Offset Festival - Day 1
Bands in order of appearance:
The Offset Festival is a new addition to our festival calendar, and in many ways it's an idea that just had to happen. Large chunks of today's music scene look to the new wave era of the early 1980s for inspiration and influences - so it seems like a natural notion to bring a selection of twenty-first century new wave bands together with a brace of 80s originals, put 'em all in a field on a summer weekend, and get the post-punk party started.
Add a mini-fest of metal bands on their own stage (we'll be steering clear of that one, never fear) and a big stage upon which representatives of the current indie crop can bust their moves, throw in a dance tent and a fairground, and that's the Offset Festival. And if all that sounds good so far, here comes the best bit: all this takes place in a forest on the outskirts of London, so if spending a weekend under nylon is not your thing, you can blow out the camping option and go home on the Central Line. How very civilized.
So, here we are, in a field in Essex on a sunny Saturday afternoon, in search of interesting rackets. And we don't have to look far to find the first one. Inside the New Bands Tent (a slight misnomer, since the majority of bands at the Offset Festival are at least fairly recent arrivals on the musical planet) we find Sputniko!, a duo consisting of a female singer and a cardboard robot. This would be a surreal encounter at any time, but with sunlight streaming through the canvas and a heady smell of farmyard straw in the air, it's downright daft. But daft is good, especially when the soundtrack is jumpy electropop with a certain amount of fanciful wit dolloped on top. I'm not sure if Sputniko! see themselves as a pop group, or an art project, or a gone-wrong children's TV show that's escaped from the studio, but their cheery weirdness works. Cardboard Robots? Why not?
I don't think I've ever seen An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump outside some subterranean dive after dark until now. In fact, I had the vague notion they didn't come out in daylight. But here they are, in the mellow canvas-filtered light of the Experimental Circle Club tent, and their post-punk-tribalism-meets-the-Shangri-Las bass-grinds and rhythmic workouts suits the festival experience rather well.
Switching between bass and drums and vocals from one song to the next this isn't so much a band as a pool of creativity - the three Birds fill the tent with tough but slinky anthems that spiral up towards the ridge pole, even as the growling, fuzzy bass drops its anchor in the bottom end. There's a neat contrast between the souped-up swamp-soul of the vocals and the uncompromising physicality of the rhythmic stuff and with the drums stationed right at the front of the stage, there's no escaping that side of things, that's for sure. There's some sort of genre-defying genius at work here.
There's just time between bands in the Experimental Circle Club tent to look in on the Last FM tent next door, where Load! Click! Shoot! are playing robust indie rock while dressed in an assortment of coloured T-shirts. They look like a packet of Spangles, and they're not bad if you're in the market for a bit of indie-schmindie. But we're going to head back into Experimental Circles now, for...
...I Am The Arm, who are in full, nervy, skittery effect. This isn't quite the same band that saw a while back in some murky Hoxton dive: they're now a three-piece, and one of the three pieces the drummer is new. This means there's a certain minimalism to the sound not that the band was Pink Floyd in the first place, you understand and the singer, who now also takes care of both guitar and bass duties (but not at the same time) has rather more work to do. In spite of the logistical rearrangements or perhaps because of them I Am The Arm's trademark clattering and scrabbling, in which songs scramble over each other like rats in a larder, is present, correct, and sounding suitably tense.
There's another between-band interlude in the Experimental Circle tent now, so let's take a cautious look at the main stage, where Maths Class are making music that sounds like it has more to do with protractors and calculators than the usual hardware of rock 'n' roll. The band's name spells it out: Maths class make math rock, that not-quite-prog assemblage of shifting tempos and odd angles, all played at punk rock velocity. Maths Class hunch over their instruments with suitable intensity (it's an unwritten rule of math rock that you've got to hunch over your instruments with intensity) and their angles are sketched out with clangourous confidence. But this stuff always seems a bit too much like being clever for the sake of it to me, so I think I'll go and loiter within tents again, and try to find some less oblique geometry.
I can't really tell you if Futurism Vs. Passéism are oblique or not, because they're having major problems in getting anything coherent out of the PA. Connections are tested, buttons are prodded, the drum machine on the floor receives much furrowed-brow attention. Eventually, the technology is persuaded to behave, although not before a large chunk of the band's set time has evaporated. So, it's a short one, and the band clearly aren't happy campers. But for all that, Futurism Vs Passéism haul a points win out of the bag. Their abbreviated set is all cross-rhythms and guitar interjections, atmospheres and edges, male and female vocals, organics and technology. In spite of the fact that the technology hasn't behaved itself this time, I hear enough to want to hear more. I'll catch this band again in the future, when with any luck everything will be in working order.
