Ben Graham takes a trip to Brighton. Featuring Swans, Wire, Savages, These New Puritans and more. Photo by Greg Neate

It’s been a funny old weekend, really. A five-night, multi-venue music festival in Brighton, DRiLL is supposedly curated by Wire, though for this to be literally and entirely the case one would have to presuppose a surprising enthusiasm on the part of the post-punk veterans for this city’s local band scene. What we get is an impressive selection of international acts successfully straddling the accessible and the avant-garde, along with many accomplished and popular, if less innovative, indie and singer-songwriter types and a whole bunch of Brighton bands and performers of varying stripes. Over 100 acts, all told, and the result is a mixture of a ‘Brighton Live’ local music week and the Great Escape for grown-ups, but crucially without the crowds- which happily meant less queuing and more comfortable shows, but can’t have been exactly the promoters’ intention.

A full ticket price of £70 is a big ask so close to Christmas, regardless of the quality of music on offer, and it appears that DRiLL failed to get anywhere close to selling out. Many venues one would expect to be packed are merely half full, though to be fair some of the smaller names draw larger crowds than many of the headliners. It also seems unlikely that many tickets were sold after the full schedules were released, as all the big draw headliners find themselves perhaps unavoidably clashing with each other. Punters who’ve paid up on the combined promise of the top line of acts are faced with some difficult if enviable choices. Wire, the Wytches or These New Puritans? Savages or British Sea Power? Goblin, Githead, East India Youth or Esben And The Witch? Swans on Sunday are always a must-see, especially with the lure of a one-off collaboration with Wire thrown in, but dammit why does that mean having to miss Gold Panda (a cancellation, as it turned out) Grumbling Fur and even Wire’s own "secret" intimate early evening gig at the Hope?

Your reviewer opts for seeing These New Puritans in a small club venue (Audio) on Thursday night, arriving good and early expecting it to be well over-subscribed and finding it all but empty, and later barely three-quarters full at its busiest. This early arrival does mean though that I get the chance to be pleasantly surprised by Brighton’s own Sons of Noel and Adrian. I always had them pegged as a fairly dirgey new folk, singer-songwriter kind of concern, and I’m not sure now whether this notion was based on an early album or gig that I experienced and then dismissed, or whether it was a complete misconception all along. Certainly tonight, Sons Of Noel and Adrian plug a defiantly electric brand of muscular jazz-rock that recalls the acceptable face of early seventies prog; Soft Machine, later Traffic and the ‘Rock In Opposition’ movement, somewhere between Henry Cow and Magma, rather than pretentious dullards such as ELP. The seven-piece (apparently they can number up to 15) swing together effortlessly, Emma Gatrill’s clarinet trading riffs with Al Strachan’s trumpet before switching to abstract vocals and percussion, all over a solid bed of tense, complex rhythms, quietly screaming guitar and fuzzed-up, Church Of Satan electric organ.

For These New Puritans’ set, Jack, George and Tom are joined on stage not only by singer Elisa Rodrigues but by producer and former Bark Psychosis man Graham Sutton, on guitar, laptop and mini-synth. With fierce strobes breaking up the semi-darkness, TNP tonight abandon the acoustic textures and orchestral expansiveness of A Field of Reeds for a stripped-down, electronic and rhythmically dominated approach that feels like we’re watching an early Factory Records band at Manchester’s Russell Club in 1979. The combination of Sutton’s treated guitar and Rodrigues’ unearthly vocals on the opening couple of pieces (unfamiliar to my ears) suggest the gothic wonder of post-punk era Cocteau Twins, but versions of ‘Organ Eternal’ and ‘Drum Courts’ capture the arty, long overcoat gloom of Crispy Ambulance and- especially- the austere funk of Section 25. A haunting ‘Where The Trees Are On Fire’ points to These New Puritans picking up where Talk Talk (also sort of from Southend) left off, while the descending slabs of synth bass on ‘Three Thousand’ are heavy enough to fell trees. Astonishing stuff.   

