In March I was lucky enough to tie up with the guys at Echoes and Dust at HRH Prog festival in North Wales. It was my first editorial assignment for the site. Featured below is my review of the Saturday afternoon. The full weekend review can be found here.
HRH Prog 2016: website
Photos: Charlie Gardner
A ninety minute postponement on Saturday’s early-afternoon acoustic sessions provides the perfect opportunity to nosy around the adjoining Sci-Fi Weekender. Eight-foot Space Marines and prowling Dredd squads may seem like enough to ward off even the most leather-clad progger, but as a Richter-bashing stand-off between a throat-singing Focus fan and bloodthirsty Uruk-hai demonstrates, they’re parties that bleed well together.
With the Owner’s Lounge doors eventually open for business, we find refuge among the polished harmonies of a stripped-back Messenger. The Londoners’ pastoral jaunts are well-rehearsed, well-executed and well-received in this intimate setting, and for a band soon to release their second album they demonstrate impressive versatility ahead of their fuzzier main stage set.
Ducking back into the central arena, Emirati post-metal outfit Empty Yard Experiment are christening the day with a menacing arsenal of hypertrophic mantras, hailing largely from their 2014 album Kallisti. Snarling opener ‘Greenflash’ balances bruising toms and grunting distortion to snake its way into a charged magnetic groove, whereas the engrossing ‘The Blue Eyes of a Dog’ lilts far closer to EYE’s expansive post-rock beginnings. Having gained an insight into the band’s visual output in our interview with frontman Bojan Preradovic and keyboardist Gorgin Asadi, HRH Prog’s AV shortcomings leave us ever so slightly disappointed not to have had the opportunity to experience Empty Yard Experiment’s live show in full flame. Still, Preradovic’s forlorn gravitas proves a captivating focal point for the band’s cinematic display, and by the time ‘Entropy’ reaches its writhing climax the room has filled out and is asking for more.
Fortunately, the opportunity arises next door, where EYE are ushered off to play their part in the festival’s unplugged programme. Second helpings are reserved only for those willing to stump up the VIP premium, and when combined with the day’s poor scheduling, both Messenger and EYE’s sets are criminally under-attended. To best exhibit the talent at their disposal, HRH must consider waiving the acoustic lounge’s bolt-on entry fee in years to come.
A clash with hotly-tipped Bristolian musos Schnauser brings us back to the main stage. Victims of some uncharacteristically poor mixing from HRH’s sound crew, the psych-pop outfit’s Sergeant Pepper harmonies never quite get the treatment they need to really hit the mark. This is a shame, because Schnauser’s tongue-in-cheek exploration of matters ranging from PPI to Walkers binges are genuinely very funny. It’s Adrian Mole-meets-Soft Machine: wry, eccentric, culturally crass and with plenty enough going on to keep it interesting. Unfortunately today, obstructive audio interference from the bass and keys prevents the band’s incisive humour and technical virtuoso from shining through, and many onlookers don’t quite know what to make of it. Determined to get the last laugh – and perhaps a little fed up with the sound team – Schnauser trade wit for slapstick: when frontman Alan Strawbridge dons a latex Granny mask and begins launching himself from stage apparatus, furrowed brows quickly make way for aching sides.
Scratching our heads, we head out for the first brew of the day. Entering the Mash & Barrel, we encounter a dressing-gowned Jedi council, who’ve convened to clop spoons over a few Hobgoblins. Enthusiastic but not entirely rhythmic, they’ve clearly drawn inspiration from Geoffrey Richardson’s prodigious dalliances the night before, though their newfound party-piece is a force probably best left to the confines of the caravan. Unless you’re in Caravan, that is. Still, it provides yet another entertaining example of the fantastic and unique interplay this dual-code congregation has to offer.
