Some of the Soundsphere team were fortunate enough to experience the inaugural Beacons Festival in the Yorkshire Dales this summer. It was utterly magnificent. Sprawling across the gentle slopes of some of the fells which gaze down upon the small town of Skipton, for one all-too-brief weekend the Beacons site represented a kind of Mecca for the North’s burgeoning alternative subculture, drawing in hardcore hipsters from Leeds, a healthy contingent of serious clubbers from God-knows-where, a smattering of Hunter-wellied families glamping and enough cool muso types to freeze over Hell. With their coolness that is. It was an eclectic crowd to match an eclectic lineup which encompassed a staggering array of genres, considering the festival’s relatively small scale and independent status. This was a formula that worked incredibly well.
We started our festival off in familiar territory, with a visit to York-based noise-punks Fawn Spots as they performed on the Noisey/Vice stage. Surprised to discover a fairly radical change in the band’s lineup – from a drums and guitar two-piece with call-and-response vocals to a trio complete with a new drummer and added guitarist – we were unsure what to expect. The good news is that Fawn Spots are still great, offering a mixture of the exhilarating scattershot punk of their earlier incarnation and a new tendency towards colossal riffs. As far as stage presence and performance dynamics are concerned, this new version of the band veers more towards the hip and less towards the punk, and it may take a while for the initiated to adapt to the experience of Fawn Spots mk II. A changed band, but still an incredibly good one nonetheless.
Next up, the very different proposition of disco-noir outfit Outfit in the Greendales tent. This band is astounding – you are urged in the strongest imaginable terms to listen to them. Blending the sleaziest disco basslines with jagged guitars, icy vocals and understated synths, Outfit hit on a seductive sound that settles over the assembled bobbing heads of the crowd like a taxidermist’s glove, deathly and loving. Their set pulsed along to the rhythm of shakers, the crests and trenches of octaves. Highlights included the fantastic ‘Drakes’ and the quite unexpected guitar freakout with which the set drew to a close. So, so highly recommended. In an unfortunate juxtaposition, we just managed to catch the tail end of Theme Park’s set next door at the Stool Pigeon stage. Their tropical disco pop is easy on the ear and completely harmless, but seems lightweight to the extent of triviality when contrasted so starkly with the dark magnificence of Outfit. It was time for a burger and a break.
As evening fell over the Beacons arena, a discernible shift occurred within the whole atmosphere of the event. Darker, heavier dance music took over many of the festival’s stages at this point, with families beginning to return to the campsite and more hardened revellers flocking into the arena, with contraband alcohol secreted about their persons and songs in their hearts. After a brief exploration of some of the festival’s “sideshow” attractions (maze of coloured flags anyone?), we took up our place to watch Mount Kimbie at the Stool Pigeon stage. There are some very lazy people out there who describe MK as a post-dubstep act. Verily, their emergence came in the wake of that most lamentable of genres, but by that logic it would be just as sensible to describe a band like Peace as post-dubstep. Or an iPad. In reality, through mixing live instrumentation with ambient samples, Mount Kimbie create minimal electronica which combines tinny beats with woozy swells of ambience. It sounds thin, paper thin. But paper thin on a truly molecular level, with little motifs and samples explored thoroughly and implemented hypnotically. Divisive. Forsaking Friday’s big headline act Roots Manuva (not without regrets), we headed across to the Greendales stage once again to dance to the ever-so-accessible cheap kicks afforded by Mancunian peddlers of euphoric trance D/R/U/G/S. Apparently chopping up and remixing their own songs as they perform in a way which is both unfathomable and unimportant to many of those in attendance, the aesthetic experience of D/R/U/G/S is deeply uninspiring. Nevertheless, their music is pretty great to dance to and sets the precedent for a joyous night of sozzled fun. We shuffled back to our tents hours later, excited for what the next day would bring.