Two men in black, two guitars and a drum machine. ddd are about as minimal as a band can get before it stops being a band. They bash and scratch and rattle and screech through songs that seem to exhibit frayed edges and frayed tempers at the same time. The vocalist barks and rasps like the baleful brother of Mark E. Smith, and I'm left with the impression that this band has held the world up to the light, squinted at it, and decided that they're not impressed. I'm not sure that I'd want to spend too much time in ddd's company their bristling attitude, all grim and no grins, would probably rub me up the wrong way after a while. But they're very effective as a short, sharp, blast of baleful cold air.
Over on the main stage, Victorian English Gentlemen's Club don't quite live up to their undeniably splendid name. They're a robust but essentially conventional indie-rock proposition: a slight disappointment, from my point of view. I was hoping they'd be a collection of Sherlock Holmes lookalikes playing a gentlemanly take on steampunk. Not so, alas, but their rush-and-push racket isn't bad for what it is. The wild-haired valkerie on drums counts as the best drummer of the festival so far, by the way. In general, I'm no great fan of normal indie, but it's a musical area that does have its moments. Victorian English Gentlemen's Club are a moment.
Perhaps I should not expect left-field out-there-ism on the main stage. It is, after all, the largest stage of the festival and will, more or less by definition, host the most mainstream bands. Interesting weirdness will be found in the tented stages scattered around the site . Back in the Experimental Circle Club tent, we find S.C.U.M, a band which definitely passes the interesting weirdness test, even if they look like they're a long way out of their usual musical habitat. Skinny, pale, and dressed in black, they're obviously not regular inhabitants of the world of tents and sunshine. The singer appears to have stepped off an Echo and the Bunnymen album cover, circa 1982. He gesticulates mightily at the canvas ceiling as if intent on imparting arcane wisdom to us all. He's a rock 'n' roll Moses who's forgotten to take his tablets. Meanwhile, the bassist swivels and glares, while twin keyboard players stare quizzically in all directions, clearly graduates of the Ron Mael Academy of Stage Presence. S.C.U.M's music seems to be mostly reverb: their songs are snaky anthems of electronics and doom. It all sounds like Suicide in a thunderstorm, and although there's a distinct absence of tunes you can whistle (S.C.U.M might do 'anthemic' and even, sometimes, 'sepulchral', but they certainly don't do 'catchy') the band are highly effective when it comes to atmosphere and spectacle. Effective and oddly addictive. S.C.U.M's brand of black light theatre is deliberately OTT, and sometimes teeters on the brink of becoming downright corny. But you can't help but find them compelling.
In the New Bands tent, something yellow is going on. That something turns out to be Levelload, the world's first (and, quite possibly, last) skip-related pop group. Their songs, two-humans-and-beat-box bash-ups, are cheerfully offbeat. Levelload are odd enough to be interesting, but not so weird you couldn't take them home to meet mum. Colour-coded in yellow T-shirts, the Levelloaders fizz and rattle, pointy and punky but always, fundamentally, poppy. Conceptual fun.
Johnny Foreigner are the hot indie combo of the moment - or at least, there are those who would say so. Straight outta Birmingham, this three-piece outfit slap together your traditionally robust British indie racket with proto-grunge American alternorock. Here they are, kicking it all around at a suitably fast and frantic pace on the main stage, to a splendid reception from an enthusiastic throng. The band's mash-up of influences isn't a bad concept, I suppose, and the scrappy, bashabout sound Johnny Foreigner creates certainly packs plenty of energy.
But I'd like them a little better if the American alternorock didn't seem to always win the battle of the influences - there's more Seattle, Boston or New York in the sound than dear old Brum. The guitarist's baseball cap (skewed at a just-so angle) and Sonic Youth T-shirt drop a pretty hefty hint as to where the band would like to be, but I don't think they need to be so obvious about it. (I certainly don't think they need to adopt slurred transatlantic rawk-kid accents, which, I fear, they do in many of the vocals). In the end, I think Johnny Foreigner come across as too much of a tribute band to their influences. They're the kind of band that owns Nirvana's 'Bleach' on the original Sub-Pop pressing, and reveres it as an artifact; they can probably quote the catalogue numbers on early Breeders or Dinasaur Jr singles. Ultimately, there's something about Johnny Foreigner that doesn't quite ring true from where I'm standing. By their baseball caps ye shall know them.
