Cardiff is beautiful in the autumn: the view as you look up the river Taf towards Bute Park, with Victorian terraces on the left and the Millennium Stadium on the right, is utterly striking. In some ways, it sums up the essential spirit of Cardiff: a combination of tradition, innovation and a uniquely Welsh outlook.
Music and arts festival Swn epitomises that atmosphere. That threefold spirit permeates every aspect of the event, not least the mind-boggling range of acts playing – old and new, local and from afar. Spread out across the city as it is – and with delays rendering the lovingly-highlighted spreadsheet lineup only vaguely accurate this is what my ears consumed on the first evening.
First up, then, are folksters Frederick Stanley Star (instore, Spillers Records). While only a 15-minute snippet of the full live experience taking place in the oldest record shop in the world, the five-piece still manage to create an intimate, enthralling piece of acoustica. The vaguely tribal build to an acappella crescendo during their second song is a particular highlight.
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Due to a last-minute cancellation by Indian Jewelry, Volcano! (Clwb Ifor Bach) arrive on stage half an hour late, and seem a bit petulant. That slightly narked air adds an extra edge to their discordant pop tonight: and, while songs from second album Paperwork hold up well next to more familiar lunatic gems such as ‘Apple or a Gun’, the set never really gels.
Duly muted in mood, it’s off to battle through the rugby crowds to catch some of Max Tundra (Barfly). He’s a strange little man, in his yellow t-shirt and little black shorts, darting from instrument to instrument like an excitable chimp: he also makes a rather good sound. However, it’s ultimately forgettable, and the overall impression made is that you’ve simply been diverted for a while by a performing monkey.
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Rolo Tomassi (Clwb), meanwhile, certainly blow the cobwebs out. The bottom floor of Clwb is packed out in anticipation of their teenage ADHD metal onslaught, and they don’t disappoint: colossal stop-start riffs combine with synth to make what might be the most exciting heavy music happening in the UK today. The music is only surpassed by the band itself, with keyboardist James Spence barely staying behind his instrument and lead singer Eva Spence throwing herself around the stage in disturbingly hypnotic fashion. A triumph.
- Threatmantics: atmospheric, some good moments, but ultimately anodyne
- James Yuill: layered, punchy electro with some judicious sampling
- Clinic: grand, magisterial anthems which let your mind wander, but soon impels you to physically wander too. The promised video mixing was a bit of a let down, too.
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The scheduling of New Tea Party (Tommy’s Bar) is clearly intended to give sore heads an easy introduction to Saturday’s proceedings. The band – when they’re not being endearingly disorganised – deliver lovely, rounded songs about teenage love and the like which bring to mind other up-and-coming pop moppets like The All New Adventures Of Us.
Cardiff DIY scene supergroup Little My (Tommy’s Bar) are a sight to behold. As they soundcheck, more and more members join the stage, seemingly in an attempt to challenge the Polyphonic Spree for a notional ‘most musicians ever’ title. A technique to distract from other failings? Actually, no – and even if it is, it’s backfired. The quality of the group’s twee-er-than-twee output is undeniable, and their childlike faux-naivety is hugely charming, but the sheer number of people onstage means that Little My cross the line between adding extra layers of sound to becoming muddy, shambolic and generally unmanageable. A case where, sadly, less would definitely be more.
Due to the line-up shuffling, Attack And Defend (Buffalo Bar) swap set times with yesterday’s standout discovery, Frederick Stanley Star – and the two bands couldn’t be more different. A&D put out anxious, synth-led post-punk of a style that – well, of a style that has become incredibly familiar over the last couple of years. While they’re certainly competent, unfortunately they’re not inventive enough to be saying anything new, nor excellent enough to be exceptional.
Exceptional is what Silence At Sea (Dempsey’s) are, however. The band produces stripped-down acoustic pop that’s beautiful in its simplicity and straightforward honesty, yet still allows for flights of whimsy. Truly lovely. It’s a quick hop across the road to catch the end of Zail (Kaz Bar), to be confronted with slabs of post-rock wig out so heavy you could lay a path in your garden with them. Simply colossal. They’re followed by Cardiff scene regulars Truckers Of Husk (Kaz Bar) – a group who clearly take their cues from math rock doyennes like Don Caballero and Battles. However, Truckers are more visceral than either band, not least due to their propensity for bowel-loosening bass noise. Excellent work, if you like that kind of thing.
Back to Dempsey’s, then, for gothic inventor Thomas Truax. It’s all about the spectacle with Thomas – the homemade instruments, the fantasy world of Wowtown that his songs inhabit, his inability to stay onstage (he even goes as far as to serenade a punter in the venue’s bathroom at one point – bring a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘toilet circuit’ – and the dark joy that he takes in creating that spectacle is hugely infectious. That’s not to say the songs are secondary: his Burton-esque stylings are excellent, and his mid-set cover of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ is weirdly haunting – although the second half of the set does sag somewhat.
It’s after Sunday lunch and a sound thrashing at Scrabble Swnday that the music starts on the final day of Cardiff’s SXSW – and thank God for shy acoustic singer-songwriters like Sweet Baboo (Glo Bar). Despite playing in a venue that resembles the bottom of a swimming pool, Baboo’s mix of Welsh folk and Americana still prove to be an intimate, friendly affair, and is nigh-on perfect for a bit of gentle Sunday afternoon fun.
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Tubelord and Dananananaykroyd (Barfly) are an interesting study in contrasts. Both acts are young, exuberant and plough a roughly emo-shaped furrow. However, that’s where the similarities end. Tubelord are formulaic, predictable and incredibly earnest; Dananana..., meanwhile, are rough around the edges, hilariously silly at points, raw and hugely exciting. Indeed, even their attempts at audience participation (the Wall Of Cuddles) are like a blast of fresh air, and their dual-singer screeching brings to mind a more accessible Blood Brothers. Make sure if you see one of these two bands it’s Dananananaykroyd.
Local band Right Hand Left Hand (Clwb Ifor Bach) are a Trans Am-style instrumental two-piece: indeed, the similarities are such that they even slip a cover of a Trans Am song into their 30-minute set. Veering from dreamy ambience that you can slip in and out of to full-on charging mayhem, their RHLH’s layers of sound touch on all kinds of reference points from the last 20 years – notably post-rock, grunge and stoner rock – and meld them into a cohesive and impressive whole.
Iceland’s Skatar (Clwb) are as mad as a bag of cats. Togged up in lycra leggings, their cacophonous racket veers all over the musical spectrum – albeit with a fixation on early Nineties rock – chucking everything in a blender and seeing what comes out. Luckily, they don’t take themselves too seriously either, so what could be a chaotic mess actually ends up being quite fun.
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It’s all about Future Of The Left (Clwb) tonight, though, and the titans of the Cardiff scene are angry. Yes, more so than normal: at points, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Andy Falkous seems more interested in simply screaming at the audience than using such prosaic things as words, and banter is kept to a minimum. It’s a brutally primal assault, made more so thanks to the confined space of the top floor of Clwb, and topped off by a particularly riotous version of now-traditional set closer ‘Cloak The Dagger’ which not only sees bassist Kelson Mathias enter the crowd but also hang upside down from the rigging amid a wave of fury, rage and feedback. Excellent stuff.
Photos: © Paul Gregory