AfterDark’s Dean Hodge reviews some of the acts from the 10th anniversary weekend of Swn Festival in Cardiff (Friday 21 – Sunday 23 October 2016).
The sight of instruments and amps being wheeled from numerous white vans into one of the various venues in Cardiff. A sea of pink and red balloons dotted around the city streets and inside said venues. People walking around with glitter etched across their face as if it an acceptable form of everyday attire. These are images that have become very much synonymous with the annual orchestrated cacophony of chaos that is Swn Festival.
Like a song that reminds you of an iconic scene from your favourite film as soon as you hear it, these images are a visual accompaniment to the many moments of musical magic that have come to define the Welsh festival. Artists have marked their breakthrough here. Friendships (and relationships) have been formed. The odd Jager-bomb has been consumed here and there.
They are moments that indeed now span an entire decade for those that have shared the journey of Swn right from the beginning – and four years (and counting) worth of musical memories for me. With local music venues fighting an uphill battle to remain relevant in the current streaming-dominated music industry, the support of these venues and the ability of city-based festivals like Swn to highlight the independent scene, is more vital now than ever before. So the Welsh festival marks its tenth birthday by providing more of the high-calibre new artists that have come to define the ethos of Swn.
Danielle Lewis - Swn Festival. Photo provided by BBC Cymru Wales (Photographer: Simon Ayre)
With my planned Swn Festival 2016 itinerary of artists to see over the weekend scribbled on a print-out schedule, I begin my coverage at the opening SwnRise event in Tramshed on Friday night (Oct 21) – arriving just as London’s Pumarosa mark their Swn debut with a performance of chemically-altering groove-driven synth-pop. The mesmerizing vocals and stage presence of lead singer Isabel Munoz-Newsome – dancing as if possessed by the spirit of Kate Bush – is a perfect counterpart to the band’s hypnosis-inducing indie-dance riffs. Closing number Priestess is a particular highlight – a sprawling seven-minute Balearic-infused disco epic that makes standing in still motion a particular challenge.
In contrast, The Sandinistas – one of two acts filling in the vacant slot left by Spring King pulling out due to illness – employ a rather meat-and-potatoes musical ethos. A no-added-nonsense package of rampaging riffs and lung-bursting choruses is on the menu here – and in their following performance on the Horizons | Gorwelion stage at O’Neills on Saturday. The same could be said of latter replacement act and Swn alumni Estrons – with socially conscious lyrics giving particular spice to their simmering sonic stew of sucker-punch riffs and bruising hooks.
The following Saturday commences with a band of similarly anthemic/melodic tendancies. Cardiff’s Monico Blonde– marking only their fourth ever performance in this guise – kick off the Horizons | Gorwelion stage at O’Neills with a set of earworm guitar-orientated hooks filtered through synth-driven counter-melodies. Anglesey aces Fleur De Lys tread a familiar musical road laden with high-energy guitars, head-nodding harmonies and hedonistic vocal-stretching.
Ysgol Sul - Swn Festival. Photo provided by BBC Cymru Wales (Photographer: Simon Ayre)
The indie-inclined folk of New Quay songstress Danielle Lewis is a gentler antidote. Marking her debut performance flanked by her new band, there is a newfound confidence that shines through in her sound – with her aural-balm melodies and beguiling voice sounding even bolder and even richer. The fact the band have barely rehearsed beforehand is hard to believe from how instantly they click on stage. As both Danielle the solo singer and Danielle the frontwoman, she plays both cards with gravitas and grace.
Llandeilo trio Ysgol Sul – for the fourth time (and counting) I’ve seen them – continue to entrance with their hazy shoegaze-tinged indie pop, imbued with muscular melodic hooks and cottoned with dense guitar licks. Adorned in white forensic suits, indie-funkers We’re No Heroes have an aptly meticulous approach to their craft. They pack sprightly riffs sealed in disco-tinted grooves and signed with directions straight to the dance floor.
We're No Heroes - Swn Festival. Photo provided by BBC Cymru Wales (Photographer: Simon Ayre)
Then it’s the turn of garage-rock revivalists Tibet – putting in a high-octane performance of buoyant 60’s-informed guitar-pop harmonies filtered through blistering Britpop-lensed riffs, and more knock-out hooks than a Mike Tyson/Frank Bruno bout. Think of the sardonic melodies of The Kinks, the Mod-informed verve of Small Faces, the primal sweat-soaked garage rock of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the melodic deodorant and chutzpah of Oasis in one neatly-packaged aural potion.
After dotting between venues on Womanby Street in the early hours of Sunday, the first artist of the day that tickles my curiosity is London trio Girl Ray in The Moon Club. They perform off-kilter indie-pop imbued with on-point vocal harmonies. Melodies as cleansing as spring water are distilled through murky guitar riffs and deliciously ironic lyrics. Their presence on-stage is just as charmingly quirky – they even try to choreograph an impromptu dance routine on the compact stage to an amused response (one of those you-had-to-be-there moments admittedly).
The band that surely takes the (very exclusive) award for the ‘most eye-catching, tongue-wagging name’ on the line-up – and there are some impressive nominees – is Have You Ever Seen the Jane Fonda Aerobic VHS?. This is probably not the first (or last) time you’ll see a comment on the band’s name crop up in a review. Clearly a name designed to stick out on festival posters and attract press, it bares no correlation whatsoever to the band’s slap-in-the-face cacophonous punk-rock sound strewn with 60’s-bred noise-pop harmonic chops.
