The Quietus kindly sent me to OFF Festival in Katowice, Poland last Summer, for three days of righteous music. My contributions, alongside Julian Marszalek’s, are below. Just to blow my own trumpet, Swans’ Michael Gira said my review of their set was “one of the best live reviews ever written”! Not sure he’s right, but it’s nice to hear.
The realisation that Poland’s OFF Festival is going to be something special occurs about an hour before the alcoholic tipping point that sends your correspondents into an inebriated spiral so severe that hotel carpets are used for falling and crawling on rather than walking. Having arrived in the Silesian city of Katowice – a grim industrial centre that’s the butt of so many jokes across the nation that it could easily be Poland’s answer to Slough – and partaken of zurek (sour rye soup with ham and potatoes) and bigos (a hunter’s stew made of cabbage, sauerkraut and pork), The Quietus finds itself in Club 54, an unassuming bar located almost underneath the railways tracks leading into Katowice’s main train station.
“Ah,” smiles Quietus scribe Joseph Burnett as the wobbly bass lines penetrate our ears and we raise our shot glasses in a toast. “Dubstep and Zubrowka! This is going to work…”
And boy, does it work this weekend…
The OFF Festival, now in its seventh year, is doing much to counter this as it brings together the cream of domestic acts and the very best in diverse international musical entertainment. Located in the gorgeous surroundings of Dolina Trzech Stawow by the Muchowiec airport, OFF Festival is one that many UK festival promoters would do well to learn from. With the emphasis on music spread across four stages and with only two of them in action at any one time – that’ll be one outdoor stage and one tent – this ensures that bands are guaranteed an audience while fans have the chance to either see what they’re after or encounter something new. Crucially for the audience, OFF Festival isn’t hampered by the ridiculous sound limitations that have dampened a number of UK gigs set in urban outdoor environments.
More than anything, the abiding memory of the OFF Festival is of a friendly crowd that’s totally into their music. They sing, they dance, they move from stage to stage hungry for new sounds and bands and the impression is given that there’s probably never been a better time to be a young person and / or music fan in Poland than right now. Devoid of cynicism, bursting with enthusiasm and fuelled by a genuine love of music in all its forms, OFF 2012 has been one of the best festivals these writers have experienced in recent years.
16.10 – Nerwowe Wakacje (Scena Trójki)/Snowman (Scena mBank)
The dilemma of clashing domestic is soon made easier for this second generation Pole. Nerwowe Wakacje (that’s the Nervous Vacations to you, sir) is a band very much reared on British alternative rock and it shows. Not that they’re terribly bad but their workman-like indie is as dressed down as the sounds that they make.
However, on the mBank Stage, Poznan’s Snowman is gearing up to be a far more interesting proposition. Fronted by the charismatic figure of Michał Kowalonek, Snowman veer effortlessly from psyche rock to jazz wigouts, and go some way to making the Polish music scene an alluring territory for virgin ears. JM
15.35 – kIRk (Experimental Stage)
As stated, we’d discovered during the aforementioned vodka crawl on the Thursday night that the Poles like and know their dubstep, and home trio kIRk have put a wild spin on the genre’s conventions by incorporating a trumpet into their collections of electro beats and heavy bass. It works better than one might expect! The tunes are all very solid, with the requisite amount of throbbing rhythms and glacial synth tones, but the soaring and spinning horn solos really flesh out the pieces, bringing an elegance that is not that common to most dubstep. Imagine Ennio Morricone soundtracking a club night at Corsica Studios and you might vaguely be close, but kIRk are experimental (in the loosest sense of the word) enough to dodge categorisation, and there is something of the great film composer’s expansiveness in their sound. More importantly, with their novel take on this much-abused genre being more upbeat than the likes of Kode9 or Burial, kIRk are a good introduction to the fun and spirit of OFF. JB
17.00 Colin Stetson (Experimental Stage)
Friday at the Experimental stage is curated by The Quietus, so it seems a good place to spend most of the day, especially with a fabulous line-up including some of the premier acts in alternative music, of all styles. Colin Stetson received rapturous praise for his New History of Warfare albums and, despite appearing solo with just a pair of saxophones (one bass, one alto), cuts an impressive figure, partly because he’s built like brick shithouse, but mainly because the bass sax he flourishes is about a foot taller than him. Melodically, his music, a series of intricate sketches, perhaps owes more to electronic music than jazz, with his looped finger tapping lending a minimal percussive drive to underpin his constant blowing (emphasised by his touching rendition of a track recorded with Laurie Anderson, minus the great woman herself). JB
17.50 – Savages (Scena Trójki)
Given the level of hosannas meted out to Savages in the few months since their formation, it’s not surprising that cynical voices have been raised in their wake. Indeed, here’s a confession: this writer would’ve loved to have hated them but it becomes apparent within the opening few bars of ‘No Face’ that usher in their stunning set that we’re all about to bear witness to something truly special.
