Focus Wales is establishing itself as one of the leading showcase events in Europe and last weekend's event demonstrated why it's fast becoming an industry favourite. Taking place over three days across multiple venues in Wrexham, this year's event saw over 8000 artists, delegates, and punters from all over the globe congregate in the former mining town. Handily placed in between Liverpool Sound City and Brighton's Great Escape on the festival calendar, what once might have been seen as a convenient stop off before and after their one-time more illustrious counterparts has now become a prominent fixture in its own right.
Now in its 8th year, it's been bolstered by the addition of several new venues, most notably Ty Pawb, a newly designed cultural and creative space housed in the former library/town hall (Oriol Wrecsam) that proves to be the central hub of this year's event, housing three stages and various music industry panels featuring a cross-section of delegates from all aspects of the business. It's arguably the most positive vibe DiS has encountered at any event of its kind this year and one that other festivals would do well to benchmark going forwards.
Then, of course, there are the artists themselves, over 300 in total, some of whom have travelled from nations as far and wide as Taiwan, South Korea, Canada, and Sweden. It's a real multi-cultural, international, not to mention inclusive affair that finds many of the participating artists supporting their peers out front when not performing themselves. But then music should never be a competition, right? So although the prize at the end of an industry showcase rainbow can be very illustrious indeed, there's an overwhelming sense of goodwill to be found here.
Over the course of Focus Wales' three days, DiS manages to catch a whopping 68 acts and while it wouldn't be out of place to say the majority left a suitable impression, here's 25 highlights from a truly wonderful weekend...
This Winnipeg three-piece delivers old-school hip-hop in a way that's both refreshing and resounding in equal measures. The trio who go by the respective names of Steve, E.GG and Dill The Giant bring an exhilarating breath of fresh air to Saturday evening, turning Atomic into one huge gyrating house party in the process. Alongside fellow Canadian Arlo Maverick, German producer-cum-DJ Iwan Wani and the soon-to-be-mentioned-in-his-own-right AF The Naysayer, hip-hop played a big part in this year's ostentatiously diverse Focus Wales line-up.
AF The Naysayer
AF The Naysayer, aka Amahl Abdul-Khaliq, is one of the reasons why Focus Wales matters so much. Relatively unknown outside his native New Orleans, DiS first set eyes on his unique blend of breakbeats and abstract electronica at this very festival two years ago and has been hooked ever since. Reference points include Flying Lotus, Floating Points, and Boards Of Canada and his set at midnight on Saturday in the Central Station proves both engrossing and enticing to a packed, sweaty dancefloor.
It's always a bonus when an audience recommendation comes up trumps and in the case of Baby Brave, proves to be one of this weekend's hidden treasures. Formed in Wrexham four years ago they've steadily established themselves as one of the most exciting bands in North Wales. Playing a variant of fizzy post-punk that errs on the left side of pop, they remind us of late 90s acts like Silver Sun or Linoleum fused with the sprightly demeanour of a young Wolf Alice.
BAHR And Anatsa
Iwan is BAHR and Nyasha is Anatsa. Together they create a sonic fusion where BAHR's eclectic mix of hip-hop breaks and ambient soundscapes provide the perfect accompaniment to Anatsa's soulful vocals. Playing in the early hours of Sunday morning, there's arguably no more fitting finale to an incredible weekend of musical talent than this.
What a start to 2018 its been for Davey Newington and Boy Azooga. Since signing to Heavenly Recordings, they've been responsible for two of this year's finest 45s in 'Face Behind Her Cigarette' and 'Loner Boogie' while next week will see them make their first appearance on Later With Jools Holland, a prestigious slot for a band still in its relative infancy. Playing the midnight slot on Friday's Central Stage and up against a legend around the corner in A Guy Called Gerald, Boy Azooga played one of the finest shows to grace Focus Wales in not just this, but any of its eight years to date. The future is theirs, and right now we're so glad to be a part of it.
Another band first witnessed at this event twelve months ago who've gone from strength to strength ever since. Formed around the husband and wife team of Tom and Carrie Hyndman, they're one of those bands with an undeniable propensity to bring elation to even the most solemn of occasions. Hailing from Chester, they're a joyous amalgam of all your favourite bands rolled into one. New single 'Breathe Out Slowly' should see them finally achieve wider recognition outside of their native North Wales but for now, they remain this region's best-kept secret and we love them all the more for it.
Readers of this site will know we've been championing Canshaker Pi for some time; since 2017's Eurosonic Noorderslag to be precise. So it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise their first ever show in North Wales was engulfed with an air of anticipation. Playing to a full house in the intimate confines of Atomic, their lo-fi slacker punk rock provided not only an adrenaline shot but also set the standard for the rest of the festival. The Netherlands guitar band scene is arguably the most vibrant in the world right now, and after half an hour in the presence of this foursome, it's easy to see why.
