“Always Music in Wrexham” FOCUS Wales 2023

The three-day international showcase returns to North Wales…

Home to an unmistakably high calibre of burgeoning talent, and with more recent Hollywood interventions garnering a great deal of global attention, sporting and otherwise, modern day Wrexham is no stranger to buzz. Less than twenty-four hours prior to our arrival in the prospective city of culture, the streets were proudly paraded by thousands of fans celebrating historic league promotions by Wrexham AFC’s men’s and women’s teams, the first time in fifteen years for the former. This is of course a festival report, and not one of sporting achievement per say, but I would be remiss in understating these foundations of sheer local excitement, paving the way for FOCUS Wales’ three-day span. Boasting a line-up of over two hundred artists from Wales and beyond, and employing a plethora of performance spaces – all within glorious walking distance from one another – there was clearly no better place to be than sunny Wrexham.

The streets of the citycentre lined with the juxtaposing facades of buildings old and new, in the latter camp is Hope Street Church which on Thursday hosted an initial opening showcase from WHY Portugal music export. Ushering in the festival vibes were the sunroof-down indie grooves of Hauseplants, the Portuguese Brooklyn residents delving into slacker guitar pop and shoegaze tropes for a suitably hazy start to the day. 

[SUN – Tim Rooney]

As one sun began setting, another was on the rise; the crowd at Tŷ Pawb (versatile community space and cultural hub) packed in for a set from French artist SUN, boasting bleach-soaked grunge grooves and a bewitching vocal delivery which effortlessly alternated between the scream and the serene. This pace and energy was surely maintained over at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, which hosted a commanding, exasperated post-punk masterclass from Brooklyn-based outfit Mary Shelley, a wicked onstage wit made apparent with retorts like “we’ve got more music coming this year… but right now we’re gonna talk about your mum.”

[Mary Shelley – Brent Jones]

We found ourselves back at Tŷ Pawb for a string of showcases, the first of which from angsty electronic duo Bracco. Hailing from France, the pair ploughed through a set gargantuan techno beats and unfettered vocal delivery, their frontman – stripped to his underwear – at one point proceeding to thrash his face-up guitar with a drumstick. Following in frenetic fashion came the deafening tones of Madagascan trio LohArano, blending metal and Malagasy ternary rhythms through chugging guitar riffs, percussive whirlwinds, slinky bass hooks, and awesome vocal wails. 

A ten-second walk to Tŷ Pawb’s second stage saw our night take a mellower direction; here we caught a spellbinding array of delicate art pop from Catalonian songstress Nuria Graham. A result of unknown complications her band were down a drummer, but in fact the heightened instrumental minimalism only further exposed the intricacies of the music, allowing Nuria’s rich and crystalline vocals to grace the foreground atop a palette of twinkling piano, interchanging bass and baritone guitar, and again interchanging clarinet and bass clarinet. This was a certain highlight of the festival.

Walking away from Tŷ Pawb in a tranquil state, we shortly met our first taste of The Rockin’ Chair, an attractive venue boasting two stages. Here Welsh language fourpiece Mellt unveiled their axes, weaving through an impassioned repertoire of anthemic indie rock gems for a deservingly packed turnout, and breaking into enticing newer inclusions destined for prospective release. 

Before decamping at the venue, a short trip back to Tŷ Pawb was a must in order to catch an intimate showcase from Irish singer-songwriter Paddy Hanna. The artist, on Galway-based label Strange Brew’s roster, gave a truly honest performance with heart-on-sleeve, narrative-rich songs carrying distinct enchantment and sincere poignancy, while his charming onstage humour further indulged the besotted audience. 

[Minas – Tim Rooney]

Our night’s final resting place, The Rockin’ Chair geared up for an incendiary set from Greek-Welsh producer and musician Minas. Capturing a feeling of both pride and anguish through politicised and introspective punk and rap tropes, sample-based textures and frenetic beatwork; this was a genre-mashing masterclass, the artist bearing his chest and sweating buckets for his craft. We received a final sonic smack in the face by noisy bass and drums duo MOJA. Hailing from Hong Kong, the pair put on a performance in a fuzz-laden field of its own, sporting rambunctiously distorted basslines, complex blast beats and unchained vocal intensity – at one point proving a tad too much for the stage’s poor left speaker.

On Friday I awoke feeling notably over-moshed from the night before. Regardless, I was keen to start the day once again at Hope Street Church for a string of shows on the Spanish Wave export roster. Key highlights here were the surfy, kraut-infused psych-rock jams of Los Premios, and the gestural theatricalities of VALENTINSKKA, the burgeoning art-poster delving into prop-based performance art atop modernistic trip hop beatwork, her set following a visual narrative of metamorphosis. 

Wandering through town we took stock at the HWP Cymraeg folk tent and caught a beautifully stripped back set from Friulian singer-songwriter Massimo Silverio, currently gearing up towards his debut album. The artist’s alternate finger-picking and strumming patterns, open tunings and rich dulcet tones possessed a sheer mystery, the drama elevated by an ongoing bout of rain which cleared enigmatically on cue with his final song. Meanwhile over at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, up-and-coming Canadian artist Fernie made her mark as a definite one to watch, her music a serene palette of wobbly bass chops and sultry funk tropes, making deserving space for her enticingly soulful, effortlessly dexterous voice.

[TVAM – Kev Curtis]

Our first encounter with FOCUS’ big-top tent stage Llwyn Isaf followed promptly, its lighting and atmosphere an apt match for audiovisual-focussed Mancunian artist TVAM. His set was a stellar showcase blending art rock, kraut and trippy acid house sensibilities, obscured vocals ricocheting off the tent’s inner walls, accompanied by kaleidoscopic visuals and lyrical displays in glorious 4:3 ratio.

