Live Report: The Great Escape 2014

The best of what we saw by the seaside…

Brighton doesn’t take kindly to strangers, so it seems – to an influx of international press and performers, set on filling streets with new sounds, tastes and haircuts. So day one of its annual, multi-venue Great Escape festival-cum-industry-knees-up is blessed by weather so inclement you’d mistake the rough seas and torrential rains for the accompaniment to a December-held event. In Helsinki.

Nevertheless, Clash battles on through the miserable conditions. And it’s to a complete unknown that we head first, as Canadian trio Doomsquad bring their engrossing weirdness to the city’s Blind Tiger venue. Great name, that – and the band’s music is instantly appealing too, coming on like F*ck Buttons soundtracking a halfway decent remake of The Wicker Man. “Dark new agers” is how they describe themselves online, which mightn’t completely sell them to newcomers. What does: they pull out panpipes and totally get away with it. From there, we spend a few songs in the company of tipped Australian singer Courtney Barnett, performing solo at Komedia. She’s great, but there’s something calling us to the dance just down the road…

BadBadNotGood is an act Clash is very familiar with – as are too many people to comfortably fit inside TGE14’s Spiegeltent. But once the snaking queue is navigated – by which we mean, we asked the PR to sneak us in – the atmosphere inside this pop-up venue, even at before four in the PM, is remarkable. People are properly bouncing in here, propelled into release and revelry by a trio that absolutely nails a performance pitched somewhere between Battles and the best jazz band your dad was never cool enough to get into. They suffer a few technical problems, but a malfunctioning beat pad doesn’t detract from what is the proper start to Clash’s TGE14 party times.

Which continue – and some – at our own night, held at Coalition. Mercifully, the weather’s calmed somewhat by the time doors open at 6pm, meaning that the beachside haunt isn’t a horrific mess of wind-beaten bodies desperate for shelter. Instead, punters come early for the smoky vocals and delicate piano motifs of Norma Jean Martine, a first-on who’ll soon enough graduate to higher-profile slots based on this performance. Her livelier numbers plug into a slightly modern country aesthetic, while there are shades of mainstream jazz at play, too. A very commercial mix, then, and she’s an artist we expect to see grow in stature as she builds to the release of a debut LP.

Jaakko Eino Kalevi (above) isn’t quite so obviously marketable to a broad demographic, but the Finnish artist’s quirky indie-pop – which sells it short, but time is money and we’re stone broke – is wonderfully colourful fare, all squeaky synth tones and detached vocals. Comparisons to Ariel Pink have preceded his arrival, and sure enough there’s a parallel to be drawn there – both acts have a remarkable grasp of the just-otherworldly, and are able to tangent into territories that expand horizons without blurring them into unaffecting experiments in sound. ‘Memories’ and ‘No End’ in particular prove to be so catchy that we’re humming them several hours – and several drinks – later.

Ballet School find a volume level that previous bill-sharing acts fell someway short of – the Berlin-based, Bella-Union signed threesome are phenomenally loud, and their ‘80s-kissed electro-toned anthems (really, they sound massive enough to warrant the word) have Coalition’s walls rattling into a state of hypnotised rapture. So, naturally, those at the front get into an even deeper trance. The biggest reaction is for the band’s ‘Heartbeat Overdrive’ single – the best known cut from their emerging catalogue – but if these aired tracks are a sign of what’s to come on their debut LP, consider Clash’s eagerness amplified.

Then come Drowners, and if we’re honest the New Yorkers’ frenetic indie-rock sounds rather rote by comparison to what surrounds it. But let us confirm, as if such reassurance was needed, that the Frenchkiss-signed act is a wrecking ball of energy, capable of smashing reserved expectations. Which they manage, in distinctly Big Apple style, but ultimately they’re the familiarly tasty starter before a main that completely blows away any anticipation with an expectations-exceeding performance worthy of a far bigger venue: Little Dragon.

The Swedish foursome (below and main) have a great new album, ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ (review), ready to launch – but tonight’s set is engineered for greatest-hits impact, touching on 2011’s ‘Ritual Union’ as well as finding space for the silky rhythms of 2009’s ‘My Step’. It’s new single ‘Paris’ that really points the way forward, though: this is modern pop without concession to transient trends, somehow both lasting and bubblegum, the creation of a wicked madman controlling hearts and minds with a maverick spark. Theirs is a fantastic, festival-headlining-worthy set – don’t count against them lighting up late-night outdoor stages come next summer, sitting pretty above many a peer.

