It's the worst kind of journalism when the author starts with a quip or pun on the subject matter, so I'm going to apologise profusely now for how I start this review; Simple Things Festival isn't all that simple sorry sorry please forgive me for that sorry. A daunting collection of under-respresented music new and old, hosted across multiple venues, Simple Things feels more like a musical pub crawl than a festival. Were it not for all the cheap supermarket beer consumed on the jaunts between venues. But my personal distaste with walking through the town centre and dealing with those horrible metamorphic gaggling entities they call “crowds” notwithstanding; there was promise of good music coming up. And I needed to hear it.
Saturday's sunshine only reminding me that I needed to work through my self-inflicted hangover and get a move on, I got hold of my +1 guest, grabbed our passes, a couple of Blue Moons (the best idiot's hangover drink), and headed downtown. After studying the frankly baffling map and program, we determined our first stop was the Red Bull Academy-hosted Firestation.
We arrived to DJ October rinsing through a set of minimal techno at the Shapes-hosted firestation courtyard. It was by no means bad, yet failed to leave much of an impression on me. I put my head into the Firestation and saw a man on stage alternating between hitting some electronic drum pads and playing a synthesizer he'd hung off of his body with a guitar strap. The man was Redhino, and his music grabbed me instantly - it was varied, colourful, swung between multiple genres effortlessly, but still sounded whole and coherent. He sung over his music too, through a vocal filter that obfuscated the subject of his lyrics but only added to the rich, synthetic eighties sound delivered by his production. One track in particular stood out as a particularly good homage to the music of John Carpenter. He also explored his own versions of garage, trap, and post-dubstep. He was rather good, I thought. The room was packed, but somewhat unswayed. It was still early though, and perhaps everyone had hit it fairly hard at Friday night's opening party.
I stuck around for the next act, on a friend's tip that I should catch Rejjie Snow, an Irish rapper who, as Wikipedia just informed me, is signed to Elton John's record label. Huh. Anyway. Snow's music fulfilled the common stoner-rap tropes of laid back word delivery over slow, lazy, jazz-inspired beats - a musical cliché that I admit I'm all for. Well, I say “stoner-rap” with some confusion, since one song appeared to have a chorus praising weed (alongside money, cars and pussy), swiftly followed by another song that discussed how quitting marijuana allowed him clarity of thought. Nevermind - I'm not here to judge. The beats held a quality that sat somewhere between Madlib's ambience and the rich percussive rhythms of modern glitch-hop, somewhat akin to early Flying Lotus. And despite the bout of weed-based hypocrisy, what I could hear from his spitting seemed thoughtful, touching, and lyrically well crafted.
Aware of the desire to visit as many venues as possible and the absence of any kind of intoxicant in our hands, we took off for more beer and a visit to The Cabin to catch their last act before they closed up. Arriving a bit early, I entered a conversation with a woman who had detailed that she was dead excited to see The Black Lips later, and that they had a particularly rowdy stage presence that might include pissing all over the audience. We both agreed that a band pissing on its audience would make for some excellent journalism, so I took a note to go and catch them later. By this point, the band on stage had set up, turned their instruments on, and announced themselves as Telegram. Four tall androgynous looking guys with long hair, all looking decidedly bored. Perhaps deliberately, in keeping with their image, but not exactly exciting to watch. Nor, again, did the audience seem particularly swayed outside of a few head nods and one or two Obvious Actual Fans. The music seemed far more dated than their apparent youth would suggest, opting for a riff-heavy, rhythmically simple but layered tone that reminded me of nineties alt brit rock. Perhaps the nostalgia was lost on me, but I felt a little disappointed by a band that seemed more eager to live up to another decade's culture than venture anything new.
As such, we decided to take off for more beer and a classic fish and chips dinner before heading to Colston Hall for the first of the lineup's big-hitters, Nightmares On Wax. It was a little strange in there - as we walked into the upstairs seating it struck me how much bigger the hall seems from the inside. I'd happily believe the physics of the place functioned like a TARDIS if I didn't already know the laws of reality don't work that way. And there, on an enormous stage, amongst the pillars and balconies, a weirdly incongruous site: Wax's main DJ parked behind the decks playing beats overlaid with flutes and pans and other decidedly World Music things, while two MCs rhythmically pontificated about having a good time, enjoying vibes and that sort of thing. It was all decidedly very lunchtime summer festival music. Only in a big classical concert hall that was lit up too much. After 10 minutes or so, the lights shut off, the MCs left, and Wax dropped golden-era classic, 'Les Nuits', accompanied by a black and white video of artfully shot urban landscapes. The cinematic spectacle better suited the setting, but the whole gig still felt odd. Sitting in the dark listening to a hip-hop beat is something I can do at home - in a gigantic hall like this, it seemed wasted somehow. Then it was over.