Arriving at The Rockin’ Chair we are met by the tattered, grunge-tainted angst of Maori threepiece Half/Time. While honouring their name through shifts into half or double time, political exasperation and the marginalisation of Maori culture and language make their mark through angular walls of fuzz with lyrics like “our voices are distant, and our words they sound different”.

Following TVAM’s footsteps back at Llwyn Isaf, Welsh instrumental outfit Gallops, who were guaranteed to put on a stellar display of anthemic experimental rock and mind-bending visual accompaniments most certainly didn’t disappoint; their musicianship as always impeccably tight, effortlessly commanding the stageward gaze of a hypnotised crowd. A short walk away, Tŷ Pawb’s second stage hosted Taiwanese instrumental group Go Go Machine Orchestra. Stylistically multifaceted, their set revelled in the longform, boasting attentive dynamism and the airs of unquestionable virtuoso in its instrumentation – a blend of drums, electric piano, electric guitar, modular synthesiser, and later employing a concert xylophone.

The sky slowly darkened in seeming correspondence with our destination, venue Penny Black. The welcome surroundings of seedier club decor formed the showcase backdrop for up-and-coming rapper JUICE MENACE, her nonplussed, effortless swagger bolstered by grime-tinged tracks rightly demanded the crowd’s focus; a definite one to watch.

The evening drawing to a close, we caught a shoegazey set from Gothenburg-based outfit Boy With Apple, at classic indie venue The Parish. Their motto ‘who needs a drum kit anyway?’ was effectively honoured, ethereal walls of hypnotic noise and breathy nonchalant vocals reaching outward atop nineties My Bloody Valentine/Cocteau Twins-leaning drum machines. Our final Friday performance, a definite lasting memory of the festival, we were blessed by a DJ set from acid house veteran and all-round pioneer A Guy Called Gerald, his one man show lending a danceable hand to the intoxicated late-night Wrexham.

Saturday came to usher in the FOCUS showcase finale, and kicking things off in impressive fashion was Cardiff rapper Mace The Great, his performance in the beautiful surroundings of Old No. 7 Bar. Given the sheer size of the crowd in attendance, it didn’t seem possible that this was the first show of the day, but Mace’s set of high octane grime (featuring aforementioned Minas on decks) played charismatically into the hands of phenomenal hype, the showcase of his unadulterated lyrical talent littered with well-timed reloads, leaving everyone wanting more. 

[Cosmic Dog Fog – Tim Rooney]

Back at Llwyn Isaf it was about time for a mind-altering performance from self-proclaimed otherworldly entities Cosmic Dog Fog. The duo, crashing down from space to sunny Wrexham in 2020, produced an immersive spectacle. Casiotone beats and a tabletop of gizmos were employed to full effect alongside smatterings of acoustic guitar, theremin, and undulating vocal effects; the pair giving the airs of Ween in scuba gear. For their finale they were joined onstage by a handful of alien pals – an entourage adorned in abstract paper mache heads all too happy for a lasting boogie.

A moment of mellow perfection came from Welsh triple harpist Cerys Hafana‘s set at Tŷ Pawb. Her assortment of folk fragments which delve deep into the archives (one introduction being “this is a song about pigs, and dogs, and chickens, and cats, and grandmas”) were carried by gorgeous chromatic descending motifs and subtly reverberating crystalline vocals in Cymraeg. Cerys is most certainly the modern folk orator; a virtuoso of her craft, elevating overlooked folk traditions to innovative, enigmatic heights.

Ducking into Penny Black we were dealt a heavy slab of frenetic garage rock by Welsh outfit Dactyl Terra, accompanied onstage by their smoke-billowing mascot Terry the Pterodactyl, before catching a performance from the recently expanded lineup of Welsh art rock troupe HMS Morris. All members decked in frilly lampshade hats and cowhide print, their wondrous set served poppy hooks, enticing structural dynamics and rich choral harmonies.

Back at a full-capacity The Rockin Chair, Dream Wife took definite command of their stage, eyeballing the audience with every empowered jab. Their characteristically angsty, punk-infused grooves were flecked with contrasting loud/quiet dynamics, unfettered hooks, and unchained wails, the overall spectacle like a storm in a crooked teacup. Following suit on the venue’s second stage came Scottish outfit Walt Disco, their distinctive glam-leaning tendencies taking references from Bowie and Talking Heads, but giving something far fresher. Key to their sound, the androgynous troupe successfully captured a balance between human playing and electronic instrumentation, further elevating the music to danceable glory, and demanding the crowd’s every attention.

[Dream Wife – Kev Curtis]

The final performance of our time in Wrexham brought us back to The Parish, where positively deafening Canadian duo Grimelda (fka The Faps) made sure of a perfect finale. Their infectious punk energy, dealing politicised blows with an infectious degree of tongue in cheek wit, was littered with angular runs and shifting timescales, the pair at one point casting the mic stand crowdward in encouragement of some excitable audience participation. Their set, taking inclusions from their recent EP It’s So Feeling When You Rock!, ended with a jadedly humorous (fake, I assume) phone call skit with Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney themselves.

As far as openers and closers go, my time at FOCUS Wales seemed to be a perfect circle. The vast array of faultless, aforementioned up-and-coming talent from Wales and beyond aside, I am convinced that Wrexham itself was a key factor in the showcase’s success, each handpicked venue lending its unique character to every set enjoyed, and the atmosphere across the board most definitely bolstered by the local feeling, perhaps best described as ‘pride of place’.

Words: Kieran Macdonald-Brown
Photography: As Credited / Main Photo: Robin Parker

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