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LIVE REVIEW: Sŵn Festival 2019

Even in the middle of what might well be the wettest Autumn Wales has seen in a long time, the sun shone on the 2019 edition of Sŵn Festival, both literally and figuratively. In its long history, the festival has rarely attempted to fit within its programme not only such a number of quality acts from the UK and beyond, but also such a variety of different sounds, styles, and aesthetics. While the beating heart of the manifestation coincided with that of the Cardiff music scene, located among the beloved clubs of Womanby Street, the festival literally invaded the city centre of the Welsh capital, with bands performing in all sorts of different settings – upper rooms in pubs, basements, small intimate spaces and big venues ready to accommodate the most enthusiastic of crowds. It was a feast for the ears and an excellent occasion to discover the unexpected; even clashes in the schedule – for the most part, however, very well crafted – often turned out to be blessings in disguise, a silent invitation to discover a new artist and experience something different.

This variety is certainly the most outstanding feature in this year’s Sŵn, and it must be hoped that it will remain a trademark of the festival from now on. The Welsh music scene has often been accused of being somewhat provincial when compared to its English and Scottish counterpart, and this year’s festival has abundantly proved that this is not the case, not only in its ability to attract and handle such a wide variety of artists, but also in the way it all felt organic, like the different moments in the festival’s three days all came together as pieces of a multicoloured puzzle, putting together a perfect portrait of the state of renewed health that new and alternative music is enjoying in recent years. From Welsh-language balladeers to almost-metal rockers, from post-punk to nostalgia-laden psychedelia, Sŵn had a sound and an experience for everyone, a vast landscape that it was a pleasure to explore.

Friday

After the mandatory stop at one of the most smoothly working wristband exchanges seen in a long time (in general, the organisation at this festival deserves much praise across the board), the Friday afternoon was inaugurated in the cosy room on top of O’Neill’s, by paying tribute to the local music scene with Hyll. These Cardiff locals warmed up the audience by serving a sound somewhere in between new wave and garage punk, with a smooth flow of Welsh-language lyrics (as they themselves warned, they “speak English, but don’t sing English”). The sound came across softer and danceable, but odd influences reared their head here and there, with dominant bass lines and mellow vocals, and even a tinge of ska influence in one track. If the non-Welsh component of the audience was taken aback, it was only briefly; the band had an easy way to their stage presence that eased the crowd into dancing in spite of the occasional wavering in the vocals.

Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam [Photo by Chiara Strazzulla]
Still in O’Neill’s, Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam brought the fun over from Birmingham, with an energetic set marked by gutsy vocals and an only apparently unassuming stage presence. With several changes in pace, this set kept the audience on their collective toes, aided by a cutting sense of humour that worked well with the general mood – guitars mixing clean and dirty sounds, delivering music with a retro flavour that went back to the ‘60s and ‘70s: surfer rock with a punch, some new wave influences, and just a hint of psychedelia. The instrumental bridges allowed for some welcome displays of technical finesse, with the keyboards in particular sweetening the edge of the punchier sections. The easy exchange of quips between one track and the next kept the audience engaged, for a solid set with a very classical flavour.

As the dark started to fall, it was onwards to the upper room in Clwb Ifor Bach just in time to catch a moody set from Irish alternative outfit Just Mustard. Having seen them the week previous at Manchester’s Neighbourhood served to further emphasise how much the very peculiar sound this band has been able to engineer requires just the right kind of space to be performed to the greatest effect. This room in Clwb Ifor Bach is the perfect space for them; dark, enclosed, intimate, allowing the sound to bounce off the walls in just the right way. It gave the performance a darker quality which perfectly fits the reflective, ominous in places, almost trance-like feeling the band appears to cultivate. Those looking for influences may well have heard an echo of industrial rock, early 2000s; those paying attention to technical ability will certainly have spotted a gold-star performance from drummer Shane Maguire. 

