Sunday, 10 July 2011

Intro Festival - Middlesbrough

Very much Evolution’s older and wiser sister, Intro Festival is the reincarnation of what used to be Middlesbrough Live. With a notably diverse mix of music on show, featuring up-and-coming indie artists like Cloud Control, legends such as Neville Staple of The Specials, and a whole stage dedicated to the art of the circle-pit, over on the heavy metal Sumo stage, Intro festival is fast becoming the festival of choice for the North-East’s many music freaks.

Liverpudlian post-punk outfit Clinic perhaps don’t make the most normal of first impressions, arriving onto the stage of the atmospheric Empire clad in surgeon costumes, complete with surgical masks. However, you have to admire the band’s dedication to the gimmick, never failing to play a show without appearing as a St. Johns Ambulance tribute to Slipknot. Luckily, the band’s mix of forthright guitars, incessant keyboards and precision drumming combine to make the fact you have no idea what the band’s facial features are up to add to the overall sound rather than detract from it.

Next, a move to the Evening Gazette Sounds Stage over in the impressive Town Hall to see the Jools Holland starring Vintage Trouble. After the awkward restraint of Clinic, this group of booted and suited American gents, playing a mix of Stevie Wonder meets Ike & Tina Turner good-time rock ‘n’ roll, complete with a pelvis-thrusting nymph of a lead singer, are totally refreshing, granted what they’re doing isn’t particularly fresh.

Hurling ourselves over the musical genre fence to the Sumo stage, we find hardcore punk band Trash Talk providing another master class in rock performance. As lead singer Lee Spielman screams various incomprehensible things over cannonball riffs and manic drums, devoted ‘Boro teens throw themselves at one another in a mass circle pit, to the clear surprise of the concerned stewards. With the band’s bassist scaling the stage’s infrastructure, Speilman strikes a different kind of power chord when he tells the crowd “this set up you got here is pretty cool- support this sh*t and keep it going!”, and receives a rapturous cheer in response.

Back over the genre fence once again, we find the acoustic sweet-nothings of Benjamin Francis Leftwich soothing the ears of those at The Central’s Cosmos Stage. Making the female, and some male, members of the audience visibly swoon, Benjamin sings with a maturity that betrays his age (he’s 21). There’s no doubting that there’s an audience for his chord-based romantic middling, whether or not he’ll develop into the same calibre of distinctive young singer-songwriters like Laura Marling or Pete Molinari though will perhaps rest on how many more messy relationships he can cram into his formative years.

Closing the Town Halls’ stage, Darwin Deez manages to trump all the other performers on the day. Accompanied by a band of skinny (but practically obese when compared to Darwin himself) musically gifted extroverts, the whole band exuded confidence, especially on biggest hit ‘Radar Detector’. The band’s attitude to their set seemed to be to have as much fun as physically possible, peppering the performance with catchy riffs, extended rap freestyles and meticulously choreographed dance routines featuring all four musicians. With the audience deliriously lapping it up, the band were given an extra 15 minutes of stage time, allowing for more of those dance moves and a few extra songs that sound like the Strokes if all five of the New Yorkers were on an extensive course of Prozac.

By catering to a whole spectrum of different tastes, Intro festival successfully brooded an atmosphere where everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there, despite the shabby weather. I won’t be in Durham next year, but I’m still going to make the trip up/down from wherever I am to ‘Boro for this gem of a festival.

Chapel Club - Palace (Loog)

As the doom-rock formula becomes ever more diluted, it’s getting harder and harder for a band to stamp their own unique footprint on a style of indie that, arguably, was perfected by Joy Division back in 1979. Songs on Palace like ‘The Shore’ swell to nothing much more than waves of expansive guitars and hefty drumming, producing a powerful yet completely indistinctive sound. If you find it difficult to discern between Editors and White Lies, Chapel Club will only add to your confusion.

The modern reworking of the ancient ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ on the meaty ‘Surfacing’ shows a rare moment of creative prowess while the sheer force of  ‘White Knight Position’ is impressive. Bowman’s downbeat vocals and wry lyrics combine well with the heavyweight production on show to give the album a lot of clout. Essentially, the best compliment you can pay Chapel Club is that if they are the new White Lies, at least they’re a better version. 


Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See (Domino)

The purposefully awkward and obtuse song writing of Humbug, the Arctic’s third album, left a bad taste in the mouth of many. However, those who suck this follow up will be pleasantly surprised by its overall sweeter taste. Continuing to evolve from the winning kitchen-sink realism of their overwhelming massive debut, these songs are bolstered by an underlying retro romanticism that sees Alex Turner challenging Richard Hawley for the title of Sheffield’s chief crooner. 

