The Lady Boys of Bangkok may be in town concurrently, although there’s considerably more bang to be gotten for your buck if you’ve a band for The Great Escape enwrapping your wrist. Because, with literally hundreds of bands bounding in from here (Brighton), there (lead international partners, Latvia and Lithuania) and more or less everywhere (between and beyond, with artists from Australia, to India; Cameroon, to Mali; Japan, to New Zealand; South Africa, to South Korea ensuring Antarctica and South America were the only continents not represented by someone or other), never would there be a dull, nor idle moment.
The Great Escape is, needless to say, by no means Glastonbury and, mercifully, there’s absolutely no sign whatsoever of Guy Garvey’s irrevocably maudlin lot, although there’s “drinking in the morning sun” all the same, the 2016 festival season very much commencing in earnest. Now in its eleventh year, the festival has long since had the honour of inaugurating the aforesaid season, but rarely before have I been convinced by the organisers’ conviction – reiterated pretty much instantly in this year’s programme notes – that it is ‘the festival for new music.’ Nevertheless, the eleventh edition not only proved the most enjoyable that I’ve had both the pleasure and the privilege of frequenting, but also provided more eye- and ear-opening experiences than any other festival in living memory.
Catering for the former, more globular organ, Drones Club’s maniacal masquerade – replete with petrifying stocking masks and the stacked, crackpot disco propensities of Python – and Smerz’ minimal visuals (not to mention Henriette and Catharina’s maximally engaging proto-R&B) proffered ocular novelty; on a more auricular note, impossibly proficient multi-instrumentalist and YouTube sensation, Jacob Collier both confounded and dumbfounded upstairs at Patterns, while M.A BEAT!’s immersive ambient musics bettered their orange boiler suits in terms of radiant brightness. So, if the glamour of Brighton is fading, and faster and faster too, then it’s brought right back again by The Great Escape; or perhaps rather, to The Great Escape, thanks to a borderline diluvial influx of sounds and styles at once contrastive to the South Coast.
From the Southern Hemisphere, Komedia may play host to ‘Bogan Bingo’ at the end of the month, although the Sound Gallery showcase – as part of Sounds Australia’s ongoing efforts to bring Antipodean musics to a more international audience – has far greater gravitas and, for that matter, gravity to it, Purity Ring parodists Vallis Alps a settling influence as we settle into Thursday’s festivities. However, it takes until the grandest of final numbers – namely Young – for the precocious pairing to really enter into their own, David Ansari injecting guitar twangs into the otherwise exclusively electronic (and, on occasion, EDM-indebted) mêlée. Recent Transgressive Records signee Julia Jacklin later plays a set that, if Angel Olsen-esque, is as yet bereft of both the songs and the sentiment that made her American counterpart’s 2014 full-length, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, so incontestably essential a listen. Stylistically, the simplistic LA Dream is possibly the most similar, Jacklin ruefully, and rhetorically questioning, “Why do you go to the grocery store on the day you plan to leave?/ You left me here with all this food my body does not need.” It’s nice enough, if somewhat inessential; Pool Party, meanwhile, essentially sounds exactly like Unfucktheworld, and is her finest regardless, or maybe because, of this. But she’s plenty yet to do if she’s to be given “all of my love,” a very large portion of which is already reserved for the angelic Olsen…
And so, of those artists to have come from a land down under, where women glow and men apparently plunder, Methyl Ethel may not be the most original, but they’re most certainly an intoxicating trio. Now signed to 4AD, they may be tricked out in clown-like attire, but there’s no fooling around from Jake Webb et al.: in twenty-five minutes, they perceptibly hunt for inspiration and influence likewise in everything from Deerhunter to Modest Mouse; The Cure and Cocteau Twins, to compatriots Midnight Oil as Cirque du Soleil-like, interludial samples provide intermittent respite. Webb wrestles with a mutant Jaguar, which incidentally matches the band’s constantly mutating sound, although it’s his vocal – at once reminiscent of both Bradford Cox and Isaac Brock, as well as one Jeff Buckley – which takes up a more central position than he does himself, leading the likes of Obscura, Rogues and Shadowboxing through a thick fug of “reefer” in a room rife with newfound enthusiasm. They’re the Aussies who truly rule, alright.
