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Things Learned At: Mutations Festival
David Bennun , December 3rd, 2015 00:16

David Bennun ventures around his hometown of Brighton to discover his favourite new guitarist and have his hearing annihilated by Lightning Bolt

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Photo by Mike Burnell

The format of a mini-Great Escape is a good one

The Great Escape is tremendous, and I try never to miss it; it is also exhausting, hectic, crowded, overwhelming and of necessity strongly business-oriented. This pared-down multi-venue affair (a model to which Brighton is perfectly suited) is also pleasantly tiring, but more so physically than mentally. It reduces the agonies of choice, the homework and the Fear Of Missing Out, and it maintains creditable quality across its compact line-up. Over two days in which I attended twenty-plus performances, I saw no queues outside venues, nor heard of anyone turned away. (It may have happened, but if so it was unusual.)

Brighton is now the nearest thing the UK has to Austin, TX

For better and for worse, but mainly for better. There's never been a better time to for a music devotee to live here. Stadium-sized acts aside, the world now comes to you, and the city has finally developed a homegrown scene that's more than just a patchwork of borrowed mannerisms.

There's a wealth of pleasures lower down the bill

Lunchtime to mid-afternoon is the time for voyages of discovery, hopping between town-centre venues for short sets by new or little known bands. If you like ragged, plangent, sinewy folk-ish rock reminiscent of The Decemberists, you'll probably enjoy Saintseneca. I do, so I do. If Brns (pronounced "brains") are any indicator, Brussels produces invigorating, percussive avant-pop with at least as much facility as it does Islamist nutjobs. And you don't get nearly enough lead-singing drummers these days. I blame Phil Collins. Not because it's his fault, but because he compulsively reads (or used to) everything written about him, and it'll annoy him. Local duo Atlas Wynd (pronounced "wind", as in "wind up Phil Collins"), do a rousing, frenetic guitar-drums-no-bass rawk & roll thing. Kagoule are a Nottingham power trio so far most notable for their precocity, being ridiculously young and strikingly accomplished (their bassist in particular is a bit good.)

I have a new guitar hero

Name of Robert Earl Thomas, from a Brooklyn band called Widowspeak: technically a duo, but playing live as a quartet. They seem another pleasant if unremarkable female-vocal-led dreampop act until he cranks up his Fender; at first with that spooky, echo-laden 60s twang sound for which I am a confessed sucker, then floating off on beautifully measured solo fragments into the pure, wild ether. He reminds me of undervalued Telecaster wizard Roy Buchanan, which anyone who does value Roy Buchanan will know is some recommendation.

I don't know from Doom Metal, but I know what I like

And I like Sea Bastard. I like their name. I like they way they really do look as if they've been dredged up undead from the wreck of the ocean's shonkiest pirate galleon. I like the way their set feels like being crushed by a slow-motion juggernaut constructed from horror, distortion and rusted boiler plates. I like that they have a song called 'The Hermit' which consists of deranged screaming of the word "Why" (or maybe just, "Whaaaaargh"; I wouldn't swear to either) for ten or more minutes, possesses sufficient mass to generate its own gravity, and evokes the least serene recluse ever to inhabit a cave because nobody else will live near him.

The leftfield has become a kind of mainstream in itself...

One far removed from money and publicity, granted. The supposedly experimental is now in many instances so widely reproduced as to no longer be considered an experiment. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The overall standard is on the high side. I could name names, but what would be the point of damning with sincere but faint praise pretty good and pretty obscure bands whose only sin is to be unexceptional.

...but the inspired stuff stands out a mile

And Blanck Mass, aka him out of Fuck Buttons, is that. He doesn't have a different stockpile of ideas to everybody else (although his other band may take same credit for circulating them.) He's one of those Dr Frankensteins who can harness lightning and make the patchwork monster live. His is less of a set, more of a gold-plated skull-fucking machine. This is as heavy a trip as I've had electronically induced in me in a long time.

