Bristol, the sprawling mass of concrete that ping-pongs between structures of surging architectural modernism and the dated, picturesque buildings of a fore-gone era, houses a variable colour wheel of esoteric culture. The city’s pedigree for music is certainly made evident by those who populate it; with Howling Owl Records and the newly relocated South West DIY label Art Is Hard, both calling the graffiti stained walls of the metropolis home. With that in mind, Bristol today flies its flag for DIY music proudly, as it showcases its native festival that is Simple Things.
The journey into the event, which occurs across 6 different venues and plays host to over 90 acts, starts humbly at The Cabin; a pub-cum-venue located in the city centre, and a launch pad for many of the gruffer and lo-fi acts playing today. As we stumble in through its doors after being disorientatingly lost due to rubbish service from Google maps and a slightly ambiguous Simple Things event booklet, we make it just in time to see Something Anorak pack down. Despite this setback of missing of what we can only imagined as a great performance, the quick turn around time on stage means we’re soon hearing the dulcet tones and brooding swagger of Mirel Wagner.
The French singer/songwriter dispenses a heavy array of emotionally charged acoustic folk tales and dirges that recall many of the 60’s/70’s political protest songs that came out of the turbulent civil rights movement. It is a dazzling array of poignancy and authenticity that is exuded in her songwriting, acting like lullabies for the undead, with ‘No Death’ and ‘Oak Tree‘ all seeking an affecting response from the audience. The stark nature of the message, though, is somewhat lost slightly in the pub environment, and although there is a sway from certain gig goes watching on intently, the set blurs into itself and is over without much ceremony or occasion.
Sticking with The Cabin stage, we’re soon greeted by the twee figure of Jake May setting up drums as Grubs descend on stage. The set is a clamorous event of two-minute jaunts of raucous melodic thrashes which receive more than a welcome response from the gig goers. ‘Gym Shame’ clatters on endearingly as the proficient drumming from Jake is supported by Owen Williams ragged and bruised riffage, as does ‘Dec. 15′, which gives opportunity for Roxy Brennan’s vocal to fully let rip come the end of the song in a climatic and unhinged flurry of melody. It’s a scrappy set which reveals the slight naivety of a newly formed and fresh-faced band still finding their feet, but the array of music on offer made for any quirk in their set – out of tune guitars, guitar straps falling off – an endearing quality rather than an off-putting one. A highlight from the day assuredly.
It was time now to move away from the cosy alcove of The Cabin and head over to Colston Hall to see one of the billed headliners of the event, How To Dress Well, play the main auditorium. How To Dress Well, aka Tom Krill, has had an ever-soaring career as an artist since the release of his debut album, Love Remains. His genre contorting blend of R&B and deep emotionality grounded pop aesthetic has given birth to a sound that’s undeniably experimental and contemporary – the sound of which is being translated well in the live setting today. The backing band is loud and the synths glistening from the razor sharp jabs to the bone trembling sub-bass. His almost ethereal falsetto dominates the stage, as does the unrestrained confidence and honesty in his demeanour.
Feeling the ravages of hunger, it was a conscientious decision to head back over to the warm embrace of The Cabin pub for some food before seeing highlighted act Eugene Quell, but a quick detour to The Lantern stage located in the back part of Colston Hall saw Esben & The Witch dispense their gothic laced, atmospheric rock with gripping results. The effect wore thin quickly though, as The Lantern was by far the worst sounding stage of the day, with the natural reverb of the room destroying all audible noise, instead blending it into a hellacious din that makes you question whether you’re listen to music at all. It was a shame, as Esben & The Witch and the later billed Eagulls, suffered greatly from the acoustics and made what could have been an enjoyable set into something sonically obnoxious and loathsome.
Back at The Cabin though, after filling up on the in-house burger and fries, Eugene Quell rises from the back room with band in tow to play a half hour long set of scuzzy, broken down grunge tainted garage which, for once can accurately be said, sounded like Nirvana. Eugene played a blinding set with an unhinged feel running throughout, causing the self-lamenting melodies and harsh fuzz to be forever more ferocious, as the ear worm hits like ‘That One Song’ and ‘Alto Loma‘ forced themselves into your brain. The crowd was thin during his performance, no doubt because Oliver Wilde was playing The Foyer stage at Colston Hall at the same time, but the ones who did attend weren’t left unsatisfied, as what happened tore through you with unforgiving vigour.
Bristol’s unyielding skyline illuminates as the city descends into an early-winter darkness, it feels pertinent as it heralds the arrival of the aforementioned Eagulls. Currently on tour in support of their sullen, sombre self-titled LP, the Yorkshire group emerge under the disquieting vibration of squalling feedback and, for people who have witnessed them live previously, projected visuals of static embodying the moroseness that is about to be evoked by the five men on-stage. What has consistently been evident from an Eagulls show is the eye-opening melodies that are unwrapped from the swathes of agitated guitar that’s coursing through the speakers, but sadly this is completely lost in the mix from within The Lantern. Liam Matthew‘s guitar is completely inaudible, George Mitchell‘s vocal is even less distinct and the weariness that surfaces from touring seems to have had it’s affect on drummer Henry Ruddel, half-hearted and uninterested, he pats the drums without any of the vitality that the band’s music warrants.