Across the course of the weekend however, it’s the lead international partner of 2006, and France, which is probably best represented, with debonair Parisian duo Her right up there among the more winsome performers of this particular edition. “I think we could do anything” sings Victor Solf and, with a vocal like that, he’s likely right. For redolent of Paolo Nutini – an improbable point of comparison; irrespective, it’s likely a compliment – he reaches for the mineral woollen skies and, while the low ceiling down in the Queens Hotel basement ensures they’re often hit, there is seemingly limitless potential to the pair.
Suavity personified, in matching black suits and white Nike kicks, Simon Carpentier may later lament, “We don’t get along,” although he and Solf are the perfect foils for one another. For Her are to funk what Whitney are to soul: unashamed, if magnificent all the same; failing that, they may be likened to a more refined, and infinitely more debonair Jungle. And I, for one, “quite like”, the likes of Five Minutes – extended by a good few, and all the better for it – nigh on impossible to remove from your mind once installed. If there is this one and only niggling criticism though, then aside from certain facial expressions, they’re not très français, in truth. That said, when you’ve the impish confidence to unapologetically croon, “All night long I’m watching porn,” as Solf does repeatedly during POV, it becomes quite difficult to cling to such comparative triviality…
Similarly, unabashedly upbeat electro-pop four-piece HYPHEN HYPHEN effuse confidence not once but twice, in front of increasingly enthused audiences. “This is just the beginning” proclaims the mononymous Santa as the Nice outfit’s second of two shows, upstairs at the Prince Albert, comes to a premature end; and with their thoroughly infectious tracks such as the Ace of Base-y Cause I Got a Chance, the Portishead-ed I Cry All Day, and the ludicrously lustrous We Light the Sunshine catching, it’s transparently apparent that this may yet be the start of something truly beautiful. Granted, the angular, polygonal shapes permanently marked onto their epithelia may be a bit gimmicky; the same can be said of their shabby, broken, but dedicatedly homemade sample pads. But ultimately, said purely and simply, HYPHEN HYPHEN will have brightened the weekend of anyone who went to see them even so much as just the once.
If Santa et al. can be commended for their dedication and commitment to creating grandiose, cinematic pop music, then Nadine Carina – originally hailing from neighbouring Switzerland – subscribes to a converse, if very refreshing give-a-fuck attitude. Of course, come Friday afternoon, a night out or, rather, in Queens has already been wasted away with hobnobbing, brown-nosing and the nosing of notoriously white powders commonplace, so Carina’s purposeful removal from contemporary trends, or ephemeral fads is as laudable as her wholly oneiric, and largely absorbing soundscaping. There are those less impressive moments, such as the trap-entrapped Fading Lights, but whether sampling buskers recorded on London Bridge (They Say) or collaborating with artists from similar musical blindspots, such as Luxembourg’s Sun Glitters (Another Day), there is real lustre to much of Carina’s half-hour, most of which touches upon peak Four Tet feels.
As for the North American contingent, they fare rather less favourably for the most part, with Dilly Dally – a moniker not to be confused with a certain Ranieri catchphrase – more concerned with not getting electrocuted by recalcitrant microphones than putting on an electrifying live show. Still, their punk-rock rumpus is considerably more invigorating than either one of Bleached or erstwhile Smith Western, Cullen Omori, both of whom bore aboard Brighton Pier as part of what is, by the time the latter takes to the stage, a pretty sparsely populated DIY takeover. Better, then, is/ are Frankie Cosmos: led by vicenarian Greta Kline, she may embody little, to none of the theatricality both known and renowned of progenitors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, although there’s ample lo-fi loveability to the likes of Outside with the Cuties and Sinister, regardless.
