This year, the three strands of the festival felt ever more intertwined. We came, as always, for the music, but in the earlier part of the week found ourselves sipping craft beer served by angels and demons at Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens Garden of Earthly Delights, and eating barbecue while listening to a talk about digital distribution networks at Blockchain House. The fact is -like a couple of orphaned street urchins- we will happily accept any offer of hospitality, be it from techies, film people or Rachael Ray. But I’m here to talk about the music...
If this year’s artists could be characterized by any one thing, it would be that they continue to push the boundaries of what is neatly classifiable. Now that bands can reach their fans directly and more easily than ever before, without the label executive shoehorning them into a stylistic procastian bed, what we’re seeing is genuine uniqueness. Artists write what they want to write; combining, bending and busting genres without any qualms about fidelity to a pre-existing movement or fashion. They wear what they want to wear and sound the way they want to sound and that’s exciting. The only people for whom this is likely to be vexing are those a little more advanced in years who go around repeating the mantric lament about the absence of the next Rolling Stones or U2 equivalent.
Speaking of Mick Jagger, when Sports Team enter the stage of Latitude on Monday night, their lead singer, Alex Rice, appears to be possessed by the spirit of the Stones frontman. His urgent charisma is expressed in bursts of jerky convulsions, and when he’s not singing, with a voice that sounds like he’s swallowed a busted tube compressor, he’s mouthing words to a non-existent song. The songs mostly center around Middle England, and are sardonic in a way that Blur’s Parklife was. Their sound is hard to pin down, but we’ll have to content ourselves here with using that increasingly impotent term post-punk to describe them. The choruses are eminently singable, and I particularly like the lead guitarist’s constant knopfler-esque obligato lines that weave in and out of the texture. Also notable is Ben Mack (keyboard and occasional Tambourine). Stoic to the last and looking like he was cryogenically preserved from a Midlands housing estate, he provides the perfect foil for Rice’s rockstar hyperquirk. The five-piece met while they were studying at Cambridge University, one of England’s rites of passage for the elite. But hey, we’re in ‘merica and class don’t matter tonight! They will turn out to have given us one of the very best performances of the week.
From Australia, Haiku Hands are billed as an ‘electro-rave pop trio’, but this doesn’t really encompass the genres that they’ve managed to synthesize. It’s kind of post-Riot Grrrl with the quirkiness of Björk and the incorporation of afrobeats and hip-hop all wrapped up in an ironic (?) pop package with syncronised dance routine. Their modular style means that they are equally at home performing in an art gallery or, as we saw them, sandwiched between a set of alt rock bands on the Patio at Hotel Vegas. Haiku Hands songs are infuriatingly catchy -you hear the choruses once and the next morning you’ll be yelling them in the shower. Oozing exuberant confidence on stage, they reminded me of the older girls who terrified me at school.
Also, a little on the scary side, but with an irresistibly mischievous grin was Amy Taylor of the Melbourne poppers-punk band, Amyl & The Sniffers. Wearing a bikini top and daisy dukes she had a kind of beachfront swagger that was more Bowery than Bondi. Post-punk this was not; more of a savage but good-humored take on the 80’s Aussie punk scene. Throwing her drink into the audience and crowd-surfing, Taylor and the band put on a tight show that was entertaining and at the same time a little deviant and dangerous.
Perhaps the term post-punk could most aptly be used to describe the Dublin band, Fontaines DC, who’ve had a lot of radio play in the UK over the last year. The simplicity of the two or three-chord songs belie the seriously grownup arrangements, the richness of the sound, and the tightness of the playing. Lead singer and main songwriter, Grian Chatten, has been influenced as much by The Pogues and Dublin pub talk as by the poetry of Yeats and García Lorca. His Mark E Smith and Billy Bragg inflected voice is strong, but the affected discomfort and mock-autistic pacing around, fingers in his mouth, during their live set soon felt contrived.
Rather more convincing in every sense was Haydn Park-Patterson, lead singer of the industrial new wave band The Ninth Wave. He stands center stage, androgynous and statuesque, thousand-yard stare, tartan kilt and lockdown hairdo (like some cat from Glasgow). Oh yeah, there are some other people in the band, too, including a really good drummer who’s playing like his life depended on it. But it’s Park-Patterson’s magnetic delivery that draws me in.