Flamingods [Photo by Chiara Strazzulla]
Filling the stage with a completely different kind of sound and energy, Flamingods also performed in the upper room of Clwb Ifor Bach, though unfortunately their set was plagued by a series of technical difficulties, starting late and being cut somewhat short towards the end due to malfunctioning equipment. Nevertheless, the band had attracted an eager, enthusiastic, and understanding crowd, and even with their performance somewhat stunted by bad luck, they still managed to satisfy. There is no one else around in the music scene sounding quite like Flamingods; their cosmopolitan mix of psychedelia, powerhouse guitar rock, strong bass lines and unpredictable drum sections has a unique and infectious voice that easily got the audience going. For those who were not entirely lost in the dancing, there was the added pleasure of some very strong stage performances; pretty much all band members move with ease between different instruments, and they are truly something to watch. Even as the set was not quite what everyone (the band included) had expected, it certainly closed the Friday night on a note of high excitement.

Saturday

FEET [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
Reconvening in Clwb Ifor Bach, this time in the more informal space on the ground floor that appears to have been chosen as the port of call for the quirkier alternative rock outfits, Feet opened the Saturday afternoon with a much needed vitality that shook the audience out of the slow mood of this early 2.30 PM set. Looking, and sounding in places, much like the unlikely descendants the Beatles never acknowledged or wished for, the band gave everyone a good wake up call with a mix of classic sharp rock and out-of-the box psychedelic noise, much more fine-tuned that one would think when not paying too much attention. A hectic, unpredictable, humorous stage presence made sure that there was never a slow or boring moment – not that this was needed, seeing as the sheer range of different types of sound this band can explore is a treat of itself; all the same, there was an added value in watching the shenanigans on stage. Towards the end, bassist Oli almost managed to sneak into the toilets, only to be betrayed by a too-short cable, all the while playing a somewhat challenging line. If this doesn’t sum up the mood of this performance, nothing else ever will.

Hotel Lux [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
Hotel Lux are possibly one of the hardest working bands on the alternative scene at the moment (for some reason, it feels inadequate to call them simply punk), and one of the most quintessentially English – this, too, is meant as a compliment. They were somewhat short-changed in having to play in Room 2 at Jacobs, a space far too cold and wide for their brand of sound, where more than one track has to feel like the music is somehow breathing directly down your neck, and the rest demand the crowd to jump in and sing with abandon. The choice to keep the room overly bright at this point also didn’t help; this is a band that relies heavily on mood for their live performances, and so there is a feeling that they had to do a lot with very little in this case. Fortunately, their ease on stage remains the same, with Lewis Duffin’s vocals alternating between snarling and understated, and a variety of memorable soundbites to carry home in the form of earworms (the guitar from The Last Hangman, now of Peaky Blinders fame, is haunting; there’s a keyboard bit in Berlin Wall that stands out even more live; and it takes a lot of self-control not to sing along to the chorus of English Disease).

Still in Jacobs, but in the somewhat more contained space of the Off Track Café, rock trio Bilge Pump arrived straight from Leeds, set up, and proceeded to demonstrate that you don’t need six people on stage to make a lot of noise. Delivering heavy rock in a fairly classic style, with a very clean kind of vocals, they are another band that may look unassuming but has a bite in their sound. Guitarist Joe O’Sullivan in particular takes the stage with a high-power presence that steals the scene from everyone else; even though this space in Jacobs shared – to a lesser degree – the same kind of issues with the way it accommodates this kind of sound, the band’s high energy compensated for it and drew the audience in. A somewhat cheeky attitude from vocalist Emlyn Jones did the rest, making for a set with plenty of guts.

Into the evening, and back to Room 2 after a dinner break, the lights finally went down as Lice took the stage. Anyone who is familiar with the self-described art-punk Bristol outfit is aware that their live performances often are a showcase of the unexpected, and this one was no exception. Cue, among other things, guitarist Silas taking a solo into the crowd, a disco ball being unhooked from the ceiling and sent crowdsurfing, and frontman Alistair initiating a mosh pit when it became clear that one was not going to occur spontaneously. Lice’s attitude towards their audience is deliberately confrontational, something that here worked in their favour, helping rile up a crowd that needed some encouragement. Beyond all the madness on stage – this is not a band to keep reflexively still – there was the equal degree of madness of their challenging, increasingly dissonant sound, and, for those catching their breath long enough to notice, a surprisingly smooth technical execution. It was a rollercoaster, in every sense of the word.