Their hunger is palpable throughout this fantastically assertive performance. Their touchstones of gothic drama, chiming guitars and a murderously-locked rhythm section echo the years of the Cold War showdown when mutually assured destruction seemed just a heartbeat away, but there’s more than enough spirit, desire and drive to ensure that the noise Savages make is entirely their own.
Battling and convincingly beating a nasty cough that threatens to derail proceedings, crop haired vocalist Jehnny Beth cuts a compelling figure as her soaring voice is given a dramatic visual accompaniment as she contorts and twists her body in time to the music. Behind her sits the perma-grinning figure of drummer Fay Milton. Looking for all the world as if sharing a private joke with herself, her propulsive drumming is in tandem with Ayse Hassan’s rumbling low end and together they underpin Gemma Thompson’s six string echoes, scrapes and effects.
By the time they reach ‘Shut Up’ the crowd has been in their control for some time. This is material that people are hearing for the first time and it’s a testament to Savages’ vision and charisma that they’ve seduced so many in such a short space of time. Dissenters may tag them as Goths but really, they’re ladies who dress in black and like it or not, they’re going to colour your world. JM
18.45 Demdike Stare (Experimental Stage)
The excellent organisation meana that there are decent spells between sets, allowing for food and drink breaks. Demdike Stare are on after Colin Stetson, a vodka and Red Bull and a burger, and are probably vaguely let down by not appearing later, as their music is so shadowy it seems best suited to night. However, the tightly-packed experimental tent does at least provide decent sound and a closeness that brings Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty’s sheets of noise, reverberating bass and industrial-strength percussion to the fore, the intense volume adding to the way the music fills space and ears.
As ever, their perverse take on dance music is dominated by atmospheres of tense unease and subliminal horror, the fractured beats dislodging any sense of peace whilst abstract visuals play behind them, unnerving by being merely suggestive of something nasty – the Val Lewton school of horror expression. However, to narrow them down to simply being a “horror” band would be to miss the subtle melodicism that worms its way around these grim tableaux, with each piece enhanced by rhythmic flourishes and hypnotic tunes descended from club music, centred on bass and percussion. It may be a sort of dubstep from beyond the grave, but who’s to say ghosts don’t like to dance too?
20.45 -anbb (Experimental Stage)
The Quietus team touched down too late in Katowice to catch Alvo Noto’s Thursday night club set, but he teams up on Friday with Einsturzende Neubauten singer Blixa Bargeld for a live outing of their formidable anbb project. Carsten Nicolai’s take on electronica is instantly familiar, distilling a form of austere minimal techno that causes the room to shake to the tune of bleak austerity. Bargeld is initially restrained, his singing surprisingly soulful, before unleashing that savage snarl all industrial music fans worth their salt know and love. As the tracks progress, his vocals build over themselves, transmogrifying into unsettling futuristic mantras. Compared to the music of Alva Noto, meanwhile, Nicolai’s work in anbb is more anchored in pop music formats, albeit of the coldest variety. There are even moments of pure lyricism, such as when Bargeld moans “One is the loneliest number” over and over on one track, coming on like a cross between Genesis P-Orridge and Bryan Ferry. Does harsh lounge music exist? If not, anbb may have invented it. JB
23.05 – Mazzy Star
The thought of spending a Friday night with Mazzy Star out in the woods is a divisive one. Hardier souls will doubtless be seeking out thrills of a more banging nature but for those of for whom pacing is crucial to lasting the distance of a festival, Mazzy Star provide the perfect soundtrack.