Where most bands would be daunted at the prospect of going on stage early to little more than a handful of punters, Chroma simply take it in their stride. And in the case of singer Katie Hall, they possess one of the most charismatic, engaging and at times confrontational characters we've witnessed in a long time. Taking her cue from the likes of Karen O, Beth Ditto, and Kathleen Hanna, she delivers a no-nonsense set of guttural punk rock ably backed by noise-cum-rhythm section Liam Bevan and Zac Mather that shakes the cobwebs off Central Station's early arrivals and leaves them aghast at what they've just witnessed. With a single due for release later in the year on Chester independent Popty Ping, the future looks incredibly rosy indeed.
This five-piece may have emerged from the same London psych scene as the likes of Toy, Temples, and The Voyeurs, but musically they're poles apart. In a week where Arctic Monkeys - or rather Alex Turner - have gone full on Nick Cave to a sea of dissenting voices still unsure whether to believe them or not, Creatures clearly are the real deal. Frontman William Yates is one of those people that demands full undivided attention and for thirty minutes on Saturday evening, he receives it in spades. As musical anomalies go, they have the potential to be this generation's Cardiacs or Blue Nile.
The word "legend" is bandied around all too casually these days, so when a bonafide legend does come to town they're sometimes met with the solitary blink of an eyelid. Thankfully that isn't the case here, and former Can frontman Damo Suzuki and his band that for one evening is made up of musicians who've played with the likes of Jeff Buckley, Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart and The Flaming Lips deliver an impeccable exercise in improvisation that leaves a jam-packed Un Deg Un gasping for breath at the spectacle they've just witnessed.
Welsh in name but hailing from Nottingham, Eyre Llew's second appearance at Focus Wales might have been by chance - a last minute addition after one of the scheduled bands (Chasing Shadows) pulled out - but their soaring brand of ambient post-rock provides the perfect entree for Friday night's proceedings. An as yet untitled new song off their forthcoming split EP with Korean dream pop outfit In The Endless Zhanhyang We Are (more of them later...) opens the set, and from then on its a masterclass in what we've come to expect from the trio. As elements of Sigur Ros, Explosions In The Sky, and Nils Frahm all spring to mind throughout the half hour of dazzling material they play.
Having only returned in 2017 with Bronze Mystric, their first batch of new recordings for five years. Wrexham's finest experimental post-rock outfit delivered one of Focus Wales finest live performances too. Nowadays leaner as a three-piece, their electronic-tinged set was a perfect late night introduction to Gallops wares for anyone still in the dark about why they're held in such high esteem. Particularly in this part of the world.
Hailing from Bangor and Cardiff respectively, Glove is the brand new project from Stephanie Finegan and Hannah Sloman aka Slosilver. While both are kind of established in the Welsh music scene in their own rights, this new fusion of minds has created something entirely revolutionary. Playing a thirty-minute set as if their lives depended on it in the Saith Seren on Friday evening, the duo's minimalist approach paid dividends drawing comparisons with Crass, The Slits, and Lydia Lunch among a host of others. Instruments were swapped, tables used as stages (and percussion), the spoken word fused with the phonetic and ultimately minds were blown. An incendiary performance not too dissimilar to that of Audiobooks, whose very first show we were also honoured to witness in Hebden Bridge three months earlier.
So, the double consonant has been done to death as far as band monikers are concerned but park that to one side and you've an outfit ready to follow in the footsteps of your favourite trios. We're talking Mclusky, Future Of The Left, Bob Tilton, Big Black. Some of the songs carry hints of Surfer Rosa era Pixies incendiary darkness, while others just ignite to then crash and burn in a melee of their own doing. Also hailing from this part of the world, Gravves are a band you need in your life right now.
DiS has been fans of this Derbyshire trio for as long as we can remember, having initially put on one of their first shows as far back as 2011. Since then they've developed into one of the most innovative and compelling outfits in the land as their two flawless albums Tricolore and Etch And Etch Deep ably demonstrate. Playing a set mostly consisting of new material off their forthcoming third LP, their fusion of chamber pop, electronica, krautrock and disco is a welcome diversion that enamours those congregated in Atomic's tiny upstairs room to throw all kinds of shapes.
Hippies Vs Ghosts
Another band first encountered at this very festival two years ago. Hippies Vs Ghosts are one of many brainchildren orchestrated by local legend Owain Ginsberg and their progress since that 2016 show is breathtaking. Support slots with Super Furry Animals on their Fuzzy Logic/Radiator doubleheader at the tail end of 2017 has clearly rubbed off on Ginsberg and co, and their Saturday night slot at Un De Gun understandably draws one of the weekend's biggest crowds.