To the hearty pungency of baked beans simmering and the hateful buzz of paragliders overhead, we awakened. Beacons organisers, do something about these. The paragliders, not the beans. Ban them. Wipe them out if needs be. We don’t care if you don’t provide enough toilets or if the arena is swiftly transformed into a quagmire at the first sign of rain. Just no paragliders next time, please. Overcoming our distress, we wandered down to the Noisy/Vice stage to catch Stalking Horse. Spearheaded by Wu, formerly of This Et Al and featuring Owen Brinley who fronted Colour Of Fire and Grammatics in former musical lives, this band represents a mouth-watering prospect for anyone who’s followed alternative music in Northern England over the past decade or so. They create an eerie and powerful sound with tremulous vocals, dual drummers giving dual floor toms what for and a trio of guitars tortured into vulpine howls with EBows and effects pedals. Their performance was impressive and flavourful, but something of the intimacy and detail of Stalking Horse on record seemed to be lost in their live performance. The fact that it was broad daylight and we were stood in a cheery marquee, not some menacing forest probably didn’t help.
Typically of the weekend as a whole, the next act we caught offered an altogether different experience. Gentle and sincere, Kwes and his minimalist backing band soothed those lucky enough to spot them amidst the jolly bunting of the Stool Pigeon stage with songwriterly electronic pop dominated by dreamy synth and smooth bass. Perfect for a hazy Saturday afternoon.
Hot on the heels of Kwes’ set, electro-pop duo Au Palais took to the stage in the Noisey/Vice tent. Undeniably, there was a certain acrimony between this twosome and the intimate setting of the tent, and their aloof electro grandiosities might have more successfully maintained the glacial coolness they exude in a recorded format had they been performing in a larger space. The sad reality was that in the close setting of the Noisy/Vice tent, Au Palais came across as incongruously poserish, a poor contrast with the organic passion effused by many of the acts which played this stage over the weekend. If you’ve not heard them yet, maybe check them out regardless of this unflattering review, ‘Pathos’ is the clear highlight in their discography.
Following a spate of interview sessions the Soundsphere gang picked back up with Beacons’ frankly brilliant programme of musical acts with garage rock trio 2:54. This sisterly triumvirate has created quite a splash over recent months, and there’s definitely something beguiling in their raw, jangly pop music. If there had only been a little more variety in their set then 2:54’s performance would have been a joy to watch. The reality is that the experience was a little samey, even boring at times. Top marks to their guitarist for playing a Fender Jaguar at any rate. The next turn in our weekend was a thoroughly unexpected and thoroughly glorious one. Our festival programmes had led us to believe that the band following 2:54 onto the Stool Pigeon stage would be the frankly pointless Clock Opera. By a magnificent twist of fate, aforementioned pointless band had ended up withdrawing from the festival, and were to be replaced by a group who ended up providing one of the raucous highlights of our weekend, Future Of The Left. Vitriol and idiosyncrasy smashed together with impeccable alt-rock precision, FOTL represent a stunningly dynamic foil to the studied introversion and understatement of so many of the acts dominating the underground music world right now. Frontman Andy Falkous looks uncannily like Kelly Jones’ utterly furious uncle, but thankfully sounds nothing like his band. Furious screams roared forth from the stage alongside distorted riffs, paired with the manic gyrations of a band who look genuinely dangerous. We were delighted. The stabbed synths and paranoid, staccato vocals of ‘Manchasm’ sent us mad to put it quite simply. Much like Friday’s highlight Outfit, this is a band you absolutely must see. Utterly sated, we quickly escaped the tent before perversely bloated pop-rock duo Japandroids surfaced in FOTL’s wake.
