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FESTIVAL REPORT: Beacons
jonny mugwump , September 30th, 2014 16:02

Jonny Mugwump spends a weekend in Skipton, Yorkshire where he battles with torrential weather, falls in love with Golden Teacher and watches The Fall play through the tail end of a hurricane. Photos by Matt Colquhoun

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Undeservedly languishing in obscurity, Robert Aickman is the finest proponent of weird fiction to ever put pen to paper. Weird fiction succeeds through putting a kink in reality – an interruption of the unknown or the unknowable – something that denies resolution. So this kind of excludes ghosts, monsters etc. since, well, no matter odd these things might be there's a kind of frame of reference or explanation. Aickman is the Yellow King of strange – a genuinely terrifying conduit because he channels the weird event. His melancholy strangely alienated characters become witness (always alone) or party to something that is reported in the driest manner imaginable whilst simultaneously withholding the possibility of the reader gaining any understanding of what has just occurred. For those that know him, Thomas Ligotti is in fact much closer in spirit to Aickman than he is Lovecraft (if you care about such things).

Now, if you're still reading then you're probably wondering what the hell this has to do with what is supposed to be a review of a festival. Well, the reason is this. It's very late Saturday night and I'm been having major fun with Jon Hopkins but the absolutely rammed tent and major sleep-deprivation has spun me out and I'm after a change of pace. And, in my book, the mark of an essential festival is one that provides chances to eschew the obvious highs in favour of something less, clear.

So, having gotten the lie of the land and happy to accept that there's something out there to suit my mood I drift off to the periphery. Cheap sound and dim light catches my attention so I stumble towards an entrance and straight into a Robert Aickman story. I'm surrounded by cross-dressing pimps, pushers and prostitutes – a queer apocalypse with freaks and weirdos all over the place shouting ranting singing cajoling cooing. There's a stage (I think) and a body lying down with dress pulled over head dancing and singing through the medium of their legs. I can't tell where the audience stops and the performance begins. I realise this doesn't matter. It's hilarious and it's absolutely nuts and maybe a little terrifying. I literally have no idea what the fuck is going on but I can tell you that I feel like I've been here for ever and reality starts and ends in this place. The world spins off its axis, the world is on the stage – a messy wasted abstract carnival – I think that people are screaming at other people to get naked and I think that other people do just that. Somehow, some kind of 'professionalism' kicks in – I'm supposed to be doing something else. So I get up and stagger through the exit. And then I'm outside in another reality. It's dark and it's early Sunday morning and I'm stood in a field in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales and I seem to have lost my shoes. But I'm having the time of my life. I'm at Beacons Festival.

Situated just outside of Skipton, Beacons Festival is now in its third year. I've not been before, in fact I've not been camping for years because well, I'm a bald 41 year-old who has gotten overly accustomed to fab events in towns and cities like Incubate in Tilburg and Unsound in Krakow where you sleep in a hotel. But I'm intrigued by the location, the plentiful and diverse roster of poetry, performance, film, dance and of course the sonic line-up –a bunch of artists whom I've never heard of and the range of those I have like Action Bronson, Neneh Cherry and Rocketnumbernine, The Fall, Howlaround and Sleaford Mods. So I'm up for it.

There's a lot of 6 Music style hip-young guitar things stuffed on to the bill at Beacons and I'll be straight and say that I don't really care for hip young guitar things. Festivals are about the moment and the here and now and my own personal taste doesn't come in to it – in fact it only goes to show just how wonderful a party this is that I don't have the time to do everything I want to do, despite lacking interest in a lot of the live bands on the two main stages. So I drift happily in and out of various tents and stages taking the odd thing in but nothing really grabs me. Not that I care, the place is a bucolic paradise anyway.