Maddening queues prevent our enjoyment of Thursday’s remaining attractions – East India Youth draws a massive assembly to the Green Door Store, while Arthur Beatrice perform a similar trick over the road at the Prince Albert. So it’s to Friday’s schedule that we turn, semi-refreshed. And wouldn’t you know it, the bloody sun’s only decided to make an appearance. And yet, it’s into the darkness of the Green Door Store that we first dive, for the divinely spectral sounds of Sea Change.

Not to be confused with the Nottingham band of the ’00s, or the Beck album for that matter, this Norwegian trio offer material existing somewhere between ‘Vespertine’-period Björk and the sharp electronics of Purity Ring. They have a closing number, ‘Bridges’, which sounds every second like a breakthrough in waiting. Entirely enchanting yet still a little rough around the edges, Sea Change are one of those new acts (well, ostensibly a solo artist, real name Ellen W Sundes) that events like TGE14 exist to serve – and they take their chance to impress quite splendidly.

Jaws are utterly toothless at Komedia – maybe it’s a poor show, but the tired nonchalance on display is immensely off-putting – but after that detour into depression we land at Audio for September Girls, and what a worthwhile racket they kick up. It’s a little C86, a little shoegaze, a tiny trace of doo-wop, and a lot of fun. Which is important when it’s not even 2pm and you’re already back on the ale.

An attempt to see East India Youth again ends in failure as a mix-up at Above Audio leads to Clash stranded outside the venue – we’d point fingers in the direction of certain pals who disappeared elsewhere without telling us, but that’d be mean. Still, William Doyle sounds wonderful through the open doors – and when really on tip-toes, we can just about make him out over the top of the burly bouncer fellow who really isn’t interested in our sweet-talking charm. Esben And The Witch go nuclear at Shipwright’s Yard, playing four songs from a new Steve Albini-recorded LP coming later in 2014, before it’s time for another triumphantly volcanic ensemble: Norway’s Deathcrush.

Clash caught this trio at By:Larm a little earlier in 2014 (review) – but even on foreign soil, they smash out the skull-scorching jams like few others, coming over like Sleigh Bells with the seriousness turned down and the amps blown to smithereens. They’re a lot less confrontational than their American peers – while the volume inside Digital is official at ‘assault’ levels (Clash has retreated to earplug safety for this one), there’s smiles all round. Slightly suggestive ones, if we’re honest. Is that our collar heating up? Time for some beach brews and a breather before the night really gets hot.

Seekae begin at Komedia in an explosion of cymbals, hunky drums and 8bit soundwaves, kicking off the Red Bull Music Academy showcase, charting the evolution of modern dance music. This Australian trio dismembers a palette of conventional rock sounds before processing them into a taut barrage that blazes a trail close to America’s Holy F*ck or the UK’s Three Trapped Tigers. At points tender with guitars, at others confrontational with huge swirling drops, the Sydney act explores percussive phrases that build into monolithic moments fused with awkward melodies and livid with a fuzzy lurch.

Immediately after them – same venue, same brand – come the paranoid and venomous rhymes and beats of Blue Daisy (above). He unleashes modulated dreams onto an audience intent on bathing in his nocturnal mutterings. His home on Bristol’s Black Acre Records suggests he’s a natural successor to the nightmarish West Country slink of Tricky – and sure enough, the feeling soon settles that missing this set must be akin to missing the ‘Maxinquaye’ rapper back in 1994, before he blew into the mainstream a year later. This feels like an I-was-there moment. ‘Cries Of The Beast’ paints him as a bastard son of Dr Octagon, yet there are shards of light that fetter Daisy’s digital anthems, implying a lighter salvation than such suspicious forefathers.

A dash downhill later and it’s into Audio for a prodigious performance from Warp’s Patten. He can be a bit much on record sometimes, this master of cacophonous electronic chatter and organic strands, but live, goodness… It’s art, it’s dance, it’s emotional. So intense, so much bass, sensory overload. Brilliant. Hawk House’s intricate vocal interplay is arrestingly accomplished at The Haunt – what you’ve read about them shaping up to be a domestic Fugees isn’t quite right, as they’re clearly better than that – and Ratking’s fiery set marks them as New Yorkers ready to take hip-hop properly into the next generation.