Their opiated cover of Slapp Happy’s ‘Blue Flower’ makes for their opening salvo and it’s a bold move knowing that things are going to be getting considerably more mellow from here on in. ‘Halah’ is a delight but there’s evidence on show that some sections of the crowd have decided to make their own entertainment by the time a stretched out and languid reading of ‘She Hangs Brightly’ is reached. Raising their hands in front of the projector that throws the visual backdrop of Victoriana behind the band, shadow puppets of bats and birds are a constant throughout the remainder of the set. Cheeky buggers, but even they concede a modicum of respect when the hazy beauty of ‘Fade Into You’ has the couples in the crowd getting up close and personal. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that! JM
0.10 – Bardo Pond
As the evening wears on, and blazing sunshine is replaced first by rain, then muggy clear skies, Bardo Pond at the Trójka stage feels like an uplifting option after anbb’s terror noise-dance, despite my misgivings in the wake of a poor concert at Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ATP a couple of years ago. I shouldn’t have fretted, for they are truly outstanding in Poland, the best I’ve ever seen them. Where that previous show had appeared to see them edging towards glossy (for them) MOR rock, this is like walking through a portal back to 1996 at the height of their Amanita-era freakouts. The riffs are gnarly and fuzzed-out, the drums and bass chunter along at a dirge-like pace and Isobel Sollengerber moans and mutters over the top like a wounded spaniel. In the hands of these masters, such weirdo elements are coalesced into a blissful whole, with an excellent sound system boosting the noise levels into the heavens. It may be obvious to say that the music of Bardo Pond is psychedelic, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or the results any less potent when they’re truly on song.
1.10 – Shabazz Palaces
Back at the experimental stage, Shabazz Palaces deliver one of the best hip-hop sets I’ve ever seen. The fact that Ishmael Butler released Black Up last year on Sub Pop surprised a few, with a lot of the credit seeming to go to the label, but I think it says more about ‘Butterfly”s dauntless confidence and ambition. His flow is elegant and muscular, while on stage he and his percussionist acolyte combine cool street attitude with a certain amount of theatricality, as if they’ve spent as much time listening to Bowie-esque Glam rock as they have Nas and Run DMC – which wouldn’t come as a surprise, in truth. And most importantly, Butler’s got the tunes, with slinky keyboard lines dancing over deep bass and scattered percussion, bringing together a dash of funk, the occasional burst of atonal digital noise and the innate melodicism of Motown soul. No-one will ever equal Miles Davis’ On The Corner as the ultimate distillation of the far-reaching scope of ‘black’ music, and I could never compare Shabazz Palaces to Davis, but I think that spirit is very much alive in a lot of modern hip-hop. Butler, like Flying Lotus, is a perfect reminder that there’s more to the genre than Jay-Z and 50 Cent. JB
17.50 – Apteka
Though regarded as old-school in certain quarters, Polish music veterans Apteka (Pharmacy) are just the kind of punk rock band that’s need to fire a rocket up the arse of a baking and hazy Saturday afternoon. Frontman and guitarist Kodym Kodymowski is a man on more than nodding terms with a meaty riff while his left foot is irresistibly drawn to his wah-wah pedal, and the daggers glared at his drummer throughout go some way to suggesting why this band has had over 15 members during its three-decade lifetime. JM
18.45 – Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans’ frontman Matt Korvette has a question to ask the sweltering tent that houses the Experimental Stage: “What do Pissed Jeans, The Simpsons and Seinfeld all have in common?” A collective shake of the head soon has him providing the answer: “We all put on a fucking great show at 7pm!” and with that, the Pennsylvanian punks don’t just start, they combust.
It’s not hard to see why. Pissed Jeans are a seething rage of frustration, knock backs and too many nights spent on their own debating the merits of staring at empty pockets or the void in their pants. It doesn’t take too long before their snotty outbursts collide into each other to create one long and painfully anguished “Fuck you!” that very nearly makes the demented audience complicit in their rage. JM
19.50 – Dominique Young Unique
Equally pumped up is this American R&B singer, tipped in some quarters to be the “next Nicki Minaj”, a dubious tag if ever there was one. Once I get over the disappointment of her not being Iceage (whom she evidently switched sets with), I find myself oddly charmed by her hard-edged take on pop-inflected hip-hop and innate charisma. Ok, so the fact she only sings over pre-recorded backing tracks was unimpressive, leaving no room for her to stretch out, and her presence is oddly incongruous given her overt flirtations with dull mainstream pop, but she works the crowd well, and her raps are remarkably aggressive and fast-paced for, essentially, a pop singer. The heftiness of the bass is also striking, a sure sign that UK urban music, from grime to dubstep has percolated into the accepted pop tropes, even across the Atlantic. Nothing to write home about, but methinks she has a bright future ahead of her. JB
22.00 – Chelsea Light Moving
All power to the implausibly boyish looking Thurston Moore – not only is he here on the main Scena mBank stage with his new outfit, Chelsea Light Moving, he’s going to be playing nothing but new material. It’s a proposition that could prove daunting to the less determined fan or casual observer as they wonder whether he’ll be ploughing the more familiar furrows dug by Sonic Youth or whether patience will be stretched with music so experimental that its forgotten what the original hypothesis is.
