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LIVE REPORT: The Great Escape Festival
Mike Diver , May 23rd, 2017 14:03

Taking in standout performances from Flamingods, Aldous Harding, and PAULi among others, Mike Diver reports back from this year's edition of Brighton's annual celebration of new music. Photographs by Dee McCourt (Borkowski Arts)

To say she moves in mysterious ways is an understatement. The whole time she’s on stage, onlookers are racking brains, scratching at memories, at precedents. Just who does she remind us of? Where have I heard this before? Nobody real, so far as I can fathom; and never, is about the best answer I can put forward.

Aldous Harding was a Hot Ticket as soon as she was announced for this year’s Great Escape, Brighton’s annual three-day multi-venue extravaganza of new music – supplemented as always by a few rolling-back-the-years crusties and so-called “spotlight” shows ostensibly packaged as headliner performances. Thankfully for punters weary with walking the city’s hilly central thoroughfares and narrow, tourist-plugged la(i)nes, ducking in and out of pubs and clubs while forever fighting schedule clashes (and some unbelievable queues), the New Zealander plays two shows. And it’s at the second, at the North Laine-edging One Church, where I witness something quite extraordinary.

Late to the Party, perhaps – I’ll take that one on the chin (and yes, pun intended). Harding’s self-titled debut came out three years ago. But it’s through the persistent presence of her ‘Horizon’ single on 6 Music – my kitchen radio’s morning choice – that I became aware of her name, her voice, her transcendence. And to see it unravel before your eyes is something else entirely. The songs are but a part of it, of a whole that necessitates a flirtation with superhero fiction to find an anchor in. I’ve got it, I think to myself, as Harding’s facial contortions, angular poses, jutted-frontwards chin and fight-ready self-psyching manifest: this is the Heath Ledger Joker as neo-gothic singer-songwriter.

It’s there in the eyes – wild, wide, burning. The smile – cracked magnificently broad, unsure of its connotations. The limbs – stretched, taut, fingers at exaggerated angles. That sense that, even while she sings a disquieting lullaby of commitment, she could leap into the front row and tear out a throat with her teeth – so white, bared regularly, like a tiger behind the glass of a zoo enclosure eyeing up a gawping six-year-old. How can an artist be at once so radiantly melancholic and ravishingly malevolent?

The Heath Ledger Joker – a person split into two halves, the before and after, smeared in precedent, but already over the horizon. Gone – too far. Harding, too, appears with course plotted – to the heart, and through, and beyond, leaving a trail of blood and tears. Entirely in white, an angel in a house of the holy; playing a devilish game of rope a dope, her vulnerability more a mask of defiance and purpose as it is a coquettish underbelly attractive to the Standard Ranks of White Men who enjoy Girls With Guitars. Come with hungry eyes, get sucker-punched out of your smart shoes.

“Songstress” proclaims the festival’s guide, under Harding’s listing – pfft, what a reductive, sexist, so-fucking-wide-of-the-mark summation. “Songstress”, to suggest someone who confirms to archaic dictionary definitions. No. In her voice – you’d call it Joanna Newsom-like if only that wasn’t almost as painfully, desperately, box-ticking – there’s weight and want, woe and wishes, which underpin the songs to such great extent as to make them something other. Vessels for a cause, a campaign – a spree that we’re only just beginning to see the impact of.

“Songstress” doesn’t fit Sarasara either, whose set at Latest Music Bar on Friday evening is very much a part of The Great Escape’s proverbial undercard. But the Lille-born songwriter, who’s worked with odd-beats-and-pieces master Matthew Herbert, quite evidently has little enthusiasm for conforming to expectation, and her staccato vocalising over occasionally Maxinquaye-recalling production – those tight drum fills, the machine-like march, that plunging dark (she lost both parents at 14, which can’t not have scarred her art) – deserves a bigger venue, a more respectful crowd.

There are moments when the music drops out entirely, the resulting void an essential aspect of the composition at play – but chatter spoils the moment, and Sarasara’s twisted marriage of new technology and naked emotion loses its punch. When everyone shuts the fuck up, though, that there’s something special here is crystal – it’s raw, sure, but Sarasara’s an ideas artist, and should one of them blossom into more than admirable ambition, she could become an avant-scene star.

Equally blessed by ideas is PAULi, previously musical director for/with the likes of Jamie xx and FKA twigs and drummer for Damon Albarn – but the London-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s experimental-R&B execution is lacking right now. But then, The Great Escape is about newness, the next wave, so a little rawness is expected. Viølets, a four-piece from London, try to hide their just-starting-out experience with glossy dance numbers that, every so often, bear comparison to The Invisible jamming with Jessie Ware, all intimately plucked guitar strings, polite electronics and vocals that’d fit right into any “featuring” slot on the next big crossover album from the house music community.

