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Festival Review and Photos: Swn Festival, October 20-23, 2011 – Cardiff, UK

All Photos by Dragonfly JEN Photography

For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with the CF postcode – perhaps even that bit on the hip of merry ol’ England we like to call home – for the past five years Sŵn Festival has served as Wales’ only real ground level gathering of local, national, and international acts, as well as regional venues and promoters, filmmakers, poster artists, and avid music appreciators. Built around an ethos similar to that which drives Austin’s SXSW or the CMJ Music Marathon, Sŵn is a music festival first, industry driven session event second, and something of an old friend third. That best kind of friend who visits once a year with an assortment of sounds you’d either heard faint whispers about, or knew absolutely nothing of whatsoever.

Over one hundred and fifty or so acts played, over four full days, but these ten proved to be my picks of the Sŵn Festival. (Note: If you’re questioning whether that circumflex above the ‘w’ is important, turns out it is. It means it’s pronounced ‘soon,’ which is Welsh for ‘sound’ and/or ‘noise.’ Or, so I’m led to believe.)

The first night’s most memorable act and humble triumph of the festival fell to North Wales’ band Masters In France who have been putting out solid, energetic pulse rock since late 2009, but have only recently started to turn ears. Reminiscent of fellow countrymen Zabrinski computed through an electronic hype machine, on first listen it might appear as merely danceable alt-indie, but under this is a kick, and one that was most definitely felt at O’Neill’s. Driven by an impressively moody attitude and an engaging mix of guitar/keyboard work, there’s a passing hint of Kasabian about it all, which is the sort of comparison that would nine out of ten times drive me underground. In fact even reading that back sounds borderline negative, to both them and I. But, it’s not meant to be. It works. They’ve got the poise, the crowd has their confidence, and there’s a mutual sense of assurance there so tangible you could practically reach out and shake its hand. Especially on the outstanding ‘Orbitoclast’ from their latest Inhale EP.

Friday night, though, brought with it some of the best sets of the whole weekend thanks to a deftly handled schedule of heavy programming, mostly from promoters Lesson No.1 and The Rusty Trombone Of God. Timing out neatly with there being little (if any need at all) to wake up the following morning, the aftermath of both Brandyman and The Skull Defekts at Buffalo Bar is probably one still being cleaned up now. If you’ve ever experienced a lysergic flashback at someone’s funeral then you might actually be able understand the macabre buzz of experiencing Cardiff’s Brandyman in lieu of seeing them in the flesh. Made up of ex-members of Gindrinker and Death Of Her Money, they inter-riff like Big Black guesting with The Captain’s Magic Band circa Doc At The Radar Station. Snaking big sounds that smash like planes colliding with other planes, fronted by the debonair D.C. Gates, whose skewed outlook, suit and pre-riches Johnny Rotten manner are as abrasive as they are endearing. The vocal pith of Mark E Smith riding Slim “Major TJ Kong” Pickens fashion on the back of Lighting Bolt’s nuclear grind. (For all you war fans.)

Sweden’s The Skull Defekts followed later and capped off the night at Buffalo with some truly mesmerising and dark garage dirges backed by industrial drumming, and plenty of charisma. Compared to their mystical sound on record (check out “No More Always”), they actually turned out to be amicable fellows, which was odd given their fucked up sound lies akin to Kid Commando, Dead Moon, and the ethereal nothingness of Joy Division. Even lead singer Daniel Fagerstroem’s idle chat about the suitability of onstage footwear couldn’t have corrupted what was by far and away the best set of the entire weekend. Loud, psychedelic and everyone, altogether.

In between those two acts I skipped The Good Wife to dash over to the Student’s Union and check out The Joy Formidable, who I never really understood the appeal of until now. Playing the final date of a short UK tour, for all involved it became something of a heroic homecoming. Originally hailing from Mold in North Wales, now globally adopted it would seem by so many, they shone at the Solus venue, which was just about large enough to pack in the masses (along with a functioning ten foot lighthouse), but nowhere near big enough to contain the magnetism of lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan. Equal parts fun and aloof, like a pocket Helen Love/Debbie Harry with unruffled positivity, she rallied the crowd with cries for involvement, most notably on ‘A Heavy Abacus’. Time will tell whether my freshly deflowered ears will continue to take to their sound but seeing as indie music in recent times has left me only satisfied and not wholly surprised, tonight couldn’t have worked any better in the circumstances in which we all found ourselves, namely Sŵn and this celebration of great Welsh music. If you dig them you are absolutely right too, they conquered with a stunning rendition of “The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade.”

