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Things Learned At: Simple Things
Danny Riley , October 29th, 2015 12:06

Noisy upstarts upstage the heritage acts at Bristol's annual Simple Things Festival, as reported by Danny Riley

Photo by Kane Rich

Saturday afternoon's alright for skronkin'

I'm not quite sure about the origins of the name of Simple Things festival, but to me it sounds rather like the name of some irritating blog or romantic comedy ('It's The Simple Things That Matter', 'God Bless The Simple Things', you know what I mean) rather than an ace annual festival of envelope-pushing musical fun. Trading standards issues aside, it has to be said that the good folks at Crack magazine who organise the event have become somewhat adept in their curation, managing to appeal without succumbing to mere self-conscious eclecticism. Once again, this year's bill was nicely split between diverse guitar-based and electronic acts by day and a bracing club lineup by night, running attendees ragged around the multi-venue circuit.

Things get off to a shaky start with an early afternoon set from Penguin Cafe Orchestra who, though managing to attract a respectable crowd, fail to get pulses racing with their genteel brand of of minimalist folk-jazz. A welcome anathema to the group's coffee-coloured quirks are noise-rock upstarts Sex Swing, whose bracing psych thuggery comes off like a ghastly concoction of Variations On A Theme-era Om, Beak> and Borbetomagus. What they lack in inventiveness in the riffs department they make up for threefold in brutality and noise-mangling variety, made all the more potent by Dan Dethscalator's quite scary, 'sexy' dancing. A slight let down is the unfortunate quietness of saxophone for most of the gig, lessening the power of Colin Webster's free-form baritone splurges. Next time, sound man, more skronk please!

Providing an altogether more nuanced trip in The Lantern venue are Grumbling Fur, who go pretty deep into the brain-forest with a set largely formed of beat-orientated, extended reworkings of album tracks rather than the joyful occult pop of Preternaturals' lighter moments. This is no bad thing, however, as the heady inward glide of 'Protogenesis' proves, bringing to mind images of glowing orbs, Terrence McKenna's machine elves and Austin Osman Spare reborn as a synth-pop icon. A rousing version of 'Dancing Lights' brings the pop gratification, with Daniel O'Sullivan whirling like a dervish, violin in hand. Top draw weirdness.

The dubious merits of the heritage act

As with Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Simple Things' policy of booking more established acts from alternative music history for the headliners occasionally has its drawbacks. Innovators of yesteryear don't necessarily make for stunning live appearances in the present day. Post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor's opening concert in Colton Hall on the Friday night however was undeniably pretty immersive. Although I fear I'll never be one of those people that truly 'get' Godspeed in the way that so many diehards at this gig clearly do, their sheer heaviosity and ability to envelope is undeniable. You'd have to be made of stronger stuff than this writer not to be moved by the group's shimmering rendition of 'Peasantry Or "Light! Inside Of Light"', and its certainly a nice feeling to see the rapturous response they provoke in the crowd.

Unfortunately, though the crowd response is similarly celebratory, it's quite hard to be moved in the same way by Lee 'Scratch' Perry's set at the O2 Academy on the Saturday evening. Beyond the novelty of being in the same room as a living legend, there is little else here to get excited about. Call me jaded by the ubiquity of dub in Bristol, but for this writer the things that make Perry great are his studio productions, with his celebrated sense of space and experimental approach to sound processing. With Perry leading from the front in the live setting, there's little of this experimentalism to add to the sound other than the deployment of a few echo effects, giving one the sense of merely watching a proficient but fairly boring reggae group. Close, but no bifter.

If in doubt, go Taps Aff

Liturgy are sounding big right now. Oh, so very big. In fact, I get the sense toward the end of the band's early evening set that they might be in danger of getting lost in a cloud of their own bigness. The relatively short set times for most of Simple Things' early acts works in their favour, however, leaving them only a 40 minute slot to air their blasting art-metal. The live setting also serves their more recent material from The Ark Work well; shorn of the faintly ridiculous, Rome: Total War-esque MIDI-brass, the tracks are left only with slabs of grinding tremolo-picked guitar and Greg Fox's Herculean prog rock/black metal/jazz fusion drum histrionics. The drummer's decision to go shirtless also clearly gives a boost of confidence, as he nonchalantly dismantles and rebuilds his drum kit mid-song (with some help from Beak>'s Matt Williams, wearing a cape apparently). A crushing 'Quetzacoatl' is an ear-rinsing mid-set highlight.

Also reaping the benefits of the Taps Aff style are Giant Swan, who effectively take a graveyard slot in Colston Hall, playing after most of the crowds have migrated to The Island complex and the nightclub Lakota for a schooling in techno. Those who are there to catch the Bristolian improvisational noise duo experience one of the best sets of the whole festival. Bear with me on this one - when I say 'improvisational noise', I don't necessarily mean obscurantist ramblings fed through a couple of distortion pedals and mixing desk. While there's clearly a Yellow Swans inspiration somewhere within Giant Swan, what they do us irresistibly and undeniably fun, with their sound veering precariously between bouncing techno-like beats and air-shredding synth-squall. Visceral, intense and psychedelic, you could do worse than catch Giant Swan next time they play in a basement near you.

Give the people what they need, not what they want

Beak> knock out a solid set, with the doom-mongering 'Wulfstan II' providing a personal highlight, however their awkward kraut stylings prove a little phlegmatic for a crowd feeling the effects of a day's drinking and eager for a more rigorous shakeup. Had they been present at The Island complex earlier in the evening, they would have found this and then some with a thorough techno telling-off from Helena Hauff. The potency of Hauff's blistering set is perhaps bolstered by its setting, taking place in the old police cells under The Island, a subterranean venue perfect for horror film screenings, noise gigs and nights of nosebleed techno alike. Hauff's elasticated, juddering machine-funk and cranky EBM pulses really bring the power, injecting some much-needed vigour into a worse-for-wear crowd.

Later, Holly Herndon's sonic manipulations translate pretty well to the hedonistic setting, whilst Blanck Mass deploys his dancier tracks to summon one last hurrah in the Colston Hall foyer, as his abrasive, sky-scraping cascades of synth reverberate through all the floors of the venue. However as Saturday evening bleeds into Sunday morning, there is a general exodus toward one act playing in the Firestation venue. Oh, the terrifying functionality of Factory Floor. It's in settings like these that you really get a sense of why the group's paring down of dance music's genetics works so well, as they work their magic on an undulating mob of Saturday night ravers. The sound is moody, unwelcoming, inhumane even, though it leaves a perverse pleasure to watch as their music leaves a glaze-eyed audience with little choice but to jerk to the rhythm like Futurist marionettes, the pervasive pull eventually drawing you in as well. A hefty, lengthy set of pummellers from Objekt in Lakota provides a fitting postscript to the day, bringing what Factory Floor started to its logical conclusion. Once again, Simple Things this year manages to do what left field music festivals often struggle to do: curate a diverse bill without compromising on quality, or the high potential for fun.