much of the audience tonight was more about sating nostalgia than looking to the future. So what if that’s the opposite of what this festival’s about.
This time last year Warpaint were the future, their end-of-the-pier Horatio’s show lauded by all who saw it. For 2011 the LA four-piece get the Corn Exchange, vastly larger and considerably less intimate than the club they played last time in Brighton, Digital back in October. NME logos burn from the walls of a hall that never quite stops feeling like it should be housing convention stalls instead of music, but – as the several-hundred strong queue of people outside cursing those of us within attests – this is a band destined for bigger venues, whether they suit them or not.
And they don’t, really. Warpaint’s songs are dark and lonely things, swirling like siren song as they clasp at the ankles, tugging downwards. Emily Kokals vocals hover at the fringes, sweet melodies tinged with malice and decay against a backdrop of rhythms hypnotic and insistent. But they lose something in this space, the heat and the branding and the ceaseless glare of mobile phone screens withering any atmosphere away. Not that the band don’t do their best: an early Bees sets an appropriately windswept tone, and new track Jubilee Real provokes a flurry of excitement, even if much of it is channeled through Twitter. Undertow and closer Elephants garner the largest response, predictably, but impressive though they are Warpaint’s set leaves little lasting impression, their bleak portent dissipating moments after they leave the stage.
Fight Like Apes, Coalition, Thursday
Coalition is perhaps a bit nice for the vitriolic thrash of Dublin’s brat-punk outfit Fight Like Apes. It’s all about sofas and appletinis , and has a notable lack of the band’s typical stage props (being planks, for hitting; sharp bits of stage, for, well, hitting; and broken glass, for, well, throwing). Perhaps this dearth of suitable missiles sapped their energies becuase this early evening show lacked FLA’s usual lust for carnage. Even fans’ favourites Poached Eggs and Do You Karate? did little to move the stony-faced crowd. Still, credit to Maykay who only tolerated this apathy for half the show before launching boots-first into their miserable midst and delivering the last few tracks while surfing their petrified heads (while Pockets writhed on the stage, hammering blindly at his keyboard with a single, bloodied fist). They haven’t lost their charm, it seems. One for another day.
Suuns, Audio, Thursday
Suuns‘ debut album Zeroes QC is one of this year’s best a mortuary-slab of gloomy synth and neo-krautrock menace that the Montreal fourpiece deliver with an unsettling, unblinking intensity. Unsurprising, then, that Audio’s basement is crammed for what is, amazingly, one of only a clutch of UK dates. This is an expectant crowd of Suuns’ worshippers a baying, seething mob who sway and throb with the hypnotic, metronomic fuzz of Armed For Peace; who thrash and scrap to the snarling churn of Gaze; who dance to the slippery synth pulse of Arena with the twitched convulsions of a single, spastic heart. Above it all, Ben Shemie’s vocal floats like malevolence a falsetto whisper that he delivers through his teeth, his body hunched and pained. It’s a disturbed and potent set that moves with a fearsome purpose and leaves everyone breathless for more. Simply superb.
Dutch Uncles, Hector’s House, Thursday, 9.30
If you’re after a venue-based metaphor for Dutch Uncles, the Mancunian quintet whose arty pop has got geeky muso-types frothing all over their sheet music, look no further than Hector’s House: the bogs are at the back, the doorway is tiny, and it’s always rammed. Or in other words: confusing and inaccessible, but nonetheless full of wonderful energy. The Uncles’ debut album Cadenza is pumped full of hooks and quirky ideas, but fails to deliver the killer blow mostly due to Duncan Wallis’ vocal that flits between a sub-par Alexis Taylor and, well, plain dull. Tonight they’re assured and entertaining, and certainly well-received, but still feel short of the complete package. One to watch, nonetheless.
Joy Formidable, Hector’s House, Thursday, 10.30
Yes, it’s wrong to make comments about a person’s size. But listen, there’s just something wonderful about the way that Joy Formidable‘s pint-sized frontwoman Ritzy Bryan makes such an incredibly huge racket it’s a kind of determination to be heard that’s all the bigger for her diminutive stature. And thank the very Lord because their love for the grandiose has led the Welsh rockers to rediscover the art of punchy, full-blooded tunes and, from Cradle to Whirring, their set is a lesson in high-tempo rock. Every chord has a crunch, every beat is thumped and crashed convincingly, and Bryan herself is charisma personified. Their only weakness is a lack of other angles big is best, but, by the fifth wall-of-noise-and-huge-outro combo, you’re kind of just fancying a nice sit down. And that’s not very rock’n’roll Still, worth a watch.