After The Joy Formidable, back in the city at the underground bar Undertone, The Rusty Trombone Of God promoters pulled out a spell of exceptional curios and at least one rarity, of which I managed to catch and blissfully enjoy as the functioning conduit for multi-instrumentalist Phil Todd’s wandering mind, AKA Ashtray Navigations. An act specifically for those with an astro-palette, a rarity in itself perhaps among the festival’s relatively young crowd, but for consumers of high-end lo-fi noize it was a fitting way to fully drop out at the end of the night. Ashtray Navigations has been releasing material since the mid ’90s under various affiliated projects, but tonight, he turned out a dense and restless session of free-psych/acid that hip-hypnotized the crowd already firmly under thanks to the epic laptop soundcuts of Team Sports. (If you got the Gong reference in that last sentence, checkout Ashtray Navigations.)

On the Saturday at Dempsey’s Australian duo DZ DEATHRAYS emerged with the Quite Possibly The Greatest Band On Earth Right Now® title, and no one who witnessed this show could have considered that as anything less than fact. If you’re the sort of person who’d sooner stay in and listen to that Belle And Sebastian b-side she told you about instead of nodding out to loud cuts of OZ trash punk then you probably need to get sinister. In the vein of Death From Above 1979, messy like their fallen Aussie comrades Bird Blobs and capable of riffing under the weight of The MC5 coveting Led Zeppelin, singer and guitarist Shane Parsons and drummer Simon Ridley didn’t miss a beat all night. Despite this being their third show of the day, it could have been misconceived as their last on evidence of the total effort that went into the evening. Standout song, “The Mess Up” slayed.

Sunday and the final day back in Dempsey’s brought with it yet another dose of duophonic rock with Cardiff band Right Hand, Left Hand who having already firmly established themselves locally were road testing a handful of new songs that fully tested their complex routine. Largely instrumental, on stage their setup of looping guitar riffs, experimental noise, and chugging rhythms came over like a progressive Shellac. As guitarist Rhodri Viney’s onstage geek nous; swapping guitars mid song, hammering break beats out of guitar peddles and even at times drumming in unison with the frankly head crushing power of fellow ’Hand Andrew Plain, felt intense to behold. Definitely ones to keep at least two ears on with the release of their debut LP Power Grab out sometime soon.

Over in Gwdihŵ, though, Bristol band Zun Zun Egui proved to be the best band of the whole weekend for this writer and a revelation to anyone who has never heard, seen, or danced with them before. A mixture of Kwaito, Kosmiche, and Kuti, they play what most doubters over here are keen to instantly dismiss as middle-class Afro-beat, but they are so far away from this that it’s both joyous and frightening. Feel good rhythms stuttering in indigenous patterns like a broken jackhammer of the Gods, to be a part of their live show is something else. Every song is a get-together and they provide you with the sort of experience everyone should mark up on their bucket list, somewhere between “learn to play an instrument in 6/8’ rhythm” and “Wrestle a lion.”

As the close of Sŵn started to fall and tired ears began crying themselves to sleep, one final throw of the dice found me at Dempsey’s for the heavy rock spectacular of The Witches Drum, who, thankfully, couldn’t have been any more my sort of thing had they clubbed me, killed me, and paraded around wearing my physical skin. One of the only new acts in South Wales, and at Sŵn to fully embrace the immense legend of Blue Cheer, forgotten Houston legends Josefus, Electric Wizard, and even The Doors, there was no finer and surreal way to end the festival than this. Lead singer Matt Fry’s Crazy World of Arthur Brown getup; a glittering, glowering reptile pirate channelled via the spirit of Jim Morrison led a spellbinding master class and ensemble of bass, pounding drums, and Kyuss guitars. The embodiment of old rock and roll on a weekend where perhaps it was somewhat few and far between. Drawing the curtain on the Sŵn Festival for another year.

Until next time. All are welcome.

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