It’s always a minor music industry miracle to see festivals return year on year with equally strong, if not stronger lineups. The 12 month turnaround that bookers are faced with always seems like an insurmountable task, and so its no wonder that punters continue to get the taste for their preferred festival every time it comes around. For Ritual Union Bristol, however, things have been a little different since their inception. Their maiden voyage was slated to take place in March 2020 until Covid-related delays repeatedly set them back for over two years, but after a long wait came to an end, they finally went ahead with proceedings in October of last year. Given that this came only a mere six months ago, it’s nothing short of extraordinary to see that they returned with not just an equally good lineup, but one that surpassed the brilliance of its predecessor.
The first indication that things were off to a terrific start was to witness crowds piling into the back room of Strange Brew from the outset for a midday helping of noise rock group Rothmans. The first to grace the newly added stage curated by local promoters and tastemakers Bruiser, their pummelling drums and screeching guitars might have felt like an assault to the ears this early on, but to myself and many others it was the sort of rigorous introduction to the day that was much needed.
Skirting around the corner to the main stage at SWX, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard were the first of a trio of Cardiff acts that shone in the early afternoon. There’s elements of glam rock which are much indebted to the likes of Marc Bolan and Alex Chilton, but their attempt to embody the sounds of the 70s in their work are far from pastiche, and their ability to deliver something so tried and tested in an exciting way that helps them stand tall amongst contemporaries is a joy to behold. It’s delightful to see them playing with such a self-assured confidence, and what’s more, it’s rip-roaringly fun.
Back in Strange Brew, Manchester maverick Kiran Leonard was laying down something far headier and impenetrable for his audience. Upon previous occasions, there have always been unsuspecting members within the crowd without any clue as to what they’d be in for with one of his performances, but it appears that this is becoming increasingly true for the most ardent followers of his. Consisting of just him on vocals and guitar along with an upright bassist, it was the most stripped back and vulnerable a Kiran Leonard set has ever been for me, but that didn’t stop him from generating an immense power and sense of awe.
The next to cross the Severn Bridge and head for the SWX main stage were Panic Shack, in what may have been the most highly anticipated set of the day. Being the only act to have also played the inaugural edition of Ritual Union last year, it’s a testament to how much they continue to go from strength to strength that they managed to pack the venue from wall to wall on their return to the festival. Their twinning of incisive social commentary with a playful sense of humour is a key part of what’s drawn in so many fans in the past year, but its the no-nonsense punk spirit that courses through the band that feels like the icing on the cake.
If you had any sense to continue with high energy and utter silliness, then you’d have known that the best place to spend the following half an hour would have been upstairs with fellow Cardiff comrades Melin Melyn. Their off-kilter brand of psychedelic pop has lit up many a festival over the past few summers, leading them to attain cult status very soon into their lifespan as a band not just in their homeland, but much further beyond. Regaling us with stories of agricultural riots and incompetent energy suppliers on tracks such as ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Hold the Line’ respectively, their set was nothing short of spellbinding chaos, with charismatic frontman Gruff Glyn being the leader of the ragtag group of incredible performers.
If that wasn’t quite surreal enough, then perhaps sticking around for Vanity Fairy straight after would have been more up your street. Draped in a sequined gown and embodying the vibe of ‘human mirrorball’, Vanity Fairy has become known for her on-stage and off-stage theatrics. While Daisy Capri in her day to day is quite the unassuming type, her alter ego creates magic and she prances around the full perimeter of the venue before vanishing backstage on multiple occasions. There’s a case to be made that she’s the future of disco, just perhaps not as we quite know it.
The brief mood shift from Vanity Fairy to Tummyache was a jarring but welcome one, with Soren Bryce and band approaching their set at Rough Trade with a more emotionally charged performance rather than zooming in on clowning around and humorous stagecraft. There’s still plenty of vigor and grit to what they do however, and even if the floor tom and a couple of guitar strings may have met their demise during the set, it didn’t deter the trio from giving everything their all.