Augmented by Hush Arbours’ Keith Wood on guitar, drummer John Maloney and Samara Lubelski alternating between bass and guitar, Moore errs more to the sound forged by his alma mater and the closing atonal notes that bring opener ‘Orchard Street’ – totally overhauled from the version that appears on Demolished Thoughts – to a close are stretched out like an elastic band as they induce an almost trance like reaction.
One of Moore’s greatest skills as a guitarist – and not for nothing is he noted as one of the finest practitioners of the instrument – is his ability to beguile and hypnotise with sounds that at first glance appear to be confrontational. The chopping riff of ‘Burroughs’ is lacerated by a deft move up the neck before going down again while ‘Empires Of The Bad’ – tonight dedicated to Roky Erickson – finds Moore moving from more atonal strumming to crunchy riffing and back again and all the while this new material keeps the audience rapt with nary a thought for Sonic Youth. Though Moore plans on releasing new material via free download, there’s more than enough on show tonight to prove that when Chelsea Light Moving’s album finally drops next year, the wait will have been worth it. JM
23.00 – Shangaan Electro
The Quietus hands over curating duties on the Experimental Stage to Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop on Saturday, and he responds by bringing over much-hyped South African electronic act Shangaan Electro, who blazed onto the stage in a shower of blitzkrieg beats and fantastic costumes. They feature two male and two female singers kicking up a storm in front of an enthusiastic producer running through each track at the breakneck pace of 189 beats per minute. Meanwhile, the vocals seem to be lifted from traditional South African folk, a strange and wondrous collision of past and future distilled in the present with colourful afro wigs, fake bellies and outrageous dance routines. As with Retro Stefson, the crowd lap it up, bouncing around like dervishes and impersonating the quartet’s every frenetic move. In mood and style, much of Shangaan Electro evokes the Congo’s Konono No 1, but with a more polished, techno sound. And such was the delight they conjured in everyone in the tent, it barely matters that most of the tracks sound identical. Who cares, when you can dance your arse off this much? JB
00.10 – Iggy and the Stooges
It’s the end of The Stooges’ allotted time and the sinewy and leathery figure of Iggy Pop is standing alone at the lip of the stage. With his arms spread open wide and a huge smile almost carved into face, the thousands in front of him are still screaming for more.
It’s just as well they are, but whether they’ll get to witness The Stooges again is a moot point. By Iggy’s own impressive standards, this is something of a muted performance. A loss of cartilage in his right hip and numerous leg injuries have left punk rock’s godfather with a heavily pronounced limp that curtails the whirling and demented shenanigans that he’s famed for. But fuck it, this is Iggy Pop we’re talking about here, and Iggy firing on less than all cylinders is still ten times more than bands a fraction of his age can manage.
With James Williamson back in the fold, Iggy and the Stooges find themselves traversing territories that the late Ron Asheton wouldn’t have countenanced. So it is that ‘Kill City’ and ‘Beyond The Law’ make welcome appearances while Williamson’s dexterity – coupled with Steve Mackay’s mournful harmonica – makes for a poignant ‘Open and Bleed’. But it’s ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Raw Power’ and a skull-crushing ‘No Fun’ that really deliver and the unexpected dropping of ‘The Passenger’ has the crowd going ape.
