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Three Songs No Flash

Maintaining Traditions: Things Learned At OFF Festival
Julian Marszalek , August 9th, 2014 10:38

While suffering from a bout of post-festival blues, Julian Marszalek reflects on his triumphant return to Katowice, headliners, highlights, herrings and all.

When I received an e-mail from Luke Turner asking if I'd be up for covering this year's OFF Festival in Katowice in southern Poland, I didn't need asking twice. My previous visit two years ago proved to be one of the most memorable festival experiences in recent years, thanks to a truly eclectic festival line-up more concerned with bringing as wide a variety of music to as many music fans as possible without having to bow and scrape to commercial concerns. Consequently, the lack of buzz bands that dominate the UK festival circuit are nowhere in sight and the opportunity to discover new music from a whole host of international sources is exponentially increased. So what's not to like?

The accepting of the commission held as many personal reasons as it did professional. With the fifth anniversary of my mother's passing looming large – she died just three years after my father – I've been thinking a lot about my own cultural identity. My parents arrived in England in 1948 as Polish refugees. Both sides of the family had been shipped out to the USSR following the Soviet invasion of 1939 where they were to be sovietised. After the Nazi attack on the Soviets in 1941, my family managed to make their way to Africa via the Persian corridor under the auspices of General Anders.

Growing up in England, I could never quite appreciate why my parents placed so much importance on giving my sister and I a Polish upbringing at home. "You mark my words," he'd say, "One day Poland will be free and you'll need the language. I want you to see where you come from and find out who you are." Of course, he was right and since their passing I've maintained certain traditions partly in honour to them but also because they've become important to me in recognising my own cultural heritage. That said, I've never truly felt completely Polish any more than I've ever felt truly English, but on balance I've managed to take the best of both cultures to form who I am.

This pondering on the nature of my cultural identity has coincided with the growth of Poland's ever expanding music scene. As extensively covered by the Quietus with a refreshing sense of enthusiasm, my own interest what Poland has to offer musically has grown sharply as a wide variety of genuinely exciting music has reached my ears. Crucially, this isn't music that's trying to sound Western, and as a result Polish music is developing a voice of its own. My own theory on this is based largely on the fact that, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Poland has had the longest period of self-determination since the years between the two world wars and this is now being reflected in its culture. I'm told by the festival's press guru, Jarek Szubrycht, that, back in the 90s, to sound like a Western band was a form of praise. Now it's a criticism. Consequently, music is being and distributed that not only works on a local level but is now attracting international interest.

This growth of Poland's wide variety of music is now reaching a wider audience and deservedly so, and it's to the OFF Festival's eternal credit that they're providing a platform to these bands and artists, as well as bringing in the cream of overseas artists.

You learn early on that you aren't going to see everything

The three pre-festival gigs on the Thursday night by Dean Wareham at Club Hipnoza, Earth at Parafia Ewnagelicko-Augsburska and Dirty Beaches at Kino Rialto are an early and sharp reminder that it's going to be impossible to catch everything that OFF has to offer. A combination of horrendous rain and a well-pitched set by the former Galaxie 500 frontman ensures that the Quietus remains with Wareham. Delving deep into his back catalogue, Wareham's dreamy and hypnotic waves of music are met with unbridled enthusiasm that isn't lost on Wareham. "The closest I've ever been to Poland is the KK diner on 1st Avenue," jokes Wareham but judging by the communion between artist and performer it's difficult to shake the feeling that this won't be his last visit. 'Temperature's Rising' and a delightfully languid 'Blue Thunder' are exquisitely read while the encore of 'Ceremony' shows that the song is just as much his as it is New Order's.

Different strokes for different folks

Though the talk of the Polish underground's increasingly rude health suggests something approaching a homogenised mass, the reality is far different. As evidenced by the number of domestic acts appearing across the festival's four stages, the music on offer comes from a variety if sources and each is satisfying taken on its own terms.

Taking the MBank stage in the almost oppressive heat of the mid afternoon, electropop duo The Dumplings prove to be an arresting experience and it's easy to see why they've got Poland's music press hot under the collar. Still in their mid-teens, singer Justyna Święs and electrowiz/guitarist Kuba Karaś are clearly still finding their feet on the stage of this size but it's to their credit that their pop nuggets shine through. Święs is a remarkably assured singer and the beats and melody controlled by Karaś suggest that this is a band that has the potential to move on to bigger things.

