All text by Jude Clarke, except where italicized: by Adam Elmahdi.
Photography by Leah Pritchard (LP) and Ama Chana (AC).
Pretty much any ATP Festival is cause for celebration. How much more so, then, was this, the last one of 2009, what with it being an actual proper birthday celebration shindig, in honour of the ten years of existence of these mighty and wondrous events. That’s ten years of chalets, twee, noise, doom, drone, and every other kind of alternative and leftfield music you could hope to encounter, or at least a significantly larger proportion of consistently interesting stuff than that on offer by any other UK-based franchise.
Rather than being overseen, as is more usual, by a guest curator, this weekend was essentially a revisiting of some of the finest acts to have played, or indeed curated, previous festivals. There was maybe a danger that this could have lead to a stale, samey or predictable line up but hey: this is ATP remember, no need to worry on that score. What emerged was, instead, perhaps the finest distillation of “essence of ATP” to date, that magical alchemy that manages to draw together a wide and varied mix of bands, musicians and artists and create something wonderfully special.
The tricky festival opening slot, taking place while many attendees are still haring down motorways (this year driving through every thickening fog and gloom) was this time filled by Alexander Tucker, accompanied by the Deconstructed Orchestra. After a low key “hello” they were off, with opening track ‘Omni Baroness’. As Tucker plucked his cello, looped this sound then bowed the cello on top, the other musicians gradually added more and more layers (between them, contributing violin, guitar, saxophone and a notably accomplished clarinet), padding out the original sound and adding richness. More based around rhythms and patterns than “tunes”, this was an engrossing start. The vocals ranged from a deep almost bluesy croon to a relatively high register tunefulness, and squally dissonant segments, as contributed by the wind instruments in ‘Golden Dome’ for example, stopped it sounding too polite. A mid-set “unnamed” track (which was originally going to be called ‘Reich and Roll’, until the realisation that The Residents had got there first) was more laconic and felt like a lament, with the plaintive repetition of the line “Don’t you ever, never, never”, followed by another un-named (or at least, unintroduced) track that had something of the progressive rock about it (one of the two vocals deployed here was a little reminiscent of Peter Gabriel), until it went all Alvin The Chipmunk on the loop towards the end. The set ended with ‘Atomised’, all ambling plucked riff, soporific pace and heavy bass.
Next were Bardo Pond, whose space- post-rock started out intriguingly, with Isobel Sollenberger’s flute and voice sounding haunting and atmospheric over atonal guitars. Heavy, doomy riffs abounded, and reverb echoed as the siren-like vocal keened. Something in the contrast between the ephemeral sounding contributions from Sollenberger and the heaviness of everything else added beauty and profundity. Disappointingly, though, the momentum was somewhat dispersed on the following tracks, with the set never quite somehow living up to its initial promise.
Growing’s intricate electronica was an enjoyable revelation, next. The music was trippy and energetic, with the po-faced band members allowing it to do their speaking for them. Comparisons with Fuck Buttons were hard to avoid, especially when a near-identical sample cropped up in one of their tracks. Featuring squelchy synths, four-to-the-floor beats, vocoder vocals and dubstep-py basslines, this was an early highlight, and we left half way through the set regretting the clash with Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, who were about to start over on the main Pavilion Stage. Virtuoso guitar aside this failed, somehow, to elevate much above pedestrian levels, despite the whoops with which the fanboy elements of the crowd greeted favourites like ‘Gardenia’ (one of the set’s highlights, with the energetic “hey”s perking things up no end), and the freebie t-shirts thrown to the crowd. Watching the band, I was reminded of how – despite the sometimes playful (and always clever) lyrics – Malkmus is actually a very serious individual. This is what came through, making the set fail to really take off into the realms of festive festival fun. As an interesting aside, it was quite odd to spot Ryan Jarman of The Cribs on sound duties. The set-closer ‘Baby C’mon’ was the best, most exciting moment, but didn’t really pull things back enough. For me.
“YOU SONS OF BITCHES, WE JUST GOT HERE MOTHERFUCKERS!” Such is Karen O’s defiant introduction upon arriving on stage 40 minutes late to a chorus of boos from the audience. Many bands would be thrown by such a cold reception, but not the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Pulling out a bottle of champagne and spraying it heedlessly over the front row (probably causing several grands worth of camera damage in the process), she then launched into one of the most energetic, flamboyant and downright sexy performances this reviewer has ever seen. Playing “Fever To Tell” in its entirety was an enticing if risky strategy, given not all its songs fit the festival mould, but despite a slightly ropey sound mix it worked marvellously well, despite the occasional dip in energy levels. The audience responded to her vampish, irrepressible energy in kind, resulting in mass pogoing, crowd-surfing and caterwauling of various quality (especially during “Maps”), and the band’s curfew-breaking encore including a superb “Heads Will Roll,” was simply the icing on this most delectable of cakes.