Over at the Concorde on Friday night, Black Honey play driving, melodic rock with a nod to the blues here, a kaleidoscopic dalliance with effects-laden psychedelia there and always a firm grip on straight-up, hook-laden pop songcraft. At times they recall Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or the Raveonettes, at others the Hole of Celebrity Skin; singer-guitarist Izzy Bee effectively pulls off the disturbed waif act on stage and has a strong voice, rising effortlessly from a husky murmur to a glassy howl. But if Black Honey play their music like an expertly controlled release, then the next act, Lonelady, are all about tension, not only in their scratchy guitar lines and tight, popping beats but in the contrast between the cold, abrasive edges to their art-funk grooves and Julie Campbell’s warm if understated pop-soul vocals, which even hold a hint of country in their heartfelt ache. At moments it’s as if Dolly Parton has joined Gang of Four; at others I’m clutching at ghosts in a nostalgic haze of 1980s post-disco pop music, from ‘State of Independence’ era Donna Summer to early Thompson Twins, from the menace and mystery of Shriekback to the best minimalist R&B/ electro of the era. Mostly though I’m just dancing joyfully, to the crisp beats and icy synths that shimmer suggestively around Campbell’s compulsively itchy guitar.      

Signs posted all around the venue strongly request that no-one record or film Savages’ set tonight, and it soon becomes apparent why; not that they’re having a bad hair day (I can’t imagine Savages ever having a bad hair day) but because they play almost entirely new material, the only concessions to familiarity a blistering ‘She Will’ seven songs in and a closing one-two punch of ‘Husbands’ and ‘Fuckers.’ It’s a brave move and indeed the first half of the set is something of a challenge for the audience, even taking into account the deep trust and devotion Savages rightly inspire in their fans. "I’m back in the world, I need something new," Jehnny Beth spits on the opening number, a tightly-coiled dirge that sets the tone for much of what’s to come; Savages more uncompromising than ever, refusing to meet the music business halfway but instead producing dark, harsh music on their own terms that’s powerful and compelling enough to draw you to them regardless.

Lesser bands might sugar the formula presented on Silence Yourself in order to move swiftly up pop’s career ladder; Savages are using that record’s success as a platform from which to now give listeners not what they want, but what they need. Early Siouxsie and the Banshees remain the blueprint on new songs like ‘Slowing Down the World,’ but it’s a valid avenue to explore; Savages are gradually developing that sound in a different direction than the Banshees ever did, with a close-knit, all-female fixed line-up providing a different dynamic to that of the Siouxsie-Severin songwriting team plus shifting guitar foils. Every musician in the band more than pulls their weight, particularly Gemma Thompson- tonight a shadowy, fiery guitar hero in the mould of Daniel Ash and John Mcgeoch- but one of Savages’ strongest credits is that they’re making people listen to the words again. "You ask the world and the world says no," leaps out from ‘No’, before the next song, possibly called ‘Surrender,’ locates that sweet spot where goth collides with dub, all creaks and echo as King Tubby meets Bauhaus underground. A heartfelt dedication to the late Nick Talbot precedes the most powerful of the new numbers, ‘Adore.’ This builds to an almost hymn-like intensity, Beth repeating "I adore life" like a mantra, slow and painful, moaning for humanity like Nina Simone while radiating the strong fragility of Edith Piaf.

The second half of the set comes harder and faster, with ‘When You Love’ a vivid rocker reflecting on "the bad things we do" in the name of love, Beth wondering whether it’s a demon or an angel making her crave "your fingers in my throat." ‘This Is What You Get When You Mess With Love’ is a percussive, energetic monotone blur before the Brecht-punk of ‘Sad Person’ and then ‘Husbands’, Beth climbing the barrier to stand above the surging crowd, and the cathartic release of ‘Fuckers’ with a long spoken intro as Ayse Hassan steadfastly keeps that one-note bass line going throughout, waiting patiently for the song to start. When it finally does the room explodes; repeating "don’t let the fuckers get you down" may sound trite on paper, but when Savages bring the noise it feels like the walls of Babylon are ready to topple.