On ‘Piledriver Waltz’, Turner flexes his witticisms, warning the unlucky in love, “if you’re gonna try and walk on water, make sure you wear your comfortable shoes”. Lyrical inspiration may have gone walkabout on meat-and-potato singles ‘Brick By Brick’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair’, but it’s hard to argue with the latter’s sheer ballsy force. Plus, mysterious femme fatales, group harmonies, and cranium-penetrating hooks elsewhere ensure the band continue to lead the way in the much-maligned genre of British indie-rock. 


For Folk's Sake

*Originally posted on the For Folk's Sake New Bands Panel*

Milkwood - All Of Its Ways

Just when you think you’ve got Milkwood sussed as another standard folk three piece from the South of England, they do something that takes you by surprise. Like when a disjointed but inspired fingerpicked banjo solo gatecrashes 'Bite My Thumb'’s sweet melody, or the moan of a Velvet Underground-esque dying violin throws 'The Passanger' into a cascade of electric guitar and drums. Johnston’s hearty vocals, heavy with the same kind of maturity that has earnt Laura Marling so much recent praise, make sure the songs stay festering in your ears, like an ear infection you don’t mind having. The only things you can get for £3 nowadays are posh sandwiches or a pint- however you can go buy Milkwood’s debut album for a mere £3 from a link on their Myspace. Forgo that sandwich or pint- it’ll be worth your while.

Amos Zimmerman - Amos Zimmerman & The River Band

Curiously, Amos’ surname suggests lineage to probably the most famous singer-songwriter of all time, some guy called Bob Dylan. However, you won’t find any pictures of Amos in Bob’s family albums, for the simple reason that they aren’t related by anything more than a mutual love of semi-acoustic songwriting. Hailing from Tel Aviv and already a rising star in Israel with his ‘Quasi-Rockabilly-Country-Swamp-Jam-in your face-Original Folk Rock’, Amos and his ‘Riverband’ are strong musicians but often edge too close to pastiche. With a voice like a less depressed Elliot Smith and a band indebted to Neil Young circa-Harvest, the group could do with having a few more sparks of inspiration that aren’t linked to the aforementioned Canadian ‘Godfather of Grunge’. Nevertheless, the song ‘Patience’ highlights Zimmerman’s ability to craft an original sound that rises above his already towering influences. 

Let's Buy Happiness - Six Wolves / Woodrings

Consisting of four unassuming guys and one female lead singer, Let’s Buy Happiness, or LBH as my fingers prefer, create thoughtful, mid-paced indie-pop. Edge-esque guitar delay fill the songs, swirling around and gradually building up and up, allowing Sarah Hall’s ethereal vocals to jump ship and float around in the expansive sound. LBH lack the urgency needed to set pulses racing, but they’re widely seen as one of the north-east’s most promising bands and there’s certainly a lot of potential in the songs. For one thing, Hall’s Coco Rosie/Bjork style vocals are reason enough to see the band live. If they took more unexpected turns here and there to jolt the listener back down to earth, rather than letting them drift along on a wave of sweeping guitars and drums, LBH could be 2011′s surprise package. That kind of musical prowess can develop over time though. At the moment LBH have a loyal following in the north-east, with fans sensing they might have found something special on their doorstep.

Foxpockets – The Coracle & The Albatross EP

On this EP of ‘modern day fables’, Foxpockets mix their folk-pop sensibilities with pagan traditionalism. If that sounds like a potentially horrific car crash of sounds then fear not, there’s enough in the delicate instrumentation, detached vocals and eerie lyrics to steer these songs in an intriguing and impressive direction. On the surface the band’s sound may seem like a pleasant enough exercise in pastoral folk, however there’s a dark undertone to each song. No more so than on the haunting ‘Grendel’, which would fit right in on the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, with its gruesome lyrics (“He might rip off your head, he’ll grind your bones to make his bread”) befitting of a sadomasochistic folk sing-a-long. And luckily Foxpockets seem to agree with me that the phrase “less is more” was coined with the banjo in mind, as shown in its understated use on the fantastic ‘The Nautical Song’. Time to party like it’s 1899.

You can download ‘Grendel’ for free from the band’s soundcloud:

Oh Stockholm! – When It’s Dark and Cold EP/Leaving You Ain’t Easy EP

The title and snow covered scene that appears on the front cover of this EP means, you’d suspect, that it was the artist’s intention for the songs to be enjoyed when it really is dark and cold. So, always conscious of a fair test and because it’s July, I went down to the cellar to do this review. There’s more than a little Bright Eyes about Michael Hutchinson’s fragile vocals and Anna Bennett’s mournful violin in ‘Walking In The Snow’, and the Conor Oberst comparisons carry right on through the EP of soft, sorrowful, wintery laments. The second set of songs showcases more of the same, and the overarching theme of a tortured long-distance relationship will strike a chord with many. But although Hutchinson’s love songs are indeed honest and sincere, there’s a distinct lack of bite to them that, if found, could take the songs to a more engrossing, perhaps vitriolic, level. By the next EP, that’s very much a possibility.