The Polish jazz scene has always been an entity within itself nowhere is this more on display than the tribute to painter, composer and vibraphonist in Krzysztof Komeda's sextet, Jerzy Milian, over at the Trójka Stage. Featuring a band of four vibraphonists and a drummer assembled by the composer and musician Bernard Maseli, the set stands as both a testament to Milian's talent and the OFF Festival's policy of musical diversity.

Avant-pop band Kobiety perform their eponymous debut album over at the MBank to the delight of their fans and to these virgin ears are a wonderful melding of Stereolab's more squelchy moments and The Go-Betweens' effortless melodicism.

But Friday's undisputed domestic highlight arrives in the form of Kraków's rock & roll monster Kaseciarz. A three-headed beast that easily melds a rockin' garage surf-punk sensibility with a local attitude, Kaseciarz's increasing and justified popularity is undeniable thanks to a rammed Experimental Stage tent. Within seconds of detonating what the band describe as "garbage rock & roll", the heaving mass in front of the stage is jumping, moshing and crowd-surfing. The selections from their splendid album Motörcycle Rock & Roll are a searing and consistently hot blast of unrestrained excitement. Singer-guitarist Maciej Nowacki's fondness for pedal stomping and hot washes of fuzz and distortion are a joy to behold while no-nonsense bassist Łukasz Cegiełka bears more than a passing resemblance to Game Of Thrones' Theon Greyjoy channeling Jean-Jacques Burnel. If ever a band deserves a wider audience, these guys are it.

Michael Rother makes dance music

This is this writer's third encounter with Michael Rother and it's by far and away the best one yet. Having seen him perform with Harmonia at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Tall Firs bassist Aaron Mullan at the Barbican, there was always the nagging sense that the choice of seated venues inspired an overly respectful approach to his music from the audience rather than the reaction it truly deserves – unrestrained and joyful dancing. Tonight, therefore, proves to be a completely different experience.

Taking the Forest Stage with his current band, one-time Neu! collaborator and erstwhile La Dusseldorf drummer Hans Lampe and Camera's Franz Bargmann on second guitar, Rother's music is given the space that it needs to breathe and to cause an outbreak of happy feet in the throng that's gathered in front of the stage. Cherry picking highlights from his considerable and highly influential career is no easy task but his finest moments are distilled into a throbbing, pulsing and yes, motorik drive that's impossible to resist. 'Sonnenrad' is a thing of beauty as Rother's guitar sings with clarity while Harmonia's 'Deluxe (Immer Wieder)' is beefed up to a considerable degree. Hans Lempe, sat behind an electronic drum kit, powers the track along with a relentless glee and no more so than on epic readings of 'Hallogallo' and 'Negativland' that increase the dancing in this corner of the OFF Festival to near fever pitch.

"Oh, it was wonderful," Lampe tells the Quietus the following day. "And it was such a joy to play 'Hallogallo'." Quite so and it was an immense pleasure to dance to it, too, and without a doubt, Friday belongs to Michael Rother and the music of NEU! and Harmonia.

Some bands throw up more questions than answers

Take Wolf Eyes over at the Experimental Stage in the early hours of Saturday morning, for instance. Are they serious about this shit or are they taking the fucking piss? They're easily the campest looking band since Village People and could convincingly be extras from Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. The unholy noise they create by heavily treated guitar and what looks like a pair of digital underpants and passionless yet shouted vocals is at once repugnant and thoroughly obnoxious. But here's the thing: stick around long enough and it all actually becomes pretty seductive, as the initial horror gives way to a compelling barrage and a frequently hilarious performance. The whole experience is akin to an endurance test and there's much fun to be had watching people leave in disgust and by the time the Quietus is beaten into submission it becomes difficult to care as to what their true intentions are.