After such magnificence, Toy at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar can only feel like an anti-climax, but there’s still much to enjoy about their punk-kraut set, which the band seem to knock out at twice their usual speed to a packed if slightly lethargic room. Playing fast and loose in this sweaty, low-ceilinged dive, Toy come on like the Status Quo of shoegaze- stood in a line, shaking out their long hair as every song from ‘Colours Running Out’ to ‘Join The Dots’ descends into a lengthy coruscating thrash; heads down no nonsense mindless boogie, only without the boogie. This is followed by Krautrock Karaoke, by which time most people have wandered off and no-one seems to know quite what’s going on. A couple of members of Toy and their friends take to the stage and begin cranking out a vaguely motorik jam, before everything’s called to a halt with the news that Colin Newman of Wire wants to play a spontaneous set. The stage is cleared and Newman’s own band- Githead, essentially- bring on their equipment, plug in, tune up, and launch into- well, another vaguely motorik jam. Everything is rather starting to blur together by the time the guys from Toy and friends come back on and meander into more on-the-one, single chord noodling, to be gradually replaced by members of the audience on guitar, bass and drums. Finally some drunken fool wanders up to the microphone and, deciding he’s the hybrid son of Damo Suzuki and Malcolm Mooney, barks slurred improvised rhymes at the by now scant crowd of remaining bemused onlookers. I must confess gentle reader that I am that drunken fool and I am not sorry. It’s what Amon Duul would have wanted.

Returning to the fray on Saturday afternoon midway through a brilliant set of percussive electronica from AK/DK at the Haunt, with the duo alternating between drums (a kit each), synths and an impressive wartime-looking oscillator device, I then  head down to the basement for minimalist sound improvisation from Steve Beresford, a relatively dynamic combination of ambient electronics and spoken word by Wire’s own Graham Lewis, and a set of Coil-meets-Tangerine Dream explorations with occasional shouted invocations from Tim Allen, AKA Thighpaulsandra of Spiritualized / Julian Cope fame. Highlight though is Man Forever at the Green Door Store; an all-drum extravaganza with Kid Millions at the full kit joined by Sardinian musician Alessandro Cau (of Stun) on snare, plus local lads Andy Pyne (of Kellar, Map 71, West Hill Blast Quartet and Aeolipile, on mounted bongos) and Alex Uren (Cousins, playing hi-hats). The hypnotic, assertive rhythms of this year’s Ryonen album are expertly recreated, Kid Millions grinning, sweating and playing as though in a shamanic trance, occasionally letting loose with wordless chanted vocals as the other percussionists maintain a strict, complex tapestry of interlocking beats beneath.

Later that evening the imposing, neo-gothic bulk of St Bartholomew’s Church is the appropriate setting for a screening of Dario Argento’s 1970s cult horror classic Suspiria, with Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin recreating their original score live on stage. Simonetti may be the only member present who actually played on the soundtrack in the first place, but no matter; the result is starkly atmospheric, especially in this nineteenth century Anglican Church, supposedly modelled on Noah’s Ark with the unadorned brick walls reaching towards the vaulted ceiling high above us in the darkness, and a 30-foot high, chalk-carved crucifix rising over the altar and the screen. Goblin are preceded by Cuts, and the electronic duo also make great use of the church’s foreboding, eerie ambience, their instrumental sound pieces alternately driving and disturbing, accompanied by evocative short art films conveying the bleak disconnectedness of modern life. They are another act to make a dedication to the late Nick Talbot, whose spirit seems represented in the hearts and minds of many throughout the festival.   

Up at the Prince Albert on Sunday lunchtime, local three-piece Fvnerals would probably have been my favourite band when I was an angst-ridden 15-year old. I’m now 43 and I had sex with someone I love this morning, so their heavy gothic slowcore doesn’t have quite the same devastating impact, but I can still lose myself in their dark, chiming dirges, uncoiling at a tectonic pace with sweetly melodic, minimal vocals occasionally rising to a chilling howl.  They appeal in the same way as the Cure at their most painfully bewitching or Led Zeppelin’s ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, suggesting the organ-led stoner rock of Iron Butterfly one moment and the most spare, doom-laden folk music the next, though I’m sure these youngsters are actually influenced by a whole bunch of post-rock and ambient metal I’ve never even heard of.  

