The road was both long and winding – and not even a road but a railway line, if we’re being entirely accurate – but DiS finally made it back from The Mars Volta-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Only now have we regained strength enough to put our experiences into words; to reassemble the muddled memories, stained by spilled booze and frozen by nights of cold so bitter that penguins would pack a sensible jumper for the weekend, into some kind of coherent piece. It hasn’t been easy – three writers, three equally ravaged minds and no shortage of thrilling bands has made reaching this point something of a challenge – but here, in the simplest possible form, is our report of 2005’s final blowout away from home.
Reviews by Mike Diver (MD), Sean Adams (SA) and Jordan Dowling (JD).Friday December 2
DiS – well, two of our three – arrives at the now familiar family resort of Pontins, Camber Sands, to many a smiling, friendly face: we’re off the train for all of four minutes before a Redjetson pair match their gaze with ours. Pleasantries and a quick trip to the local supermarket later and it’s taxis and seas air; upon our actual arrival on site further associates both old and new are welcoming, but there’s matters that require attendance. One specifically, actually: Battles (pictured, right) are opening the event in the upstairs room.
(For those that have never been, the set up of ATP is a simple one: there are two stages, one upstairs and one below it, separated by a flight of stairs – obviously – an arcade and a bottleneck hellhole of a lobby that occasionally makes the traversing the route from A to B an arduous undertaking.)
A cymbal stands tall on stage, proudly surveying all before it: a crowd of hipster girls and bearded boys, those in search of something both rhythmically searing and with the elements necessary to make a behind cha-cha slide with all the ease of a salsa class. Battles deliver in spades, so much so that they’ve more to offer later, in the early hours of Saturday morning. (Two sets isn’t so unusual at ATP: previous years have seen Shellac and Lightning Bolt do likewise, even if the latter’s was held, briefly, at their chalet.) In John Stanier Battles have (possibly) the finest drummer at this event, a man who both rises to the occasion superbly and rises from his stool whenever said lofty cymbal requires a solid thwack. Their music is complex, as suits many an outfit that call Warp Records their UK home, but eminently danceable: intricate details delivered by Tyondai Braxton are matched for might by the muscular drum and bass about him. Early arrivers – those who have already settled into their tiny homes for the next three nights – are left with their breath stolen, their hearts on fire and their soles all but worn through. As opening acts go, Battles are up there with the very best DiS has seen at events such as this. (MD)
This wasn’t a curtain rise, t'was more like being sucked out the side of a spaceship. The drummer keeps leaping up to reach the really high cymbal. When they stop, the confusion abates. (SA)
Then, a pause – we seek refuge, beer and shelter, missing (however foolishly) Jaga Jazzist. A friend, who kindly puts a third of DiS’s contingent up for two nights, bemoans our absence initially but later reveals that the Norwegian ensemble were hardly operating to their potential. Sonic Youth-sampling rapper Subtitle is also overlooked – we’ve got batteries that require charging for what’s ahead, you know. And that ‘what’? The Locust.
The Locust (pictured, right) are not your average bunch of punks. They’re dressed as, er, Locusts for starters and approximately four seconds in it sounds like the world has just exploded, imploded and exploded again. The room quickly splits in two: there are the help!-you’re-deafening-me who run for cover, and those who’ve waited a lifetime (or what seems like it since they were last here) to get their fix. This is nuclear noize of brain chemistry altering levels, full of speed-glitches and King-Kong riffs. The Locust are probably the band Don Delillo describes in Great Jones Street. There goes my hearing for the weekend… (SA)
As one outfit capable of blinding all of the senses with noise alone – the costumes are a touch unnecessary to enhance their visceral output, but at least offer the wandering curious a visual focal point – another begins downstairs. dälek are stripped to a two-piece this evening but their swathes of low-end distortion and aggressive, appropriately nightmarish beats remain as stimulating as they were when the mightily haired DJ Still scratched his way through a set. MC dälek himself is a figure of epic intimidation, bouncing the best he can with his mammoth frame from left to right, thrusting a fist forward as the mic’ rests itself upon his lower lip. Beat-master Oktopus keeps the atmospheric My Bloody Valentine soundscapes coming hard and harder, the sparse blasts of noisy squall shredding front-row synapses into paper-thin multi-cellular strips. When a typical series of beats emerges from the gloom, such as when ‘Asylum’ opens, it doesn’t last long – the ghosts within dälek’s machines are malevolent to the last, however slurred the MC’s written words are, scrawled as they are in the reddest blood. An unhealthily appealing mix of the horrifying and hypnotising, the duo’s set is a triumph of maximum effect from minimal human – read: those not of a paranormal plain – input. (MD)
