On the second bank holiday in May down on Womanby Street, the main artery of Cardiff’s music scene, the Welsh capital played host to its second ever Psych & Noise Fest. The previous year’s efforts set the bar pretty high but over three days and in three very different venues – the scrappy, loveable Moon, Clwb Ifor Bach’s more “professional” venue vibes, and craft-beer paradise Tiny Rebel – a veritable feast of bands played to music-hungry hordes who had descended upon Cardiff from all over the UK. On paper it was a slightly slimmed-down affair from 2018 in terms of the stature of the headliners, something that did show in the size of the crowds over the weekend, but it still had a bill to get any alternative music fan’s mouths watering.
It’s a strategy that makes sense for the festival’s viability; however, if there is a criticism to be levelled at the festival, it’s that the worlds of Psych and Noise weren’t as heavily represented as you might expect given the festival’s name. This year saw a more eclectic line-up than 2018, with artists covering everything from synthwave to shoegaze to stoner rock, but it doesn’t quite have the feeling of a festival with a coherent identity. But ultimately it had a stunning amount of talent on display – it feels churlish to play Genre Gatekeeper when you could be holding a can of Red Stripe aloft at some incredible bands on a bank holiday weekend. Which is precisely what I chose to do.
The first night was a free warm-up party, and Cardiff did not look this particular gift horse in the mouth with the bouncers turning potential punters away from the door of The Moon by the time headliners USA Nails played. It was understandably a bit quieter when openers Club Fuzz played, though it was still a decent turn-out for the early slot on a Friday. These young pups had a few issues, needing to borrow a guitar from another band mid-set after a string breakage, but they played their lively dual-vocal, Sonic Youth-indebted indie rock with plenty of enthusiasm. Rough Music struggled to muster similar energy levels, with their singer/guitarist clearly suffering from a nasty cold, but they didn’t let that get in the way of doling out some fine riffery in the vein of 90s metal/hardcore types like Snapcase and Vision of Disorder. I can’t say I’m keen on the rather Ronseal band name they’ve chosen, but when they can still bust heads whilst far from 100% fitness they must be onto something. Wylderness also have a less-than-inspired name but they opened with an excellent. lengthy overdriven jam reminiscent of Yo La Tengo at full tilt, which quickly made me forgive them. It got dreamier from there, with some fey vocals and blissed-out effect-laden guitar melodies that were ideal for some closed-eyes contemplation.
Cardiff institution Lacertilia did what they always do next, which is Bring It. Pretty much every town or city in the UK has a band like Lacertilia – a stoner-rock band who sound like all the legendary stoner bands (Kyuss, Clutch, Fu Manchu, Sleep etc) without quite ripping anyone off, and who make it onto the bill whenever a big-ish stoner/doom band passes through town. I believe councils are legally obliged to provide at least one at all times. Lacertilia have to be one of the best out there though – always on form, always up for it and never leaving a crowd disappointed. Which got the packed hordes that had crammed into The Moon in the perfect mood to be blown away by the one-two punch of Dead Arms/USA Nails, two closely linked graduates from the Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes school of raucous garage punk. Dead Arms lean more towards bands like Fucked Up, with a singer who enjoys a good dance in the crowd, and who can’t resist a good political rant between tracks (despite apparently promising himself he’d stay quiet). They put on an absolute powerhouse of a performance, which USA Nails somehow managed to match. They tend towards more oddball, intricate hardcore – like the band who spawned their name, Blood Brothers – and the tracks from recent record Life Cinema in particular landed spectacularly. Dead Arms haven’t been together long, have started strong and keep improving; whereas USA Nails are now four albums in but are somehow also still rocketing upwards quality wise. Tonight was brilliant from both bands – a perfect start to the festival – and I feel like there are even brighter nights ahead of both of them.
For me Saturday started upstairs in Tiny Rebel with a fancy beer and Kate Wood. When not fronting Obey Cobra Wood plays eerie, haunting synth music that sounds like a David Lynch fever-dream come to life. When her fingers hit the keys at first she was visibly shaking, but there was nothing that sounded nervous about her performance, starting with sweet, cracked ambience that descended into something more nightmarish, in a set that was blended together into one long performance. In a word: beguiling.
Which is not a word I’d use for Shishu, though they are a band you can’t tear your eyes from. After a brief blast of noise intended as a somewhat light-hearted protest against the lack of noise music at the festival, they lurched into a set of blunt-force-trauma punk that channelled the filthiest of the punk greats, from The Stooges to Brainbombs. Their singer was a green-haired whirlwind, his raging red face glowing under a mask of bright-green fishnet stockings. If you’re in the market for a dose of righteous fury, Shishu are the band to see in South Wales right now, preferably in the smallest sweatbox you can find with the largest number of writhing bodies it’s possible to cram in there.
