Pitchfork Festival returns to London for an eclectic multi-venue spectacular, one that moves from avant-jazz skronk through to a revered ambient great via post-punk, left field hip-hop and more. Our reviewer Alex Rigotti tops up their Oyster card in pursuit of musical excellence…
Day 1 of the Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off at the Institute of Contemporary Arts
It’s the second year running of Pitchfork Music Festival in London, where the best of the alternative and underground scenes emerge.
Tonight, there are tote bags and pornstaches aplenty as young, music-savvy Londoners swarmed to the ICA to see O and Black Country, New Road. The two bands might be stylistically different, but both are masters at sonic storytelling.
Set to release their debut single at the end of this week, O demolishes the boundaries of the saxophone to produce dynamic, heart-racing music. This duo’s blend of breakbeats, post-rock, and jazz will leave you headbanging in no time. The closest comparison would be Moon Hooch and Royal Blood, though neither band really approaches the thrill of seeing O live.
Drummer Tash Keary is an absolute beast on the drums: tight, precise, totally unbridled. Not once did she slip or stutter tonight, keeping excellent pace for the duo. Meanwhile, saxophonist Joe Henwood messes around with loops, flangers, and distortion pedals to transform the possibilities of his baritone sax. One minute, his tone is smooth and reedy, but the next, it growls and wails like a proper guitar. It’s riveting stuff, almost spiritual at points.
Black Country, New Road
The main course for tonight is, of course, Black Country, New Road, who are back on the road testing entirely fresh material for a potential third album. This follows the devastating departure of their lead singer, Isaac Wood, just days before the release of 2022’s Ants From Up There. The remaining sextet have pressed on in spite of this, and tonight points to some new directions of Britain’s celebrated post-punk pioneers.
There’s a whimsical feeling to their set tonight, elevated by their distinctively narrative songwriting. Splashes of Celtic balladry can be heard in certain songs; others lean into band’s classical background to guide listeners into a storybook experience. One thing’s for certain: Black Country, New Road aren’t going anywhere. “Look at what we made together: BC, NR, friends forever!”, they chant triumphantly in their opening song.
Vocal duties have been split across Lewis Evans, May Kershaw, and Tyler Hyde (strangely not Georgia Ellery, though perhaps her involvement with Jockstrap has something to do with it). Though none reach the same emotional heights as Wood, their vocals expose different sides of the band.
Evans’ voice is plain and innocent, delivering lines with unaffected sincerity: “On our last night, we watched a film and had a cry/How could I be ready to say goodbye?”. Hyde’s vocals quiver and crack with emotion: “I won’t always love you”, she confesses at one point. It’s Kershaw’s voice, however, that’s the most spellbinding: soft, sweet, simmering.
BC, NR might be missing the wry, ultra-referential humour of Wood’s writing, but their current material distils the emotional beats of their previous works. There’s more earnestness here: stories of romantic disillusionment, codependency, and of course, just really wanting a fucking vibe.
Part of the magic of attending tonight’s gig is going in completely raw and getting swept up in BC, NR’s storytelling abilities. I won’t give away too much, but the biggest highlight of the night was easily ‘Turbines/Pigs’. It sounds like Regina Spektor, if Regina Spektor had clinically low self-esteem. The entire song makes you forget to breathe as it periodically swells and explodes, and it’ll be interesting to potentially hear it as a studio recording.
If you’re worried that BC,NR have lost their spark, fear not: Pitchfork’s set proved that they have reunited stronger without Wood. Perhaps it’s a little too on the nose, but out of the black country of departure and loss, a new road leads out into the exciting unknown.
Experimental rap fans rejoice at Day 2 of the festival at Shoreditch’s Village Underground
This South London five-piece collective kicks off the night with their multifaceted EP, Disaster Pop. Smatterings of Crystal Castles, Death Grips, and Rage Against The Machine can be heard throughout the night, each song more surprising than the next. Vocalists Monika and Syd Nukuluk often swap vocal duties, Nukuluk particularly impassioned – he’ll jitter and scream ‘Ooh Ahh’ like a monkey on crack. If you’re into more rock-tinged rap, Nukuluk will be right up your alley.
They Hate Change
Seeing They Hate Change was especially exciting due to their use of breakbeats and jungle in their music; a rather alien choice given they’re from Tampa, Florida. The London crowd was incredibly appreciative of their music: they moshed for four songs straight, an impressive feat for a band opening so early.
But it’s not just the music: Vonne Parks and Andre Gainey are determined to make you have a good time, and they know how to do it. They’ll stick their faces in fans’ cameras, they’ll stare you in the eye spitting rapid-fire flows. Most importantly, this duo has incredible chemistry – at one point, the two have a stare off, bouncing back and forth. Here’s hoping they’ll do a more extensive tour in the UK.
The famously private Billy Woods showed his face at the Village Underground in the most casual way possible – coffee cup in hand, talking congenially with the crowd. His DJ couldn’t make it, he explained, hence why he was going to be controlling the music that night.
In true Woodsian style, he requested to be in darkness. The result was phenomenal: Woods casts his eye over multiple issues from anticolonialism, religion, childhood, and love. He acted like a pastor in a dark, grimey apocalypse, proselytising the crowd with his crisply enunciated words. The crowd were rabid disciples – everyone knew at least the key bar to every single song.
Though the transitions were awkward and his set was cut early, Billy Woods made the most of his time on stage. His beats are dark, dreary, perfectly suited so his voice can ring loud and clear. Given the more downtempo nature of his beats, there was a worry the energy would drop, but London’s love for Billy Woods saved the set.