So, I miss some bands now to a significant amount of time dancing very happily with happy people outside the Red Bull soundsytem. I'm at Beacons alone and it crosses me at this point just how goddamn friendly it is here. It's a really mixed crowd – all ages – and the diversity of music, art, spectacle and film lends the whole place a bit of a Glastonbury back-in-the-day vibe. I'm (wildly) guessing at the crowd being a couple of thousand strong and that number combined with the large (but not sprawling) site is just at the perfect peak of navigation. Busy enough for a great vibe, but not so heaving that you can't move – there's scope to lounge but everything is wildly alive. The choice of food and drink is really pretty decent and imaginative and perhaps most shockingly the security are almost miraculously friendly and helpful. The best festivals should provide a space to safely let yourself go (in whatever fashion that might be – I don't mean just getting off your mash) and Beacons has this in droves. Back at Red Bull, Luv*Jam and Dave Haslam occupy over 4 hours between themselves and its just glorious. Soft and funky disco, soul and dance - life isn't easy ever and the world outside this weekend and this field seems more terrifying by the minute but stomping around to Bill Withers with a couple of hundred beaming bodies in the sun does more for my brain than a ton of prescription meds.

I have a job to do so I go to check out some bands. And then I get my moment. I know nothing of Golden Teacher and as I'm passing their set this beautiful frantic volcanic rainbow of bodybrain noise drags my ass backwards and I am compelled to run (!) in and push to the front. What a fucking beautiful racket. There's six people on stage – every one of them at their own individual rave – drums, percussion, angular guitar, super phat gamelan-techno keyboards – jumping chanting dancing – this is a loose rambling but manic explosion that somehow hangs together – you just can't help yourself – no sleep alconarcoholic overload can sap the crap out of you on even the greatest weekends and Golden Teacher are a kaleidoscopic mainline of adrenalin. The only comparison that can makes any sense really is Gang Gang Dance for their exotic rhythmic attack and Happy Mondays at their most badass epic warehouse-sized mess. Golden Teacher have that same clear separation of sound with every instrument standing distinctly in its own space. It only takes a minute to fall in love – I'm totally addicted. My one reservation though is that it's 5.30 in the afternoon. I mean I get how these things work but Golden Teacher and a late night light show seems to be me to be the best way of kicking a field in England into an outer space carnival.

I head to a tent called Into The Woods which becomes like a second home for the weekend. Party to a mixture of film, the more 'experimental' end of the line-up, and yoga classes, my first introduction to the tent is an idiotically informative whiskey-tasting. I hang around and chat to people, take in some poetry in the Arts + Minds tent and keep missing a million great films I want to catch in Dawsons Arthouse because I get it confused with a totally different tent. This is especially disappointing as I was so looking forward to catching Under The Skin in the dead of night.

Action Bronson, the Ghost Face Wrestler is in town but I'm running late and I can't get in the tent or see a bloody thing. I can hear though and it's just a full-on double-voiced leviathan of a set. What can you say – you'd probably have to invent the big man if he didn't already exist. So it's pure party time but I would have liked to have had some more Blue Chips on the go. As I head off to take in something completely different I wonder if I'm hallucinating Bronson screaming over the top of 'Come On Eileen'.

The something different is Howlround and is by far one of the strangest sets of the weekend as well as being one of the highlights. Howlround is the project of Robin The Fog and Chris Weaver, both ex-associates of London's formidable Resonance FM. Robin's first release was last year's magnificent Ghosts Of Bush House – a very literal incursion in to the hauntology genre presenting field recordings of the eerie ambience of the BBC's once grand studios (and base to the Radiophonic Workshop). Howlround took form when Weaver contacted the Fog with an idea of how to take the project live. The result is uncanny, mesmerising, difficult and sublime. Utilising vintage reel to reel tape decks, Weaver manipulates physical loops of tape that Robin feeds into the machines. The utterly indescribable sound however is lent extra gravitas through the almost theatrical physical requirements of the performance. There are giant loops of tape hanging everywhere and the delicacy and intricacy of handling them lends the set an overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere. Howlround live is a séance – the act of channelling rendered in physical form.