After they’d finished, I discovered News From Nowhere had pulled out at the last minute, leaving the god-awfully named Free Beer & Bacon as the only game in town. I can’t pretend I was excited by the prospect but the three-piece weren’t as bad as their name led me to fear, playing some entirely solid Orange Goblin-esque stoner rock n’ roll. Their vocalist has a pleasingly gritty timbre, and despite a couple of mistakes they were a reasonably enjoyably unpretentious proposition. They finished with an ode to middle-aged sex named, ‘The Bumpy Dance’, which may well make some music fans cringe themselves inside and out. But both the band and the crowd seemed to enjoy themselves.
After that was over, I had a brief moment to check out El Goodo playing some lightly Americana-flecked indie pop (with a country stomp) to an almost-full downstairs room in Clwb Ifor Bach before heading back to check out danceable, post-punk crew Slumb Party back in Tiny Rebel. As president of the Campaign for More Brass in Non-Ska Guitar Bands, my hopes were raised when I saw a saxophone (along with a nice looking modular synth) onstage; and they didn’t let me down, skronking their way through a high-energy set that on occasions brought to mind both The Clash and Fugazi. They have a sort of genial intensity to them which is really quite infectious.
The last act of the day for me, after making the wildly unprofessional decision to skip out on the psych fest for Open Mike Eagle (who happened to be playing upstairs in Clwb Ifor Bach on Saturday night), was Glaswegian guitar/vocalist Kapil Seshasayee. As a standard-issue White Male Rock Critic faced with a gentleman of Indian descent playing a solo electric-guitar and singing with a powerful, soaring voice. my mind instantly turns to Jeff Buckley, the one white guy I know of who played similar stuff but also happened to be into Ravi Shankar. But despite being a comparison borne of ignorance there are certain similarities, not least in the intensity of the guitar virtuosity on display. Seshasayee is a one-off though – and not just because he’s possibly the only Western musician singing about the injustices of the Indian caste system (the biggest hidden genocide in the world as he puts it). If that subject matter makes his set sound like a bummer, well, it’s certainly an emotionally heavy experience. But as he throws himself to the ground hammering his battered guitar, beating knotty melodies out of it over electronic beats and dark looped flourishes, it’s also a mesmerising, powerful one. He’s a very talented artist who deserves exposure both for the message he brings and the music he makes.
And so I left to watch Open Mike Eagle. When I moved to Cardiff in 2014 I was struggling to find gigs worth seeing – now there are incredible Chicago rappers playing astounding sets in the middle of festivals full of stunning bands – in the same building no less – which is frankly ridiculous! I regret nothing, though by all accounts Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s set was rather special (I’ll be making up for this omission by catching them at ArcTanGent); and there are rumours that Cardiffians CVC put the icing on the big lovely cake named Saturday with a bonkers performance in The Moon after being moved from Tiny Rebel. I would like to have witnessed that but there is but only one of me.
I headed straight in at Ground Zero on Sunday to make up for my fickleness on Saturday night. Borrowed Atlas opened in The Moon with some fairly straight forward but thoroughly enjoyable indie rock. “Sounds like The Wipers!” I heard one attendee mention, which is fair, though their vocals tended to drift towards the monotone. They made this into a virtue in one lengthy, almost spoken-word number, though occasionally it did grate a little in other songs, despite some excellent guitar-pedal histrionics. Vieon played next with a set of lightly proggy synthwave – it turned out that I was entirely in the mood for a ripping keytar solo at that point on Sunday afternoon, something I did not see coming. For me, it’s the kind of music I can’t help but associate with the movie Drive, the series Stranger Things and video game Hotline Miami, which may not be the touchstones they were aiming for but their set, played in front of projected industrial-based stock footage as well as more suitably psychedelic imagery, nonetheless made me want to jump into a blood-splattered classic American muscle-car and drive towards a neon sunset.
I dabbled with Perfect Body next, who were in the midst of a jangly, shoegaze set that ran the gammut of late 80s/early 90s indie rock influences from Cocteau Twins to Slowdive via The Cure; but I felt a craving for something a little more abrasive and soon found myself down in Tiny Rebel watching Made of Teeth, quickly followed by This is Wreckage for a one-two hit of sludge-punk fury. They both scratched that itch beautifully, with the former barrelling relentlessly through nasty yet stoner-ish riffery, and the latter leaning a touch more to Amphetamine Reptile style, with a clanging low end that sounded like two iron bars fighting. In a word: hefty.