One of the things showcased by Sŵn this year is the versatility of Welsh bands, and Welsh-language bands specifically. Moving into the wide basement space at Kong’s – complete with purple lighting and a somewhat Brutalist mood – Ynys offered another example of this by mixing a penchant for balladeering, some bluesy guitar chords, limpid vocals and a hint of folk, with a set ranging through a variety of different sounds, most of them moody, not all of them expected, including an energetic cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat. It was a set with a welcome retro mood, a serving of sheer no-nonsense rock like a space not dissimilar from this may have witnessed in the ‘70s, but with a Welsh spin.

HMLTD [Photo by Chiara Strazzulla]
With this kind of noise still in the audience’s ears, it was somewhat of a jarring transition when HMLTD took the stage in Kong’s immediately after. Luckily, the band has plenty of familiarity with jarring. They are without doubt a band that must be witnessed live, because it is live that they are at their best. Frontman Henry Spychalski has a commanding stage presence, crooning to the audience, flinging his jacket across the stage, strutting around and shaking as if possessed; the rest of the band is equally gifted in creating an electric undercurrent of sorts coursing between them and the audience. I have rarely seen crowds go crazy like they do during HMLTD’s sets and this one was no exception. On top of this, this is a band that really comes into their true sound when they are on stage; the live renditions of their songs are more powerful, more rounded, dirtier and full of a darker, more intense energy than their studio counterparts – take Flex and recent single Loaded as examples of something that applies across the board. If one manages to pause long enough, there are some impressive technical performances to be spotted, too; it is a pleasure how the songs are allowed to breathe and show how layered and complex they are. The set came to a fitful conclusion on fan-favourite Stained, leaving a very sweaty crowd to catch their collective breath.

Big Joanie [Photo by Chiara Strazzulla]
The punk mood lingered in the air as Big Joanie delivered the next stage at Kong’s. The all-female three-piece from London have created their own brand of no-nonsense punk and are the perfect fit for a stark, sincere set drifting into the later evening. Quipping with the audience between songs, they provided one of the stronger performances in a festival that, incidentally, did an excellent job of showcasing the great variety of excellent female-fronted acts to be found on the scene in recent years. It was a set of short-and-sweet tracks filling the stage like rapid bursts of energy, with a stand-out performance from Estella Adeyeri on bass. With their refreshing attitude to punk and feminism alike, this band taps into sounds that go all the way back to the golden age of the rougher music from the ‘80s, revitalising it and bringing a modern spin and a charming stage presence to it. A perfect nightcap after a very intense day.

Sunday

Sunday opened once again on the lower floor of Clwb Ifor Bach, where Indian Queens were tasked with delivering a very early set (as vocalist/guitarist Jen O’Neil joked that she had to set her alarm clock early to be able to play on time). If the band found the early slot wearisome, it didn’t show; their set was energetic and oddly intimate, showcasing the band’s characteristic mix of garage rock suggestions, punk influences, and cutting vocals. An initially reluctant crowd was rapidly drawn in by the easy mood, the pleasantly rough-around-the-edges sound, and the simmering energy – as well as a cheeky gift of free beer to some lucky audience members. This is another band whose live renditions are often more striking than their studio equivalents; the two O’Neil sisters very much know how to hold the stage, and their smooth delivery is compelling. Anyone in the audience who was understandably tired from a very busy Saturday most certainly found themselves back in the mood by the end of this set, which channelled the spirit of the old rock glories.

Wych Elm [Photo by Chiara Strazzulla]
Wych Elm followed on the same stage and in many ways in the same vein, as their sound, too, taps into grunge suggestions, in places decidedly more evidently; there are some chords that would not be out of place in a song by Nirvana, and this somehow stands out more when they are performing live. Here’s another female-fronted young band in which rock and punk lovers will find much to please; there is room for improvement in terms of a stage presence that is in places too static, but they know how to create a connection with the crowd, and from a technical standpoint they can deliver some solid performances. A mention of honour must go to bassist James Brocklesby, who took it in stride, almost without flinching, when his bass strap broke towards the end of the set. With a proper grunge mood and some serious talent behind their performance, they are certainly a band to watch.