Then, Saul Williams: need more really be said of the standout talent of 2005? Williams enters with an apology – “I was billed as spoken word, but this isn’t, sorry…” – before his beats and his plans unfurl for all to witness; soon, all are moving as one. The crowd to DiS’s right-of-stage vantage point is a convulsing mass, heads merging together as a crowd-surfer – the first and only one seen all weekend – makes his merry way forward on the many arms of a mass united. When the basic but effective beats cease, all are hanging on the man’s words – “When I say nigger, I mean all of you, too,” he says rather unconvincingly, but ‘African Student Movement’ is no less affecting for the near complete lack of black faces in attendance; when he gives hip-hop to white boys when nobody but us is looking, white boys scream their adoration like rich white girls at the unveiling of a birthday pony. Mouths remain agape for some minutes after Williams’ forever-writhing frame exits, stage right. (MD)
Drink, rest, drink: duty calls us away from the rap high jinx of Beans fairly swiftly, our hip-hop appetite having been quenched already. His backing band, Holy Fuck aren’t worthy of the disbelief-heavy outburst they steal their name from, but are sufficiently tight for Beans to scribble his wayward, often explicit, rhymes across. Another day, another dollar a man some years dead once said; tomorrow brings us no monetary income, instead offering forth only further reasons to push money into bar staff hands and dance ‘til we near die of dehydration.
Saturday December 3
There’s a stirring upstairs: 400 Blows are providing some unexpected glam, some aesthetic style, on a weekend not known for something-over-substance acts. There’s a reason, a simple one, for the trio’s presence here – they’re part of the GSL stable. Having high-flying friends in the form of this festival’s curators doesn’t make 400 Blows’ bombastic but utterly bereft of inspiration plod-rock any more palatable, though. Year Future, too, are here because of their connection with The Mars Volta: their heritage is worthy of praise – members previously served time in the excellent Dead And Gone and The VSS – but their set today fails to captivate. Perhaps our minds are simply too cloudy after a day and night of whiskey and wine? Yeah, perhaps… (MD)
Lydia Lunch frightens the life out of those never previously exposed to her thoroughly uncompromising take on singer-songwriting, her set (or what we see and hear of it) every way as intense as the narrow eyes that sit in sunken sockets just above a motormouth to beware. This is the fine line between what’s perceived as performance art and the straightforward playing of music utterly soiled. (MD)
I’m sure if you’re a 14-year-old girl trying to start a football team, because there isn’t one at your school, and you would really like to hear an older-than-she-used-to-be woman talk about how the world has raped her, using some atrocious rhyming and child-like metaphors, then Lydia Lynch’s set today may have been especially for you. Meanwhile, DiS follows the crowd pouring out, and buys a Curly Wurly… (SA)
Downstairs, Kill Me Tomorrow are following a below-par JR Ewing (the Norwegian hardcore outfit have mellowed into something worryingly poppy emo in sound, even if their back catalogue remains strong); KMT get only a short time on stage, though, before their set of throbbing punk rock is cut short by a fire alarm. A pair of engines duly arrive, as is routine, to find no fire requiring extinguishing. We repair to a chalet to watch the curator-programmed ATP television: a strange film of stabbings and split personalities plays out as the message “The venue is now open again” dances about the screen, as if a small child was left unsupervised by teacher at the assembly overhead projector. We sip whiskey and consider watching The Fucking Champs (pictured, right), fully aware that the San Francisco three-piece play The Garage in London only days later. We catch a few seconds as we pass their downstairs set – the room is rammed, to their credit – and look for an arcade machine to pump some silvers into. Air hockey wins, at a pound per play, somewhat predictably. (MD)
High On Fire warm the upstairs crowd up nicely enough for the arrival of metal heavyweights Mastodon: the quartet, big of hair and gruff of voice, deliver Thin Lizzy licks complemented with raging lyrical tales of beasts from beneath the sea’s surface, culled primarily from their UK breakthrough album Leviathan. The off-kilter blastbeats of ‘Seabeast’ are the obvious highlight of a set where subtlety is a privilege not afforded – the song sounds out of time throughout its four-minute duration but has all but the most indier-than-thou attendee thrusting horn-shaped hands aloft. How can anyone hate a band that sings about Captain Ahab, really? In the Queen Victoria pub only minutes before Mastodon, a DJ plays Malcolm Middleton: with a few drinks inside us, to say the least, it’s one of the festival’s most perfect moments. (MD)
And then, the hour cometh: time for the greatest live band in the world (probably), followed by THREE HOURS of the most inventive band of our generation, which could be the most mind-numbing and pretentious hundred and eighty minutes of our lives. Overblown, over-excited, intro’s are blown aside as Les Savy Fav (pictured, right) take the stage and the dancing begins. Tim Harrington is dressed as a bear/bunny/mouse, and is prancing, standing on turned-over monitors, stealing all the photographers cameras and dousing the super-sweaty crowd with crate after crate of water. The New Yorkers are completely on fire tonight. They’ve perfectly stolen the thunder of anyone who was considering heckling The Mars Volta with At the Drive-In requests, as this is more complete and thrilling than ATD-I ever were. These are body-hijacking rhythms and architecture-bending guitars. And this is pop and seriously, seriously, fun! (SA)
As sweat patches becomes complete T-shirt saturation, the cold air and chalet full of whiskey, Red Bull and champagne briefly beckons. DiS spots Omar en route, and gives a shy, excited and respectful little nod. Then it’s over for the main event.