Overwhelmingly underwhelmed despite having flown in from New York – “and it was expensive” – a definitively lackadaisical attitude could be confused for lacklustre, but Kline’s chiming Danelectro barre chords lack absolutely no lustre whatsoever and, amid unprecedented dance routines from a band that looks like a quintessentially NYC quartet cobbled together by Michel Gondry, her eccentric songwriting really shines. Playing both the Paganini Ballroom and The Haunt over the course of the weekend, with The Greta Escape well and truly on, these venues may be in incredibly close proximity, but sonically, the shows are all over the shop; positively so though, as On the Lips dips into small, if perfectly formed indie-pop à la local heroes The Popguns, only to be followed up by seagull impressions and anecdotes of pebble-bedded nap time. As per Nadine Carina, it’s refreshing to see so few fucks given when, all around her, bands peddle loosely comparable material, while trying painfully hard…
But few, if any, vocals heard at The Great Escape 2016 sound more contused than that of Kristine Leschper; and the blatantly pained music contained within Mothers’ superlative full-length début, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, is similarly bruised. Of course, circumstance dictates it’s those slightly more upbeat, in place of those inconsolably downcast numbers which constitute the majority of the Athens, Georgians’ set at The Haunt, with scintillating cabochons such as Copper Mines, It Hurts Until It Doesn’t, Lockjaw and the like retrieved from the dismal pits of despair. It’s Hold Your Own Hand, though, which bridges the divide, Leschper’s yearning larynx buoyed admirably by Drew Kirby’s increasingly sanguine guitar strings. It may not make for the most apposite Friday night soundtrack, yet still, Mothers spawn one of the most indispensable shows of the festival.
For all of Mothers’ woebegone glory however, the North American continent has also brought to Brighton a somewhat unwelcome SXSWesternisation, with Music Glue House a (less than direct) replication of Mashable and Spotify alternatives stateside; similarly, the Vevo takeover at Wagner Hall recalls the latter, with its woodchip flooring and widespread branding. But a bigger qualm, and a backhanded compliment if ever there were one, is that the omnipresently tapped app has now gotten so good, that it’s one more reason – again, if ever one were required – to transfix eyes on iPhones instead of stages, et cetera.
Regardless, a fair few are glued to Mabel’s ‘Vevo dscvr’ session outside; again, regardless, she may lament being unable to “connect” with the one with “every little thing going on” on My Boy My Town, but with little interaction making for a comparably muted reaction, no meaningful connection is made. A nice, if inadvertent, bit of brand tie-in maybe; and as she plays two shows at Wagner Hall on the Thursday, the young Londoner is very much tied in with Vevo throughout the festival. But as the West Coasting Know Me Better segues into her rendition of Say My Name – an audacious statement of intent, needless to say – Mabel, like this particular venue itself, becomes that bit too Americanised for her own good. She may be endowed with one of those vocals, ensuring it’s this child’s destiny that gambling on a cover version of this absolute magnitude is instantly vindicated, although the songs quickly become quite samey thereafter, with Thinking of You – with its twinkly top line – a rehash of so many another The Writing’s On the Wall number.
But she appears (perhaps acceptably) apprehensive, having not yet grown into what are – at least productionally speaking – decidedly enormous songs. And so when she divulges, in song form, that to “pretend that you’re not looking at me […] doesn’t seem like a bad idea,” you can’t help but feel that she could do with practising what’s being preached. That said, to an extent, she does so later on indoors, where Talk About Forever – reminiscent of a scrupulously polished, on-point Mount Kimbie production at points – proves infinitely more impressive than anything from the preceding ‘session’. Of course, and in keeping with a modern-day modus operandi, her lyrics here concern “lookin’ at my phone,” but further down the evening’s setlist, Thinking of You – now with a bassy bottom line to boot – is rendered considerably better, Mabel becoming confident with the more muscular sound coming from behind her. However, her shy and slightly retiring demeanour is at once at odds with the indisputable maturity that’s intrinsic to tonight’s lyrical content. You can always, and cogently, question who’s actually writing it for the most part, with overtly (if at times, conceivably, overly) sexual wordsmithery de rigueur, although there’s something that doesn’t quite fit. In the case of Know Me Better – another that’s considerably better under the cover of darkness – it’s coital seduction set to song, but still, like a nostalgia-inducing perfume from the night before that clings to your bed linen like nothing else, the impression that “there’s so much more to love” than this persists…
Eminently more loveable on the day or, rather, the night, then, is Actor who, after a few ill-advised seconds’ covering Edwyn Collins’ coup de maître, kick into the killer Girls Do, and kick on thenceforth. Louisa Osborn, simultaneously channeling Liela Moss and Siouxsie Sioux likewise, might exhibit nerves, but she needn’t, because she’s manning a mean, if risibly underrated hit machine, Uppercut benefitting from a shiny sheen befitting Debbie Harry’s celebrated brigade. As a not inconsiderable negative however, the yawning chasm stage-right is yowling out to be filled, to which the exemplary Feline attests: it boasts one of, if not the (albeit synthetic) bass line of the entire festival, and yet it’s played straight off of a backing track.