It’s a hard won but thoroughly deserved victory for this group of reprobates who make growing old disgracefully such a delicious proposition and Poland, just like Jesus back in the 70s, loves The Stooges. JM
01.00 – Spectrum
By all accounts, Spectrum’s journey to Poland from Berlin was hampered by a dead rodent in the van’s engine which subsequently led to a loss of horsepower so serious that they found themselves overtaken by not only a slow moving oil tanker on a hill but also a golf buggy. No such worries for this psychedelic delight that takes in cosmic Northern Soul in the shape of ‘How You Satisfy Me’ while the heavy-lidded are treated to a gloriously languid ‘Ode to Street Hassle’. JM
01.15 – DOOM
In contrast to my sheer delight at finally experiencing Shangaan Electro, the presence of DOOM, headlining the second stage, fills me with some trepidation, given some of the homophobic content of past lyrics. But if it is present in front of a sizeable crowd pumped up on Stooges bliss, I don’t notice. DOOM (aka Daniel Dumile) is certainly an imposing figure, heavy set and with his features hidden by his trademark iron mask, but his rhythms and melodies are initially pleasantly laid-back, with slinky beats, the – apparently – now traditional deep bass and busy samples supporting a casual, almost languid flow. And while this approach to rap tradition feels rather old school in the wake of the speedy, quasi-punk deliveries and minimal melodies of early Dizzee Rascal, Death Grips or the previous night’s Shabazz Palaces, Dumile gradually cranks up the intensity, braggadoccio and energy as the set progresses, flexing his lyrical muscles via words that alternate between honest aggression and sexual self-congratulation. It’s hard not to hear Nas and Tupac locked inside the DNA of DOOM’s tracks, but he carries an undeniable presence, one that concludes the night with considerable pomp. JB
17.00 – Michal Jacaszek
The best stage (in terms of music, if not sound) of the entire weekend lived up to its name with the early appearance of Polish experimental composer Michal Jacaszek, who performs with a reed/horn player and someone on electric harpsichord. In comparison to the high-octane nature of much of Friday and Saturday’s music, this is patient, quiet and elaborate, the various musical elements (sax, electronics, keys) mixed together with intricate grace. Sudden surges of intense noise and crackling drones pierce the atmosphere of patient minimalism, before receding around hesitant rhythmic progressions that evoke a docile form of trip-hop, even as the saxophone in turn hints at the delicate post-rock of early A Silver Mt. Zion or HRSTA. The balance is meticulous, with each element incorporated at exactly the right moment, and when they really begin to take off, such luminaries as Philip Jeck and Hildur Guonadottir inevitably spring to mind. JB
17.50 – Ty Segall Band
“Underwear man! Underwear man!” yells Ty Segall as he points at the sweating figure of a crowd surfer wearing just his Bill Grundys to cover his modesty. “You gotta keep him up!”
And keep it up they do in this overheated tent. It takes Poland, oooh… approximately 30 seconds to fall in love with the Ty Segall Band as they explode from a howling feedback intro into the first of many fuzzed up and demented riffs. For their part, the crowd detonates into a seething mass of flailing bodies, waving limps and an orgy of crowd surfing that refuses to let up once during this hi-octane and almost impossibly exciting 40 or so minutes.
Segall and his band are wonderfully irreverent. Occasional missed cues are met with gales of unrestrained laughter from the players and the band’s joy at creating loud, fast, snotty and ridiculously melodic rock & roll is utterly infectious. ‘Muscle Man’ is a white-hot blast of garage ramalama while ‘I Bought My Eyes’ sends the whole thing sky high.
With pop at its most anodyne and mainstream stadium-filling guitar rock reaching a nadir of dancing-on-one-leg blandness, Ty Segall Band are more than nourishing a hunger for visceral thrills and illicit delinquent delights. Really, this shit could go global…
18.45 – Group Doueh
An increasingly not-so-well-kept secret, Western Sahara’s Group Doueh arrive in Katowice on the back of a reputation that might not match that of the similarly-named Group Inerane, but which continues to grow with every appearance out of their homeland. In the bright sunshine, it is the drums that first hit home, before the keyboard and guitar even become noticeable: a precise, hard-hitting pounding of the skins that nonetheless contains enough funk technique to imbue each track with insistent grooves.
Few contemporary rock bands can boast such a level of rhythmic propulsion and, despite the intrinsically “African” nature of the music, the first name that springs to mind on hearing Group Doueh’s drummer live is Jaki Liebezeit, which is saying something. Then the vocals leap to the fore, via fantastic call-and-response phrasings between the mesmerising voices of lead singer Halima and percussionist Bashiri. Throughout, keyboardist Jamai provides a solid bedrock, replacing the bass as the drums’ rhythmic companion.
