All Tomorrow's Parties
Deerhoof, The Melvins, and SlintEdit this event
All Tomorrow's Parties: an event that looms over the UK festival circuit like the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith. All you mud-caked, drum-beating camping cavemen, observe: you can have a music festival and also have a roof over your head, running water, electricity, and a festival made up of bands that actually have some integrity and talent instead of the legions of bill-propping soundalikes the majors are shoehorning onto the music agenda to try and spin a buck. And, when it isn't sub-zero and snowing outside, a long sandy beach, go-karts, an on-site supermarket, (very) late-opening bars, huge cheesy murals showing scenes from musicals, penny-pushing 'amusements', and everything else you would expect from a festival are here, at a seaside holiday camp.
For the uninitiated: ATP is a festival like no other. The organisers hand over the reigns to a different 'curator' each year, who can then select any lineup they like to form a kind of wish list, or "the ultimate mix tape" as Thurston Moore puts it. This year, the honour goes to reformed post-rock icons Slint, who chose approximately half as many bands as the ATP bill usual allows, citing band unavailability and a 'quality over quantity' policy as the reason, despite the relative obscurity of their selection. The festival sells out anyway of course, and with good reason.
Born Heller are batting first. The room slowly fills throughout their extremely quiet and low-key set, and the excited 'we're here!' buzz around the bar threatens to drown out their slow, folky strumming and clear, crisp vocals. Born Heller translate the gorgeous sound of their recordings well, and sound like they'd be perfect playing on a starry midsummer's night on the riverbank (these children are fair and have stars in their hair). But the occasion gets the better of them here. Upstairs, Sub-Pop signings Love As Laughter run briskly through some jaggedy indie-rock numbers. Nothing too memorable to report here, and as the crowd thins I remind myself to mention that they sound better on their forthcoming album Laughter's Fifth than they do live.
Deerhoof were one of the discoveries of last year's festival (they played the Sonic Youth day of weekend two). Their avant-pop stop-start style is a musical juggling act held together by some impressive drumming by Greg Saunier - I'm left wondering if certain passages are improvised because they seem so loose and unstructured, but later find that they are exactly the same on record. Singer Satomi Matsuzaki chirps, gestures, spins and squeaks her way through the set, inscrutable but somehow really endearing. Deerhoof are the kind of band that would stand out wherever they played.
I'm not really familiar with The Melvins (What!? Surprised Ed.), bar a download that put me off because the singer sounded like James Hetfield. But, Jesus, they rock. They are profoundly metal, in the best possible way. You can hear glimpses of every major rock and metal band from the last decade in their sound: The Melvins do this so well, they make everyone else sound lame. Every hit of the snare is the final nail being banged into your coffin. Every stroke of the bass causes an earthquake somewhere on mainland Europe. Every tuned-down powerchord pops someone's eardrum. They are a force of nature, not a band. It sounds like there are three of every member: MASSIVE. There is a ragged and slightly nuts guest appearance from some scary old punker called Dave Yoick or something. The Melvins slay. And after everyone is slain, they keep on slaying, tearing full-throttle into neverending, pounding heavy metal jams with huge apocalyptic conclusions, until ATP is completely levelled.
Brightblack prove to be a perfect hangover cure, and a revelation of sorts. They play a set of soft-focus, hypnotically slow hippie-folk, that sounds like it's swimming back against the tide of time; this really should have the crackle of ancient vinyl behind it. Brightblack is so relaxed, you can feel the stress draining out of the room. There is a kind of peace in Brightblack's music, a kind of purity, that you don't come across too often in these confused, highly-strung, ironic times. And everyone here gets to take a piece of it with them.