I've read quite a bit about the Young Knives, who do seem to have the music media beating a path to their door, intent on delivering compliments, these days. So here I am in front of the main stage, ready for some sharp knife action. Alas, it doesn't quite happen. The Young Knives seem to have dressed up as insurance salesmen, and unfortunately they play rock music like insurance salesmen, too. Blandly besuited, as if they've just got back from an agreeable lunch with a favourite client, the band trundle through some obvious indie moves, and while I suppose their very ordinariness is going to be a large part of their appeal for most people, I'm not most people and I don't want ordinary. Optimistically, I had set aside enough time to catch the Young Knives' entire set, but less than half way in I reckon I've got their number. I'm out of here. I'll take a random wander around the field and see what else is going on.
I'm stumbling over the guy ropes of the New Bands Tent when a sudden burst of shredded noise comes from within. Well, that sounds promising. Inside the tent, worming my way through the crowd, I see the singer of KASMs down the front. That might not quite amount to a seal of approval, but I'm prepared to take it as a recommendation of sorts. And here's the source of that shredded noise: The Chapman Family, four gentlemen who appear to have eaten the Stooges for breakfast. They blow up a splendidly freaked-out rock 'n' roll storm, all jagged edges and noise, and although in a way the band isn't doing anything startlingly new this is, let's face it, rock music the sheer full-on-ness of the performance commands attention. The singer writhes and squrims, and flings himself into the audience, which steps back smartly and leaves him wrapped around a tent pole. The bassist takes off a shoe and scrapes it over his four strings before dumping the bass on the stage and jumping on it with a fine disrespect for the hallowed products of Mr Fender. The racket is, of course, stupendous. If this is family entertainment, I think I like it.
Roadies scuttle about the main stage. It's almost time for Wire to come on and show these upstart youngsters how it's done. You could almost credit Wire for giving birth to the whole post-punk thing, because while the band cut their teeth, made their name, and kicked up their earliest rackets in the punk scene of the late 1970s, they were never content to keep things to the regulation three-chord thrash and anti-establishment shouting. Wire added art, and, in doing so, opened the door marked 'forward'.
That said, these days Wire make a very effective no-shit rock band, and their dense thicket of sound, guitar packed in tight, is never less than precise and controlled. In a way, the performance is disconcertingly conventional: the art seems to have taken a back seat, and allowed the rock to drive Wire's car. But the songs are still clipped, terse assemblages of blocks of sound, and Colin Newman in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that he looks like a mildly eccentric chemistry teacher - makes a reassuringly un-rock 'n' roll frontman. It's nice to know Wire are still out there doing their choppy, economical thing, and their track record speaks for itself. But I'm not sure if they can claim a place in the artrock vanguard in the twenty-first century.
If Wire exist to show the upstart youngsters how it's done, Selfish Cunt's role is probably to lead them astray, tempt them into bad places, and feed them strange drugs. It's time to put the lid on day one of the Offset Festival, and Selfish Cunt do so with a set of mad, screeching theatre that scales such heights of intensity that it threatens to induce spontaneous combustion. The Cunts (er...we do call them the Cunts, don't we?) are soaked in equal quantities of sweat and red light as they twitch and lurch on stage, crashing through their songs as if each one is an enemy to be vanquished.
The Last FM tent is rammed (as far as I know for the first time all day) this is clearly the band of the moment as far as many Offsetters are concerned, and although I've caught some good ones today, right now I wouldn't argue. With the guitar squealing like tyres on hairpin bends, and vocalist Martin Tomlinson letting out that downright disturbing wail of a vocal while prancing around the stage like an impatient racehorse before the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Selfish Cunt manage to be a massively dynamic, punchy rock band while at the same time subverting all that laddish scowl-and-holler stuff which some might claim is what an all-male rock band should be. Weird and loud and, on some strange level, indefinably frightening. That's the way to do it.
It's late, and the Central Line is calling me back to civilization. That was Offset day one. Shall we come back tomorrow and do some more? Oh, I think so...
Website | MySpace
For Day Two of the Offset Festival, go here.
For more photos from the Offset Festival, find the bands by name here.