Tristan Bath has a largely excellent time at Upset The Rhythm's festival of fringe sounds in London, though delivers shoe pies to various bits of garage and lo-fi rock, as is proper

Though abhorrent to obscurophiles, the growing general prevalence and acceptance of DIY music making can surely be nothing but good for the state of modern music. Literally anybody and everybody can (and seemingly does) make music, and that long tail is becoming increasingly visible, particularly in the over-encumbered festival scene. Across two nights and one full day, Upset the Rhythm’s Yard Party mini-festival in Hackney is itself a microcosm for the modern online-born underground – overwhelmed by artists and variety, and often to equally underwhelming effect. Even so, the high points are some of the best performances I’ve seen this summer.

Opening the proceedings on Thursday evening is twattishly-titled Flamingods, pedalling their equally unoriginal brand of long-haired, vintage-clothed neo-psychedelia. That having been said, there’s nothing that wrong with the music they made. Even if the group’s sunny drum-bashing freakouts are clearly lifted wholesale from the likes of Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun or Animal Collective’s Feels, the music is still great fun – albeit unoriginal and innately flawed. Flamingods murder their own set with their very desire to candidly appear as that non-existent ‘colourful and quirky’ group – an image so often desired but never truly achieved – constantly over zealously bashing pointless additional percussion or unnecessarily swapping instruments for appearance’s sake. Donning your Dad’s old shirt and draping an overpriced second-hand technicolour tablecloth over your mic stand doesn’t make you a musician, it makes you a prick.

There are a few other curve balls across the three days. Argentinian post-punks, Las Kellies, sound so unoriginal it would be more fitting to simply bill them as A Tribute to the Slits. Similarly, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding are the kind of scuzzy garage rock band that simply shouldn’t be any more. There’s an almost Emperor’s New Clothes situation with that band, where somebody keeps telling that guy he can sing well and write good songs. These contrived personas are presumably still about as musical fodder for the tote bag carrying masses of sockless tossers that permeate much of East London, and sadly, they are seemingly a necessary evil in putting together a ‘varied’ line up.

Rob St. John and Michael Chapman are a nice addition to the bill, both representing some of the UK’s more enigmatic contemporary folk music. Chapman’s career has recently received a boost from Thurston Moore’s endorsement of the man and his guitar playing, and Chapman seems to have kept this in mind, removing any of the flanged nafness that dogged much of his later output, and focussing solely on his fingerpicking instrumentals and gruff balladry. As a fingerpicker – ably demonstrating the sheer breadth of the instrument that took over the world – he’s got to be the best one alive, a point sadly highlighted by his colourful instrumental tribute to the late Jack Rose, Trains. The doom-laden songs of Rob St. John, performed on reverbed electric guitar with harmonium accompaniment, are destined (or rather doomed) to become the stuff of cult legend. The guy’s a great lyricist, and certainly fills a void in the market for honest, downtempo British songwriters, synthesizing post-industrial atmospheric darkness with ultra-traditional song forms. 

The subculture of hazy short-run cassette music gets represented, with scene veteran, Spencer Clark on Thursday and Portuguese newbies, Yong Yong on Saturday.  Yong Yong, though briefly halted by technical issues (seemingly unnoticeable until they announce it) are a damn sight better than one would’ve thought from what their mediocre, Hype Williams-imitating album, Love let on. The duo’s blend of ear-splitting beats, muttering vocal samples and muffled synth explorations is massively intoxicating, turning that sound of ‘next door’s music coming through the wall’ into an art form unto itself. Regardless, the more seasoned Spencer Clark’s solo show is still better in almost every way. Seated behind three keyboards and an array of effects pedals, Clark lays down two long lo fi pieces of almost symphonic scope. Opening with jittery passages of MIDI harpsichord cacophony and ending with a quarter of an hour of out of time non-beat samples, the effect is a trip in the most classic sense. Like a post-Nintendo Wendy Carlos, Spencer Clark takes full advantage of the very artificiality of his instruments’ sounds, crafting bastardised new age tropes and fucked-up shopping mall jingles into mini symphonies.

Saturday night peaks with Ex-Easter Island Head’s frankly brilliant Brancian music for ‘Mallet Guitars’. The Quietus interviewed them last December, so I implore you to read that rather than have me explain their music in great detail here. Though clearly greatly in awe of the more dissonant and complex music of Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Steve Reich and young Sonic Youth, Ex-Easter Island Head’s minimalist pieces are surprisingly tangible. This isn’t heady ‘modern composition’ for the musical elite, and it’s conceptually intriguing, with the trio’s ability to get quite so much colour and variety out of the same few chords almost appearing a magic trick.

Mark McGuire – former guitarist for the now defunct American underground legends, Emeralds – initially set to follow Ex-Easter Island Head, has to bring his solo show forward to 4pm in the afternoon. The small shards of light seeping into the theatre are hastily blacked out for his show, leaving the venue in utter darkness confusing the entire audience into varying degrees of blindness as they came in from the mid-afternoon brightness outside. With an audience already disarmed by temporary sightlessness, under the slightest of blue light McGuire gradually builds up racing layers of looped and effect-addled guitars before hitting the proverbial big red button and going into the sort of aurally dense hyperdrive never even tread by Emeralds. 20 minutes of shredding ambient guitars and piled on retro beats bombard the senses, tripping the audience out like an old Manuel Göttsching record (particularly Inventions for Electric Guitar). Suddenly and without warning, McGuire flips a switch, stops the music, the lights come up and he murmurs a hurried “thank you” before rushing off for whatever reason. Like a hastily whipped off plaster, or glass of cold water to the face, McGuire’s sharp finale is almost as jarring as his music’s assault, and indeed the entire Festival itself. Flawed, intimate, varied, often surprising and occasionally brilliant. Like a fully realised trip into the decaying musical ‘blogosphere’, Yard Party is excessively varied, yet home to some of the very best in modern music.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today