Sweet dreams or haunting horrors: ATP's Nightmare Before Christmas in summary
This December’s Nightmare Before Christmas – ATP’s now-annual end-of-year blow-out, helmed by one prominent figure or other orbiting alternative music circles – filled a fair few DiSsers with not a little fear: with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore at the controls, any semblance of melody, anything resembling a tune you could hum, looked certain to be blown to smithereens by noise bloody noise.
And, for the most part, that proved to be the case: pockets of clam between ear-shredding blankets of steel-on-steel roars and effects pedal-guided drones were scare, to say the least. When the quirk-pop of Deerhoof proves to be blessed relief from inaccessible acts, you know you’ve wandered into a musical landscape less forgiving even than World War concentration camps.
Which brings us, not so neatly, to the weekend’s venue: previously held at Camber Sands’ Pontin’s campsite in East Sussex, this Nightmare was the first ATP event to be held at Minehead’s expansive, three-stage Butlins site. Full of themed bars and non-musical pursuits (the swimming pool, although not visited by all DiSsers, was apparently “mega”). ATP’s three-dayers in April and May – click to their website for further details – are sure to be great, as the town’s massive beach will come into its own once the weather becomes a little more clement. Also, the likes of Low and Sparklehorse are sure to be easier on the ears than ninety per cent of the acts that closed ATP’s year in such splendidly avant-garde fashion.
Here we present to you some personal accounts of the weekend, from those who braved the brain-rattling fuzz ‘n’ drone of band after band of merciless noise merchants. Uncompromising? Too right. Unlistenable? At times, certainly…
Sore limbs and a short-circuited brain: it can only mean the end of another ATP weekend. The festival’s debut at Minehead’s Butlins complex left the average attendee with many a positive; but, personally, a rash of teething problems left this temporary resident of possibly the largest holiday camp he’s ever been to with a headache far greater than all the cheap red wine consumed over a three-day period could muster.
Queues. There, I said it, and others will say it louder. There were too many of them; everywhere, snaking serpentine around fast-food counters and slot machines, children’s games and hire centres (not once did I see a soul riding a pedal go-kart, sadly). I couldn’t get in to Sonic Youth, nor The Stooges; by the time DKT/MC5 were about to close the main stage – Centre Stage – on the Sunday night, I’d had enough of waiting in line. I found refuge at the impressively warm(er than Camber) accommodation, and sunk more of the three-for-a-tenner wine. The red was quaffable, the white unbearable.
Highlights, though: Deerhoof (above, left), one of a handful of acts that kindly played twice, allowing those that couldn’t squeeze in to their scheduled set an opportunity to enjoy their skewed scatterbrain indie-pop, shone brilliantly. Their forthcoming Friend Opportunity album is sure to be one of 2007’s highlights, and songs like ‘Milk Man’ and ‘Dog On The Sidewalk’ were the perfect tonic for Saturday morning fuzzy heads. The Melvins (below) and Flipper comprised a double-header to savour on Friday night: the former’s twin-drum attack left the front few rows visibly disorientated (although that might’ve been the beer, and whatever else), while the latter ploughed their way through a set of punk-rock that didn’t once feel as old as their wrinkles imply, nor as generic as their classic debut’s title might suggest. Perhaps obviously, ‘Sex Bomb’ was the unanimous standout.
Saturday night’s second-stage set from a sleep-deprived Comets On Fire was unequivocally the most-memorable performance of the weekend, for me: the five-piece, fleshed to many more come their climax, romped through a rollicking set of acid-splashed rock ‘n’ rock, leaving all long-hairs before them (hello, me) with an awful neck ache the next morning. ‘Antlers Of The Midnight Sun’: probably the finest few minutes of pure sonic immersion these ears experienced over 72 hours. Gang Of Four, too, were impressive, lighter of feet and more attention-absorbing of arrangements than men of their age have the right to be, usually. That they continue to inspire today’s indie-rockers shouldn’t be a source of befuddlement: they’re awe-inspiring, at times.
But the gripes, sadly, outweigh the positives for this ATP. Granted, it was billed as a nightmare, but that’s no reason for the bill to be so hellish at times. Double Leopards, take a bow: your set was mind-numbingly awful. Likewise Major Stars (their first set outside of the US won’t be remembered for the right reasons) and Inca Ore; the latter’s alleged music was beyond deplorable. Better in the dronescape stakes was Alexander Tucker, whose set was my personal highlight of everything witnessed on the third stage (Crazy Horse). Dinosaur Jr (right), too, are worthy of a back-slapping for their blow-the-cobwebs-away set early on Sunday afternoon; ‘Little Fury Things’ was quite the necessary pick-me-up.
But the majority of the acts booked by Mr Thurston Moore were, from this point of view, far too self-indulgent for those with a taste for a tune to get all that much out of an otherwise fantastic weekend: the sun shined, mostly, and the booze flowed freely and not too expensively. Minehead as a location is far better, facilities wise, than Camber, and the beach on Saturday morning, with the tide out and the sun peeking from behind black clouds, was astounding in its beauty. Not that the above mobile phone-captured picture does it justice.
I look forward to Spring’s twin events, knowing that my ears will be spared the assault they suffered at the hands of Sonic Youth’s gangly noise-nerd this weekend.
The excitement of a new ATP venue is almost too much to take. No longer are we disembarking trains on the south coast, hailing taxis and fighting mouldy walls at Pontin's. No, no, no. Butlins, kings of the holiday camp sphere, are our new permanent hosts. Filled with nervous joy, arrival is windy and cold. Well, this is the Nightmare Before Christmas.