If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn’t left me on enough of a high, the always entertaining múm decided to raise their own game several notches, resulting in the best set I’ve ever seen them do. Striking the perfect balance between their more experimental, glitchy earlier stuff and the playfully effervescent chamber pop of new, they skilfully weave pristine harmonising with charming, rich instrumentation (including the most well-judged use of melodica ever committed to stage.) Tracks like ‘Marmalade Fires’ and ‘Sing Along’ sounded incredible and the rare airing of ‘Green Grass of Tunnel’ complete with Sigur Rós style wall-of-noise ending was perhaps my single favourite musical moment of the festival.
Six Organs of Admittance carried on the “serious” vibe, their flamboyant flurries of riffage often teetering over the line into grandiosity. Ben Chasny’s vocal delivery, too, was considered, portentous, often sombre. It was pleasing when the occasional synth surprised, amongst all the guitar work, with flutters and chirps. An elegiac slow keyboard track was beautifully soulful and sincere, and the other elements, sometimes pastoral, sometimes blues psych and wigging out, all – more or less – cohered.
After all this guitar-led earnestness then, how wonderful it was to kick back on endorphins and electronics, for the amazing adrenaline fix that is a Fuck Buttons set. The material sounded, well, pretty much like the (quite brilliant) recorded versions, particularly on the tracks from Tarot Sport. The main, and significant, difference was that all of those wonderful moments on record that just ramp up the euphoria an extra notch did so, live, TO THE POWER OF TEN. Imagine, if you will, all the best bits of those great tracks where your stomach flips and your heartbeat speeds up, but now with splitting ears and in the company of a rammed room full of fellow adherents grinning like fools, and you’re nearly there. There’s also the small matter of the most excellent where’s-the-join? mixing and merging of one track into another, so when a favourite starts it takes a few beats, a few bars before that rush of recognition hits. With extra theatrics lent by means of a) a giant glitterball on stage between them and b) some showy stagey drum bashing at key moments, this was perhaps the set of the day.
Tortoise may have been a little too cerebral to take the 1am Friday night slot by storm, but that’s not to demean quality of their performance. Their sound is hard to pin down exactly, a fusion of post-rock (a genre they were heavily influential in), math-rock and jazz elements, but it’s delivered with rare flair and technical proficiency. A couple of songs were too noodly for their own good, but the likes of “Gigantes” with its rattling dual-percussion and electronica influences compensated for the rare moments of self-indulgence.
Saturday started in quite the most wonderful manner imaginable. After the traditionally party-hard Friday night, Papa M took to the stage with David Pajo promising to “softly massage your hangovers”. Boy did he ever. Dedicating the opening number to the recently departed drummer Tony Bailey, we were immediately, and blissfully, immersed in a warm bath of acoustic noise that was at once soporific and quite quite beautiful. Soothing, tuneful and melodious, the gentle ebb and flow of sound cascaded, detuning and retuning as it went. The segment where the other musicians left the stage and Pajo continued solo were every bit as special, his guitar practically singing out its tunes in a warm, emotional and emotive manner, skillful to the nth degree, yet still full of softness and wonder. This was an Ahhhh of a set, whose only disappointment was in its shorter than billed running time. It is a testament to their popularity that the cheers and cries for an encore went on for a fair while after the set’s end, all those ATP hangovers pleading, pitifully, for a little more of that massaging.
A potted summary of Afrirampo‘s set: two Japanese ladies dressed like the dancing girls from Gogol Bordello make the audience scream weird, incoherent noises whilst contorting their body into letters of the alphabet; conduct a sing-along of “Happy Birthday” to ATP, talk utter nonsense in broken English, and still find time to perform some of the wildest, tightest off-kilter rock ‘n roll ever seen in Minehead. Like Lightning Bolt-meets-Deerhoof-meets-an otaku wet dream, they may look and act shambolic, but there’s real skill and complexity at the heart of Oni and Pikachu’s rhythmic cacophonising- even Jim White, standing by the sound-desk looked suitably impressed. The standout moment of a set full of them was Pikachu’s appropriation of Oni’s guitar as part of her drum kit whilst Oni continued to play atop a bass drum- not only did it look cool, it sure as hell sounded it too. Baffling, bizarre and utterly brilliant.
The dark and mesmeric Om proved quite a contrast. Playing in near total darkness, the music had a kind of Old Testament hellfire and damnation feel to it with bass riffs reverberating through you (this was a set pretty much all about the bass line), and they even managed to draw a menacing edge from the tambourine sound. The most satisfying material was from new album ‘God Is Good’, with ‘Cremation Ghat I’ (or it could have been ‘II’) and its exotic wails and sitar/oud drones pepping things up in an already atmospheric set, the mood of which was only broken by the gaps left between tracks, leaving the listener temporarily disorientated. Sombre and profound incantations.