If you have the chance to see Le Galaxie play an intimate show and don't take it, more fool you

It might be that currently all their shows are intimate shows, but if there's any justice, that won't last. Everything about them is white except the drummer's trousers. This lends them the curious romper-suit aspect of four giant, bearded babies. They are somehow simultaneously the most and the least stereotypically Irish thing ever. Only Kalahari leprechauns could be more so. And they offer pure joy - an exuberantly daft, no-fucks-given, in-your-face-and-in-the-audience electro/disco/EBM set with shades of 90s anthemic rave. People are hugging one another, and the band, by the end of it, and rightly so. Big, big-hearted, booty-shaking fun.

Chelsea Wolfe is very slick

Which might seem an odd observation about somebody who plays dense, howling sludge-rock through which her voice weaves like spilt milk. It's gothic, or at least goth-y, minus any rococo, or preternatural conceits. Yet what comes across most through the gloom and pain is not confusion but its exact opposite, control. She is clever and in command. The sound is everything; it is hard to detect much at its core. But the sound is plenty.

Josh T Pearson is currently the saddest and funniest thing in music

Sad, in the sense of harrowing. He portrays himself as pathetic, but his talent and charisma are far too blinding for him to pull that one off. If you ever wondered what could be more bleak and mordant than his "old" songs - "They're painful, and I'm singing them for you because I'm broke" - the answer is his new ones. "I've got my records out, but he's got you," he mourns of a broody, maternal ex, and anyone who's ever had a cherished relationship collapse beneath the conflicting dreams of its partners has a new go-to theme tune. His repartee between numbers is, by contrast, comedy gold. Half his set is taken up by Pentecostal gospel songs, which he performs in duet with Calvin LeBaron as The Two Witnesses ("As you can see, we've got a gay cowboy thing going on"), and which concludes with a version of I Will Follow Him so hysterically homoerotic the audience is very nearly rolling in the aisles of All Saints Church. Pearson is brilliant and genuinely unique.

Lightning Bolt are completely fucking mental

I would expand on this, but by that point I was on hour twenty of venue-hopping, and my notes consist chiefly of obscene hieroglyphs and the phrase "Screeeeeeee!" repeated indefinitely. Did I mention Lightning Bolt are completely fucking mental? Because Lightning Bolt are completely fucking mental.

I am now deaf

Not kidding. I am genuinely perturbed about this. Fucking Lightning Bolt.

ad hominem
Dec 3, 2015 8:39am

a really great fest, i hope they do another one - i only made day two but maybe the non-queuing thing was a result of low ticket sales? dunno, either way, more than happy to watch Lightning Bolt in a 3/4 full venue thanks! Also, METZ stormed it, and were technically the headliners although i'm sure playing straight after LB is tough call.

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Jim
Dec 3, 2015 10:32am

Hmmmmmmm......

Is it possible to have had a great time but feel massively shortchanged. I'm sure if I'd got a press ticket I would have loved it BUT when tickets were first put on sale it was not announced that the Saturday would be a quiet day and the Sunday a loud day. I thought the Saturday was very weak, saved only slightly by the Le Galaxie gig you mention (how much fun was that??) and Josh T. Chelsea Wolfe was pretty dull and the less said about the sorry Christopher Owens 'headline' set the better.

The Sunday always looked the better day, great performances from Ought, Blanck Mass and especially METZ. Personally Lightning Bolt get on my tits after half an hour, it all starts sounding the same. They're easy to admire, hard to love IMO.

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Jim
Dec 3, 2015 10:39am

Oh and I enjoyed BRNS as well but not enough to hurry back. Was it only me that was reminded of Alt-J though?

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Dec 3, 2015 11:00am

In reply to Jim:

know what you mean Jim - when tickets first went on sale they weren't planning on selling any day tickets, then they announced they were (so i bought one) - but then they started selling them half price (annoying!). still, quite glad i only went sunday. having things gigs solely in hove on the saturday/brighton on the sunday - while admirable to avoid running round too much - maybe affected what sort of noise levels they could get away with?

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Jim
Dec 3, 2015 1:03pm

In reply to :

Swans played The Old Market at Drill last year so I suspect the noise thing wasn't an issue. Also, the daytime stuff was in Brighton on the Saturday and was pretty uninspiring.

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Dec 3, 2015 1:12pm

In reply to Jim:

ah yes, that Swans gig was pretty loud. funny how they billed Mutations as a Brighton/Hove split. maybe a touch impractical, good idea though.

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