Not to be outdone, leader Doueh, impassive behind his black shades, rips Hendrixian solos out of his guitar, delighting the crowd with some wonderful guitar-behind-the-head showboating without ever losing his grip on the molten notes he unleashes. With their concise tunes, driving rhythms, soaring vocals and ragged guitar, Group Doueh produce the kind of blissful-yet-heavy psychedelia that characterised the first Nuggets compilation (The Seeds, notably), mixing it with North African modal sensibility to create a strand of rock music that is almost unique. On the strength of this performance, Group Doueh are one of the most original and powerful rock bands on the planet, and they certainly constitute one of the highlights of the entire festival. JB
20.45 – Kim Gordon & Ikue Mori
Having already lapped up Thurston Moore, the crowd pack into the experimental tent to glimpse his ex-wife Kim Gordon in action with former DNA drummer Ikue Mori, and the duo duly pushed the boundaries of experimentation further than any other act of the weekend. Mori is perched calmly in front of her laptop throughout, seemingly oblivious to anyone other than Gordon, chucking out disjointed, obliquely rhythmic (she is a drummer after all) glitch techno while the Sonic Youth legend mauls an electric guitar in the spirit of the original scene that birthed the ‘Youth: you can hear No Wave, noise rock and punk within her distorted, broiling six-string attacks (it’s hard to think of them as solos).
The videos behind them feature a deranged cocktail of abstract film and Mori’s eccentric puppetry, and such is the set’s embracing of the avant-garde (I’m assuming it was mostly improvised) that it is transformed into something resembling performance art. Gordon particularly shines on vocals, her twisted moans alternating between Linda Sharrock-esque howl and the muted vocalisations of a Keiji Haino or Les Rallizes Dénudés’ Takashi Mizutani. Rock (and for all the glitchy electronics, noise and distortion, the set is rooted in rock) is so often seen as a man’s world, but here two women take it further outside its boundaries and cliches than most men ever will. JB
22.00 – Battles
Battles were forced to cancel their appearance at last year’s OFF Festival thanks to some unspecified “serious issues”. With this in mind, it’s not unfair to say that the audience gathered by the main stage is more than a little expectant while Battles themselves certainly aren’t holding back.
What we have here is something approximating a musical version of the block-building game, Jenga. Beats are built up, instruments are taken away, guitars are then precariously balanced on this seemingly teetering spire yet it all holds together as a thrilling hole.
Gary Numan’s face appears behind the band across two screens that sit on either side of Herculean drummer John Stanier as they plough through ‘My Machines’. It’s a neat touch that circumvents the lack of singer problem encountered by Death In Vegas, and Matias Aguayo’s bearded face ushers in the delightfully twisted ‘Ice Cream’.
The biggest surprise – and indeed, highlight of the set – arrives in the shape of colossal ‘Atlas’. To these ears, at least, it’s the best track of the last 10 years and its re-appearance with all trace of Tyondai Braxton removed and replaced with new, child-like vocals simply increases it muscular potency. And judging by OFF’s fevered reaction, this writer isn’t alone in thinking so. JM
23.00 – Henry Rollins
Now here’s a thing: Henry Rollins’ spoken word show in a foreign country. Yet with so many English-speaking Poles here, Rollins’ brutally forthright and frequently hilarious tales of punk rock, politics and the state of the human condition are as inspirational as they are compulsive to listen to. It’s almost like listening to a motivational speaker but the crucial difference is that you aren’t being moved to make your boss richer via some misplaced sense of what you can achieve; you want your subsequent actions to make a fucking difference to the world. Henry Rollins is a fucking dude, he makes the world a better place and he wants us to do the same. And you can’t argue with that. JM
0.05 – Swans
Even Gordon and Mori’s fabulous, genre-bending set couldn’t help but become an amuse-gueule for the titan of the festival: Swans. Actually, that should probably be Swaaaaaaannnnnns!!!!, because that’s the kind of visceral effect Michael Gira and his band have on the human body and mind: they bludgeon both to a pulp, caress and slap them with noise, chew them up, spit them out, and then turn up the volume some more. Michael Gira has often said that he doesn’t look to attack his audiences, but the sheer volume of Swans live is enough to intimidate the toughest of constitutions, and Gira’s brooding, angry vocal delivery and guitar style only adds to the tension that immediately swoops out of the speakers alongside the music on this balmy Sunday night.
Amazingly, however, despite the loudness, the music remains as beautiful as it can be on record. The speakers are shaking, the ground vibrates underfoot, but Gira’s graceful melodies snake their way into the ether, as if they are air currents drifting under storm clouds. It’s a balance I’ve only ever really seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse achieve in a rock format, and even they don’t crank things up like Swans. The evolution of this unique band from industrial noisesters to their current form of heavy-metal-country-blues-folk-noise has been fascinating from musical and “rock” perspectives, and onstage they connect the dots even more emphatically than on record.