Once camp has been staked in the chalet of a friendly passer-by, it's off to our first new venue (there's three now, you see) - stopping for a pint on the way of course - for Ashtray Navigations. Having got over the shock of being unable to take a drink between venues, or indeed drink anything purchased outside of the camp in seemingly most areas of the site, the 'bedroom legends' deliver what transpires to be a taste of too many things to come. One-dimensional, unadventurous, noisy drone.
Somewhat put-out, sorrows are drowned, records are played and we're picked up again, ready to get our first look at the main arena. Having escaped the sizeable queues for Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop earlier in the day (a new phenomenon for ATP) the Centre Stage plays host to The Dead C. Much like Ashtray Navigations before them, The Dead C play noisy drone. The difference in this case is quite simple; it's louder, more interesting and genuinely enthralling. Impressive, considering my current mental state.
An extensive session in the 'largest water complex in the South-West' sets the Saturday up well, and before long we're back in the venues. The New Blockaders are clad in balaclavas and play, yes, you guessed it: experimental, noisy drone. The difference here being that I think I had nightmares just stood there. I don't even know if that was a good thing.
I can safely reveal that neither Double Leopards nor Blood Stereo had anything to add to the mix. You can only be impressed by intricate use of a delay pedal so many times.
I want to cry. Hang on? Magik Markers save the day. I mean, seriously fucking save the day. Yes, it's noisy and occasionally dronesome, but blimey: there are a few melodies and a little more meat. I like it. I like it a lot.
Sunday is an absolute pleasure. The Skaters peddle yet more 'experimental drone', albeit a little more classily this time, but reprieve arrives in the form of Awesome Colour. Massive riffs, axe-wielding battle sessions and a hook or two brightens up the Centre Stage before Wolf Eyes (above) come and rip the shit out of it again. In the best way physically possible.
In fact, Sunday fucking rocked. After some average chips and a pint of Holland's finest, Alexander Tucker (above) and Six Organs of Admittance (right) are both exemplary and seemingly in tune with exactly how I feel on the inside. It's nice to have a soul returned after two days of being bombarded with seemingly emotionless experimental noise.
Then, of course, I go all boring and tell you that my band of the weekend was none other than Thurston Moore's protégé group, Be Your Own PET. The man himself makes an appearance towards the end, amongst a cataclysmic explosion of guitars, drums and personnel flying all over the shop.
You must understand, I don't hate noise. At all. What I do feel is that this year's Nightmare was somewhat narrow-minded in its execution, and the drone-based artists that did perform suffered in a sea of their own making.
People who know me will probably know how much I love pop music. Yes, from The Byrds to Teenage Fanclub, to Cheap Trick and even Busted’s (!) sporadic moments of excitement, I like to eat my pop hooks up with a very big spoon until it makes me ill. Possibly due to some weird evolutionary anomaly, my other true love is noise; the more metal, riffy, loud and ear-bleeding the better! It’s this evil half of my brain that drew me to ATP this winter and hell I loved pretty much every minute of it.
Friday afternoon was largely spent wondering around in slight awe of the place and tucking into an overpriced but tasty Pizza Hut buffet. I swapped my press pass for a regular wristband which allowed me queue-less access to the headliners on the last two days. I first ventured to the main stage to check out Flipper, who had the novelty of Krist Novoselic on bass duties (when Nirvana were around I was nine and kinda preoccupied with Ace Of Base and 2 Unlimited). Much as I wanted to enjoy them, with the evolution of punk since their early ‘80s heyday, they did come over as rather generic hardcore. Melvins followed them and put in the performance of my weekend with double drum-kits and sludgy brilliance a-go-go. Deerhoof’s ace prog-pop was, on their first performance, sadly muted by rather flat sound on the second stage. I escaped to jump up and down to the DrownedinSound DJ set down the street at Irish Times.
On day two it seemed queues had begun to encircle the entire festival. I took the opportunity to investigate some of the lesser-known artists on Stage 3: Crazy Horse. The onslaught of drums and feedback that made up one act’s (Blood Stereo?) set was wisely kept to a brisk 15 minutes – I still can’t figure out if it was definitely them from the descriptions in the booklet. Later on, Dinosaur Jr were lucky enough to have Lou Barlow playing and singing with them, which made it the second best thing to having Sebadoh on the bill. Headliners Sonic Youth (above) pulled off a set of hits (‘100%’ and ‘Kool Thing’ included) and newer works, which pretty much hit every button you could wish for. The still remarkably youthful Thurston and Kim danced about like they meant it, and the crowd were happy to show their appreciation.
By Sunday everyone looked a little the worse for wear, despite putting a brave face on it. Three days of junk food, heavy drinking, *ahem* etc = bad. A few more visits to the Crazy Horse yielded varied results, with some interesting guitar noises coming from Sunburned Hand Of The Man, not always matched by the rest of the unit. Iggy Pop’s rejuvenated Stooges was reassuringly chaotic, with stage(d)-invasions by the crowd and some brilliant grass roots punk rock ‘n’ roll making the heaving main stage audience throb with excitement.
While not everything ran quite as smoothly as either the organisers or punters may have wished, I have to give the crew the credit for persuading many of the larger bands to play twice. Teething problems aside and, yeah, maybe a little too much noise for the majority’s taste buds, the weekend seemed like the intro to what could be a highly profitable partnership between Butlins Minehead and ATP. Bring on next year!