Take Primus and Alt J and put them into a blender. Add a sprinkle of Rush, early Bloc Party and some of Anna Calvi’s guitar riffs and pulse. The primeval sludge that you’ve created is called Black Midi. This band are like bitter Broccoli Rabe or Cachaça; at first it tastes wrong, but after a while you just want more and more of it. The video game-obsessed quintet met at the Brit School, where alumni include Adele and Amy Winehouse. That explains why they can play their instruments so well -with frequent transitions in tempo and meter-, but it also confounds when you are watching them live, because at times they seem to be the embodiment of an anti-band playing anti-music. The lead singer and guitarist, Geordie Greep, has a voice with an 8-bit crackle. Dressed in early ‘90’s geekery, he looks like the quiet class freak who harbours secret fantasies of vengeance and domination. What shall we call it? Prog-noise-alternative? The fact is, this stuff is indescribable. I love them.
There’s nothing strange about The Howl and The Hum, a band from York, fronted by sensitive songsmith, Sam Griffiths. He writes what he knows, without sentimentality, elevating mundane images in songs that weave evocative tapestries of banality and pathos through a dynamic emotional arc. It’s an undeniably beautiful set and a fitting respite from other music here that is quite loud and busy. Damn, I’m getting old!
On Wednesday, we went along to Seven Grand to see a band called Husky Loops, who’ve been getting some hype in Europe for the last couple of years. The trio, originally from Bologna, met while studying in London (now their home) at the Royal College of Art. Their bass riff-driven angular noise funk at times reminded me of Blur, Pavement and Bush Tetras. The earnest intimacy of the lyrics set in sonic spheres that move from chopped-up loop minimalism to high energy noise makes for a fascinating combination. And it’s always dance inducing. Warning: Keep a close eye on your girlfriend when these guys are around.
Ringo Deathstarr have that same comforting air of permanence about them at SXSW as a bottle of Lone Star and a Frito Pie (notwithstanding the fact that all that was available Hotel Vegas this year was a very tasty vegan version). We’ve been seeing them play here for years, but not always in the most salubrious venues. It was great to see these local veterans take to the stage at Hotel Vegas to project their one-of-a-kind psych-noise shoegaze indie rock. Think Dinosaur Jnr and a Tie-dyed Cure and then some. The soft voice of Alex Gehring provides a psultry contrast to Elliot Frazer’s Cobain jangle and shred guitar.
Psultry, Janice Lau, singer of the Hong Kong band David Boring, is not. This is the sound of Asian dissent; a pressure cooker full of angry nihilism exploding. Their very existence as a band was defined by a response to the 2014 Occupy movement and their sound harvests the resonant energy of that time. Inspired musically by New York’s No Wave movement, lyrics spat wildly in a mixture of Cantonese and English, this is not necessarily the sound you’d expect to come from five Hong Kong natives with day jobs in medicine and architecture.
Dani Miller, 26, calls her band “the dad’s” because they’re a lot older and have families. The irony is that, together with Miller, they were most authentically punk band I’ve seen in a long time. Surfbort’s (the name is apparently a sexual position) show at Hotel Vegas was a riotous affair. Hailing from Brooklyn, they assaulted us with a brand of classic east coast punk; a fist and a leotard and incendiary good humour. At the end of one of their songs, Miller chanted, ‘fuck the government!’. It was all thoroughly good dirty fun.
Although the influence of the Rolling Stones is a sonic vein running through the core of the band’s sound, Native Sun are in no way a retro outfit with a fetish for classic rock. They are a bad ass rock ‘n roll band from Brooklyn. I could also hear echoes of Cage The Elephant and The Pixies in some of their music and all of this, together with their Latin heritage, is syncretized in a live performance that is crucial and passionate.
What is it with Brooklyn at the moment? Not so long ago, it seemed like the bands coming out of there were drowning in their own smug irony and botanical conceit. I’m going to come out and say it: Russian Baths are the greatest band in the country right now. Their show in one of the smaller indoor rooms at Hotel Vegas had the audience entranced, captivated, enraptured. Their song, Poolhouse, might be a ballad if it wasn’t for the shimmering wall of dissonance that it slowly yields to, covering the delicate melancholy in a shroud of gothic noise. This is psych-rock at its finest.
So there it is. There’s a lot of talent out there. And it seems that artists are less and less afraid to be themselves instead of trying to ‘keep it real’ or gain success or credibility by cynically conforming to a contrived formula. Another memorable SXSW to chalk up on the slate and we’re already looking forward to next year. And what the hell is post-punk anyway?