Sunday 14 December 2014


Pretty much everywhere in Brighton, Thurs 4th-Sun 7th Dec

This was apparently the third Drill festival, and the first to take place here in Brighton. Though curators Wiredidn't headline but played the opening night, then reappeared as a finale for the closing. Let's take 'em in turn...

When John Peel famously said “they are always different, they are always the same”, he was of course referring to the Fall. But he could, had he been around to see it, been thinking of this very set. Simon Reynolds characterised the legendary post-punk band by “their minimalism, their reductionist disdain for extraneous decoration”. (Which is itself a polysyllabic way of putting it. He should probably have just said “concision”.) And yet that short, spiky heritage is one of the few stretches of musical ground they don't cover.

For tonight tracks can stretch to infinity and beyond. Though there's often a strong Krautrock influence, instead of Neu's elegant glide things drive with a relentless intensity. In his stand-up set beforehand, Graham Duff referred to Peel's infamous habit of playing records at the wrong speed. And many numbers here would have tried him indeed. Though there's two guitars and bass, melody is often relegated to the keyboards.

Perhaps the night's best summed up by the closing number. Every Wire fan knows the story of how they found their sound when their first guitarist got invalided out. Continuing to rehearse without him they found less to be more, carried on not just by eliminating his parts but throwing all else out they considered extraneous. 'Pink Flag' the title track of their 1977 debut, was one of the few numbers from then to cross the three-minute barrier.

Here they perform an extended version of the track with an 'orchestra' of more than twenty guitars. As they didn't have so many spares in the back of the van, an array of other band members, friends and acquaintances crowd themselves on stage all sporting their own six-strings. The array was so motley and engaging it looked like a DIY version of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' video. Whereas it sounded like a post-punk version of Terry Riley's 'In C', everyone left to do pretty much their own thing if it added to the party.

Swans closed the festival with their usual blistering set. Having now written about their sonic onslaught not once but twice, I won't linger on them this time but fast-forward to the encore. It's become a festival fixture for Wire to ally with another band to perform their track 'Drill', and this time it was Swans' turn.

If the Pink Flag orchestra is the band's 'In C','Drill' is their 'Sister Ray'. Its one of those pure-music tracks where you fear to talk about it will diminish its power. It's not a track that's about something, it doesn't refer to anything outside of its own existence. It's an ur-track, something to which everything else ultimately reduces. It exists to sweep you up in it.

It evokes that childhood fantasy of becoming a machine, of being perfectly dedicated to a function. Only instead of a train or a car its a sharp-tipped power tool. If the pleasure of the guitar orchestra was like a hippy happening, where everyone gets to do their own thing but within some overall accordance, the thrill of 'Drill' is in hearing so many musicians go at it as one. The pun on military drilling is surely a part-source of its name. It's one of those riffs that never really stops; it burrows in your brain and you find it still revolving round your head hours later.

This, the third time I've seen Wire, was quite possibly best. Rather than slipping into some quasi-reverential obscurity, like elder statesmen you obligingly doff your cap to, the band may even be getting better and better.

An earlier rendition of 'Drill' at the Seattle-based festival (I went to less nights of that one) with Earth...

The band's Edvard Graham Lewis staged what was effectively a mini-festival of impro and electronica within the Festival, at the Basement on Saturday afternoon. It was cool that such wayward stuff was incorporated rather than sticking to more crowd-pleasing fare. (Though there was perhaps some secret door behind which the alternative alternative festival was going on.) It did however follow the usual uneven trajectory of imrpo music. Notably, stage numbers accumulated as the afternoon wore on, ending with everybody on stage for 'Smoke On the Water'. (Actually, I may have mis-remembered the last part.) And quality went up with the numbers, with each performer having more to spark off against.

However, Lewis' own solo performance was more memorable than most, perhaps because he gave it a loose structure. These sometimes work best of all as they become enticing, your brain spotting their dotted lines and assuming there is a greater whole which is as yet not quite perceived.

Despite their being a longstanding Brighton-based band and despite their being rated by people I know to listen to, I have always previously failed to catch up with British Sea Power.

So, apart from the salubrious setting of All Saints Church, the unique selling point of this gig may well have been lost on me. For they come augmented by the brass section of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Were these already sumptuous melodies enhanced by the extended instrumentation, honey poured on sugar? I'm not someone who could tell you. But it all seemed to be working well from where I was sitting.

The songs have a delicacy at the same time as gusto. The Sea Power boys had the good sense to incorporate the brass relatively sparingly, only taking it to full blast for brief sections. I came to think of them as Sussex's answer to Love, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra substituted for those mariarchi horns, Shoreham harbour for Sunset Strip. All of which works surprisingly well. And the ornate, spacious church became the perfect setting for their sound.

I did, however, emerge wondering if I could now take to them without the horns. Would a regular gig now be like someone who had sampled vintage port, suddenly thrown back on supermarket wine? I suppose the only way to know is to try...

Not from Drill either...

And what better way to while away a sunny Sunday afternoon than cram yourself inside a sweaty room to take in some doom metal? In its way, its a genre which works a little like hardcore punk. Its not only music that its too easy to copy, the problem is that sort of thing even gets supported by scene stalwarts for “keeping it real” (or whatever). It leads to self-imposed ghettoisation, to conservatism, to stasis. You can end up thinking all the good in that music must have already been used up, that anything left now is just a dried husk too stupid to lie down like its supposed to.

Then along come a band like Sea Bastard who epitomise everything you loved about it back in the day. Like a thing undead, they spring from the ashes of Jovian. (Who I think were going a while but alas I only saw the once.) Their crashing chords exude intensity and power without ever becoming samey, even when tracks stretch out a while. (Which they do.) It gives them that all-important sense of tapping into something primal and vital. While at the same time there's no sense of them subsisting on the margins of music. Listening to them is like living off a very rich diet indeed. Purists will doubtless be aghast, but there's even something quite melodic about them.

Not from Brighton but – the effective home of this sort of music – Birmingham...

The mission statement of three-piece Zu would seem to be to find a breeding ground between noise rock and free jazz. And regular readers, despite their non-existence, will be unsurprised to hear that this induced a mixed reaction in me. Those saxophone squalls just seemed to indulge in free jazz cliches (an ironic term if ever there was one), and my favourite sections were when the churning bass and drums had the stage to themselves. At points the bass would stick to a sludgy riff while the drums did the moving around. But overall, put bluntly, not the cutting-edge outfit they seemed to think they were.

Coming soon: More from the Drill festival...

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