Mogwai have been working the loud-quiet-loud post-rock formula for years now. To my ears, they sound pretty much the same as the last time I saw them, at Reading, maybe five or six years ago, and there's nothing I like less than knowing exactly what to expect when I watch a band live. There are some new vocoder sounds and keyboard flourishes here and there, and Like Herod sounds mighty when the wall of noise section kicks in. But Mogwai have failed to move with the times, and other bands are evolving this genre, and leaving them behind. I have to eat, so I miss Need New Body, which is a shame (Damn straight it is! Jealous NNB-loving Ed.), they sound all dancey and fun and have bright handmade clothes as their merchandise. Can't win 'em all.
Polar Goldie Cats look very feline in their nice stuck on cat ears (not real cat ears - that would be horrible). They play constantly unravelling instrumentals, a bit like Sonic Youth's recent albums, but without the singing, or (sadly) the inspiration. But inspiration is what the next band, Matmos, do best. After a song that consists largely of the sound of water being poured onto a metal sheet, one of them steps up to the mic and laughs "... and some people call us art school fucks!". This is followed by glitched beats, a hurdy-gurdy solo, a flashing video-art backdrop showing maps of middle America and close ups of blinking eyes, crashing and smashing, some crisp, tight electronica and all kinds of odd noise-making: Matmos bring a welcome sense of adventure and aural curiosity to ATP. Spoon, on the other hand, play tight, straightforward, old fashioned rock and roll, sounding at best like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and at worst like Brian Adams. 'The Way We Get By' is a great pop song that I recognise from somewhere... turns out it's used on The OC. Figures. Pleasant enough, but after the inspired creativity of Matmos it's very tame.
Slint run through their classic Spiderland material, and their not-so-classic Tweez stuff, with almost mechanical precision. Every note is tidy and in place. It's more of a recital than anything else - but perhaps that's what people want, as very few of those present will have had the chance to see this band before._ 'Breadcrumb Trail' and _'Washe'r' are notable highlights, and 'Good Morning Captain' is a powerful conclusion. But I wasn't alone in feeling that some kind of commitment, or engagement, or passion was missing from their highly accomplished but bloodless performance.
Neil Hamburger is an inspired selection to open proceedings on Sunday. With a greasy comb-over, a suspiciously stained suit, jam-jar glasses and an armful of beer bottles, he dispenses sick and twisted jokes (example - "Why did Madonna feed her kid dog food? She had no choice, it was just what came out of her tits") interspersed with tubercular coughing and hacking and some deadly improv' which includes threatening a heckler with public flogging and hanging ("How about we all watch you piss and shit yourself as you hang instead, how funny'd that be?"), and calling all the bar staff sick paedophiles... not too PC, but, y'know... fuck PC.
Miighty Flashlight trundles through some acoustic numbers that I struggle to engage with. There's an interesting part during which an arty looking fellow reads from a book over some chords. But I was expecting something a little more creative from the songs I've heard on record. Pearls and Brass play extended bluesy rock 'n' roll jams with fretboard fondling lead sections and the weekend's only drum solo. I duck out to catch a bit of Endless Boogie - but, sidetracked at the merch stands (and then at the bar) (and possibly by some machines with flashing lights), the (so-called) Endless Boogie has ended by the time I get there. Then - bad news. Ex-Red House Painters slowcore legend Mark Kozolek has cancelled due to illness, and been replaced by Scottish bar-room folkies Sons & Daughters. Not exactly a fair swap in my mind, but Sons & Daughters play a rousing if uninspired set.
Múm start out with the stage blacked out, microbeats pit-pattering into violin, sampled loops and live drums, french horn, xylophone, accordion, organ. This band work together as a whole in an interesting way - every little action effecting the whole to build a delicate, atmospheric, sometimes ramshackle fog of warm, buzzing sound. Songs start and finish, float in and out, topped with distant, childlike vocals. Some songs reach mild crescendos, some coast on at the same level, all the time hypnotic, subtle and powerful. Some time later, Múm leave the stage again: a great performance from a unique band.
But at ATP, the last band on is just the start of the party (honourable mentions to the DJing of Lisa Capsule and Stereolab)...
... roll on April.
Lovely Slint, Brightblack and Múm photos by Stuart Manwaring
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