False Hope For The Savage [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
Back to Kong’s, it became clear that this was going to be a space for mood-heavy performances, as False Hope For The Savage delivered something completely different in the form of an instrumental set made up of lengthy, airy, layered pieces which were both soothing and slightly disquieting in turn. The band, another local Cardiffian outfit, comes across on stage as completely immersed in their own music, the same kind of immersion they clearly want to evoke in their audience. With influences ranging from metal to ambient music, they make for something engaging and thought-provoking, requiring the audience to surrender itself to the sound, without the safety line of vocals for support. There was some excellent guitar work in this set; even if this type of sound is inevitably more niche in nature, it proves very effective when performed live.

Scalping [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
Another instrumental set, albeit of a completely different kind, followed as Scalping took the stage. Witnessing the Bristol outfit live is an experience of its own, quite one-of-a-kind even in the varied panorama of this year’s Sŵn line-up. It is a multi-sensorial experience, too, as the band mounts a screen on which psychedelic imagery is projected throughout the duration of its non-stop cavalcade of a set, where electronic distortion is mixed with rough guitar and the hammering of a deceptively simple-sounding drum line. The result is something akin to a bite-sized rave, or possibly an out-of-body experience for those that manage to go entirely with the flow. Once they start, there is no pause until the end of the set; the band moves in darkness broken only by the reverberation of the screen and hectic flashes of light, and the industrial feeling of the basement space at Kong’s is a perfect frame for this type of performance. It is easy to forget that the music is being played live, as the band lets the sound course through them almost as if it had a life of its own. Possibly the most intense set in the whole festival, though certainly not for everyone.

The Murder Capital [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
The Murder Capital also know something about whipping up a mood and they did exactly that, in a completely packed top floor at Clwb Ifor Bach. The enthusiasm of the audience is testament enough to the ability of this band to strike a chord with those who witness it; there was a feeling throughout the set of something teetering on the edge of greatness. They bring a sincere, stark vulnerability to the stage that is particularly welcome in this time of widespread false self-assurance; even with the large crowd the performance felt intimate, touching in a way that the dark, moody sounds this band indulges in perfectly complemented. Call them post-punk or alternative rock, The Murder Capital have one of the most recognisable musical voices at the moment. Part of this is certainly due to the vocals of James McGovern, whose stage presence is in turn solemn, imposing, and fragile; when he kneeled to address the audience almost face-to-face, the entire room almost audibly held its breath. Even in their rougher, more aggressive sounds, this band has a kindness live that adds weight to their performance instead of detracting it – alongside a welcome taste for the theatrical.

Saint Agnes [Photo by Robyn Kelly]
In the confines of hard and metal club Fuel, Saint Agnes, as the last set for the night, were perfectly at home. The stage was bathed in red light in a way that perfectly suited the half-glam, half-goth aesthetic of this band, whose sound is also made up of unlikely components that somehow fit perfectly well together – gritty vocals from the purest hard rock tradition, almost heavy-metal drums, and an unexpected tinge of blues as Jon James Tufnell puts his mouth to the harmonica. With another strongly theatrical stage presence, plucky and aggressive, they feel at times like a one-woman-show courtesy of vocalist Kitty Arabella Austen, also providing another excellent example of a female-fronted act delivering a strong heavy sound for a festival that has showcased many such. There could be no better closing note to a three-day music spree that ranges through such a great variety of genres than this adrenalin rush of a set, whipping up the crowd into a frenzy and feeling much shorter than it was in its exhilarating energy.

Even without considering the many other acts that filled the music venues of Cardiff in its three days, the 2019 Sŵn Festival set the bar pretty high for future editions. One can only hope that the festival, in this form or one similar to it, will remain a recurring fixture in the Welsh capital, attracting more local and international acts to a music scene that is having more new life injected into it with every new month.

For more information on Sŵn Festival, visit their Website.

Photo Credit – Featured image – The Murder Capital: Nadine Ballantyne

Chiara Strazzulla
Chiara was born in Sicily and lives in Cardiff, where she is a freelance journalist and teacher of Classics. She is an internationally published novelist and has collaborated with a variety of publications both in English and Italian. She has been a music lover her whole life, and her taste in music ranges from glam rock to punk by way of blues and country.

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