With the Millenium Stadium looming over it from one side and the impressive sight ofCardiff Castle on the next, Womanby Street is a seemingly ordinary alley tucked away in the heart of Cardiff. But those in the know are aware that it’s the place to go if you’re after underground gigs and related hijinx. On the last weekend in May it was the first ever Cardiff Psych and Noise Fest that brought the noise to the street, with 3 of it’s bars – The Moon, Clwb Ifor Bach and Tiny Rebel – putting on a menagerie of wild, decadent sounds for anyone looking for a different kind of bank holiday experience. For two days and three nights amps and instruments were hauled up and down along its cobbles, their carriers weaving between revelers as they went, while a small legion of band members spilled out of the various vans that were competing for space near the doors of the venues. Wherever you stood along the street you could hear drums being hammered and all manner of gleeful racket resounding in the Welsh air. Drawing in all the best in Psych and Noise from all over Wales, as well as a few from across the border/the Irish sea, it was an impressively ambitious start for the coalition of promoters who put it all together.
To be truthful it was a slightly ramshackle event, seemingly held together by duct tape and cans of Red Stripe, careening onwards yet somehow never quite tipping over. In that it was a metaphor for the street itself, the scrappy and loveable soul of Cardiff’s various alternative scenes. But it all held together in the end with only a couple of last minute pull outs from bands low down on the bill to really complain about. And if you were to sit and watch the glorious weirdos go by at night after the beer had been flowing for a few hours, if you listened in to hear to the beautiful nonsense being chatted above the hubbub, if you were to look about and spot members of the band you think you remember watching the night before – the kind of guys who’ve lost count of the number of bands they’ve been in and can barely keep track of the projects they have that are still running, as if not making music for an instant might cause them to dissipate into the air – if you were to look around you once your chosen poison had shifted your mindset into a wistful kind of reverie, then you couldn’t help feel a certain sense of craft, of labour and of honour to the whole endeavour, and feel quietly proud bear witness to it all.
And then you’d pick a bar, saunter in and be promptly clubbed senseless with a huge sack of riffs.
This is Cardiff Psych and Noise Fest.
The festival kicked off with a free welcome party in the festival’s de facto hub, The Moon, which helped cram the place full of excited faces from the off. After missing opening act Flowers for Freaks due to unavoidable having-a-day-job issues Soundwire were my introduction to the weekend. They didn’t make a great first impression, starting out a little too tame and giving off more of a Madchester vibe than I’m generally comfortable with, but once they’d ratcheted up their psychedelic side, with their back line locking into some heavy krautrock grooves and giving off some serious Spacemen 3 vibes, they found their way to redemption. Fever Dream followed with some 90s American alt rock – think Yo La Tengo at their most overdriven or Sonic Youth at their most accessible – though their vocalist had more of an air of Brian Molko than Thurston Moore to him despite displaying some impressive guitar battering tendencies. With a tight, propulsive rhythm section kicking his fuzzed out riffs into another gear and hooking the audience the young trio made a fair few new friends here.
Esuna changed things up again, marrying math rock technicality with post-rock crescendos. Which makes for quite a potent combo: they sound like your average ArcTanGent festival goer’s record collection distilled into one band, balancing a chin-stroking complex side with more brute force riffery and uplifting crescendos very well indeed. Which teed us up nicely for No Spill Blood, a band on their first foray into Wales, to bring their unique sci-fi noise fury to bear on The Moon’s packed crowd. A heavy and trippy blend of spacey synth attack and slamming sludge grooves they sound like a doom festival held on Solaris. Word is they should be recording album no. 2 imminently, a prospect everyone in the venue will be eagerly anticipating judging by the euphoric reception they received.