The Mars Volta have already started, and apparently they’ve been playing the same song for twenty minutes; however, the green-tinged man DiS speaks to looks like he’s just eaten a tray of space biscuits and not left a crumb. The fearful and knackered (read: stoned) are sat in circles, around the back and sides. Back there you can hear what’s going on, and see shapes in the lights and projections, but from the back you can’t feel this. DiS downs some absinthe and is pulled toward the lights like a firefly. The closer we get, the clearer it becomes that this isn't just a show, this could be a moment of monument; a gateway to link us to those great historic etchings of Zeppelin, Hendrix or Dylan; a glimpse back to that first time At the Drive-In blew our fucking faces off and sent our bodies into a spin we never knew possible. Even now, the fear at the back of everyone’s mind is that this could be the most overblown, mind-numbing, self-indulged guitar-wanking three hours of pomposity that any relatively sane and bookish-looking group of people have ever endured.
Lured by the Ting, ting, ding, DUH-DU-DUH DUN-NA-NA-NA-BAH! “Pouring... cataracts... catacombs... something about aliens...”
Your humble scribe hovers to the front, ably assisted by the green fairy. The pit's like a cat home in a hurricane. The closer and closer to the glow and shapes the more extreme the swaying, twitching and jazzing-out. Ready to be enriched souls surround the stage, with curious eyes, ears ready to siphen and their imaginations ready to warp. Thankfully, tonight is the night that The Mars Volta have it perfect (previous viewings at Electric Ballroom and Reading both suffered for poor sound and attention quality).
Tonight is complete anti-mindlessness. Every little twist and turn, every progression, every grain of lyrical genius is spit forward with the kind of restrain of a slow-motion explosion. It’s Fred Dibner knocking down the Empire State Building whilst Andy Warhol films the wreckage. They've space and time to toy with us. Guitars thrash and float like electric eels simmering in chip fat. The drums rolls like supernatural beings swimming against a river made of the colonic of America's bloated (rock) underbelly otherwise known as The Mainstream. Air-tight bags of white noise snap and pop in the faces of zombies. It's a beautiful madness, locked in a lunatic asylum, floating past Turkish sunsets in deep Egyptian space.
The lighting engineer sensibly gives up hope of keeping up and enhancing the mood and blasts out lightning flashes. It all becomes one slur of blurs of colours for the crunk and lost. Those with their eyes still open, squint like their deers in the headlights, trying to work out who's doing what. There’s massive shapes being thrown and we’re left looking on like tourists, at space travelers, from another time and another world. With 'fros.
At some point they get beamed up and it’s all over. Thoughts trawl around for a way of summising, but it's challenge enough to work out where, when, what, who, how and even begin to take this in. Trouble is, this hit so hard and pulled in so many directions that it’s going to take a lot of half-lives, distance and changing contexts to really truly appreciate. Talk, whilst drunk-driving racing cars, revolves around would any of these people be here now if it wasn't for 'One Armed Scissor' pulling the cellophane off a brave new world and slashing a '...Teen Spirit'-shaped hole into the international consciousness? No other band has been given this much freedom and respect by the industry and fans alike to create and shape new worlds. They're on a mission to sculpt our craniums and quite frankly, let 'em. (SA)
Sunday December 4
Eyes are blurry, tongue’s fluffy and ears ring with a stinging sound so intense that not even an early afternoon Ginsters pasty can shift it. Thankfully for those now nursing sensitive skulls, Sunday’s schedule features a number of soothing acts, all things being relative of course.