I then followed Made of Teeth’s drummer up to Clwb Ifor Bach where he had to switch to bass duties in Obey Cobra, Cardiff’s fast-growing kraut/psych outfit. I’ve seen them a good few times now, and whilst I can tell you they’re improving with each show I can’t tell you who they sound like. Not that they’re true originals of course, comparisons drift in and out of view frequently; but every time you think you have them pinned down they wriggle out and go somewhere unexpected. They’ve not got anything on record to hear as yet, but there are at least two or three certified bangers in their set that I can’t wait to hear on an album.
Things got a bit more gentle over in The Moon with 20 Guilders, a blues/psych pair of guitarists from Japan affiliated with Acid Mothers Temple (as are most of Japan thanks to their ever-revolving door of musicians) whose mellow, almost folky melodies took us on something of a beatific journey. They came across like a pair of Japanese Neil Youngs at times, particularly on the final track which had the whole room in hushed appreciation. Back up in Clwb Ifor Bach, Haiku Salut had slimmed down by a third to a duo whilst one of them rather selfishly chose to give birth to another human being rather than play a club in Cardiff on a Sunday (priorities people!) It’s not cruel to say that they struggled a bit as a pair, with a couple of tracks having to be stopped and started over. Given all the blinking lights and tape loops and electric drums (that are also somehow xylophones) they have to keep track of it’s a miracle it doesn’t happen more often. But when they were in full flow they were mesmerising – genre=wise they get described as everything from dream-pop to math to post rock, and they have the grandiosity. complexity and captivating qualities of all of those without quite settling on any of them. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was certainly a beautiful one.
Seeing Haiku Salut meant I couldn’t see MoE or Ill, which was cruel, and made crueller by the teaser of Ill’s set I managed to catch, with the singer/keyboardist abandoning her instrument to call the front row of the audience liars one by one, and then fall to her knees in front of the stage begging forgiveness. It was can’t-keep-your-eyes-off-them stuff and it made me want to catch their self styled “disobedient noise” at the earliest available opportunity. I did get to see all of Bruxa Maria’s savage set however, which may well have been the heaviest and most ferocious of the festival. Their noise-punk stylings make for an uncompromising barrage of righteous fury, with guitarist/vocalist Gill Dread’s bone-chilling scream stabbing through air full of filthy riffage. They certainly made sure Sunday kept up the “noise” part of the festival name – and in some style.
Sly & the Family Drone are a live experience that you have to be a part of to believe. They set up in the centre of the room – seldom on a stage – surrounded by the crowd. They then start with some cheesy ,old hit-single being slowly mangled (‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ is tonight’s choice), transition into the kind of free, improvisational noise that make you think you might be in for a challenging watch, and then slowly build into a blizzard of grooves, a colossal wall of infectious rhythms that eventually starts to envelop the audience, with drums and cymbals being passed around to be played in a wonderful communal miasma, before it eventually disintegrates and everyone leaves in a daze, not sure quite what happened but very glad it did. . . with the exception of one of them stripping to their underwear – that we could perhaps have done without.
It would take a special band to follow them – thankfully Teeth of the Sea are just that. They started with ‘Gladiators Ready’. the most potent military-grade banger from their latest album Wraith, which felt like a statement of intent. A statement that read, “we will not be fucking about”. And fuck about they did not. For all their experimental, more avant-garde leanings, TotS excel in creating eminently danceable slabs of psych-rock tinged, trumpet-laden electronica tailor made for making a full room move – which I think it did. I may have been somewhere at the front, with my eyes closed, lost in glorious, pulsing noise.
Unfortunately for me the Sunday public transport system meant I had to leave before Raketkanon, Belgium’s premiere gibberish-singing mathy noise-band, did their best to tear The Moon down. If the merciless taunting I received later via Whatsapp is to be believed I missed a cracker of a set. But as I drifted out of Cardiff on the night bus with Teeth of the Sea still ringing in my ears, I reflected on what was a slightly disjointed but thoroughly enjoyable festival. For the money asked you’d struggle to find a better bill anywhere, coming close as it does to rivalling London’s Raw Power on the same weekend. It may not have the stature of festivals like that, but it does have a wonderful atmosphere, three great venues within spitting-distance of each other, and an audience open to anything the festival throws their way. If you’re a purist looking for Psych and Noise you may have come away disappointed – if you just came for some great music from all over the musical map you’ll have left anything but.