After an unrepentant set of filthy, synapse-mangling noise-metal from Sea Bastard, the much-anticipated Zu are perhaps not on their best form. The Italian instrumental trio ply a visceral enough skronk, the low rage of Luca Mai’s baritone saxophone like a giant hornet in your face over the gut-level fuzz of Massimo Pupillo’s bass guitar and the tight, rhythmic complexity of Gabe Serbian’s drums. But compared to Man Forever’s set the previous afternoon, Zu seem dry and joyless, with none of the improvisatory interplay one might have expected. The band members hardly make eye contact with each other, and a lowering black cloud is almost visible hanging over Serbian’s head (in contrast, again, to Kid Millions’ carefree abandon). Perhaps a half-hour set was never going to be enough time for Zu to take flight, and though their sound is strong their performance feels somewhat perfunctory.

Arriving at the Old Market an hour before Eva Bowan is due to take the stage we find a queue already snaking round the block, risking carbon monoxide poisoning from Swans’ vast idling tour bus. It’s the New York art-noise colossi who are the big draw of course, rather than Ms Bowan’s electronic sketches, which are pleasant enough but never develop into any kind of sustained musical composition or song, petering out just as they’ve established an interesting sound. People are apparently being turned away at the door not long after we get in and the hall is soon full, but not jam-packed; it’s easy enough to move around during Swans’ set, venturing closer to the stage or retreating shell-shocked, according to your temperament.

Everyone knows pretty much what to expect at a Swans gig by now, and yes, they’re loud, punishing, brutal, intense, hypnotic, at moments awe-inspiring and at others just a little bit boring. As usual, in some ways their set seems to consist of an extended build-up- a single chord sustained for an eternity on thrashing guitars, accompanied by hammering drums, crashing cymbals, gong attack and Gira warming up his vocal chords with some improvised chants and howls- before going straight into an extremely over-extended climax for the next ninety minutes or so, which also pretty much consists of slow, single chord thrashing, hammering drums and Gira now in full possessed flow, occasionally letting go of his guitar to flail his arms in the air like the wings of the majestic bird his band are named for. Though Swans decidedly belong to the post-punk / no wave / proto-grunge era of American alternative rock, such actions remind you that Gira grew up an acid-gobbling late sixties hippy kid, and his notion of being a frontman is surely influenced by the shamanistic model exemplified by the Doors’ Jim Morrison rather than anything more demystifying or down to earth. I’m not knocking it; Gira has the charisma, the life experience and enough of an aura of wisdom, strength and the sense of genuinely channelling terrifying visions from the other side to pull it off. And indeed, I want my rock stars to be shamans; better by far than all the mumbling, apologetic regular Joes, preening peacocks and post-slacker journeymen generally doing the rounds.

The other thing about Swans live is how incredibly male they are. I’ve never seen another band radiate so much powerful older male energy; perhaps only Nick Cave and company in their Grinderman incarnation come close. Yet despite being near-contemporaries of Cave’s, Swans never engage in any kind of semi-ironic, mid-life crisis posturing; this is simply the sound and fury of life-ravaged, dignified men of a certain age who refuse to go gently into that good night. Visually Swans resemble a Quentin Tarantino imagining of a Charles Bukowski novel, and Gira in fact has much of Bukowski about him, the gutter poet refusing poetry’s usual frills and veils, preferring instead to stare stark reality in the face with anger, acceptance and a dry, dark humour. Tonight the grimaces of pain and rage frequently crack into an endearingly childlike, shit-eating grin, while Thor Harris adds the necessary edge of homoerotic camp; stood at the back, stripped to the waist, hirsute of chest and absent-mindedly swaying from the hip while balancing a glistening long trombone rakishly upon his shoulder.

The hotly anticipated collaboration with Wire turns out to be a slight let-down; trumpeted well in advance as a distinct ‘piece,’ one might expect ‘Drill’ to extend to twenty, forty or sixty minutes. Instead it’s little more than a five minute encore number. Gira (age 60) introduces Wire in somewhat unlikely fashion as his "childhood heroes" before Colin Newman (also 60) strolls up to microphone with a very English "allo" and the ten-piece Swanswire proceed to run though a shouty ramshackle performance, the highlight of which is Thor attempting to dry hump a decidedly reluctant Graham Lewis at the number’s conclusion. It seems a fitting end to Wire’s long weekend by the seaside; proving perhaps that, like the art school dance, the end of the pier show also never really ends.

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