There is a music festival, spread over two days, that will give you avant noisescapes, cartoon garage pop, microtonal glitches and brain-bashing punk rock, in a venue with an excellent booze selection, and which is right on your doorstep. Right on my doorstep anyway, as I live around the corner from Chapter Arts Centre, and that’s all that matters. Year number two for From Now On then, aka the festival set up by Mark from Shape Records and Islet that seeks to cram acts that are experimental, fun or anywhere inbetween into Chapter’s various performance spaces, and come out the other side smiling. Here’s what we found this year.
Give some sort of medal to Shape Records for bringing Anna Meredith to Cardiff: surely one of the best and most intriguing of the sickeningly talented young modern composers around at the moment, Meredith’s music hopscotches from prismatic electro to a whole youth orchestra of organised clapping and humming (there’s a nifty Network Awesome compilation of exploits here, from the website we’d marry if we could). Transposed to a fairly conventional live band set-up it still works remarkably well: all the fizzing anti-boredom of something like ‘Orlok’, a tightly scripted electronic splurge masquerading as a bunch of synthesizer meltdowns, lets you into the joy of its construction, with additional guitar and drums, as well as Anna’s Concentrating Hard face over the keyboard. And not much in life beats ‘Nautilus’, with its icy brass shards repeatedly stacked and crashing, before the big unfashionable drums stomp in, lumbering the track forward like some tuxedoed zombie. It’s a wonderland of tiny fireworks, and 2015’s debut album had better come quickly.
Who are these unassuming band members, looking like they’ve stepped out of some office on Dress Down Friday? Dunno, but they flank artist and main Rohame member Anji Cheung, waiting patiently as she leans over a table of knobs and pedals, coaxing and looping vocal fragments into the microphone and around the room. It makes a tremendous fucking storm, made even better once her colleagues edge in with gradual slabs of guitar, and slowly thudding bass. It all builds into creeping, monolithic waves of sound, a way-enjoyable physical rhythmic presence, and the best set of the weekend, no problem.
Sometimes familiarity doesn’t actually breed contempt, more an unfair dose of invisibility. Jemma Roper has been a barbed presence in Cardiff’s musical swamp for a load of years now, primarily in garage rock groups Sammo Hung and Heck. Bruisingly great as those bands were, it’s the current incarnation as solo boss that finds Roper with her best songs, and best backing yet. As shown on her debut LP ‘Emits Rays’, and subsequent singles, slowing the songs ever so slightly and putting those vocals centre stage hits like a dream: given free reign, the swooping imperiousness and forceful phrasing anchors songs thick with guitar noise, rushing and pausing with twitching momentum. The backing band of hot tattooed greaseballs, featuring Joshua Caole and members of Another Neville and Samoans, at least one in migraine trousers, roll like a tank. My drunken note, “Twin Peaks x David Bowie”, made sense at the time, but it’s all totally impressive, slightly removed, and ridiculously good.
Into the squat sideroom of Media Point, last year home of Peski Records’ Canolfan Hamdden silent disco, this year a base for more creepingly austere thrills. Nothing gets much more minimal than Murray Royston-Ward‘s Saturday set, a two-hour stretch of unsettling microtones and strategically placed miniature speakers. Murray, a former Cardiff resident and mainstay in excellent bands Failed NASA Experiment and Yaje, remains laptop-seated, facing into a corner throughout, edging gradually towards silence, until finally slapping the screen shut, and the room into darkness. Top drawer.
24 hours earlier, the Wrongs-curated evening featured not only that band’s brilliantly unsettling post punk throb and drone (this time a solo set of Simon and random bursts of volume), but also a rare appearance from Wrongs side-project Ghost Hawk, where Simon is joined by unnaturally patient soundman The Ed, on laptop, keyboard and Staring Intently duties, for a terrific set of noise that’s barely there but which still coats every one of your pores. At one point Simon sits cross-legged at his desk, absent-mindedly picking out some doomy guitar; it’s relaxed to the point of amusement, like a bored project manager busting out some Van Halen licks in the office on a desk-bound weekend when he’d sooner be golfing. Ed manipulates dials and buttons in miniature movements like a relaxed air-traffic controller. There’s an approachable, if unavoidably chilly, quality to it all, an apologetic two-bar fire in a draughty warehouse; humming and pulsing with Eno-like Zen, it’s like a controlled experiment to calm the blood. Where does Oh Peas! fit into all this? Maybe nowhere, or maybe in that awkward space where shyness meets diffidence, where bedroom songs meet small rooms with loud PAs. Either way, it’s Rosie from Totem Terrors, just guitar and vocals and the weight of the world, and her brilliant songs that appear like maladroit kids, all caustic wit and vulnerability, and always a victory.