Shellac. Set number 1.
Crowd Member: “Do you ever masturbate over how brilliant you are?”
Steve Albini:- “No, I masturbate over the brassieres in the Sears Roebuck catalogue.”
Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis – a consummate, relaxed and genuinely witty front person – is someone who could entertain a crowd all day, never mind just for an hour long festival set. Like a (much) cooler Ian Anderson, his energetic and expressive violin playing is delightfully complemented by the oblique, funny introductions that he gives to each track, explaining before they start a little about their inspiration or meaning (eg: ‘Some Summers They Drop Like Flies’ is about “going home and finding out everyone is fucking dead”; ‘And The Sky’ is about “getting all the emo bands in the world and making them work in a fish and chip shop” and so on). ‘Authentic Celestial Music’ got, deservedly, the greatest crowd response, all woozy and drowsy at the start, then upping the drama an intensity as it progressed, with a celtic fiddle sound. The nicely paced set then followed this with a song written by “a couple of depressed Greek guys in the 50s” (‘I Remember When You Used To Love Me’). The uptempo, Hellenic, clapalong change of mood worked well, with Ellis setting aside his violin to dance, strut and pose away in the middle. The set ended with Afrirampo joining the Dirty Three on stage (Ellis: “If I ever get married again, they’re playing my wedding) to let off balloons (in a low-tech but nevertheless very pretty spectacle that is “the closest we’ve come to pyrotechnics”) as the band play ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ which is a song about “waking up dead in your car cos you had too much fun”. Fitting.
Showcasing mostly new material, there’s little doubting that Battles‘ next record is going to split opinion in a big way- those expecting Mirrored Part II are sure to be disappointed. Much more reliant on Tyondai Braxton’s distorted vocals than before, there’s a strong Animal Collective-ish vibe to some of the tracks; what’s even more pronounced is a new-found sense of vaudeville lighthearted-ness. But if the jauntiness of the likes of Ice Cream confound initial expectations, the bedazzlement they evoke with their technical brilliance remains undiminished. The irregular math-rock time signatures, the sense of experimentalism and John Stanier’s ground-sundering percussion are still there, but they’ve been packaged in a (comparatively) more immediate form, and on the strength of the material here that’s no bad thing. That said, it’s pleasing they still found room for slightly reworked versions of ‘Tonto’ and ‘Atlas’, both rapturously received by the Pavillion crowd- whilst it’s good to keep moving forward, it’s unwise to entirely eschew one’s past.
The Melvins were much less fun. Their sludge grunge had double drumming (make that quadruple drumming by the end), big meaty riffing, power and intensity but – for me – held scant appeal. Perhaps part of my problem was that the vocals never quite lived up to the standards set by the rest of the music, thus failing to really pull me in. Muscular, but uninvolving.
Modest Mouse are a very hit-and-miss live act, and personal experience has tended towards the latter but to their credit they were on sparkling form here, despite Somerset’s Arctic conditions causing Isaac Brock to lose his voice. To be fair, he was never the most tuneful or accomplished of vocalists in the first place, and his vocals were actually lent a rough-hewn edge that worked rather well in the circumstances. Ditching Johnny Marr was the best thing they’ve ever done- they appear to be a functioning, multi-faceted entity again rather than a mere extension of the former Smiths’ guitarists’ ego- and the vastly expanded range of instruments gave a fuller and more varied sound than before. A balanced and commendably unobvious setlist (no ‘Float On!’) was another nice touch in a set that consistently impressed and entertained, even if it never threatened to truly astonish.
Apse played two sets, the first on Saturday night and the second later on the Sunday. Apparently this was to showcase material from each half of their current double album Climb Up. Having caught both, it would be difficult to tell if there is any specific or distinct stylistic difference intended between them, as both sets were fairly similar in style. And what an intriguing, near-uncategorisable style it is… For about half of the first song I was under the impression that the front person was a woman, due to a combination of factors including their sporting of a hood, my shortness and the extraordinary siren-like vocal. Describable as anything and everything from (and including) beat-driven post-rock to propulsive, Eastern-flecked rock, from nu-rave, to punk-funk via the occasionally shoegazey guitar sound, this was music with a terrific sense of urgency, spirituality and a dance sensibility, all rolled into one somewhat confusing package. These were both sets of the classic kind that compel you to go back and explore a band’s recorded output, intrigued to find out more.
The Drones delivered what could only be described as a workmanlike performance, as you might expect from this workmanlike band, but never one that quite transcended expectations. Live, they display all the same good, solid, stoically Aussie working class qualities as on record, Gareth Liddiard often contorting and grimacing with angst like an antipodean Springsteen.