The set is dominated by the mighty long tracks from their latest opus, The Seer, with extended instrumental passages that layer up the guitar feedback, pounding drums, thundering bass and ragged slide, as if the band are constructing a cathedral of sound even as they rip at their audience’s eardrums. When he does sing, Gira somehow is able to elevate his savage roar above the music, until it almost becomes another instrument, Kraftwerk-style. I don’t know how they do it, but Swans can sound both dense and free, the rhythm section creating a wide canvas onto which sound is thrown with ferocious force.
To quote Miles Davis, this was music that got “all up in your body”, taking over every sense until one could only release oneself into what felt like an ocean. Gira directs his band (and what a fucking ace band they are) with the iron will of a dictatorial conductor, but his ability to compose tracks that bridge rock styles, suck the listener in (‘Avatar’ is sheer, over-the-top, bliss) and then deconstruct his music until it’s a raging storm of furious sound, shows the mark of a true giant. As they crank up the volume, ignore their supposed end time and turn The Seer into a molten noise-rock suite, the sky seems to ring with the sheer power of Swans. Consider Gary Mundy’s description of Pink Floyd’s early 70s music as “bleak psychedelia” – on the evidence of OFF, no band in the world right now embodies that term better than Swans. JB
1.40 – Fennesz and Lillevan
Swans’ refusal to end on time means that Fennesz and Lillevan hit the experimental stage a tad later than planned, but it is certainly worth the wait as they deliver what might be the best set of the entire three days (yes, even better than Swans, in some ways). Balancing rock and electronic archetypes has long been a fascinating adventure in modern music, and few have headed into this territory with the dedication of Christian Fennesz. On this occasion, he expertly, even perfectly, balances seething guitar noise in a rambunctious Haino/Dead C style with hypnotic beats and luscious swathes of electronic drone.
Lillevan, meanwhile, “composes” abstract video art to support the performance, taking those lucky spectators in the tent on a wildly abstract journey that, when married to Fennesz’s exquisite tones, absorbing melodies and hypnotic beats, produces a DJ set from a club night that has yet to be conceptualised, but will do so in a future either dystopian or utopian – at this stage, it’s hard to tell, but it’s reassuring to think that this music will be there when we get there. Between the harsh noise of the guitar and the soothing textures of his electronics, Fennesz achieves a form of absolute bliss, both reassuring and intense. JB
3.00 – Forest Swords
It is left to Liverpudlian producer Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, to bring the curtain down on a truly inspirational festival, and, despite the late hour, his moody set is embraced by those hardy souls who’d stuck around to the death. His debut mini-album, Dagger Paths, was a minor triumph, and a positive evolution away from the increasingly stifling format of generic dubstep, especially in the way Barnes injected arch guitar lines and drifting psychedelic textures alongside the standard vibrating bass lines.
Far from resting on his laurels, he appears to have expanded his sonic palette, if this set is anything to go by, with the occasional breakbeat flourish adding a driving, danceable energy to the ghostly and fitful melodies he’s already perfected, with the addition of live bass and guitar bringing a bit of real muscle as well. Meanwhile, his use of excerpts from Maya Deren films as backing footage is a potent touch, somewhere between nightmare and homoeroticism, and it demonstrated that this is an artist worth taking seriously. Throughout the weekend, artists have vaulted over the gaps between dance and abstraction, beats and rock, and Forest Swords is the ideal way to take a bow on this fantastic trend.
As well as providing outstanding, varied musical experiences, OFF is also a hugely successful festival from a “human” perspective. The site is beautiful, and perfectly exploited by the organisers, who deserve huge praise for the seamless way the bands followed one another and benefited – mostly – from excellent sound quality.
More than that, The Quietus salutes the boundless enthusiasm, friendliness and open-mindedness of the Polish fans who fill the place, easily outnumbering any foreign visitors ten to one. Recent British coverage of Poland and its citizens has been patronisingly dominated by talk of racism and, whilst it’s undeniable that the country’s football hooligans are an unsavoury bunch, since when have hooligans been a good barometer of a nation’s population? Every black artist or band performing at OFF was greeted with cheers, celebration and affection, exactly as they would in the UK or America. As a coming together of music fans and artists from far and wide, OFF was a triumph, both musically and as an overall experience. Bring on next year!