It sort of creeps up on you. It never feels like it’s been a year since the last one, and suddenly you’re there again, delirious on Womanby Street wearing one shoe and with half a dozen smudged band names written on your arm. Ah, Sŵn weekend. Good to see you. So here, in the grand tradition and only slightly misleadingly labelled, is the Joy preview of the myriad treats ahead for the upcoming 96 hours or so.
As was the case last year, Thursday at Sŵn is a relatively low-key affair. That’s all relative, of course, and in layman’s terms means you’re only likely to have one or two frustrating clashes, the downside being that the bigger draws will likely be very heavily subscribed. Sharpen those elbows, then, and get into the swing early at Clwb with youthful Lancastrians Effluence, all sweetened grunge-pop hooks peppered with nascent rockabilly poise. Upstairs, their unlikely spiritual stepdads could be the Experimental Tropic Blues Band, straight outta Liege with a heady brew of dirty blooze, Detroit garage and trashy R n’ R classicism. Call them this year’s Jim Jones Revue and consider proceedings open. Sup on the madness of Eilir Pierce over at little O’Neills; Bethesda’s answer to R. Stevie Moore has hundreds of warped home-recorded curios at his disposal and a splendidly disquieting stage presence. There’s a first chance to catch Gulp’s beautifully poised electronic folk-pop at the Solus, but smart cookies will wait till Sunday and instead return to Clwb for Pulled Apart By Horses, one of the hits of the weekend when they laid waste to the smaller room in 2009. Shirtless, sweaty and prone to onstage vomiting, they also wielded enough screamalong tunes and winning charm to carry them regardless. Tighter, crunchier and louder still in 2012, this should be a shoo-in, even if they have to play on an actual stage this time. It’s frustrating that they clash with the Lovely Eggs, especially given a gap in the schedules an hour later. Whichever you choose, head to Solus afterwards to ensure you squeeze in for de facto Thursday headliners Django Django. Their spiritual and fraternal binds with the Beta Band are as clear as they’re tiresome, but their clockwork sci-fi psych and bubbling electro also recalls Clinic, Hot Chip or Archie Bronson Outfit at different moments. They do effortlessly well what scores of bands strive hard yet fail to. Suitably buoyed, scorn the workplace by staying out, either to the grime all-nighter at Undertone where M.I.K. will be a cheeky, cocksure highlight or to take in the messy scuzz-pop of Milk Maid at the Full Moon before repairing to Dempseys where Adam Walton and Gary Twisted take up their duelling pistols and scratched 7”s for a vinyl-only showdown.
It’s Friday, and the hapless among us will have endured work’s club-footed drudgery while daydreaming of a golden pint of gassy lager. Your first best bet for this momentous moment is the twinkling electronica of Jewellers in little O’Neills, who edge out the DIY slacker-pop gems of Mazes (Great Hall) by dint of the shorter trot to the Full Moon for the utterly splendid wig-out bliss of Lisbon’s Gala Drop, practitioners of hairy psych jams tinged with tropicalia and blurry krautrock. They open up this year’s inevitably magnificent Lesson No. 1 bill, once again both the weekend’s highlight and home to your new favourite band(s). It dovetails mostly nicely with events at Clwb, where the careering art-punk thrills of – yes! – award-nominated local heroes Kutosis air for the first of two valedictory Sŵn weekend sets. Back at the Moon, don’t miss the excellently sardonic post-punk lurch of The Bent Moustache, Anglo-Dutch shamblers with a neat line in Fall-meets-The Ex bloody-mindedness, before some tough decisions are presented. Three great bands overlap, though it’s possible to take in all three at a pinch; The Invisible‘s dark, claustrophobic and sumptuous melange of TV On The Radio, Hot Chip and the shivering techno-soul of The Aloof precede the inimitable, ungraspable brilliance of Liars at Clwb, while the Moon reverberates to the strung-out psych-noise bliss weaved by Ben Chasny, Richard Bishop and Chris Corsano as Rangda, whose 2010 gig at the Norwegian Church still makes me grin beatifically. There’s an alternative path to be picked out, taking in Richard James and friends’ inclusive, inspiring In Chapters collective, the charming indie-folk of Joyce The Librarian and, in particular, Stealing Sheep‘s smart, sharp-eyed take on witchy modernist folk. Depending on which you take, your late-night thrills may include Bo Ningen‘s blunderbuss psych-fuzz attack in Dempseys and the primary-coloured stew of elastic funk, jump-up dancehall and crisp Basement Jaxx pop of Toddla T, seeing the night out in Clwb; it may take in Gwenno and pals’ hyper-eclectic Bof! DJ set over in Bacchus before a one-two hit of woozy, melancholic electronica and post-dubstep loveliness in Undertone care of Pedestrian and Ifan Dafydd. It may involve sitting in a puddle on Womanby Street, weeping silently at the thought of two more days of this stuff. Just don’t complain about lack of choice, eh?