What to expect from the first Welsh airing of the ex-Race Horses frontman’s new solo efforts? An apparent fondness for Van Dyke Parks arrangements that recalls Episode 2 by Spencer McGarry Season, orchestral flourishes that swoon and swoop dramatically like prime Arthur Lee and, on the magnificently knowing, self-referential closing number (‘number’ seems an appropriate word), the sequinned archness of Bobby Conn’s The Golden Age. Between songs he flits from self-effacing jokiness to a kind of beatific revival-tent grin, the latter appropriate for a man who seems to have found a way to transmit the sounds in his head to the wider world.
They look like a shotgun wedding, a visual grab-bag as much as an audible one. The daunting size and height of the Stiwdio stage puts more space between the four members of Giant Burger than they’re probably used to; they look wary of each other, or occasionally like they’re each playing a solo spot. It heightens the incongruous musical collisions in a GB song, a thing that hovers nervously around the high end without a bassline to tether it. Owain jabs erratically at keyboards, guitars are choppy and spidery by turns and tunes arrive in deconstructed fragments driven by enthusiasm and urgency. The spindly prog-punk clamour of Cardiacs remains a frequent comparison point, and if they remain tantalisingly short of a genuine belter or two they’re never less than compelling, not least when the lines between onstage discussion and awkward audience banter are smeared completely and a kind of frozen embarrassment settles on their faces.
Unerringly relaxed given the smallish crowd dotted around the chilly Stiwdio, unimpeachable 12-string wonder James Blackshaw tries out some knowingly dull repartee to pass time during retuning sessions. In between these moments of light relief we’re transfixed by beautifully fluid fingerpicked glossolalia, clusters of notes spooling out from seemingly very little effort. He keeps it simple this evening, avoiding recent recorded dabblings in other instrumentation and vocals and focusing on first what revealed him as a master practitioner of solo guitar a decade or more ago. Someone bring him back to Cardiff for the full headline show he deserves. Preferably in the Point.
Ask them later and they’ll tell you with characteristic modesty that the sound wasn’t ideal, there was the odd mistake, they were a bit out of practice, etc etc. Voluntarily going up against the reanimated, if still (sorry) curiously unexciting Jarcrew certainly didn’t do them any favours in terms of a headline crowd. Yet as we’ve come to expect, they utterly ace it. Initially heavier and rawer than on previous showings, with some pummelling changes of pace, they settle into lengthy instrumental sections from Exchanging Sayings (released with characteristic lack of fanfare the previous day) with the whirling fervour of a frazzled late-night practice session. Harriet’s violin is fiercer and more prominent than ever, a wild and thrilling noise like Samara Lubelski’s playing with Jackie-O Motherfucker. Al switches from bass to second guitar mid-set, shadow-boxing gleefully as they slalom through complex, unfamiliar songs that still manage to throw out nagging hooks like confetti. If only they’d play more often. As it is, a dazzling highlight of a brilliant weekend’s new weird music.
The reformed Jarcrew showing that when there’s nothing in the venue to climb on, singer Kelson can always try and have sex with the floor instead. Dope Body exhibiting so much testosterone that their bollocks came out of their mouths, in the form of some pretty dumbass comments about female audience members being forced to endure rawk bands by their boyfriends (some women had left already, due to Dope Body being rubbish). The swooning, glacial lushness of Winter Villains, and their new songs that go from pin drop pinpricks of sound to gently rolling crescendos in fine unhurried style. Tobion channeling Ratatosk as played by Matt Berry. An excellent selection of shorts in the cinema, including heavy metal bagpiping, the recent Piano Pieces instrument demolition event and Janine H Jones’s great radio documentary ‘The Lost Women Of Jazz’. All these things combining to tweak your mind and heart equally, dishing up brainiac thrills you can dance to, and making a bunch of sweaty people in darkened rooms a pure rush of adventure. Thumbs up to the sky.
Some excellent photos by Joe Singh of Snap Rock and Pop here: http://fromnowonfestival.co.uk/2015