The less-is-more ethos is defined in pristine manner by Jordan Mackampa’s elegant performance in O’Neills. Without a full band, just the nostalgia-tinted folk-soul melodies produced from his silky fingertips and his husky yet graceful vocal are all that is needed to captivate the room – and the lack of a supporting cast only enhances the dual elements of his sound. At times, it feels like you’re sitting in his living room listening to him jam into the midnight hour, rather than in the loft of a city pub. Possessing the autumnal class of Nick Drake crossed with the gritty soul of Otis Redding, his music will hopefully get the wider recognition it deserves in due course.
Tibet - Swn Festival. Photo provided by BBC Cymru Wales (Photographer: Simon Ayre)
Making their return to Swn, and to Clwb Ifor Bach, London quintet Leif Erikson’s sound is a dreamy collision of time and place. There are echoes of mid 60’s US West Coast harmony bands like The Byrds, the psychedelic undertones of early 60’s Pink Floyd, the melancholia-drenched melodies of The Pixies and the jangly riffs of The Stone Roses.Every single pore of their sound is handled with precision and poise. Despite sound issues going against them – which are masked by impromptu instrumental interludes – they put in another solid turn at Swn. Their new single (to be premiered in the coming days and given a preview at Swn) possesses an earworm groove that acquaints itself with your photogenic senses instantly, while the intricate hook of debut single Looking For Signs provides a memorable finish.
They are followed in Clwb Ifor Bach by Liverpool space-indie outfit The Vryll Society. Doses of guitar-driven dream-pop escapism are provided with deft psych-funk grooves and wah-wah guitar licks firmly at the driving seat. The band, at times, seem in their own bubble and at a distance from the audience – frontman Mike Ellis channelling the spirit of Madchester in his dance moves, and the rest of the band with their heads down letting their music do the talking. While part of their stage persona it may be, it can often make it difficult to establish any connection with them which can often be the pivotal factor in how well a band is received.
One of the perks of Swn is the closeness and interaction between artist and audience that the Welsh capital’s small venues create, that seldom happens at other medium-sized festivals. Some of that is lost a bit in The Vryll Society‘s set. But there are moments that hint at a band with serious potential and the odd killer tune lurking in there – precisely why it comes as a surprise that arguably their strongest candidate for an encore Air is omitted from the set. But set closer Deep Blue Skies provides just as befitting a curtain-closer with its taut riffs and swirling melodies.
Potentially one of the standout moments from the weekend came packaged within the slender frame of BETSY – who delivered a goosebump-inducing set of soul-informed synth-pop in the basement venue of Undertone on the Young Promoters Network stage. Her rich voice – its sheer power enhanced both by her band and by the relatively small size of the venue – reverberates around the four walls of the room, entrancing everyone in its wake. Not only did the venue barely manage to contain her voice and her sound but it barely contained her, with her impressively tall high-heels making the proximity from the ceiling to her head even smaller.
It was one of those moments where I genuinely felt I was in the presence of something special. It’s astonishing to think that she hasn’t played many gigs before, as her performance demonstrated an artist that possesses the full package. As well as the talent that is obvious to see, she has arguably everything else – the charisma, the stage presence, the presentation, the highly readable (and highly marketable) back story, and a sound that is accessible to audiences of all ages or musical preference. Potential for success is rendered useless without the factors of timing and opportunity being involved. But both factors are equally irrelevant without the talent to justify it, and BETSY certainly has what it takes to potentially be a big name in the coming months.
It is simultaneously one of the best and worst elements of Swn that artists I rate highly on my list to see end up clashing on the day, which is why once I manage to slither my skinny frame out of Undertone, I only manage to make it to The Moon Club just in time to catch the tail-end of London noise-pop quartet Chorusgirl. But even just the three songs I catch by them – one crisp indie-pop hook after the after – are catchy enough to leave an impression.
Fleur De Lys - Swn Festival. Photo provided by BBC Cymru Wales (Photographer: Simon Ayre)
Now just about fully fuelled from my annual Swn musical fix, I mark the end of my coverage of the weekend with a trip back to O’Neills for Dutch exports Amber Arcades – both band and the solo moniker of Annelotte de Graaf. Having played the opening night of Swn last year, she returns in a more favourable final-day headline slot. Opening with the slick garage-pop hooks of Right Now, she puts in a performance that is assured and animated in equal measure. Each song brims with ambition and aero-bound melodies. She even has the audacity to throw in a cover of Nick Drake‘s 1972 track Which Will – the fragility of the track suited to her shimmering electro-inspired power-pop spin.
One safe guarantee of Swn is that whichever artists tweaks my curiosity on the day and wherever my musical exploration takes me, without fail I will always end up at the now-notorious Swn after-party in Clwb Ifor Bach – staying up until dusk, singly (badly) in a group rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and pretending I’m still a young-at-heart student until the impending hangover the following day reminds me otherwise.
Another staple of Swn is that in such a vast sonic oasis of new music, I will end up discovering great new bands, adding new favourite tracks to my playlist, meeting fellow music-enthusiasts and making great memories that outlast any Jagerbomb-fuelled hangover. Swn Festival has been providing exactly that to many individuals like myself for ten glorious years, and hopefully there’s plenty more to be had.
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