Festival Report: DRILL Brighton 2014

A walk on music's wilder side...

Brighton’s inaugural DRILL – co-curated by the band Wire and locally based, nationally active promoters One Inch Badge – doesn’t go off without its share of problems.

Some shows are dead, others uncomfortably overloaded with sweaty beards. The participating venues are spread out enough to make many a commute between sets a pained rush through tight alleyways and shoppers-dense lanes. And the £80 ticket price – for four days and covering an opening Wednesday show at wristband exchange HQ Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar – arguably isn’t amazing value, with the big-draw bookings uncomfortably clashing at the top end of each day’s bill. You pay your money, you take your choice – but it’s a rare punter who caught everything they wanted to at DRILL.

Big Business and God Damn are the Wednesday attractions, the pre-fest-proper entertainment, the pair of two-pieces playing SMFB and bringing a healthy crowd down into the modest venue’s low-ceilinged basement. It’s always a great place to see a show when the volume’s really being pushed, and Big Business certainly deliver – boisterous but nuanced, they’re tour-hardened veterans who leave bones shaken, drummer Coady Willis mesmerising in piston-like-limbed action. God Damn have one solid song and play it several times, but they’re just fine as warm-up for the headlining Melvins associates.

Bad For Lazarus serve forth filthy riffs to an appreciative Haunt audience come Thursday, setting the stage for headlining local crew The Wytches. Across town at the Sallis Benney Theatre, Wire expectedly pull in a great many from the frozen streets – but it’s at Audio where something truly special is unfolding.

In this compact space, These New Puritans are transcendental, the core trio backed by singer Elisa Rodrigues and Bark Psychosis man Graham Sutton, whose textural embellishments sit well atop the band’s typically envelope-pushing entrancement of the senses. The lighting is superb, mist-shrouded bright white strobes beneath and glowing, hellish reds up top, like an inverse Heaven and Hell with the band our soundtrack to the limbo between. ‘We Want War’ gets an ethereal re-work, and the end result is the definite feeling that we’ve all witnessed a unique show: a band of immeasurable ambition at an impossibly intimate venue.

Jesca Hoop is an endearing diversion on the uphill trek to The Prince Albert, where Theo Verney is all smiles as he (and band) rips through a set of immediate licks and playful rhymes. His material isn’t challenging any expectations, nailing that lo-fi, high-energy indie-rock-goes-surfing vibe that’s been present and correct in the US underground since forever, but it sure is fun. Hoop, meanwhile, plays solo at The Hope, and her quietly comical between-song banter reveals she’s not beyond poking a little fun at herself. Her singing voice, though: wow, when that takes flight there’s no weight in the world that can ground it.

Friday presents further tough choices: British Sea Power are pitted against Mono, who are on just around the way from Three Trapped Tigers, while Brighton-based duo Blood Red Shoes are right up the road at Bleach. Sauna Youth get my night off to a flier at the Green Door Store, the foursome’s taut pop-punk energy infectious – and that’s not pop-punk in a blink-182 sense, more that this outfit hammer home fire and passion while remembering that crowds like a good sing-and-dance-along, too. Exes follow, their deafening post-hardcore divisive – as evidenced by a cautious crowd – but sending me out into the night with a spring in my step. Which I need, in order to catch the opening moments of Mono.

The Japanese post-rock quartet is, inevitably, one of the bigger deals of the day’s schedule, and The Haunt is suitably full. But there’s something oddly lacking in their set tonight. An imposing gong is used only twice, and their more sweltering swerves into all-out attack are uncommonly infrequent, with a quieter, more meditative approach favoured. I dip out to see TTT’s one new song of the night over at Audio – they confirm a new album is complete, and will be out in 2015 – and return to Mono to find their audience wilting. Come the muted climax, the room’s halved in attendees.

Black Fungus’ tight, Shellac-y rock begins a Saturday stroll about town, where the options available are almost overwhelming. I eat Thai food, help a band with its gear and, ridiculously, manage to miss most things. East India Youth is, reportedly, wonderful at Audio, but plays to a smaller-than-ideal audience, DRILL-goers again split between headliners including Githead, Courtney Barnett, another Brighton-based band in the shape of Esben And The Witch (who do fill the Green Door Store), and Goblin.

Sore muscles and numb ears greet Sunday with a wheeze. Fvnerals prove a goth-hued trio with potential, opening the Albert bill in compelling style. Keep an ear out for how they develop, as while their Low-gets-doomy designs are relatively one-dimensional at present, there are whispers of future expansion as they near the end of an enjoyably gloomy set. Young Fathers fill The Haunt for their mid-afternoon slot, airing what sounds like a few new tracks inevitably destined for the follow-up to the Mercury Prize-winning ‘Dead’. (And if they’re not new, oh my, the wiring’s really shot by this point.)

Zu turn the Albert into a sweatbox, the Italian trio’s drums-and-bass-and-sax set-up sounding like somebody slapped Sunn O))) with a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It’s intense, and the packed-tight onlookers are loving it – but bloody hell is it ever hot in there, and I bail to seek relief outside, having no further layers to strip from my frame. Even on the street, their wonky rhythms and propulsive reed work is wholly arresting, passers by stopping to bend an ear before continuing up to the city’s main train station. 

Grumbling Fur go up against Gulp who face off against Ulrich Schnauss and The Wedding Present as Sunday night’s battle for DRILL-closing superiority heats up – Gold Panda an early victim as illness (not of the hip-hop kind, as he tweets) drops him out of the running. But it’s Swans who prove the heavyweights, their collaborative extension of Wire’s album-cum-EP-cum-single-epic-track ‘Drill’ – played with the co-curators – an appropriately bold climax to a new festival which, for all its slight first-time slips, will be welcomed back to Brighton with open arms next year. It’s no Great Escape, but it’s certainly an enlightening walk on the wilder side of contemporary music.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Andy Sturmey

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