After that impressive start I was dire need of alka seltzer and bacon to prepare me for the first day proper. Once I’d attended to that I headed into the murky afternoon sun to collect a wristband for the paid portion of the festival. While seeing to this in The Moon I caught a brief snapshot of what I believe was King Juss, who in that moment sounded like a more straightforward version of Pissed Jeans if they were reborn as British lager louts. I’ve no idea if that’s entirely representative of their sound: my schedule told me I was planning to see Accü in Clwb Ifor Bach, so as intriguing as King Juss sounded that’s what I did. They were a much more mellow introduction to the day, all dispassionate vocals dripping with ennui lilting over loose psych jams and accompanied by synth/sample witchcraft. The Clwb setup for the weekend involved a huge screen as a backdrop to the bands and, once he’d wrestled with a few gremlins, their AV guy provided rhythmic, enigmatic imagery that complemented their sound and enhanced Accü’s already otherworldly air.. That is until the penultimate track, with the videos of horses in fields topped with flying puppies/kittens/rabbits, which were just a little out of place over a louche synthpop number it must be said.
Suitably eased into the day I headed to check out London’s Bo Gritz, an intriguing and exciting combo of no wave/post-punk style detached, rambling vocals and more feisty, almost Amphetamine Reptile-esque thuggish noise. But while the singer/guitarist has perfected holding a nonchalant pose while spewing his verbose lyrics his battered guitar, with its straps held on by duct tape, told a different story – and the blood that covered it by the close of the set after he’d thrashed his fingers open on the strings confirmed it. Being that arch and that intense simultaneously is quite the talent.
Speaking of talent Obey Cobra were something of a revelation, a detour from my schedule that proved a weekend highlight. With twin singers, a drummer, a guitarist and a synth player/nob twiddler/laptop dabbler packing enough equipment to look like he was running Sellafield power station, they created a narcotic, ritualistic fug of guitar noise, woozy synth and ethereal, seemingly wordless dual vocals that bewitched a surprisingly large Tiny Rebel crowd for so early in the day. Obey Cobra are a name likely to be spread around Cardiff pretty fast – and ought to be heard a lot further afield.
Following them in Tiny Rebel were Swansea’s VAILS, a band I’ve seen a lot and I’m yet to be disappointed by. A two part bass/drums war machine they bring the riffs with intensity yet with frightful ease. You might not think Wales needed an answer to Big Business but, well, you were wrong, as anyone witnessing their whip crack riffery can attest. They were followed by Wales’ best kept secret, Estuary Blacks, who’s wonderful recently released self-titled album sounded every bit as good live as on record. Post-rock and stoner might not sound like perfect bedfellows but, well, if you thought that you’d be wrong again. Stop being so wrong. They’re a band that play with the comfort and confidence of road-seasoned veterans – if they ever get around to playing outside Wales I expect they’ll pick up fans pretty quickly.
Now Cattle…Cattle are a force. There’s no other way to describe them once you’ve experienced their twin-drum no-guitar noise/hardcore/psych blitzkrieg. It’s like trying to describe the hurricane that just leveled your house. If the Leeds outfit hit any harder each gig would be followed by a flurry of assault charges. With all manner of electronic wizardry pulsing from their guy with a box of tricks (I’m not sure what you call such a band member – their bandcamp suggests he plays ‘sound aerial’ which is…a bit odd?) and bass so deep and low you could probably frack with it they’re a lot to handle. Even more so with the singer patrolling down in front of the crowd, a whirlwind of energy and unearthly screams – the cliche is to describe a singer with such unhinged vocals as a ‘man possessed’ or a ‘madman’ but he has the air about him that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing. And that’s much more frightening.
The MVPs were another surprise highlight of the day. The name suggests that they owe a lot to Thee Oh Sees – and within a few bars of the first song it’s fair to say that the Californian garage punks could well be sending the bailiffs round at any minute to break their thumbs. But they’re so damn good at it they just about get away with it. The key to Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segal and the rest of those dudes’ appeal is how they fling out riffs and melodies with as much ease as most of us take a breath. And The MVPs make it all look absolutely effortless despite the sheer audacity of their guitar assault. It was a blizzard of hair and guitars that went down beautifully.
And then there’s Part Chimp. My notes simply say, ‘Good grief!’ and, well, I stand by that. For the uninitiated they’re a band that pack more heavy fuzz than the world beard championships during a monsoon and with an unassuming way with melody that drills its way into your mind while the rest of your body is trying to make peace with the fact that everything is vibrating. The Moon was crammed full of giddy punters getting high on the sheer heaviosity on display: they were in top form and the buildings foundations remained just about remained intact, which was the best case scenario for all involved.