Suitably sonically infected, the night takes on strange shapes and you sit down with new friends knowing that this is exactly what a festival should be about.

Saturday morning, the sun seems like it will never stop shining and I go to see what kind of noise the kids are making these days. I get lucky. Autobahn are kind of a blast. With a mildly aggressive motoric drive and a healthy dollop of reverb on Craig Johnson's vocals, the band pummel the crap out of what is a clear Joy Division influence. They also look staggeringly fucked-up although I catch up with them briefly afterwards to find the whole band charmingly sharp, reassuringly alive and eulogising about Sisters of Mercy. Seems like the Eldritch ones are a prominent influence on a growing Leeds-based er, scene (please kill me for using that word). OK so no boundaries are being broken, but they more than enthral on a brain-broken Saturday morning.  

Later on and I'm taking in the odd spectacle that is Indiana. I've not heard the ex-Nottingham based artiste before and I'm booklet primed for Portishead-style drama and mainstream pop pomp. What I actually get well, I don't get it at all. It all seems a bit kind of Eurovision really. All cheese, all cliché and then I suddenly think actually maybe there's some edge in here – something a little darker to hook onto but then I'm back in A Song For Europe and this fluctuates minute by minute until it's driving me crazy so I bugger off to catch some hot buttered disco in the sun rather than stress about why I can't form an opinion about what I'm seeing. Except I guess my feet probably just did that anyway.

Then Dam Funk happens. And Dam Funk is basically one of those artists that make me overjoyed to be alive and wonder what the hell you did before they came into your life (well, other than listen to Prince). I'm going to use the H word again – Hauntology. Most people don't know what the fuck it is and those that do either all lay different claims to it or pretend it doesn't matter anymore. Read Mark Fisher's Ghosts Of My Life if you want to know more (and if you want to read a wonderful book). Dam Funk then is kind of like the ghost of funk. LA's Damon G. Riddick resplendent with keytar and wraparound shades brings synth bass and drums and recalibrates early 80's boogie, dance and soul into a budget sci-fi spectacular. All the time though there's something rightly wrong about the whole endeavour. If there's an arched-eyebrow it's not of the post-modern variety. Take away the sheen and there's clunk in the funk-engine – there's a rhythmic stutter, a tic rather than smooth soul perfection. Riddick's glaringly obvious influences are re-soldered into a strange robotic vision and his obvious technical brilliance, is not cold exactly, but slightly removed. There's a weirdness here and I mean that in the most complimentary way – this is mining the past to build a new Philip K. Dick funk future.

Jon Hopkins is staggering. There are luminous balls floating all over the place and the most spectacular lighting of the whole festival. Enlivened with a huge video backdrop he pulls off an angular crunchy manically morphing set flipping from stripped down deep impact to glitching white noise. Somehow Hopkins pulls off what feels like breakneck overload and structural chaos with a consistency that keeps arms legs and torsos in constant motion. To break it down – it's mental and it makes total physical sense.

At this point I wander off and rejoin Aickman's world and finally end up back Into The Woods to watch the glorious Ex-Easter Island Head. Currently recording for the crucial Low Point label, the trio take a radical approach to their guitars by laying them down and playing them as percussion instruments with mallets. Mesmerising both sonically and performatively the trio hit on an ethereal trance that never slips into pure ambience due to the forward motion of the extra percussion.  Two thirds of Ex-Easter Island Head return at 3am as The Aleph to soundtrack what might be their own film (I'm not too sure) entitled The Good Eater. They freak me the fuck out. In a good way I might add.

I wake up at 6am and notice two things. I don't have any shoes. And it's raining. Hard. And it seems to be a little windy. I neck a can of Strongbow, go back to sleep for a bit. It'll be fine.

It isn't fine. It's really windy and it's pouring. Bizarrely, I seem to be the only person annoyed about this.

Looking to alleviate my mood, I find The Wytches who seem to be an amalgam of The Pixies and Sonic Youth with halloweeny Cramps-y keyboards. It's not something I'm going to take with me but in the here and now its fun and a welcome respite from the increasingly apocalyptic weather beyond the walls of the tent.