Hella (pictured, right) are quite obviously anything but soothing, and the Sacramento duo, featuring renowned sticksman supreme Zach Hill at the kit, have fleshed themselves out to a four-piece for the occasion. By all accounts it doesn’t particularly work (all accounts are all we can rely on as we’re still dead to the world, albeit not physically, when they take to the downstairs stage), but Damo Suzuki soon swings into action to better effect.
It’s perhaps the most unsurprising surprise of the festival when Damo (and his Jelly Planet musicians) are joined by The Mars Volta’s Omar; sadly, it’s also the most disappointing. For a while Jelly Planet and Damo’s improvisations segue perfectly, but Omar’s angular guitar work sticks out like a sore thumb, his presence taking more away from the moment than adding to it. That said, nothing featuring Damo could be a complete disappointment, and despite a series off false set closers he generally captivates the audience (even if DiS’s attention briefly wavers, as we’re dragged into the photography pit for a hug from a friend). Said friend later points out, though, that Damo himself is doing very little – it’s Jelly Planet, who feature a keyboard player that could easily pass for a future Final Fantasy villain, whose synchronisation and efflorescence make the product sound so meaningful and necessary. We counter, rather fanboyishly: “But Damo is God.” Certainly, Suzuki deserves all the plaudits that have been thrown in his direction over the years. (JD)
It’s now that two-thirds of the DiS team head out of the complex for a roast dinner at a nearby restaurant. It’s roughly the size of our own heads, combined; we eat the lot, obviously (one of us even takes a picture of our best meal for what seems like an eternity. No, you can’t see it). Our bellies roar their approval before it’s back to business.
A few line-up shifts sees Jai-Alai Savant while away time upstairs, fairly pleasantly so, before the attention-grabbers close the event’s largest stage in the most sombre manner the past few days have seen. CocoRosie (pictured, right) initially beguile, their odd beats and pinpricks of harp having tickling fingers running over bodies now desperately in need of proper rest and recuperation; an arm-flailing human beatbox adds to the unusual atmosphere, too. Sisters Bianca and Sierra seem a little out of sorts at this event, their frail figures some pounds away from the weighty beard-rockers of the past 48-plus hours, but when their voices soar wonderfully all the might that’s come before them, and that stinging sensation, dissipates into the smoke-filled air. It’s all so very Björk for so very long, before something strikes us: this is all well and good, this psuedo-hippie folk stuff, but it’s hardly the makings of an evening’s excess. We, again, offer our farewells as the beatbox strides to the front of the stage, between harpist and Casady sibling number two, eyes as wild as his or her (we’re still not sure, although latest reports from friends suggest the latter) spidery limbs.
On our return to the top level of the Pontins complex we’re met by the arrival of the night’s headliner, Antony and the Johnsons. We’re pushed to remember much, to be honest: a fantastic voice Mr Hegarty has, that much is true, but charisma he lacks. Heaven knows that ‘Hope There’s Someone’ is torch song that’ll endure for eons, but beyond such a standout little impacts upon memories abused. If the last two ‘reviews’ have read like the stunted, featureless words of men muddled by alcohol and sleep deprivation, then they’ve served their purpose. (MD)
However, despite his top billing it’s not Antony that closes The Nightmare Before Christmas: that honour goes to Acid Mothers Temple. Perhaps it’s down to fate or merely inconvenience – more likely it’s the result of sound techs’ earlier mishaps and their failure to realize that AMT have two drum kits – but whatever the reason it’s a blessing the weekend is brought to a close in the same way it was opened by Battles: in a sweaty pit of confusion. Categorisations such as ‘the Japanese Black Sabbath’ are far off the mark – AMT are, simply put, a rock band, i.e. a band that ROCKS. Although DiS can’t name a single track played in their hour-long set, such details are fairly meaningless: this is music for the moment, made to be heard when squashed between a bass amp and a couple of Norwegians in a similar situation. For their finale they’re joined by Damo, and a quick watsui reveals that it’s clear how much the moment means to everyone, whether audience, band or event staff. Calls for an encore last 15 minutes but hope is lost when the band set up shop in the press pit. (JD)
Event ends, livers are further damaged (we’re not proud). DiS sleeps for two hours and catches the first train it can home, a tuna sandwich the one thing we share on the winding train ride that isn’t a sudden flashback brought on by the sobering-up process. Better men might’ve remained clear of mind throughout, penning notes into tiny palm-sized pads as they wobbled, constantly bumped by the passing inebriated, from stage to stage. Better men wouldn’t have had half of our fun. “See you in May,” we’d say, if we didn’t already know that our vision would be all but over come that first Friday evening. Still, as polite convention dictates: “See you in May.”