Next on the list was the 'Secret Guest' billed at the Pardon My French terrace. So we set out to navigate the upper floors of Colston Hall: a glittering, Apple-white art gallery of a space, rammed thick with the most painstakingly fashionably and oddly well-behaved festival crowd we'd ever seen. It was all a bit too surreal. And badly behaved bands peeing on people in dark rooms seemed far more appealing. So we headed off to the O2 Academy to watch The Black Lips instead. On the way in, a security guard discovered my epi-pen, I explained I was diabetic and so he took it upon himself to inquire about my health and point me to medical services every time I passed him. For the entire rest of the evening. Without fail. A little weird and condescending, but nice to know that people care, I guess...
Anyway. We walk into the Lips' show and were instantly let down. Everyone had their clothes on and were just dancing about. Pah. But at least here was something that has been notably absent all day: the crowd were finally really getting into it. Dancing, moshing, singing along, all the jazz. This is at least somewhat rock n roll. Admittedly, however, I didn't stay for more than four of their tunes, as three of them struck me as being lawyer-friendly versions of The Undertones' classic song 'Teenage Kicks' - they were somewhat unexciting and too shrouded in nostalgia to really appeal to me. And there was no pissing.
Now I have an article that suggests I've been clamouring for piss all evening rather than just responding to an amusing yet disgusting event. Great.
After a beer and a smoke - as well as a small moment where a man asked if I want to join his group, called the Nazis, in what was one of the most sad and awkward attempts at ironic racism I'd ever faced - we popped up to the Academy's second room to catch Spectres. An atmospheric, pounding band with a perchance for strong riffs overlaid with feedback loops of heavy distortion, these guys were great, and playing in a small, low-ceiling back bar room served them extremely well. Low voiced singing, simple chugging riffs, and a fantastic drummer, but most of all, whoever was in charge of the sound engineering and mixing deserves a prize. Every sound fell into its rightful place, with drum smacks churning out like dropkicks to the head. Spectres finished off with a punch that set me up nicely for the next act - an act I'd been excited to see and was glad to see return - Death From Above 1979.
We shuffled downstairs and watch the bass and drum duo rip out a set that blended the new and the old seamlessly. The Academy's main room had set a theme of simple, riff-lead music, but nothing so far had hit that feel so well as these guys. I've complained about bands relying too heavy on nostalgic throwback sounds a few times in this review already, and it explains what I like about DFA1979 - their music has been influenced by blues, hard rock, experimental punk, and metal, but they've managed to find a way of expressing it all that sounds uniquely theirs. The tunes are as clear as they are concise, finishing exactly when they could start to exhaust an idea. Each track is distinct in sound and personal stylistic charm, matched against their command of stage presence and shy but pleasant anecdotes from the drummer. The crowd lapped it up, dancing like mad, signing along, cheering like apes. Even with just two similar albums and limited gigging between 10 years, these two can sure belt out a show. The crowd went especially crazy for their penultimate song, their classic tune 'Black History Month', and then, weirdly, dissipated right afterwards.
Oh, of course they would dissipate. Mogwai were on next. That was a wise move. Pretty prudent to believe that that would be a crowded gig - at least based on previous years of the festival - probably best to get back to Colston Hall as soon as. Not a precaution I personally took at the time, as we decided to sneak off so we could smoke another [NEITHER SIMPLE THINGS NOR RAW MEAT CONDONE THE USE OF DRUGS], and then strolled casually back to the upstairs seating and found one of the last few places. My +1 guest left soon after - the night before's toll finally proving too much. But as he left, I got a text from him: apparently outside the venue had become full-on pandemonium. Hundreds of people crowded the hall's lobby, shouting, pushing, some crying, all desperately trying to get in yet being denied entry by overstretched venue staff. Oops. Well in the vernacular of despicable objectivists, I had “got mine”, and, better yet, I could actually sit down throughout this entire act.
Perhaps it's a personal taste, but good post-rock strikes me as music you absorb meditatively, opposed to something to dance and sway with - so sitting down was ideal. Plus I was tired. This time, the hall seemed more decked out and showy than it had been with Nightmares on Wax earlier. Mogwai's equipment was laid out like a wall parting the centre stage, with a few guitar pedals up front, and their colourful double-pupil eye logo (from their most recent album, Rave Tapes) and a few green hexagons littering the stage ceiling. Visually very cool, with instrumentalists in the band forming part of the wall, except when one of the guitarists would step up front and throw their immense skill around. Not that it terrifically mattered. So overwhelming and layered was their music that I often found myself closing my eyes, wanting to take it in through the one sense. They played a fine selection, spanning their 21 year history. From classically post-rock explorations into uplifting reverb, guitar loops and layers, to more synthetic sounds and pounding riffs played through powerful distortion. Truthfully, the music repeatedly put me into such a trance-like state that I struggled to actually take any notes.