Messenger’s appearance at HRH Prog comes ahead of their sophomore release Threnodies, available now via InsideOut. Opening with ‘Midnight’ from 2014’s Illusory Blues, the band waste no time in continuing from where their acoustic set ended, interweaving fingerpicked guitars with chalky vocals before launching into a spunky three-axe crescendo, with Dan Knight ditching the keys to get in on the action. Hunched in a close-fitting horseshoe formation, they jam out ‘Midnight’ to some 13 minutes before slipping into a sweeping ‘Solimnoquist.’ It’s not until Messenger’s third song that the audience gets the opportunity to hear the new material up front, guitarist Barnaby Maddick donning the mike to deliver a Gilmour-esque rendition of leading single ‘Balearic Blue.’
The band are a tight set-up: mellow on the ear but highly focused to watch. Never missing a note, their commanding stage presence only falters between songs, and when frontman Khaled Lowe asks the audience to give themselves a round of applause after a hard-sell on the merch, more than one pair of Doc Martens will have shuffled uncomfortably. Nevertheless, Messenger show real promise in their performance, and their T-shirt sales will have suffered no setbacks as a result of this polished display.
With the sun setting on the Llyn Peninsula, Twinscapes make their way to the stage. A project between Naked Truth’s Lorenzo Feliciati and Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, the bass-wielding duo incorporates fretless and fretted basses, E-bows and a stash of samples to produce a varied docket of sounds and textures. There’s hints of Jaco Pastorius’ moodier solo material here: atmospheric, proficient, slightly eerie, and featuring – as one punter put it – “interludes you could open a crypt to.” Though many will have been acquainted with the band’s former projects, Twinscapes enter the main space as relative unknowns. At ease onstage, they take the time to contextualise the band’s conception, and provide a few interesting insights into the driving forces behind their material. On the basis of this performance, Twinscapes’eponymous debut, released on RareNoise Records in 2014, certainly warrants a listen.
Shapes Warehouse, Hackney Wick, London | May 21, 2016
“We’ve just booked the Black Lips!” hoots Fluffer Records’ founder Al Brown, his moustachioed bonce smacking incredulity. The Whitechapel label’s been exhibitioning East London’s finest in garage rock, psych, punk and grunge for the best part of three years now, but the rolling success of its recent ‘Pit Parties’ series appears to have taken even its mastermind by some surprise. Offering floorfuls of riotous torsos, flying pints and bands in the middle, the parties’ growing popularity have helped snare one of the world’s most notorious party bands for this next instalment. As Brown mischievously notes, “this one is four times bigger than anything we’ve thrown before.”
Inspired by the glory days of early-Eighties US hardcore – where bands such as Minor Threat and Black Flag sacked off unaffordable venues and reluctant promoters by staging off-grid floor shows in friends’ garages or abandoned warehouses – Fluffer’s wide-angle sweatfests have already welcomed the like of Bad Breeding, Kagoule and The Wytches. With ten bands on show, a Fluffer debut for the raised 360º stage and Atlanta’s finest hellraisers soon to grace it, the secret warehouse venue – revealed mere days before as Hackney’s Shapes – seems the perfect spot for twelve hours of teen spirit debauchery. From this point onwards, t-shirts are optional.
The music kicks off at 2pm, but it’s not until surf-punks The Black Tambourines let loose a few hours later that the floor really begins fleshing out. A voyeur’s dream, the 360º set-up shines light on a competitive streak between vocalist Sam Stacpoole and guitarist Josh Spencer-Fletcher, though it’s the shuffling charisma of bassist Jake Willbourne that really ignites onlookers. When he introduces ‘Dolphin Blues’ by maniacally cawing over Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’, enthused chuckles emanate from the emergent crowd.
The stage’s rubbernecking potential isn’t lost on Wonk Unit frontman Alex Johnson. “We don’t come out East all that often but you lot are hot!” he pruriently croons before bouncing into the catchy lo-fi-ska of ‘Horses’. DIY punks from south of the river, the collective’s choppy pub clatter is the perfect soapbox for Johnson’s sink-estate witticisms. Blending Keith Flint’s wild-eyed fervour with the redolent beat poetry of Karl Hyde, the ringleader’s at his very best during ‘Elbows’; his scathing attack on public transport manspreading just one of the many brilliantly garbled social critiques punctuating Wonk Unit’s set.