A swollen schedule means that Pulled Apart By Horses and Royal Blood’s double-header at the Corn Exchange is missed – sorry chaps – but Clash gets its rock fix, and some, by heading back to The Haunt for a late-night collision with Fat White Family

We’d heard the stories of faecal fireworks. Rumours had reverberated. We arrive full of superficial expectations. We’re drunk, and want the novelty riot. We’re not disappointed. Lead singer Lias Saoudi stops short of actually shitting onto the stage, but this despicable and violent rock ‘n’ roll provides a palpable hit – by the second song, we’re transfixed.

Saoudi, replete in only a thong, seems smeared in a brown substance from a gig two hours earlier, and fondly toys with his protruding manhood, deliciously high and ready for yet another crushing stage dive. It’d be easy to sit and compare for hours how his haunted confrontation with the crowd matches that of Jim Morrison, or how his fetid sneer comes close to that of The Fall’s Mark E Smith, but the fact is Fat White Family can seriously smash a crowd exclusively with their sleazy jams. It’s hard not to be bowled over by their sheer venom and trajectory.

The mainstream rarely accepts characters so degenerative, or even so wild. The balance of such ferocity with a career of longevity is a puzzling algorithm that currently defeats us. We just hope that Fat White Family keeps gestating their quality songs long enough so they can outlive the clichéd hype and naysayers, dodging the flying shite.

Closing out Komedia’s RBMA bill is Jennifer Lee, aka Brainfeeder-signed artist Tokimonsta. The former RBMA participant has come a long way since 2010’s ‘Midnight Menu’, her sets now heavily edited, deeply layered sorties into the future of bass. Whipping together a painstakingly assembled battalion of song fragments she traverses a recent history of dance music with a haughty glide. 

Tokimonsta (below) feeds off no particular scene, aside from LA’s mongrel love of a beat. Hers is a collage of sound slabs ripped from all areas of modern electronic music and repurposed for her calm dancefloor coercion. Mantles of percussion peel back to reveal deeper laptop manipulations. She’s as animated on stage as her own music, growing at every fresh viewing into a true beast of the beats.

And then, sleep.

It’s absolutely inevitable that Saturday’s saunter into Brighton’s central streets, its maze of alleyways and underground venues, would be undertaken with a heavy head. Day three of three-day events like this always have that slight feeling of lethargy to them – or, at least, they do to aging legs that have been doing this sort of thing for several years now. Still, there are bright highlights from a series of shows that continue TGE14’s fine line in showcasing new and exciting talents from the world over.

Another sighting of the delightful Jaakko Eino Kalevi is followed by a pit-stop for Finnish ice cream and a few gentle sups of delicious beer in the company of a gaggle of journos and PRs who, just like Clash, are putting aside the queues for Mazes and Slow Club to reflect on what they’ve seen thus far. Then it’s time to get right back into it: Alarm Bells are playing at the Fishbowl, and the former members of Dananananaykroyd, plus new pals, are to their former guise what The Mars Volta are At The Drive-In. This is twisting-and-turning, gut-punching prog with a punk lilt. It’s more than a little bit brilliant when hammering home its more immediate motifs, and attentions only briefly wander when the music meanders for a second longer than it perhaps should. Still, ears ringing, it’s on to the next…

Which happens to be Slaves, at Coalition. It’s all big dumb fun with this ROYAL TUNBRIDGE WELLS (they shout, so all-caps, essential) two-piece. Hardcore punk performed in a gleefully childish fashion, set highlights include an onstage debate about what is the best biscuit, and a song in which the intrepid duo attempt to find their mate Debbie's car. In terms of sheer, unrelenting energy, this brattish duo are pretty hard to beat at TGE14.

We beat a swift path to The Haunt, just down the breezy (understatement, right there) coast from Slaves’ Digital performance, for Ireland's own Girl Band. Theirs is a simply thrilling, terrifically pulse-quickening noise. Feral yet accessible, this set is an alert, succinct display of how to match urgently funky post-punk to no wave-style white noise. Ending with a lengthy workout on Blawan’s techno cut ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?’, each track seems to stun, surprise and engage.

Someone tells us to see Trust at the Prince Albert. Someone else mentions something about Jeremiah Jae at the Green Door. And yet, it’s to dust we crumble, ultimately beaten down by the best three-dayer of its kind this side of South By Southwest. Too much party, not enough fruit. The Great Escape is fantastic on the ears, but goddamn we need to rest for a week now to get over it all – and to wring out our pants and socks, still dripping from Thursday’s persistent precipitation.

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Words: Mike Diver, Matt Bennett, Robin Murray
Photos: Andy Sturmey (except Blue Daisy and Tokimonsta)

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