Friday, 15 May 2009
All Tomorrow's Hangovers (At Once And In Quick Succession)
We’re sitting in the chalet our friends won at the pub quiz at last December’s Nightmare Before Christmas and revelling in the indie kudos. Amongst the typical ATP fare of episodes of The Day Today and people using beer boxes to create robot masks, talk turns to Neil Young’s ill-fated 1982 album Trans. Having not heard it before, someone slips the CD into the chalet’s DVD player and enlightens me. It transpires that Neil Young had heard DEVO and thought it a good idea to pretend to be them, singing about Computer Cowboys and Transformer Men through a vocoder. It’s a unique, if unfathomable experience. Looking at the absurd, anachronistic album cover, featuring two cars from different eras passing each other in a Tron-style haze, someone else notes that it’s “half future, half past”. It’s a perfect ATP moment and as good a description for the uninitiated as to what happens on that Minehead beachfront thrice yearly as can be expected.
Alongside the cheap plastic paraphernalia that adorns the numerous shops scattered across the Butlin’s site and torturous drinking sessions that turn that same site into a mess of ruined bodies, ATP is fundamentally about one thing: new experiences. With the growing success of their canonising Don’t Look Back series and consistent attempt to bring young, interesting acts to these shores, ATP is effectively the front cover of Trans incarnate. Such a claim should come as no surprise, given that the festival takes its name from a song by arguably histories most retroactively canonised band. With a line up half chosen by ATP, half selected by the attending paying customers, the list of acts reveals the fans are as aware of the festival’s purpose as the organisers themselves, even if there was a poorly judged effort to have a fortunately unavailable MGMT play. Democracy: know your place.
As an initial point, it’s maybe worth noting that as good as ATP is, it’s not an unmitigated success, although admittedly, failures are to be expected when you fly so close to the sun. Spiritualized may divide the stage with their white/black, heaven/hell style clothing, but not my opinion. They’re sounding increasingly staid and dated now. Whereas once it was transcendent, now all J. Spaceman’s rocket ship can do is take us all the way back to 1997. With access to a rocket ship, you’d think he’d prefer to go somewhere more interesting. There are other notable embarrassments too. Powerful and sharp on past records, live, !!! are an amorphous mess of jam band mentality and Factory Records cut offs, coming off like James’ Tim Booth fronting a bad (read: even worse) Flowered Up. So cringe worthy and deluded is frontman Nic Offer’s faux-shamanic shtick, that his desire to assert his ‘funkiness’ and bad Dad dancing serves only to convince that he may be made entirely from hemp and self-satisfaction. The Big Chill beckons.
But for all said bands’ poor appropriation of former glories, there are several others on hand to remind just how deep the well for great alternative music runs. While The Jesus Lizard and DEVO are primal and joyful in equal measure, it’s the intensity of a reformed Sleep that truly shakes Butlins to its plastic core.
A stoner rock band from the early nineties, infamous for blowing their shot at commercial success by signing to London Records then subsequently delivering a 60 minute album containing just one song, Sleep play the entirety of 1992’s Holy Mountain, in what is my first encountering of the band and their first show since splitting at the end of the century. For those, unlike myself, cool enough to recall them first time around, it’s a long awaited reformation and is met with a sea of requisite devil horns and fan worship intensity.
Quite simply, Sleep are the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. The stage is kitted from floor to ceiling with amps, constructed from a backline rented from Thin Lizzy, no less. This is stadium equipment transposed to a holiday resort bingo hall and the result is heavy, dense and at times, uncomfortably physical. As the deep end of the bass and constant squall of the guitars spiral off into the ether, the air in the room becomes so thick you can almost climb it. It’s like a ladder of sound and dope smoke.
Playing for what seems like an eternity, the encore lasts almost as long as the set itself. But it doesn’t diminish the moment. Their impact remains intensely overwhelming; their relatively uncelebrated place in history a mystery. With the room so busy, TV screens monitor the action to provide those seeking sanctuary from the noise at the back a better view. It feels like an alternative Live Aid, with one notable difference. Instead of asserting sanctimonious guilt trip rhetoric, it’s the monolithic nature of the music that the world has no choice but to be moved by, even if it was only my world. But in this century of self, it’s seems a fitting moment.
So, if Sleep are the sound of yesterday reanimated today, then it’s to Grizzly Bear, Fuck Buttons and, most strikingly, HEALTH that we catch a glimpse of the future. All three bands air new material from highly anticipated follow-up records and on this weekend’s showing, the latter half of 2009 will bear witness to some important albums.
The multi-part, reverb-heavy harmonies of Grizzly Bear lull and charm like a Coney Island fairground waltz, while Fuck Buttons continue to push their take on noise to increasingly epic, euphoric levels. But HEALTH, playing only the fourth slot of the festival, set the benchmark.
Whereas their first album was a metallic cacophony of primal percussion, the new songs are more expansive and accessible. On new single “Die Slow” for example, they embrace both the softness of the incongruently melodic vocals and the ‘disco’ element channelled on their highly successful remix album to arresting effect. While HEALTH don’t so much care for song structure in any traditional sense, much like Sleep, it’s their sound, and the recreation of it live, that truly resonates. Texture is integral, and with a bass that sounds like a wounded robot dinosaur and a relentless set list with few pauses, either for the crowd or themselves, it’s an immersive experience. HEALTH may be tied to the parochial cool of L.A.’s Smell scene, but with performances and material like this, they’ll easily transcend any such associations.
With its increasingly London-trendy crowd, ATP is admittedly zeitgeist friendly and slowly developing into its own hipster institution. While fashion may be transient and capricious by nature, with such careful consideration of the past and inquisitive embracing of the future, it still remains the most innovative of UK festivals (Supersonic included). Now all we can hope for is Neil Young and Trans next year. Don’t Look Back To The Future, anyone?