The value of a decent soundcheck

One of the smartest things about the OFF Festival is a scheduling policy that sees only two out of its four stages in use at any one time. Not only does this maximize your chances of catching more bands, it also means that bands enjoy the luxury of a decent soundcheck, a concept well out of fashion with festivals running a much more packed line-up. The consequence of this policy is that there's none of this waiting around until the third or fourth track for the sound to get balanced out into something resembling aural decency.

It's a certainly a procedure that serves Japan's psyche-monsters Bo Ningen well over at the Trójka Stage on Saturday night. From the, ahem, off, their colossal soundscapes and heavy-duty riffing come on with all the force of a sledgehammer cracking a nut and the sound is breathtakingly fierce yet completely beguiling. They're visually stunning too, not least in part to singer-bassist Taigen Kawabe and guitarist Yuki Tsujii flamboyant sartorial tastes and a light shows that veers from the infernal to the divine and back again. Between 'Da Da Da', a ferocious statement of intent at the start of the set, and the epic closer 'Daikaisei', complete with any number of shifting time signatures, Bo Ningen seize the night and the screaming fans who cram into the tent.

Sadly, no amount of soundchecking can do any favours for the turgid sludge shoveled out like so much slop by the woeful Deafheaven over at the MBank Stage a few hours earlier. Their horrendous mix of black metal and supposed post-rock is augmented by the unintentionally mirthsome and chortle-inducing vocals of George Clarke, whose style resembles the puking noises of a food poisoning victim about to suck his trousers up his own arse. On the plus side, this soundchecking policy does highlight their shortcomings mercifully early.  

Festival food doesn't get any better than herrings in a bun

One of the great things about the OFF Festival is the selection of food available in the Market Area. Ranging from a variety of local meats, vegetarian dishes and some superb curries, the fare on offer knocks the greasy swill that's ubiquitous at British festivals into a cocked hat. But for this writer, the culinary highlight is to be found in the small van selling a selection of mouthwatering herring dishes at equally delicious prices. The herring fillets served up in a hot dog roll and rocket salad are so good they easily match any of the festival's musical highlights for sheer delights. Smacznego!

This autumn's Psychocandy gigs are shaping up nicely

The Jesus And Mary Chain have always been blessed with an embarrassment of riches but there's enough evidence on display during their Saturday night headline slot at the MBank stage that this autumn's revisiting of 1985 debut album Psychocandy is going to be quite something. With serial bassist Phil King switching places with erstwhile guitarist Mark Crozer, the rhythm section now benefits from a fatter sound which is bolstered by some quite extraordinary drumming from Fountains Of Wayne time-keeper Brian Young. It's oddly redolent of AC/DC's dynamics inasmuch as it frees William Reid to unleash all manner of sonic distortions from his impressively sized if occasionally unwieldy rig.

An early burst of 'Snakedriver', 'Head On' and 'Far Gone And Out' do their do to create outbursts and cheers among the sizeable crowd and not even an off-key lead break during 'Blues From A Gun' can dent the enthusiasm generated in front of the stage. Jim Reid is on fine voice throughout though he does, as ever, give off the between song demeanor of a man wishing he was somewhere else. But it's the phosphorescent burst of Psychocandy material that ignites the MBank Stage and its surrounding environs. Despite 'Just Like Honey's false start, there's a palpable shudder of delight throughout the crowd which then gives way to a near orgasmic rush as 'In A Hole' and 'Taste Of Cindy' snap and snarl with verve and vigour.

Whoever invents credible goth and metal summer wear will be minted for life

All credit to mysterious Polish avant-metallers Thaw and their ongoing dedication to keeping as much of their identities a secret as possible. Under a blazing early Sunday afternoon sun on the MBank Stage, the quintet are dressed entirely in black with hoods pulled down over the faces as they pummel their way through a nerve-shredding blend of black metal and industrial grinding. And boy, must they be sweating under that sun-absorbing garb. Seriously, there's a gold mine waiting to be made in black yet credible summer wear.

The advantages of a well laid out festival

As previously mentioned, only two out of the four stages play at any one time but another advantage of the relatively small size of the festival is that is does offer the opportunity to catch two halves of clashing sets. It only takes about five minutes or so to walk from one end of the festival to the other and so it is that the Quietus two great sets from bands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Japan's all-girl Nisennenmondai have totally packed the Experimental Stage for their Sunday evening and not without good reason. Their throbbing post-punk disco is a thing of feet and hip moving wonder that's propelled by a pulsing bottom end and infectious rhythms that leave the crowd utterly rapt.