With the announcement that their first LP is set for release on revered independent label Sonic Cathedral and earning commendation for the development of their live set, especially from their show at Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, Spectres return home to palpable excitement from the crowd that have slowly filled Academy 2 to witness the four-piece. Breaking straight into ‘Where Flies Sleep‘, the dense, cascading sounds emanating from the valves are piercing and gritty, frontman Joe Hatt is a commanding leader from the left, his vocal evoking the fearsome edge of their music as the band enter a trance-like state of motoric rhythm with incessant enthusiasm. The group deserve the recognition, they deliver an impressively tight, fluid set of dark Psych that retains it’s exhilarating attitude throughout. New track ‘Sea of Trees‘ is a particular example of the band’s ability in improvised creativity, the whole nine-minutes unleashed through ear-splitting distortion yet distilling every melody. Deafeningly thunderous, Spectres have rousing potential, especially if they can produce these impressive qualities on record.
Downstairs in the less-intimate main hall of Academy 1 there’s another considerably-sized crowd, this time awaiting the return of Canadian dance-punks Death From Above 1979. September 2014 brings the 10th Anniversary of the duo’s first and, at the time, only LP, ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine‘, an album that has awarded the group with a cult-sized level of appreciation, warranting a headline slot on one of Bristol’s main stages. Since their return in 2011 after a five-year split, the LA natives are at a stage where, having released a new record, ‘The Physical World‘, they will either retain the noticeable feverishness that greeted them first time around or burnout, the significance of their music a decade ago now having faded through the development of the genre and culture that influenced it. As they power on stage, Jesse Keeler’s bass screeches into electronic feedback as classic ‘Turn It Out‘ turns the crowd rabid. It’s obvious from here that the set is going to be nothing but positive, even if a nostalgic turn-back to a radical moment. Tracks from the latest LP are embraced just as much, ‘Virgins‘ is an instant anthem, moulded into a double-salvo with ‘Right On, Frankenstein!’ demonstrating the band’s instrumental calibre and knowledge in crowd-captivation. An hour and a half may seem a large amount of time to fill, yet the duo dig from ‘The Physical World‘ fully, displaying their confidence in their new material and it pays off. Although by the time fan favourite ‘Romantic Rights‘ is played the crowd has depleted severely, the ones who remain are treated to an injection of adrenaline that hasn’t been felt in dance-punk since the duo who modelled it left eight years previously.
Into the early hours and the festival remains in full-throttle, if not even louder. The main theatre that envelopes you upon walking into Colston Hall is mesmerising, a magnificent space complete by rich, dazzling lighting and seating that allows you to comprehend what you are encountering. Since their inception in Glasgow in 1995, Mogwai have effectively made their name on delivering live shows that are the loudest in the world, only MBV are considered as being as powerful as the instrumental five-piece. Placing the group in this particular venue is genius booking, perhaps an obvious decision but something that is not usually applauded, yet in this case is unquestionably deserved. The glaring glow of colours that visualise their most recent LP ‘Rave Tapes‘ immerses the group and crowd in a wash of deep blues and radiating pinks, impeccably embodying the groups motive in wholly engaging their listener with visuals that complement their uninhibited sound. The group themselves create a momentous dynamic that’s usually displayed in an orchestral ambience, each member crafting their sound with deft aplomb, easily cementing them as the innovators of an original Post-Rock sound that infuses dark Shoegaze and Psychedelia.
It’s with Leeds quasi-supergroup Menace Beach that we desire a last-wave of energy, and they happily comply in droves. With their opening burst of ‘Teenage Jesus‘ and ‘Drop Outs‘, the 5-piece (lead members Liza Violet and Ryan Needham backed by an enthusiastic and able trio) supply waves of distortion in their lo-fi pop that conveys an attitude and a wit that will ultimately draw similarities to Dinosaur Jr and their fellow noise-contemporaries, yet with infectiously clever tracks like ‘Tennis Court‘ the group exhibit something more in their song-writing that makes them stand-out. Needham is exuberant behind the mic and his riving guitar, Violet a little more shy yet delivers curious chords of psych-keyboard underneath the band’s wiry exterior. A compelling set that will excite those awaiting their LP ‘Ratworld’.
Come 2am and the cabs are queued, ready to pick up the soused-masses that have littered the streets in the bustling city. It’s telling that those who leave Colston in the early hours have experienced something much more vital and unique than those leaving the monotonous clubs. Simple Things is a celebration of not just the stirring, novel music that is coming from the city but the innovative sounds coming from across the world. They’ve ably evolved, proof in the booking of acts the size of DFA and Mogwai, yet lost none of their interest in original art. May this festival continue to develop while the city continues to be home to captivating music.
Words: Dan Brown and Ross Jones