Drill: Brighton Festival review

A seaside town might seem an unlikely backdrop for an experimental music festival curated by post-punk legends Wire, yet Brighton’s eclectic music scene and alternative credentials make it an ideal location for Drill.  With over 100 acts performing across multiple venues from Thursday to Sunday, it was a tough call deciding who to see. Here are five of our fave artists…

British Sea Power @ All Saints Church

“It’s actually quite scary in here,” says frontman Yan, a  Zen master of the understated quip. Listening to this most bold of bands tonight on the sacred grounds of All Saints Church it’s clear that BSP have no fear when it comes to stepping out of their comfort zone. Indeed, having previously played gigs on the Great Wall Of China, the Natural History Museum, Jodrell Bank, the Scilly Isles, in a Cornish slate mine and the Chelsea Flower Show, British Sea Power are accustomed to playing in peculiar surroundings.

It’s over a decade since this band of sometime Brighton rockers released their debut album. The Decline of British Sea Power. In the intervening years the six-piece have released a further six albums, the most recent of which served as the soundtrack to BFI documentary film From The Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain’s Coast on Film. BSP are renowned for their sonic ambition (third album Do You Like Rock Music? was recorded in far-flung corners of the world including a Czechoslovakian forest and an old Cornish fort) and this is evident in their decision to recruit the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet, who add another dimension to songs such as ‘Waving Flags’, ‘Lights Out for Darker Skies’ and ‘Carrion’. Playing semi-acoustically removes none of the band’s power, and enhances the haunting quality of the more tender moments. Mesmerising stuff.

Courtney Barnett @ The Haunt 

Her lo fi, grungey style and meandering, yet incisive songwriting have made Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett a must-see this year. I’d failed to get into her packed gig at The Great Escape in May (and then endured everyone raving about it afterwards) so this one was set up to be a real treat.

She fronted her band with confidence, performing the vocals with a weirdly intense deadpan charm and lacing each track with playful guitar work. But the combination of a lopsided setlist and an overload of volume in the funnel-shaped venue unfortunately made it a bit of a slog. There is a certain low slung and repetitive Mouldy Peaches vibe that Barnett does well, but it relies on the ability to hear the words and pick out the fun little flashes that keep the sound fresh; here, the first 30 minutes just felt like the same song repeated five-or-so times over, the ploughing guitar wig-out ending getting a bit less fun each time. In fairness, it may have been due to the fact it was all turned up way too loud, muddying up and stripping the nuance from what could have been a perfectly decent run of songs, but even so it was strange to keep us waiting so long for a change in energy.

The pretty, bluesy ballad ‘Anonymous Club’ brought a welcome variation and clarity, ringing in a much more satisfying half in which each song stamped its own identity, with the forthright and compact ‘David’ and the witty, trippy yarn-spinning of ‘Avant Gardener’ and ‘History Eraser’. It was all still so loud, though, that the usual vocal mix of melodies and half-spoken passages became more of a continuous yell, obscuring the character and storytelling skill that infuses the records. For anyone coming to this show as a taster, unfamiliar with the songs, it would not have been a great introduction to Barnett’s charms. My faith remains, and I will definitely see her again, but I really hope to hear her properly next time too.

Eva Bowan @ The Old Market

Brighton-based Polish native Eva Bowan only started performing this year, as we found out when we chatted to her at the Green Man festival’s Rising Stage. She has since released the Hyperspectacle EP on lOcal label KLDSCP, which put her on the radar of the likes of the NME; with a prime slot just before Swans at The Old Market, this Drill gig saw her playing to the biggest crowd of her short career to date.

Her set was immediately engaging; a mysterious balloon of sound that artfully used samples – both found and played – ranging from the industrial to the earthy to the paranormal. Also a visual artist and illustrator, Bowan draws on many disciplines and her tracks are as much collages of sound as songs. Live vocals kicked in about halfway through, reverb heavy and swimming pool-like, as the music took on a dubby tinge and morphed into something more humanly expressive – not to mention impressive, as she coolly built up the vocal layers while manipulating the platter of tech before her. Using her breath in the mix, almost as percussion, was another inventive touch, while the final track – a trip-hoppy song with shades of Massive Attack – showed Bowan also has an ear for the more mainstream. More interaction with the crowd wouldn’t go amiss, but she seemed more nervous than taciturn, and no matter how over-awed she may have felt by the occasion, her music was a finely poised affair.

Swans @ The Old Market

The sense of anticipation in the crowd was electric as festival royalty Swans took to the stage to play their own set, ahead of the collaborative finale with curators Wire. Looking like the delegates of some sort of gangster warlock convention – and sounding about ten times as meanly majestic as that might imply – the reformed no wave legends conjured an almighty rapture of noise that was both rock steady and kind of cosmic. Grotty, chugging guitars and bass and cacophonous drums were topped with trombone, vibraphone and a shimmering gong that looked like a huge metal eye.

Magnetic frontman Michael Gira proved his intimidating solemnity was all in my head as he cracked into a wide, world-beating grin at the peak of the second song, and proceeded to commune with the audience. As the sound expanded in all directions, he embodied the music, swirling his arms around as if conducting a thunderstorm. I was only able to catch the first half hour before running to see Gulp across town (besides which, I don’t think my eardrums could have stood much more) but it was enough to show me, a sheepish Swans novice, why everyone has been banging on about them. I duly added some decent earplugs to my Christmas list so I can enjoy the full experience if the chance comes around again.

Gulp @ The Hope

Gulp’s uplifting, sun-drenched Season Sun album takes a lot of its atmosphere from singer and songwriter Lindsey Leven’s synth playing, lending it an almost feather light electronic feel. The live opener, ‘Vast Space’, announced we were in for a chunkier offering, with the propulsive bass of Super Furry Animal Guto Pryce and guitar of Gid Goundrey filling the cosy venue. Leven’s vocals and synth proved the perfect foil, though, elevating and expanding the sound. The instantly recognisable jangling guitar intro and homely lilt to ‘Let’s Grow’ brought smiles all round; ‘Game Love’ saw the synth kicking up a notch, matched by higher vocals, the crystal clarity of her voice showing Leven to be a serene, if un-showy, performer.

There is an alluring sense of fun, freedom and pleasure in Gulp’s music, and their stage presence was simple, warm and inviting. The trip-hop-meets-folk of ‘Hot Water’, was a dash of perfection, ‘Clean and Serene’ ushered in a disco energy with the multi-tasking Leven helping out on drums to build on the already dramatic pounding of Gwion Llewellyn. ‘I Want To Dance’, with its sleek and soaring synth and quirky Euro-pop-esque chorus, had everyone moving, while ‘Seasoned Sun’ stretched out on a heavy, psych-rock tangent. A new song, whose name unfortunately escaped me, was no less enjoyable for the lack of familiarity; with an interesting percussion track and strolling bassline, and some call and response between vocals and guitar, it seemed to show that the band are developing and experimenting – an enticing prospect made even more so by a quick post-show chat with Pryce which revealed their only firm plan for next year, so far, is to make a new record.