Day three. Thousand yard stare sets in. Staring down the barrel of a 12-hour shift, the only sensible option is to wade straight in. Top tip: convince yourself you haven’t been to bed by starting with Deptford Goth at Buffalo. His sleepy beats and soul-tinged, glitchy take on dubstep and electronica are a fine bridge from the night before, and the hungover faces when ‘Real Love Fantasy’ reveals itself will be an absolute picture. Cock an intrigued ear towards Rene Griffiths – the Patagonian folkie tracked down by Gruff Rhys’ Separado! – in Gwdihw then head to Undertone for this year’s Sweet Baboo set, not least because he’s hardly ever in Cardiff these days but also because his upcoming fourth album Ships is stuffed with life-affirming pop tunes and his current line-up may be his best band ever. Ha. Pariso deal not in life-affirming pop; skull-cracking, blackened hardcore with sharp detours into sludgy metal will vapourise any lingering cobwebs. They’re followed at the Full Moon by the Physics House Band, bearing muscular math-rock with lurching, instinctual jazz and spacey prog interludes. At this point things get busy, and there are some big decisions to be made. Essential picks if you ask me, and you most assuredly did not, are former Electrelane leader Verity Susman (Chapter), essaying the personal and political through organ-driven kraut-pop, dizzying choral vocals, loops and saxophone, and former Czars leader John Grant (Reardon Smith Theatre), essaying the personal and political through heartbreaking piano-and-voice arrangements of the beautiful, prickly, morbidly humourous songs from Queen of Denmark. Between those two, check the dark, Siouxsie-esque post-punk of PINS (big O’Neills) or AlunaGeorge’s poised techno-soul (Buffalo), followed by Pale Seas’ pretty, drifting twee-folk (Undertone) or the gut-punching wall of noise proffered by Holy Mountain (Clwb). I can’t do it for you. I can highly recommend Face + Heel in Buffalo, though, so anyone eschewing the reliably brilliant one-two of Errors and Islet in Chapter in favour or lesser-known thrills should make time for them; mordant, slo-mo dubstep and garage-flavoured rhythms, beautifully poised, treated vocals and a spare, deliberate compositional sense make them one of Cardiff’s most promising turns. You can probably catch a few minutes of Sun Drums’ synth-heavy percussive battery at Undertone en route to John Grant’s show, after which things calm down. A bit. Martin Creed – just your average Sŵn guest, being a Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist and Olympic-endorsed composer – also turns out catchy, minimal and insistent Wire-flavoured post-punk, so catch the back half of that in Dempseys then hop to big O’Neills for Tom (Zwolf) Raybould’s highly promising post-rock/kraut-pop combo Fist Of The First Man. Stubborn Heart’s soulful electro balladry (Undertone) will be more than decent but may lose out to a rare sighting of Welsh dub/techno prankster pioneers Llwybr Llaethog, who have a late-night set in St Davids Hall of all places. Back in big O’Neills, Sŵn ever-presents Gallops will end the night on a blissful high, though the hardy will soldier on for Hexstatic’s trademark AV set at the Full Moon. Sleep soundly, Cardiff. You’ve earned it.
By Sunday morning you will hate all known forms of music, and will possibly envy the deaf. Too bad, for there’s the better part of another full day ahead which, while nowhere near as intense as Saturday, still offers plenty of lesser-known treats. Regain lost vim and dignity at Quiz Quest – this year in 10 Feet Tall – for your annual dose of absurd non-sequiturs, wildly tangential links to Sŵn bands and the cream of 1997’s hit parade. Suitably composed, entrust yourself to the redoubtable Adam Walton who helms the Dempseys stage today, kicking off with Irma Vep – if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be buried alive by Clinic, wonder no more – and the giddy, surf-tinged noise pop of Mowbird. With apologies to Y Pencadlys and Samoans, the day’s most essential hour will be in the company of Micachu & The Shapes, performing in a large Irish chain pub for possibly the first time. Let your conscience decide whether you skip out early for either Jemma Roper and (ahem) the Ropists in Clwb or shambling Mancunians Sex Hands in Dempseys. If the latter do their remarkable Gorkys cover, and they surely might, it’ll be worth it. Take in some of the cute, Allo Darlin’-style acoustic indiepop of My First Tooth over in Chapter, then zip back to Clwb for former Joy Collective guests Cold Pumas. Sheets of guitars ringing like insistent factory alarms and knackered strobe lights, shuddering rhythms and cooing falsetto. Ace. Bit of a gigclash to face down following them; Toy are best placed to take the baton from Cold Pumas, sharing with them some of Liars’ beatific, heavy-lidded psychedelic noise. Alternatively, Clwb has Bristolian brother-sister duo the Hysterical Injury, who are excellent arse-kicking primal blues-punk fun, like a liquored-up Lightning Bolt. Mystery option C, though, is Tim & Puma Mimi, quite possibly the fevered dreamwish of a Manga scriptwriter and the oddest Sŵn turn since Agoskodo Teliverek a few years back; a Swiss-Japanese electro-pop duo given to performing via Skype and utilising an electrified cucumber. If you recall Stereo Total with fondness, this could be your outside bet. From here, wind down via Rozi Plain’s gorgeous, wide-eyed folk (10 Feet Tall), the burrowing analogue earworms of R. Seiliog over in Gwdihw and what, in the absence of a unifying last-night set this year, might be a fairly packed 10 Feet Tall to witness Gulp bringing your weekend to a close. Unless you plump for the pristine pop perfection of The School over in Chapter instead. Or join the walking wounded for one last go round at the Dim Sŵn closing party in Clwb. Shirts off in the street at 7am again, is it? Righto. Same time next year.