This is my second Swn (it means 'sound' in Welsh, linguistics fans). Last year was an absolute blast it featured not only superlative gigs from some of the best bands around at the moment, but it also confirmed something else: Wales is a very, very good place for music at the moment.
I think that's down to something that, while not unique to Wales, is an important characteristic: the fact that it's not afraid to be distinctive. You can see that as you walk around in Cardiff: the homogenised main streets soon give way to arcades and alleyways chock-full of curious little shops, creaky little bars like the City Arms, the Rummer Tavern and Dempseys, and unique independent venues like Clwb Ifor Bach, converted church The Gate and the phoenix-like Toucan Club. That sense of independence and distinctiveness permeates this festival, and the bands that play it. Who knows what could happen in the next three days?
Chapter 1: Thursday
Well, as it happens, not too fucking much. Due to a frankly embarrassing confusion over dates, my train to Cardiff isn't until Friday. I hear, however, that Thursday was an excellent start. All I can say is sorry, dear reader.
Chapter 2: Friday
This is more like it. The evening kicks off in a melodic fashion, as all-girl trio Barefoot Dance of the Sea (Chapter Arts Centre) deliver an enchanting mix of awkward alt-country and acappella harmonies, which range from a particularly heartrending song about being apart from the one you love to a masterful rendition of 'Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby' – yes, the one the Sirens sing in O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Buoyed by this, we head to Clwb Ifor Bach to take a punt on Midlands six-piece You Animals. They're not bad... but they're not very good either: nothing more than a wannabe Cribs. Johnny Foreigner (also Clwb), however, are on form, and are as anarchic as you'd hope them to be. The energy they put into their shows hasn't let up in the slightest, but you can certainly tell that they've progressed from the ADHD panic-rock of their early material into something more textured.
Still, there are many more bands, and nowhere near enough time. Huw Stephens-trumpeted nerd-hop solo artist Gideon Conn (Dempseys) is next up. His childlike raps are as charming and eccentric as you'd expect, and the familiar hooks littering the set make you half-remember other songs. Even so, it's the spoken word – with accompanying mimes – 'Electricity' that steals the show, even over his closing cover version of Outkast's 'Miss Jackson'.
By this point, beers have been sunk, and there's fire in the belly. Who better than Pulled Apart By Horses (Clwb Ifor Bach) for some fury? It's certainly the band of choice - the bottom floor of Clwb is as rammed full as you'll ever see it. Perhaps that's having an effect: I've seen PABH a few times, but they've never been as visceral and intense as this before. Indeed, they seem to be growing into themselves nicely, letting the rhythm ebb and flow, and then throttling it to within an inch of its life. Sure, there's still a few hackneyed motifs in there, but these guys are certainly a band who are going to make great music in the near future.
Chapter 3: Saturday
It all got a little hazy after Pulled Apart By Horses last night. I recall an ill-fated attempt to see Strange News From Another Star (featuring Marc Foley of Future of the Left's 'Manchasm' fame), and dancing to some very questionable songs in Clwb. Still, i've only got a few unexplained bruises this morning, so it can't be all bad.
In fact, I even manage to surface early enough for brunch at frankly amazingly-refurbished arts centre Chapter, and to catch twee foursome Cat Mouse Cat. This is the type of the band that makes me believe that Los Campesinos! have a lot to answer for: this is indie ambulance-chasing at its worst. This may be woefully incorrect, but they sound like a band who've been ploughing a thoroughly conventional pub-rock furrow until they heard one of the new wave of twee bands – and decided that a glockenspiel and a kitsch dress sense would be their path to fame and fortune. No more, thank you.
Still shivering from the memory, it's time for espresso and a math-rock double bill in the Model Inn. First up is Supertennis, whose jerky This Town Needs Guns-influenced songs don't contain any surprises. However, it's all done with a sense of gusto, verve and a cracking sense of humour – and if you can't be original, you may as well have fun with it.