Raw means something else entirely when it comes to Leeds rockers Weirds, however, who come about as close to collapsing the Brighthelm Centre as anyone will this side of signing off on a redevelopment-preceding wrecking ball. Weirds are the kind of boys who won’t stop picking at scabs, who won’t stop poking a big stick at a mean dog, who won’t stop riding their bikes at full pelt because they’re only just past stabilisers and if they slow down they’ll lose their balance and then what, huh? Back to the cuts, the scabs, the picking.

Ten minutes in and two out of four are shirtless, long hair whipping back and forth like febrile medusas, feeling the heat emitting from songs that burn like stars – and threaten to swallow this place entirely. Between eruptions of dirty great riff-propelled speed and light, they’re the model of politeness – thanks for coming, it’s great to see you, is everyone OK. We are, in the still. But in the midst of the dance, though, the band is down the front, through the front, in the crowd, gnashing and snapping, drooling and dangerous. They barely even need their instruments. We all take a step back, but Weirds just come further forward. This is attack music, and to feel the bite is fantastic.

If Weirds represent the barely controlled cacophony, two hands on the handlebars or else we’re stacking this racing for a prize that’s probably not there at all, Canada’s Beliefs are the more structured but no less shocking transatlantic cousins riding in on doom-drenched electronic pulsations and deliciously deep bass patterns. Hailing from Toronto, they’re also victims of official guide underselling: “The 90s are back,” is the elevator pitch in print, complemented by a comparison to My Bloody Valentine.

But what unfolds is a compelling concoction of cataclysmically combustive yet cleverly nuanced noise that could just as easily play a supporting role on the next Oathbreaker tour as it could a headline run by Interpol. Which represents a vast swathe of rock middle ground, granted – but Beliefs’ strength is absolutely the foursome’s ability to subtly pluck reference points without ever giving in to imitation. The band’s rather more surface-layer generic on-record fare does them a disservice, as their rattling of the Green Door Store’s very foundations is a testament to. Perhaps this is the next phase, then – and if so, a safety harness is recommended.

Further winning rock turns are delivered by Cassels, an explosive Oxford two-piece comprised of brothers who play a song about their shitty step-dad that is simultaneously heart breaking and mosh encouraging; and Canadians The Avulsions, whose wind-up-and-release tension is in its formative stages now, but already emits a confidence in keeping a crowd hooked through several minutes of howling trepidation. Kamikaze Girls, a duo from Leeds, lay down a righteous riot of socio-political scream-alongs; and Glasgow’s The Van T’s aim for a sweeter spot of surf-flavoured riffs, but impress equally with their enthusiastically retro melodicism.

Speaking of enthusiasm, no one artist of this year’s Great Escape hits the stage with as much energy as French rapper and dancer Killason, whose under-attended first-on set at the beachside Shooshh venue – an ideas-above-its-station student club out of its depth as a proper live venue, with overzealous security to match – sizzles and sparkles from the first beat to the last. His material’s undeniably nascent, with production and lyricism alike still finding its feet – but then, given how fast his feet move, it’s no surprise that the music’s still playing catch up to the electrifying physical side of what he offers. He smiles, sort of flirts a little, whips off his top and never looks for a split second like he’s not having the time of his life – and when you can do that before a bunch of rained-on beards with their arms crossed, in a place barely set up for the purpose, you’re doing more than okay.

It’s early days too for Miles From Kinshasa, a Congo-born and London-bred artist whose silken soul is carried on prickly guitars and understated computerised percussion. Bathed in blue light at The Arch, his short set is packed with promise – but doesn’t say enough right now for any betting parties to make a money-where-the-mouths-are call on. His nervous shuffling on stage is endearing in a way, but exhibiting a little more savvy with the live situation, and clearer enunciation between cuts, would benefit the connection between clearly talented artist and a crowd that’s there to support him. It’ll come, though, of that I’ve little doubt.

Steering clear of the meat-and-potatoes indie on offer, this year’s Great Escape also serves up a celebratory feeling Flamingods performance at The Haunt, host to the Quietus for the event – the vibes, you can practically feel them washing against your face as the Bahrain-formed five-piece crack open a melting pot of psychedelic-flavoured fare. Monster Florence aim to blend, too, the Essex collective bouncing off the walls of the Paganini Ballroom as they lay down athletic rap wordplay over six-string-and-sax backing. Sweden’s Shitkid is perhaps the most, ahem, acquired taste of what I personally catch – but there’s a strange cuteness to the calamity of her stripped-bare punk that keeps you engaged, even when the songs descend into childish chants about pineapples.

But nobody courts their crowd quite like Harding. With such electricity in her expressions, and colour in her voice – distressed and stretched and perfectly poised, like nothing else. Like nothing real, at least, until now, until the latecomers roll in and she has the far-from-last laugh at a party of her singular persuasion.