In The Endless Zhanhyang We Are
This four-piece have been heralded as South Korea's answer to the Cocteau Twins back home, which is hefty praise indeed. Overcoming technical issues in the early part of their set in Ty Pawb, In The Endless Zhanhyang We Are offer a unique variant on the dream pop and post-rock templates that is actually part Ennio Morricone in places. Their debut album Inevitability Under Consecutive Coincidence came out at the back end of last year and we implore you give it a listen.
The Boo Radleys might be remembered by most for their Britpop staple 'Wake Up Boo!' but prior to that, they released three incredibly unique albums in the shape of Ichibod & I, Everything's Alright Forever and Giant Steps. Since then, his recorded output has been ridiculously prolific even if the live shows have been quite sporadic, so this rare opportunity to see Carr perform in St Giles Church was not going to be missed. It's fair to say he didn't disappoint either, playing forty-five minutes worth of material from the past and present intercut with stories about the good, the bad and the ugly. Finishing on 'Wish I Was Skinny' - one of four Boo Radleys songs aired this evening - to cap off a flawless performance showcasing one of the UK's most understated songwriters of the past thirty years.
Word of mouth is a great thing, particularly when it spreads like wildfire as was the case here. Earlier on Saturday evening, everyone was talking about an incredible Japanese noise rock duo called Moja, and with another set lined up later that evening, DiS thought it best to check them out. It's probably fair to say we weren't disappointed. Echoes of Lightning Bolt and Melt Banana reverberated around Atomic's tiny space courtesy of pedal happy bassist and voice (definitely not vocalist!) Haru and his drumming sidekick Masumi, whose relentless mechanistic energy behind the kit has to be seen to be believed. If they were an unknown quantity at the start of this festival, they were the name on everyone's lips by the end.
Again thanks to a tip-off from the lovely Chroma gang, we stumbled across this angelic duo from the valleys. Part of the Libertino Records stable that also includes Adwaith and ARGRPH among others. Their lo-fi electronica reminded us of James Blake at his most effervescent, or maybe even a stripped back Radiohead. Full of curve balls and left-handed diversions, Names displayed a mature sensibility for two people so young, and while it could either go one of two ways; even further into experimental territories a la Boards Of Canada or down the mainstream route chosen by Coldplay and Keane, we suspect there'll be more twists and turns before any genre forming decision is made.
Another band who've gone from strength to strength since catching our eye two years ago are Chester's Peaness. Their simple yet distinctive melodic and occasionally angst-ridden indie-pop is a joy to behold. Buoyed on by a large audience that seems to include at least one member from every Welsh band on the bill. Peaness remind us of the halcyon days of indie when bands like The Flatmates and Sleater Kinney ruled the airwaves, which of course can only be a good thing.
Astonishingly, tonight marks only the third gig in Red Telephone's short career, having formed just under a year ago. However, their set reminds us why the new wave of new wave which preceded Britpop was lauded by so many way back when. Frontman Declan Andrews reminds us of a young Brett Anderson while their music evokes a time when Longpigs and Ultrasound were heralded as the saviours of UK rock. That's not to say they're a pastiche of what's gone before - in fact, they're anything but - and in songs like 'Always Thinking' and 'Kookly Rose', they have the potential to soundtrack a generation.
Hailing from Birmingham, a city whose lineage of exemplary post-punk powerpop includes the likes of Johnny Foreigner, Dystophia, Jameson, and King Adora, Table Scraps make a worthy claim for addition to such an illustrious list courtesy of their no holds barred, three-way noise assault that riles Atomic up into a moshing frenzy for the next thirty minutes. As well as those aforementioned peers, comparisons with the likes of Superchunk and Urusei Yatsura aren't wide of the mark either from a performance that's definitely not for the fainthearted.
The City Gates
The true definition of any festival showcasing new talent is being able to inadvertently stumble across something you were none the wiser of thirty seconds earlier. Which is how this weekend's love affair with The City Gates began. Playing as part of Pop Montreal's showcase on the outdoor stage of the Fat Boar, we found ourselves hooked from the first bassline. Resplendent in black including one Slowdive t-shirt, their doom-laden post-punk reminded us of all things Comsat Angels, Chameleons, and Interpol. So much that we bought two copies of their album (Forever Orbiter, check it out) and caught their second set the following evening in Atomic. Beat that!
Hull has been at the forefront of underground guitar music for a while now and Vulgarians are one of its leading lights. Elements of punk, funk, and abstract noise collide which is just as well for their late-night stint at Atomic on Thursday evening. Afterwards, someone asks me to describe what I've just seen in four words. Easy. The sound of confusion. And as Sonic Youth once claimed, confusion is sex. Go check them out!
Damo Suzuki photo by Ben Jones