Written before and after the death of core member Stepa J. Groggs, By The Time I Get Back To Phoenix marked Injury Reserve as a seminal group for experimental hip-hop. The sheer intensity and avant-garde nature of that album violently pivoted from their previous works. And yet, nothing, not even the album, could have prepared one for the show Injury Reserve put on.
When Ritchie with a T and producer Parker Corey step on stage, the Village Underground is awash with fog and light. In the background, piercing headlights fill the stage with an ominous, sweltering glow. Only the silhouettes of the remaining duo were visible.
What follows is an hour of the most exhilarating, unrelenting noise music possible. Your arms hairs ripple, your stomach blubbers with the ceaseless, industrial bass. Your eyes are almost obliterated by the light and the next day your ears are still quivering in fear of the music. It is truly godly and utterly orgasmic.
The live show amplifies the emotional heights of BTTIGTP by maximising all the noisy, abrasive elements, which can’t really be replicated in headphones. Everything is a giant, shrieking lump of static, with gentle thrums of rhythm beneath. There’s still room to breathe, and Ritchie manages the energy perfectly with these transitions, asking audience members to put their hands in the air during ‘Postpostpartum’.
There’s palpable emotion, too. Though Stepa’s loss is never acknowledged, the music seems to speak of the enormous pain the group has gone through. There’s outright hopelessness on songs like ‘Superman’, where he howls: “There ain’t no saving me!”. But there’s also a sense of frustrated resignment as he wails lyrics like: “My knees hurt when they grow/And that’s a tough pill to swallow/Because I’m not getting taller.”
As the band leaves the stage, deserting their equipment and leaving it running, you have to wonder whether the encore will get better. By the end of ‘Jailbreak the Tesla’, you realise it does in fact, get better. Corey jumps up and down so enthusiastically he detaches his equipment from the stand. Ritchie goes one step further, flinging a synth into the crowd and then asking for it back (“Lowkey don’t know why I did that shit,” he admits).
YouTube doesn’t do it justice. Cameras don’t do it justice. Even this review won’t do it justice. Injury Reserve proves why they’re integral to not only the flourishing underground hip hop scene, but to music itself.
On Day 3 of the festival, four venues across Dalston host a sampling of underground’s best musicians.
The first stop tonight at EartH Hall is NNAMDÏ, a Chicago-born multi-instrumentalist who funnels hardcore, pop-punk and experimental rap into his own version of pop. Dressed in a white jumpsuit with brash, black brushstrokes, NNAMDÏ’s performance was overwhelmingly energetic. Stepping away from the mic to scream, or running around with his head in his hands, it seemed there was a lot of emotion that refused to be contained.
Though he was pleasantly chatty, his stage banter didn’t always work out. He rushed through asking the audience to sing along to ‘Dedication’, leaving us confused. Still, NNAMDÏ made up for it by jumping into the pit and singing with the crowd. “It’s not like me to catch my breath – give is up for yourselves,” he wheezed.
Moving upstairs to the EartH Theatre, I walked in midway through Jenny Hval’s set. Visually, it’s artistically constructed: five band members stood behind Hval in red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Hval herself was wearing a simple grey suit, allowing her to dance around to her latest album, 2022’s Classic Objects.
A projector behind Hval showcased visuals and music videos for each track. Hval did really well to match the energy of the stage with these: ‘Jupiter’ was a particular highlight, the music exploding just as man with neon green hair takes a tab of a stiletto (yeah, don’t ask). Despite rude wolf-whistles from the audience, Hval powered through to give a delightful performance, her voice wonderfully clear and crisp.
From the moment William Basinski slinked onto the stage, you knew shit was about to go down. He donned a domineering all-black suit, slicked-back hair, sunnies, and a glittery black jacket. Initially, you’d never guess he’s a preeminent figure of ambient and drone music – a seasoned glam rock star, perhaps. But then he utters his first words in his honeyed, Texan accent: “This is a show you might wanna shut up for”.
With that out the way, Basinski assumed his position behind his soundboard and laptop and commenced forth with 2020’s Lamentations. The lighting was immediately cinematic: a hypnotic circle, black-and-white, spinning round and round. Basinski’s music is equally as entrancing, but there’s something more distressing about it. Swathes of static mingle with grainy string samples, each element vying for attention. It was nothing short of beautiful.
The man himself was totally consumed by his own music; he jerked and jittered to the drones. As red strobe lights began to flicker, he would convulse violently, and lip sync to ‘O My Daughter, O My Sorrow’, as if the opera passages came from his very soul. He makes the sort of music you want to close your eyes to, but you can’t tear them away from the spectacle on stage.
Watching Basinski is a full body experience. You don’t realise this until the music begins to fade out, and your head slowly clears of the fog that’s been playing for the last hour. He lets the loop repeat itself until its dies in volume, the lights dimming incrementally, leaving the audience at the edge of their seats wondering whether to clap. To have that mastery and control over an audience is incredible. Even Basinski himself is shaken: “I gotta get back in my body”, he jokes at the end of the first act.
Just as he enters with quiet panache, he exits with similar flair. “It’s my ‘hit single’”, he says sardonically, as he starts to play “Melancholia II”. But then he walks off the stage, leaving a lone synthesiser to sing its swan song. The stage bathed in a sea of cerulean light, I watch the audience file out of the EartH Theatre one by one, until only his most dedicated fans remain. It’s somewhat tragic, strangely spiritual, and one of the most arresting performances of the night.
Words: Alex Rigotti