Returning to the daft antics at the upstairs room of SWX, Try Me were the next to bless us with a frankly bonkers half hour. The alternative electro-pop mavericks Hector Boogieman and Bendy Wendy have shot up on Bristol’s scene over the course of the last year, and it’s clear to see that their ‘all-nonsense’ approach plays a big part in why. To provide a small taste of what topics are covered in a Try Me set, the fact that they managed to improvise a song about romancing a slug upon audience request and managed to match the levels of weird shown on songs like ‘Heavy Lunch’ (a track about literally giving birth to a food baby) should give you an idea – and that’s not to mention that their trousers have eyes and they’re accompanied on stage by a giant baby with a Frank Sidebottom-esque head. True madness.
All this while, there was something a little more cerebral going down at Dareshack, with a stage being expertly curated by eclectic Bristol label Spinny Nights. Wax’s first trip to check it out was for Crimewave; a heady fusion of shoegaze guitars and intense distorted electronics. It’s easy to dismiss the project as simply being Manchester’s one-man answer to dance noise merchants SCALPING, but what Crimewave bring to the table is uniquely theirs, and offered a great antidote to all of the tongue-in-cheek antics that had ensued in the earlier part of the day.
Bringing things down a notch in vigour, London sextet Tapir! made up for a lack of intensity with a real warmth. The group, despite only having five recorded songs, feel defiant in terms of categorisation, and have an assured confidence in how they deliver that on stage in their idiosyncratically plaintive fashion. Songs such as ‘On A Grassy Knoll’ evoke the pastoral scenes of the song’s location, but all the while make it seem surreal and dream-like as they invite friends on stage to pad the set with interludes that meld cellos, drum machines, cornets and spoken word, all while occasionally donning strange alien heads. They’re probably ones to watch for the future, but it’s probably also worth seeing them as they evolve too to get the full Tapir! experience.
Capturing a mood like no other, Robbie & Mona represented everything great about their home on Spinny Nights with a breathtaking set. The duo were riding high off the back of their most recent album Tusky, and this has seen their live show elevated to grander levels than before. As Will Carkeet and Ellie Gray have seen their sound expand and venture into what they have described as ‘clubbier’ territories, with drill and trap influences now pervading through the set, they haven’t lost their avant-garde edge and allow this to shine through on stage. As plumes of smoke covered the pair and bass rattled the room, it felt as though everything Robbie & Mona have strived to get towards over the past few years had been realised in the most perfect way.
Having been too enthralled by Robbie & Mona’s performance, it meant there was only a short amount of time to catch the tail end of Maruja’s set, though the rapidly rising Manchester post-rock group produced a fearsome combination of their jazz and hardcore influences and distils it into bursts of intense passion and vigour. Showcasing tracks from their new EP Knocknarea, it became apparent exactly why they’re being touted as ones to keep an eye on.
Swiftly following them was Naima Bock with perhaps the most gorgeous set of the day. Having released her debut album Giant Palm last year to great acclaim (including a spot on our own albums of the year list), her evening slot at Rough Trade saw her road testing some new material from what will hopefully become another project. The songs from her debut however were the highlights, with her ways of crafting five-part harmonies that were sumptuous to say the least. Throughout her music there’s creative ways of expressing the simplest ideas, which in turn demonstrates that she’s on a fast track to assert her place in the modern folk canon, and when she can effortlessly recreate the beauty of tracks like ‘Every Morning’ in an intimate live setting, who would want to put a stop to her?
Finishing off proceedings (for me at least) was Jerkcurb, who emerged from a lengthy period of hibernation to serenade the crowd with a set largely consisting of new material. While it was a shame to not hear old favourites from the Air Con Eden days, Jacob Read demonstrated that there’s a future left in the project with a new direction, showing off synth-led tracks as he stood alone on stage sans accompaniment. Sure, there were hiccups, but nothing that meant it sullied the end of an outstanding day of music.
It’s on this note that proceedings drew to a close for the general programming, though the sense of community felt amongst artists and punters at Ritual Union lasted long beyond the final notes of the various sets across each venue – a testament to how special occasions like this are for the music community in Bristol and beyond. It comes as no surprise that I’m saying this, but Ritual Union worked its magic upon me once again, and like many others, the next edition can’t come quick enough for me.
Words and Photos: Reuben Cross
Ritual Union Bristol is yet to announce dates and lineup for their 2024 edition – follow them on Instagram for updates. Stream the official playlist of all performing artists at the festival below.