Next up, though, is Tubelord. Now, some users might remember that I have some unfinished business with this band – in fact, my largely negative review of their debut album resulted in me agreeing to experience them live, to see if it would change my mind about them. Well, I'm sad to say that it didn't. In fact, it only confirmed my view of them – which is while they can certainly write a riff, the overall package is oddly neutered. To be frank, there are even times that they come across as too clever by half – sacrificing momentum for technical complexity. Sorry guys – I guess Tubelord and I are just not destined to be together.
One New York Deli hoagie later – seriously, if you've never had one, do it - i'm shooting back over to Chapter to see Chris TT. Before that, though, is my Find of the Weekend, Mitchell Museum. This Scottish quartet sound like the Pixies filtered through the Proclaimers. I ain't got a clue what the songs are called, but they're my new favourite band.
The aforementioned Chris TT is a much more familiar prospect, though. Playing a set loaded with new songs and bereft of backing bands, he comes across as charmingly humble and self-effacing. It's an attitude that belies the quality of that material though, as he turns out a set that is by turns funny, angry, melancholic, hopeful and righteously indignant. Chris has been eclipsed by contemporaries like Frank Turner in the last couple of years: perhaps it's finally time he receives the respect he deserves.
One short taxi ride to the other side of Cardiff later, and we're entering the The Gate for the final stint of the evening – a Los Campesinos!-curated night of fun and frolics. However, I didn't count on the worst bar staff in the world being responsible for me missing both Copy Haho and Dananananakroyd, as well as only being able to see Munch Munch from afar. So, it's only when Internet Forever take the stage that finally see a band in the Gate. If you're not aware, Internet Forever are a band peopled by some users of this very site, so I was somewhat trepidatious about seeing them: if I don't like them, should I say so? It was evident from the outset, however, that this wouldn't be the case: their fuzzed-up keyboard pop – which is somewhat reminiscent of Bis, actually – is pretty damn good, and certainly worth checking out.
It's Los Campesinos! who everyone is at the Gate to see tonight, though, and it's the debut of new member Kim Campesinos! How will see acquit herself today in front of a home crowd? Pretty damn well, actually. Her voice isn't quite as distinctive to former keyboardist/vocalist Aleksandra's, but it interplays with Gareth Campesinos!'s overexcited squawking and bawling just as well. In fact, after a couple of songs, it's easy to forget that anything's different, as the band really are on fire tonight. Songs from both of their releases receive a rapturous reception; new material from forthcoming album Romance is Boring also goes down well, and suggests a move away from their signature tweecore sound into a slightly more fuzzed-up, No Age and Times New Viking direction.
However, it's still all about songs like 'You! Me! Dancing', which, with its name-dropping of local indie night Twisted By Design, sets the Gate alight, and set closer 'Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks' sees a stage-diving, crowd-surfing madness from members of the band - as well as from about half of the other bands that played tonight. It's fair to say that this gig is something of a homecoming for Los Camps – and it couldn't have been a more triumphant one.
I lived in Cardiff for five years, and I love the place. Swn, to me, encapsulates the best of what it has to offer: an independent spirit, a sense of immense self-belief, and a determination to get things done.
It's not a band, or a venue that really summed that up for me this weekend, though: it was a moment I experienced walking through the city on Sunday afternoon. As I walked through the Hayes, I was confronted with a freshly-paved piazza and the shining clinical structure of the newly-opened Dewi Sant shopping centre. This high temple of chain retailing dominates a part of Cardiff which used to be synonymous with independent shops and owners. That's all gone now: apart from one last bastion of rebelliousness.
One of the city's oldest and best-loved institutions, Spillers Records,sits defiantly where it has for the last hundred-plus years, its small,scruffy exterior staring down the glass-fronted monolith of Dewi Sant, as if daring it to come and have a go if it's hard enough. Spillers nearly disappeared a couple of years ago – but it fought on against the odds through sheer force of will, belief and through the support of those that love it.
Sure, to some extent, this place is just as homogenised as every other city centre in the UK, but there's another side to Cardiff – a side that celebrates its distinctiveness, that loves oddballs and unique characters. Swn is a celebration and an essential part of that aspect of this city - and this country. Long may it continue.