As dusk began to settle over Saturday night at Beacons festival, we started to head into pretty solidly Mercury prize-nominated territory, starting with the hotly-tipped Ghostpoet. This bespectacled rapper popped up on a lot of people’s radars last year when he did a stint as touring support act for Metronomy. A combination of this association with Joe Mount’s arty indie-pop troupe and fact that he describes himself as a poet would lead some to expect Ghostpoet’s music to go well-and-truly against the grain, to offer a left-field, pseudo-intellectual twist on the rap genre. There’s undeniably something individual about the noodly, sometimes oddly medieval-sounding live instrumentation involved in his set, and Ghostpoet’s delivery is full of feeling, but the reality of his live performance falls surprisingly close to the mainstream. Although he’s a talented rapper and blatantly crowd-pleasing, this artist’s pandering to “drop” culture and disappointingly weak lyricisms (e.g. “I know we fuss and fight here a little bit, I’ve had a couple drinks well a little bit”) left us cold. Forsaking the Stool Pigeon stage once again, we headed over to the dance-oriented Greendales stage to spend a little time with Glaswegian producer Koreless, whose minimal, housey 2-step music positively lulled us into a fitful sleep amidst the blinking lights of the tent. Mesmeric stuff, but maybe best enjoyed in a more mellow setting, as the utterly packed tent ensured that the gentle swaying and head-bobbing this kind of music was born to inspire was quickly supplanted by boisterous jostling. In a sedate mood, we headed over to the main stage, where Yorkshire art-rock arch-dukes Wild Beasts were preparing to glide through a triumphant headline set. With a distinctive cocktail of wily falsetto vocals, moody synths and cutting guitars, the band totally justified their top billing, pleasing a fairly huge tent-full of festival-goers in doing so. Sufficiently glutted on intelligent, relatively demanding listening material, we slunk off to the Beacons social tent, where we would disco with gay abandon deep into Sunday.
With considerable time constraints weighing upon the Soundsphere team throughout Sunday at Beacons due to the small matters of interviewing a few of the more astounding bands to appear over the weekend and getting home in time to prepare for work the next day (a cruel reality), we had to really make the time we spent in the arena throughout the festival’s final day count. Fortunately enough, Sunday’s Noisy/Vice stage programme was utterly wonderful. Curated by a Leeds-based promoter with fantastic taste in music and appalling taste in hats, Dirty Otter, the line-up represented many of the very finest branches of underground alternative music in the UK.
The first of these bands we encountered were the sort-of-esoteric B>E>A>K. A real source of split opinion, this brass-fronted post-rock group emerged, wordless and bedecked in colourful bird-themed garb. Their performance was incredibly precise, with mathy progressions and skew-wiff time signatures galore. There was however, a slight sense that this band may be a bit of a one trick pony – how many times can witnessing a group of men wearing beaks perform abrupt instrumental passages in complete unison prove entertaining? Not quite enough times to keep us engaged for thirty minutes it sadly transpires. The next band we witness captivate us, utterly. Hawk Eyes are a pretty mighty prospect, combining a geek-rock aesthetic and wild stage presence with the ballsiest riffs and best-honed musicianship you’re likely to encounter in this (/pretty much any) day and age. Their now-quite-seasoned smash ‘I Hate This, Do You Like It’ sounds utterly magnificent.
Sonically, Hawk Eyes are pitched somewhere between Foo Fighters and Slayer. An astonishingly appealing combination, and one which was astoundingly well realised through their emphatic set at Beacons, during which they inspired the closest thing to full-blown audience participation seen in the Noisey/Vice tent all weekend. Special marks go to the band’s quite impeccably accomplished drummer, and to their vocalist for literally bleeding from the face in the making of their stellar performance. Following the majestic Hawk Eyes, we were somewhat surprised to be greeted by an unexpectedly rockabilly-tinged opening to That Fucking Tank’s set, where we were perhaps shallowly expecting kicks of a slightly darker, math-rock-flavoured variety. Indeed, the math did materialise later in their set, albeit in curiously funky, bleepy, foot-tapping fashion.
Deeply weary and pressed for time, we now found ourselves with just one act left to see at Beacons festival 2012. Fittingly, the act in question were mind-blowingly good. Blacklisters (pictured) have been a facet of Yorkshire’s alt-hardcore scene for a good few years now. The extent of their growth throughout this time has been stupendous. Blacklisters, who just a few years back might justifiably have been described as a little unremarkable and one of the weaker members of the scene to which they belong, have morphed into twisted giants, whose chunky hardcore punk chops and deeply menacing stage shows now leave audiences agog with mingled admiration and apprehension. That’s exactly the effect they created at Beacons, with standout tracks like ‘Trick F**k’ and ‘Club Foot By Kasabian’ positively roaring forth from the stage in a noisy, euphoric barrage, whipping up the crowd into a maelstrom of flailing limbs. Watching the varying displays of fear and joy generated within various audience members by wild-eyed frontman Billie’s pansexual penetrations of the fourth wall was an absolute treat. An utterly worthy end to what had been a truly glorious weekend. We are so excited to pay you another visit next year Beacons festival. Thanks for having us.