Girl Sweat Pleasure Temple Ritual Band are the perfect band to fire up the Sunday session. A 7 piece collective (word is there’s sometimes as many as 13 on stage, something The Moon would have really struggled to accommodate) all dressed in bright red robes playing hypnotic kraut-psych dirges feels entirely appropriate for a Sunday afternoon. The matching get up makes them look like the Rajneeshee cult recently captured so well on Netflix’s Wild Wild Country documentary series, and watching Girl Sweat is like stepping into an alternate world where they chose to practice lengthy noise rock rituals instead of animalistic meditation. The main man himself, Sweat, definitely has the air of a cult leader as he flails around The Moon screaming and screeching into his mic, working out whatever demons drives a man to don a robe and scream into the faces of strangers. And just in case you think they’re playing one chord droning noise because they don’t know any other chords they turn into Funkadelic for half a track and do a surprisingly impressive job of it. All in all a memorable Sunday sermon at the church of noise.
Ghold were on next, something I wasn’t 100% excited for after giving their last record something of a lukewarm review. But they did almost enough to make me repent entirely – they have such an undeniably powerful sound that when they’re at full tilt their sludgey doom cascades in a manner it’s hard to resist, though I maintain when they get ponderous they’re not quite so potent. Once they were finished laying seige to our ear drums I headed to Tiny Rebel to witness 2 man harsh noise/drone/synth punk unit Soft Issues. And here Sunday took a nasty turn. Synth drones, bursts of drums from an iPod mono suddenly plugged into the mixer, terrifying shrieks from the guy on vocals (the very same fella from Cattle), horrible, unplaceable noises seeping out of one of the many dread machines the two of them have piled up on the table – theirs is a recipe for profound unease. It’s bleak, punishing, borderline harrowing – more of an attack than a show. But it was certainly absorbing. And easily the harshest thing these ears heard all weekend.
Over in Clwb Ifor Bach Yo No Se were a much more mellow proposition. Not that they don’t know how to bring the rock, it’s just that trying to win a fistfight with a steamroller would qualify as a more mellow time than a Soft Issues set. These guys play psychedelic rock with the scales tipping decidedly more towards rock than psychedelia – and not for the first time there are distinct Thee Oh Sess/Ty Segal vibes on display here – while the AV guy keeps the screen full if static smeared surreal imagery that suits them nicely. Soon after Yama Warashi took to the stage to offer us a musical amuse-bouche. After spending the weekend leaning more towards the noise than the psych they were a welcome, beguiling reprieve. The Bristol based Japanese artist plays a sort of light jazz inspired by Japanese folk music with gentle psychedelic elements. It’s a strange, seductive trip. It felt a little little dinner-party-polite at times to these ears, though is likely the results of them being juxtaposed against all the heavy acts I’d seen over the weekend. But Yama Warashi’s world is easy to get drawn into as she guides you on a trip through different sounds and cultures and ends up evoking something quite unique.
Then back to the heavy with Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. I’ll level with you: maybe it was the Red Stripe, or maybe it was the series of crowdsurfers I managed to take to the face during their set, but my memory of Pigsx7 is a little hazy. Hence the lack of a suitable photo. What I do have is the image of vocalist Matt Baty bare chested and screaming down over me seared onto my brain, and I recall having several metric tons of pure Sabbathian riffs driven into my ears as if by superpowered bulldozers. I remember drinks flying and grins everywhere. I remember crowdsurfers, when not falling on my head, being raised up and passed around like appetisers at a wedding. And I certainly remember the feeling that there could be no better way to end this kind of weekend.
Womanby Street is not the be all and end all of alternative music in Cardiff but it is undeniably a truly special place and this event showcased what makes it so dear to the hearts of music fans in the city. It seems like it shouldn’t work but by golly it does. I doubt anyone left disappointed by the first Cardiff Psych and Noise Fest – this reviewer certainly didn’t – and at least one person was on Facebook asking the organisers when tickets for the next one would be onsale within a few hours of it ending. If it does become an annual event – and if there’s any justice in this messed up world it will – I’d like an answer to that too. It can’t come round soon enough.