Within the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, we're over the Forest Stage to catch the second half of Artur Rojek's set. Granted, the thought of the festival's organiser playing at his own event may throw up images of Michael Eavis playing a banjo on the Pyramid Stage but Rojek is an established artist in his own right. His otherworldly music and fine singing draws a sizeable crowd and one that's rightly here for what he does and not who he is.

Slowdive serve to remind of the brilliance of Cocteau Twins

Judging by the size of the crowd that fills the MBank Stage arena, the return of Slowdive on Sunday night is one of OFF Festival's most anticipated sets. Certainly the mass swaying and polite bobbing of heads as well as the screams and roars that greets each number is testament to this. The chiming guitars of 'Machine Gun' twinkle and shimmer and 'Souvlaki Space Station' is a stand out highlight but the one-paced nature of the music and its obvious reference points cause an involuntary pining for the ethereal swirls of Cocteau Twins. And of course, it's difficult not to make mention of shoegazing thanks to Rachel Goswell's red Mary Janes which pretty much remain rooted to spot as if they'd been nailed down to the stage.

Fuck Buttons may not be much to look at but their music is, umm, Olympian

Look, for all I know Fuck Buttons, hunched as they are over their bewildering set of gadgetry, might well be playing a game of Battleships or Mastermind on stage. Yet be that as it may, their visual shortcomings are more than made up for the huge panoramic sound that emanates from the Forest Stage. Fuck Buttons really do have this festival business well and truly sown up and you've got to admire their chutzpah as the anthemic 'Olympians' makes an appearance early in their set.

And why not? It's not as if it's the only thing in their considerable sonic arsenal. The menacing throb of 'Sentients' is bolstered by a relentless light show that accentuates its dark pulses while the squelching and relentless 'Surf Solar' is a life-affirming beast that shakes off any inhibitions the crowd may have. This is monstrously good stuff that manages to wring out that extra bit of energy from tired feet as the festival approaches its inevitable end.

Great music doesn't have a sell-by date

Despite the physical ache that follows Fuck Buttons' immense set, extra reserves of energy are found to wring the last drops of fun that are to be found with Jonathan Toubin incredible DJ set at one of the smaller tents over in the Market Area. The New Yorker possesses an incredible collection of 45s and is himself a walking - or should that be spinning? – encyclopedia of arcane 50s rock & roll, jump blues, early 60s R&B and proto funk. His mixing skills are incredible as one track seamlessly changes to another to propel an amazing late night party that sees the assembled revelers demanding, and succeeding in gaining, an extra hour from a genuinely flattered Toubin.

It's impossible not to have a good time at OFF

It's been some time since this writer encountered a heavy dose of post-festival blues so it's a testament to the OFF Festival that we leave Poland with a heart as heavy as stone. Brilliantly organised and with a bill focused on presenting as many differing forms of music as is possible to cram into one weekend, the festival is a refreshing and invigorating antidote to so many of the British outdoor events that seem intent on wringing as much money as possible from the punter with so little in return.

The site is superbly laid out with the result being more bang for your buck. But on a personal perspective, the festival offers a fantastic opportunity to meet a wide variety of interesting and fun people. The audience is overwhelmingly Polish but we also get to hang out with Austrians, Australians and Slovaks and the hospitality extended to the Quietus is always friendly and warm.

Throughout the weekend, OFF Festival is nothing less than a celebration of music and diverse cultures, of the positive aspects of human nature and the universal pursuit of a damn good time bonded by a common cause. Moreover, it's a physically undemanding experience and the atmosphere is wonderfully relaxed throughout the entire weekend.

A triumph from start to finish, a lot of British festivals would do well to take note and import and some of OFF Festival's finer aspects. There's a little bit of my heart left in Katowice and I can't wait to leaving some more next year.

Special thanks to Paulina Gradkowska, Iga Zawadzinska and Jarek Szubrycht for help and assistance over and above the call of duty.

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