October 18th to 21st saw Sŵn Festival take over 17 venues throughout Cardiff for a weekend of incredible music, both local and not so local. Read on to see what Quench had to say…
Photo | Roisin Alldis
John Grant | Reardon
Upon seating myself in the most spectacular venue of the day, I was quickly met with a Mexican wave that was sweeping the excitable audience. What had I let myself in for? I had listened to some John Grant before, but I didn’t know what to expect after this unconventional start. Grant told us that he’s not touring until next year, but that he couldn’t resist the call of Sŵn Fest and then stated that he was unable to play with his band so instead would simply be accompanied by a pianist. This decision soon proved to be a good one.
The museum was an apt setting for what was to be the best performance of the day, and it was a great gig to end a long day with. The tone of his voice was complemented by the melodic accompaniment of the piano, and by the time Grant had finished his set, I felt like hours had passed.
Islet | Chapter
The lights dimmed and the crowd hushed but no movements occurred on stage. Instead, the band meandered in and around the audience as they progressed to the stage, ringing hand chimes as they walked. This serenity didn’t last long as they soon lunged in to their first song – or rather, first piece. While they had lyrics, the emphasis was creating colourful textures and unusual sounds, rather than fully formed songs.
The spontaneity in the music was perfectly reflected in their performance, with each of them displaying their eccentric personalities. The keyboard player exhibited strange, jittery movements, while the bass player jumped on all available objects, talking gibberish in between songs. A highly entertaining show for sure, but whether I will return to their Welsh Music Prize-nominated album with as much excitement as I felt after the show is uncertain.
Errors | Chapter
A decent walk from the town centre, let alone from the student suburbs of Cathays, Chapter Arts Centre in Canton is the most remote of the many Sŵn venues, but this year played host to a number of gems for those willing to brave the trek across the river. Perhaps foremost among these was the excellent Errors from Glasgow, now on their fourth album. Having ridden the crest of the wave of British electro-dance music that is now breaking all around us with the massive popularity of Hot Chip and SBTRKT, Errors have come close to permeating the mainstream awareness a few times now, but for the time being they seem feted to remain indie favourites.
Their gig on Saturday will hopefully have won them some new fans among Sŵn-goers, as they proved themselves to be an incredibly engaging force upon the stage. Weaving shimmering electronic tapestries of processed guitars and synth clicks, the whole thing became a much more organic affair than the number of plug-sockets required would suggest. Periodic floods of stomach-churning bass held the packed Stwdio transfixed, but these boys aren’t just hopping on some dubstep bandwagon: they were some of the earliest pioneers of ‘the wobble’.
Having undergone minor changes in line-up for recent releases, the band seems to have consolidated itself, focusing more than ever on driving innovative rhythms and precisely controlled textures. At times, they seemed to be able to bring the studio to the stage, showing mastery of every aspect of their sound despite being just three pairs of hands. Their latest release apparently features vocals for the first time, albeit laden with reverb and effects. Stand-out tracks included “Relics” (featuring Bek Oliva of Magic Eye on guest vocals), “A Rumour in Africa”, and the latest single, “Pleasure Palaces”.
Laura J Martin | Dempsey’s
Described by Marc Riley of BBC 6 Music as a “flute-wrangler”, Laura J Martin certainly is a worthy inheritor of the woodwind mantle of legendary 70s prog flautist Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, but (thankfully for some) she has taken the torch and run in a completely new direction. Neither purely folk, rock or electronica, Laura is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the eclectic spirit of Sŵn, and she astounded and amazed the packed audience of the little function room above Dempsey’s on Sunday night.
Despite a few technical problems with missing cables and microphone issues, she struck a very confident figure, leaping around between instruments to build up a complex pattern of looping textures and melodies. For a few songs, she was joined on stage by Cardiff singer-songwriter Gareth Bonello of The Gentle Good, playing cello or banjo while she tinkled away on the piano, but the stand-out moments were when she stood alone, feeding vocals, flute and mandolin into a loop station, over hypnotic tribal drum sequences. The sheer complexity of the operation really needs to be seen to be believed, as well as the fact that she hit all the right pedals while simultaneously soaring across the flutes’ registers, exploiting trills and multiphonics.
Stand out songs were Salamander (about “a slippery individual”, apparently), and her first single Spy, which she opened with a fantastic flourish.
Clock Opera | Clwb Ifor Bach
Clock Opera headlined Clwb Ifor Bach for the last night of Sŵn, ending the festival with a bang. But before that, they were kind enough to come and play a stripped-back session for Cardiff Student Media at The Promised Land on Sunday afternoon. Reducing themselves to a box drum, bass guitar, acoustic and only two small synths (pretty minimal for them), the band played two songs to the enraptured room.
In the evening, front man Guy Connelly jerked around the stage, at times frantic, at others calm and mesmerising. Held upstairs, the setting was intimate enough for their lyrics: spliced stories, made heartfelt with harmony and sung to the crowd with sincerity. Highlights of the night included “White Noise”, and the performance of their new single “The Lost Buoys”, which built up gradually to anthemic heights. Perhaps most beautiful was “Once And For All”, sounding fragile with Guy’s tender falsetto and gentle piano ostinatos. The lush, layered chords and intense, fast-paced drumming made for a truly euphoric final act. Clock Opera are something very special. Go and see them in a small venue before they make it big.