Saturday’s final act (for those too wussy to stay up for Sunn O)))) were The For Carnation, whose sombre, downtempo material would have been better placed in an earlier slot. But despite the unhurried, drone-like grooves producing a soporific quality that ultimately defeated the less hardy of us, there was no denying the beauty of it all, especially with Brian McMahan’s deep, characterful half-spoken, half-sung vocal delivery.
Three ATP’s have taught me that there’s no better wake-up call than festival stalwarts Shellac, so I was glad to begin my Sunday with the fourth performance of “The End Of Radio” that’s graced the Centre Stage this year. For the first few minutes Todd Trainer appeared to be AWOL, which seemed slightly odd until the sudden report of a snare drum alerted me to the gaunt but oh-so-cool drummer standing a few feet away from me at the back of the room. I was also confused to see least two infant children present, although I have no doubt those babies are going to grow up to be AWESOME.
If I’m ever reincarnated as a diminutive Japanese woman, I’d quite like to be Satomi Matsuzuki. Small in stature, massive in charm and energy, the star-jumping, nonsense-yelping Deerhoof guitarist is one of the most endearing performers of the festival, although her flailing, remarkably talented drummer husband Greg Saunier gives her a run for her money. Endlessly inventive, technically dazzling and always slightly tongue in cheek, they’re one of the best live bands around, and they don’t disappoint here, rounding off their cover-heavy set with the Velvet Underground song that lent the festival its name.
After the excitement of a Music Quiz Victory we caught Mudhoney doing their Mudhoney grungy grunty snarly barky luddite thing for a while, but really, everything was just a warm-up for one of our most-anticipated bands of the weekend, Sunn O))). This was their second set (they had already performed Shoshin/GrimmRobes, late on the Saturday night), and the one devoted to their 2009 album Monoliths and Dimensions.
As much an act of endurance, a rite of passage, and a mystical initiation ceremony as a gig, at once a ludicrous pantomime and an intense, sometimes horrifying and shockingly visceral, physical experience; the performance was totally absorbing from the moment the ominous rumbles of organ music and great gusts of dry ice filled the room and the shadowy, sinister robed figures appeared on stage (as the lights were abruptly extinguished). Scree, crackle and a monochord riff seemed to be emanating from the farthest reaches of hell, genuinely scary in a way that music seldom manages to be, literally vibrating your innards and eardrums. This was drone taken right up to, and almost beyond, its (il)logical limits. At times reminiscent of nothing more than Douglas Adams’ fictional band ‘Disaster Area’ (“not only the loudest rock band in the galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind”) they in fact often had a sense of the knowingly absurd about them that Adams would have appreciated. The absurdities, though, were greatly outweighed by the sense of total absorption in the horrorsphere that the band and their music create. The screams and shrieks that punctuated the set are among the most seriously terrifying noises that I’ve heard a human make, and the theatrics – dry ice, robes, LASER FINGERS, METALLIC CROWN OF THORNS – contribute to the overall effect. This is performance art, but dark, satanic performance art, akin to a Black Mass or summoning of all kinds of unspeakable daemons. When it ends, suddenly, the silence feels abrupt, shocking.
It’s a shame that Explosions In The Sky were selected to perform the Pavillion. Despite the “veil of stars” that turned the soulless food-court into something much more magical, the sound simply wasn’t loud nor sharp enough to do their soaring crescendos justice. That’s not to fault the band themselves, who played their little, post-rocky hearts out but they never sounded as all-encompassing as one would have hoped.
Reds was rocked to its foundations with Fuck Buttons’ unscheduled early-evening performance, the fuzzy, eardrum-obliterating peaks of ‘Surf Solar’ and ‘Olympians’ as euphoric as anything as any grandoise post-rock climax you’d care to name. They might not be the most interesting act to watch visually, but any band that can spark a rave atmosphere at 8pm in the evening is totally alright by me. To appropriate a quote overheard earlier in the day, “it was like a full-on sonic massage, mate.”
To end our whole ATP experience (until next May, at least) Lightning Bolt alone were incredible enough. Playing to a rammed Red Stage on what they told us was their 15th birthday (thus trumping ATP by a good 5 years), the distorted vocals, fuzziness and hard loudness were unremitting, remorseless and utterly exhilarating. Even more incredible, then, when just before the end of their set, after drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale’s unmasking, they are joined by festival heroines Afrirampo. Kamikaze crowdsurfing, water-bottle-bombarding, shrieking, dancing, frenetic lunacy ensued – a happy, incredible chaos. No better ending – unexpected, collaborative, aurally assaulting and ultimately the distillation of all that is fun in live music – could I have imagined or invented for this quite marvellous festival. Once again: thank you ATP, happy birthday, and here’s to the next 10 and more.