It’s a case of ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ for Madrid’s The Parrots. Sporting porn ‘staches, tinted shades and an arsenal of infectious dance moves, the three-piece’s playful slacker-punk mixes shrieked reverb with ricocheting riffs that will undoubtedly appeal to the Black Lips fans in the room. All is going well until swaying frontman Diego García swaps his guitar for a bottle of Jäger, inviting bassist Álex de Lucas to have a shot at six-string glory. The set ekes out with a plodding two-chorder, during which drummer Larry Balboa also jumps ship to drag a member of the sound crew on stage, who perplexedly plods the bass drum through the closing piece. High-spirited but overawed, the fun-loving party band partied too hard this time round.
A Fluffer original, Virgin Kids’ restless bedroom fuzz proves far more polished. The trio skilfully weave punchy choruses and singalong backings through a sea of noise, shooting out quick-fire hits with formidable urgency. It sets the perfect stage for Heck, who turn proceedings up a notch with an onslaught of thunderous bass lines, pig squeals and thumping drums. Easily winning the award for best use of staging, their 360º circle pit is wildly ensnaring. When guitarist Matt Reynolds leaps in, all noise-thrash hell breaks loose, claiming his guitar’s neck as its ruinous spoil.
Bo Ningen provide little respite, dishing up an hour of rapacious psych perfection. Dizzying walls of fuzz push gut-rattling riffs to cosmic intensity, their unforgiving noise mesmeric, deafening and imaginative. Transfixed, the audience gawps on as lead vocalist Taigen Kawabe pirouettes and stomps about stage, casting furious incantations and summoning supernatural power from Monchan Monna’s time signature-marauding drums. Then he pirouettes, slinging his bass overhead to assault it with Lovecraftian fingers, whist continuing to belt out guttural growls and cochlea-caving shrieks. Meanwhile, guitarist Yuki Tsujii postures spritely above his terrifying pedal board, wrestling from it a vicious tempest of screeches, throbs and squalls whilst executing similarly extraordinary footwork. And then it’s done; Bo Ningen elope into shadow, leaving a trail of reverb-battered onlookers astonished in their wake.
“For as long as we’ve been organizing Pit Parties, Black Lips have been top of our list,” Al Brown tells us before the show. “They’re the ultimate party band, and when we got in touch, hats off to them, they were up for it.”With a delay in scheduling pushing back the headline event, revellers’ anticipation is equally palpable. Packed to the rafters, the room ramps into a baited-breath sauna, and when the band finally takes to the stage to clatter into ‘Family Tree’ it reaches boiling point, bodies careering over bodies, toilet paper flying, sweat sheen omnipresent. By Black Lips’ standard it’s a relatively sedate affair. No vomit. No nudity. No fireworks. But their succinct set plunders their extensive back catalogue to reel off belter after belter; ensuring limbs keep flying with breathless abandon. The incendiary opening line of ‘Modern Art’ takes a shotgun to the hinges of any remaining static urges, before ‘Bad Kids’ festive shuffle draws dozens on-stage for a riotous closing singalong. Black Lips are old hands on the party band scene, and as the audience files out into the cool summer night, smiles erupt between deafened ears.
So what’s the verdict? Well whereas for Rollins and MacKaye the ground-level set-up was a necessity, Fluffer’s aesthetic suggests more careful thematic planning. It’s impossible to deny the mild disappointment felt when realizing the all-Orange backline had been hiked up onto a square dais in the centre of the room, fenced off by a photo pit. Still, as the Black Lips proved, this wasn’t too great an obstacle to the destruction of audience/artist boundaries, one of the most exciting upshots of the original hardcore scene’s DIY solution. Perhaps the least punk call is the no readmission door policy, which with the FA Cup final being played mid-afternoon, will have averted many from coming down earlier in the day. But all things considered Fluffer’s brilliantly curated set list produces a day out that will live long in the memory. Like the hundreds of Vans-wearing, sportswear-clad, slacker-moustache trendies who turned up to watch, the label is basking in the glory of the golden days, and giving us all a taste of what it was like. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Fluffer’s next pit party takes place on Saturday 18th June, with TRAAMS headlining. Tickets are available here.