Blowing The Walls Out: Boundaries Festival Sunderland Reviewed

Joe Murray braves falling masonry, snow drifts and gale-force winds in order to attend the inaugural Boundaries festival and comes away feeling that the future is local. Home page photograph of Andrew DR Abbott

Objections at Boundaries festival by Paul Margree

“It’s been ages. How are you doing?”

I hear snatches of conversation. I see nervous hugs. I see masks gingerly lifted to confirm – yes – it’s really me.

This is the reality of attending a festival in 2021. Things feel the same, but different, there is tension and tenderness in the air. It’s clear that in this comfortable room, above a town centre pub in Sunderland many of us are meeting for the first time in nearly two years.

Boundaries is a brand new festival for all things underground, leftfield and wonky. Set in a blustery, sea-front fresh Sunderland pub, Boundaries has drawn punters from across the UK for one wild weekend of essential music.

First act on this exceptional line up is Territorial Gobbing, the hyper-prolific Leeds based noise-jester. Stood incredulously in front of a classic noise table set-up (amplified springs, Dictaphone, cheap pedals etc.) Gobbing raises his arms in a gesture of victory then physically launches himself into the music. Cluttered blobs of static noise and explosive metal farts erupt in herky-jerky fashion as cassette tapes, joke chattering teeth and other detritus are hurled about. Before anyone has time to assume this is a noise-for-noise-sake slapstick show, Gobbing introduces a pause here and a shriek there, that makes everything coalesce. Even the off-stage noise-rummage adds tension and poise to the caterwauling thrash. The wild rumpus peaks and then suddenly spins out. It’s over. Boundaries is off and running.

Hillary Knott is appearing in her Basic Switches persona. She unravels a set that is built of tiny, incremental details. Segments of primary-coloured sound are bolted together Meccano-style. Things may wobble but there is no collapse. Organ notes build a foundation and merge with friction and interludes of great gravity, then there is gritty rustling with some looped depth. As the set continues we end up in a very different place; this journey terminates in almost fourth world territory. Think Talk Talk off-shoot O.rang and their humming, throbbing kalimba-core with added rainforest thunder.

Never let it be said the underground is a scruffy bunch. Newly-minted trio Objections cut an elegant sartorial dash and play their songs with poise. Being constructed from one member of Nape Neck and two members of Bilge Pump it’s no surprise they excel in distinctive Leeds-style post punk: trim and angular with short songs that are great to dance to. Rhythm leads the way with Claire Adams’ bass and vocals supplying the careering forward propulsion as Joe O’Sullivan’s guitar provides silky textures and tonal depth. The drums, played by the excellently coiffured Neil Turpin, hold everything together and stop things form spinning out of control. “Pure belter”, as they say in Sunderland.

The weather seems to be taking a turn for the worse; latecomers are covered in inches of wet snow and stand dripping while Todmorden-based multi-instrumentalist Sophie Cooper plays. Tonight she focuses on her trombone and plays a set of deepest darkest brass meditations. With a deceptively simple set up of trombone, vocals and a few tapes she conjures a deeply magenta world of sleepy secrets. Sound moves in massive shoals across the room, elastic and loose. The gentle repetition is hypnotic, I wonder if this is what Spacemen 3 would have sounded like if they dropped those noisy guitars and focused on hot breath and droning horns?

It’s Andrew DR Abbott with his baritone guitar who changes the festivals gears introducing a relaxed and melancholic pause. His finger picked tunes sprout from a folk tradition and ramble like good stories should, taking a detour round the houses and then back to the melodic punch line. There’s certainly something about gentle movement in the former That Fucking Tank man’s music, an ambulation, a wandering that tugs away at sepia-tinted memories. Taking a short break from the guitar Abbott plays a few short pieces on Mbira and a tone drum, soft as water, almost like he’s playing simply for himself, lost in a delicious moment. It’s only when he is packing up his guitar my memory snags properly. This takes me back to the mid-80s, sitting expectantly in front of a huge TV on wheels at school, watching the clock tick down before a Schools and Colleges programme. I can almost smell the plimsoll rubber.

Andrew DR Abbott courtesy of Paul Margree

Tonight’s headliners, Soft Issues are a new name to me. A quick Google tells me they have released a couple of things on Opal Tapes and I should expect something noisy. Two unassuming young men set up oodles of electronic equipment, fiddle with it a bit, pump up the volume and absolutely shred. Beats are blunted square-wave bullies pummelling my ribs, the mid range is full of scribbling electricity and, extreme indecipherable lyrics are howled with a rare fury. This all goes down like a riot of course; people start to move, to dance, to punch the air and scream as the blistering noise crackles around the room uniting people in ecstatic volume and confusion.

Things get all the more sinister when the beats stop and sick, lurching waves of distortion fill the air. Again huge howls of pain accompany the slowly moving maelstrom. It’s all fizzing fury and lopsided locomotion reminding me of the time I dropped a dollop of caustic soda on my copy of Warm Leatherette.