I'd qualify that as an excellent job.
They were also the first act of the night to actually take an encore - two in fact, the first of which was their excellent three guitar riff-heavy monster 'Batcat': a distorted mess of feedback loops and guitar riffs that pushes a powerfully moving and beautiful tone through the noise. I had intended to scarper off and go see the next act - the act I had been most excited about seeing - and knew I was going to be late, but Mogwai's music had a complete grip on me. Until they stopped, I could not move.
When the last echoes of Mogwai's reverb had faded, I picked myself up and sloped over to The Lantern: a pitch dark, somewhat empty room. Strobe lights flashed to briefly reveal the walls of the space were stained glass arches with religious insignia. Well, fantastic. I couldn't imagine a single better room to experience The Haxan Cloak. It had already struck me that having this guy right after Mogwai was a perfect compliment - both acts are masters at creating discombobulating, trance-like reactions from their audience, but in almost opposite ways. Where Mogwai was complex and varied, with uplifting notes of hope and pride, The Haxan Cloak was simple in timbre, dooming in tone, sparse, and thematically devoid of hope.
A single man operating various hardware (it was too dark to tell, but at a guess - a couple of samplers, a mixer, and a loopstation), operating an hour of long bass notes, slow reverberated drums, choir-like sounds, and repetitive high-hats. There was a bleak, cultish power at work that I could only compare to Sunn O))) or Scorn, but beneath the doom/ drone metal inspirations, a hint of the deeper ends of dance music. His production ethic hints at the hip-hop based rhythms and distorted bass of much more obviously danceable music, presenting them at their most abstract. I couldn't tell you what songs were played, even if the act was planned or if it was all improvised, but short of a single hardware mistake, I was completely transfixed. It's hard to recommend this kind of music in recorded form, but as a live act, the ferocious and powerful bleakness truly inspire awe. The Haxan Cloak had been the act I was most excited about seeing, and they had hit my ears and heart the hardest. Superb.
I walked out, on my own, in a complete Mogwai/ Haxan double-teamed haze, suddenly aware that there was nowhere else open that could sell me cheap booze. I sat around outside for a bit so I could properly process what I'd just witnessed. I wasn't entirely sure I could even handle anything else. Whether there was much point in trying to enjoy any more music tonight, after that. I recalled Lakota was on the way back home, and thinking I might be able to catch a bit of Actress and Zomby, I decided to wander over. I'd seen Actress before and it had to be one of the finest DJ acts I've seen. Unfortunately, no such luck today. The queue to get inside had wrapped around the venue like a boa. I asked somebody if this was the only way in. “Yeah, but it's better than the alternative,” he said. I thought for a second, exhausted, still reeling from two hours of tantric intense music, and decided that my alternative was a nice cup of tea and comfortable bed. I disagreed with him. 8 hours of wandering around, drinking and pushing loud music through my ears - I was happily done. I sodded off home.
The promise of good music had been delivered. But the delivery was erratic - perhaps my aversion to town centres holds a bias here, but at no point did Simple Things Festival feel all that much like a... festival. A series of gigs of which you only have to pay one blanket price to attend them, perhaps, but it lacks the festival atmosphere, the carnival absurdity and strange amusements of people you find between gigs. Maybe this is the point. Maybe it suits the music choices: artists I love, but who decline festival “fun vibes” in favour of thoughtful, heady repose. Maybe this explains the fairly laid-back attitude of many of the crowds at Simple Things. I'm used to festivals where people wild out to loud fast music and bad, chemical-based life decisions. Maybe Simple Things demands an attitude closer to that of an art museum, or a classical concerto. A showcase of capital-A Art, something to plan for, to absorb, to take in and learn from.
For that, it works very well. And provides a much-needed platform for artists who shyaway from the ubiquitous party scene. But it also strikes me as a little cold. I can speak enthusiastically about having seen Spectres, Death From Above 1979, The Haxan Cloak, etc., but I can't speak about Simple Things as a gestalt, something greater than just the acts it puts on. It's too broken apart to allow that. It is possible that this is fine, that the expectation can be found elsewhere. I wouldn't go to Simple Things just because it's Simple Things. I'd go because of who Simple Things gets to play for them, because outside of the Bloc weekenders, it's rare to see such a concentration of talent in a single day.
Quite honestly, Mogwai and The Haxan Cloak were worth it alone. Unbelievably good, really. Cheers, Simple Things Festival, thanks for existing.
Check out Max's preview for Simple Things by clicking here.