Its impact consequently dampened, the dreadful feeling is that this is an opportunity missed; and if so, that’s an humongous shame. Because Actor serve as a prime example of how, at industry knees-ups such as this, hype bands can be overhyped, overindulgences can be overindulged, and the very finest can therefore fly right under the radar. Tracks such as Baby Cries, for instance, are glaringly obvious, but they’re very obviously brilliant, too; another, Power, hears Osborn sing of “creat[ing] the space […] it’s in my power” and, with the niche already carved, even in this relatively crude format, the potential for pop omnipotence is self-evident. Your Love serves as further evidence that there’s plenty yet to come, but live, for reasons aforesaid, a bassist of some description really needs to come with them…
If there weren’t too many up-and-coming artists defying ready description at this year’s edition, then right up there among those who did was doubtless Anna Meredith who, backed rather unorthodoxically by guitar, tuba, cello and drums, with the virtuosity of an entire orchestra crammed into these five beings, brought Varmints of last March to life in the most spectacular manner imaginable. Orchestral electronica redolent of Tyondai Braxton at his absolute best, from the opening Nautilus right through to the closing, ludicrously celebratory The Vapours, Meredith demonstrates an invigorating disregard for conventional time signatures, instead centring her attentions on whimsical clarinet – evocative of Hideaki Aomori and Jay Hassler on The BQE – and eviscerating, volatile guitar lines.
In amongst it all are inflexions that are more straight-up Afro than Africastle, ephemeral moments reminiscent of HudMo’s Lantern, and others that call to mind a more get-going R Plus Seven. Away from the Warp roster a moment though, Taken sounds not dissimilar to something that’s fallen off the back of Bandwagonesque, subsequently left to fester on the side of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn as barre chords and four-part, particularly manly backing harmonies combine, Meredith conducting the mania stage-right. She may be “trynna kid [her]self it’s ten o’clock,” toying with the idea of knocking back a few somniferous drinks, but even at half three, this feels like the perfectly fine alignment of time and place, and artist and space. For pertaining to the tempestuous potencies of Hidden, minus so much of These New Puritans’ practically trademarked murkiness, there is an unanticipated radiance to much of Meredith’s thoroughly enlightening half-hour. And, as bright Brighton daylight seeps in from beyond aquatically coloured curtains, an indubitably blinding show at the Brighthelm Centre is rendered all the more so.
Although the best is very much saved for last, or the last act we see, as LISS – one of only three Danish acts on this year’s bill – put on a performance so undeniably brilliant, it almost calls for sunglasses at night. Almost…
Taking their cues, seemingly, from ’80s mainstays such as Devo, Prefab Sprout and Robert Palmer, if not quite Corey Hart, on record, the Aarhus four-piece put an unmistakably contemporary spin on things, Rodaidh McDonald and Tic Zogson – amongst others – assuming production duties as Søren Holm, Villads Tyrrestrup, Vilhelm Strange and Tobias Hansen go about incorporating influences from actual influencers such as Arca and Kelela to create a sound quite unlike any other. “We could play with a backing track,” guitarist Strange reasoned when we met some weeks ago, “but we don’t do that because we don’t want to,” and the result is a live show that’s as startling as that first time you set ears on Try. At which point, I take back what I previously said about Actor’s Feline, because it’s this one – courtesy of Tyrrestrup – which is ‘the bass line of the entire festival,’ Holm making incredulous eyes at the rapture which quite rightly meets its premature release. But they ain’t done there, with the unapologetically poppy Good Enough proving they’re precisely that, and the irresistibly slinky Miles Apart subsequently setting them, well, miles apart; it’s the sultry Sorry, however, which provides the unexpected high, the lyric, “I’m not the one that you should count on” in almost embarrassingly stark contrast to Holm’s reliably irreproachable and, for that matter, peerless vocal. But while some of their many peers disappointed at The Great Escape 2016, the festival itself did no such thing; indeed, if ever there were an edition to dismiss the dismissive ‘Britain’s answer to SXSW’ tagline, then this one could well have been it.