Because you have to pay the bills and you have to eat you're always going to be subservient to your boss. So your boss is a cunt. Before Gervais quickly morphed back into being one of the most abhorrent blots on the entertainment landscape he somehow delivered a universal truth in The Office. The characters, the plots, everything really – none of that really matters – what is nailed in the first season alone is the sheer fucking horror of work and of the hideous minute by minute compromises you have to make to eke out even the most meagre of existences. And that's if you can even get a job. Sleaford Mods puke this shit right back in your face. I don't really want to diminish the experience or drain it of its energy by writing about it. They don't need a middle-class nod of support. I don't want to talk about bands being significant or important because frankly in this day and age that's an idiotic idea anyway. Having a roof over your head is important, not a band. But they are just brilliant. It's rare for bands to be genuinely angry about anything and to actually have something to say (or shout about). Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn do. And it's a voice that's seldom heard these days, so it's even more startling to hear something so uncensored and fucked-off matched to music of such brutal innovative simplicity. Sleaford Mods are Public Enemy in sonic reverse. Total simplicity but utterly brutal. Moronic bass and beat exemplified through Fearn's live instrumentation consisting of pressing start and stop and drinking Strongbow. Williamson's end of tether bile is pure energy and it's weird hearing this in a field because they provoke an almost Pavlovian response of wanting to set something on fire.

The weather has gotten kind of insane now. The torrential rain hasn't stopped and we seem to be at the tail end of a hurricane (well in actuality of course we are). Tents are flying around like a Wizard Of Oz canvas megamix. Water is literally pouring through the door of the main stage. Still nobody seems to care. I feel like I'm in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or something.

I've not seen The Fall for a bit. Maybe years actually. I've not heard the last few albums either, not for any other reason other than I'll get round to it (you always do in the end right)? I assume I'll find the usual array of middling to genius long-players from the OG Smiths, but tonight I don't know what to expect. And tonight the Goblin King hits the mic with a raging twin drum attack and his voice is some kind of terrifying miracle. Opening with 'The Remainderer' tonight The Fall are on wild fucking form – brutal, loud and fast fast fast. 'Mr Pharmacist' gets booted out 10 minutes in and it's just tight as fuck and amazing and but I start getting distracted by various members of the stage crew moving around behind Smith.

And then, the pantomime starts. A member of the security crew wanders over to speak to Smith who seems disinterested or oblivious to his presence. The band play on but there's increasing activity and at any moment I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a shepherds crook pull our hero away. More security approach Smith who jumps out of fright this time not knowing that someone's behind him, keyboardist Elena Poulou freaks out, they try to get him to leave the stage and there is a short resurrection of the Benny Hill Show. The Fall play on but the power gets pulled. Not to be discouraged by the rapidly mounting chaos, Smith eggs (with little effort) drummers Melling and Garrat on whilst he seemingly mouths the words. Somehow, despite the power being pulled, Elena gets her keyboard back on, we're all going wild down the front but finally the band relents and exits stage right.

Turns out that the tent is a little unstable and needs re-tethering. Everyone has to leave immediately so I take a wander round the back to find Mark E Smith, visionary and lead singer of legendary band The Fall sat in the passenger seat of his car on his own keeping warm. I don't know why this should seem so strange but it really is. I can't describe it. It's like a kitchen-sink Lovecraft epiphany. Half an hour later, they're back on and the break hasn't diminished their energy. It's really a pulverising performance – for all the joking over the amount of past members, a mutant post-punk rockabilly krautrock chaos show should not sound this fresh nearly 40 years into their career.

At this point I have to run, cruelly missing Rocketnumbernine and Neneh Cherry.

So there we have it. Beacons Festival 2014. A bewildering strange and overwhelmingly good-natured and positive event that truly deserves to be experienced. Although I never did find my shoes…

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