As the night draws to an end the weather has very much become a feature of the festival. Those brave souls nipping out for chips and smokes come back drenched and windswept. Tales are told of the storm cutting power lines and ripping tiles from nearby roofs.

The conversation moves to more general matters. How does DIY, non-mainstream, art survive in the difficult times we find ourselves in? It’s clear that people still value live music, coming together to be part of something communal but, of course, this isn’t without knotty questions. What’s the environmental impact of artists travelling for a niche audience? How do we make sure events are inclusive as possible? How can festivals be funded and pay artists what they deserve when money is so tight? It’s late and we have no answers. Maybe tomorrow eh?

On Saturday morning and the havoc of Storm Arwen is to be found on the streets of Sunderland, huge sets of Christmas lights litter the street, fallen masonry cracks and crunches under foot. The breakfast crowd in cafes and pubs look a little shell shocked. It’s been a wild night and the forecast for today doesn’t look much better.

Gateshead’s Rovellasca has drawn the hangover session and starts the second day of Boundaries with a fittingly meteorological set. It’s the solo project of Craig Johnson, who also runs the excellent Invisible City tape label, and reveals maximal drones that churn like the sea, with a deep undertow of cold static. Subtle shifts of pitch and yaw make me feel a little queasy. This is music that works by stealth and crackles with a million tiny points of light. With much abstract drone music patience is rewarded with deep, involved listening and the early crowd, mainly sensibly seated, have eyes shut tight as heads begin to nod in slow unison. A wonderful start to the day.

Summer are the only four-piece band of the weekend and are playing their debut show today. Minimal and motorik they layer simple guitar lines over lead bass and drums topping things off with group vocal chants. I’m starting to get into their ESG vibe when news starts to filter through the crowd that all trains today have been cancelled; the power lines need essential repairs. Buses are running, but barely, and on a reduced service. Sunderland, it seems is increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. Some tough decisions have to be made and I feverishly check timetables and do the mental maths to work out how long I can stay before my trip home is in real jeopardy.

Underground long-hauler Dylan Nyoukis sources much of the material for today’s set on the hoof recording simple mouth sounds – a gasp here, a gibber there – and skilfully folds them with tape delay and deft noodling into a symphony of gassy sighs. Within minutes pre-language exhalations echo around the room turning the venue into a spectral whispering gallery. The skill is all in the mix and constantly moving hands tweak inscrutable boxes, twist tiny knobs, whipping up a coven of hectic energy. The occult vibe peaks with the ghostly muttering unravelling until all that is left is a lonely shadow of sound. Is this where language goes to die? Falling into a black hole to babble, incoherently for eternity?

Introducing the creepy low end it’s Newcastle’s Kev Wilkinson who has been making music as brb>voicecoil for decades. The volume button is pushed to ‘loud’ and children’s distant voices are churned like soft butter. There is a dark pulsation that catches the casual foot tapper off guard with eccentric diversions and patterns. Layers of environmental gunk – motorway traffic hissing through the rain perhaps – provide the listeners with unexpectedly pretty watercolour melodies, the hypnotic riffs of a band like Autechre, while the fabric of the universe roils and buckles.

The stage is cleared and a screen descends from the ceiling for a performance by Karen Constance. The Brighton-based visual artist opts for her distinctive film and art work to be the medium today; think Tales Of The Unexpected written for a Ladybird books audience, with collages of orphaned appendages, sickly fingers and haunted eyes which dance across the screen. An unnatural symmetry is formed as limbs judder across blank faces. Fifties bob cuts wriggle like eels. The sound track is a Constance creation and loops grunt gently as dusty lungs wheeze while an unnerving peal of laughter is cut suspiciously short. Things end with a crescendo of melancholic opera lifting the rafters as my hot eyes pulse with overload and hidden messages.

Despite the cold, the wet and the wind Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington’s warm smiles radiate a blissful heat. There is a lot of love in the room right now to see this first, and perhaps only, live performance by Bulbils. Lockdown has pushed artists in many different directions and the pair used their self-imposed home time as a launching pad for this carefully crafted gentle pop vehicle. With over 60 albums disseminated solely via Bandcamp on a ‘name your price’ basis, Bulbils are now much, much more than a side project.

After a brief hello they shimmer and levitate, both voices wordlessly harmonising over the gentle vibration of synth, organ and quietly chattering drum machine. A bass is nestled in Dawson’s lap and is occasionally explored to add a peaty depth to the music.

As gentle as Bulbils are they are not without some grit. ‘Flight Of The Canada Goose’ sighs with impossible harmonies over a two note vamp, but those two notes bury themselves deep inside the tender parts of your skull, creating blossoming fleshy flowers, putting down gnarly roots.

And it’s on this delightful organic note I pull on my waterproofs and brave the storm. Public transport paranoia means I’m leaving early if I want to get home at all. I bid farewell to brave Boundaries and I start the long lonely journey home. But I know I will be coming back to Sunderland in the spring for Boundaries #2 and what is sure to be an essential date in the underground scene’s music calendar.

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