Astral Festival 2019
6 July 2019
This year, the Stolen Body-curated Astral Festival has chosen to spread itself over three of Bristol’s city centre venues. Thankfully, the Rough Trade sweatbox, the rather charming restaurant/bar at the Lanes and the grandiose SWX are all within a stone’s throw of one another. Unfortunately, the timing of things does mean that it is impossible to take in all bands, and considering it is running from 1:30pm until 1.00am, there are some judicious choices that need to be made.The first band on is Stolen Body head honcho Al Studer‘s Yo No Se. If you wandered into this set halfway through, you may think that you had teleported back to 1992, as it is all long hair, cut-off shorts and the metal end of grunge blasting off the stage. Al is a great guitarist, his Gibson SG squealing like a stuck pig. The rhythm section manages to keep him just about under control as his solos veer off to places unknown. Vocally, there is a touch of early Mark Lanegan or maybe Mark Arm, but the fuzzy guitar wig-outs nod as much to AC/DC as to Nirvana and it does throw me right back to my twenties, with the drummer coolly looking out like a young and healthy Grant Hart. They know how to rock out and also how to slow things down, with a couple of the tracks slurping along — but we can’t see it all as Tazeta are playing at the Lanes and we want to check them out.
Through it all, the vibes shine like chiming beacons of joy. The one title we caught was “Lydia” from their self-released album, which was all woozy and soft-focus, sun-dappled but dusty, and brought to mind Tortoise if they had gone Latin and injected a little Eastern guitar wig-out into their gentler work. The Singer sewing machine rhythm of the duelling drummers brought songs to rapturous crescendos and the whole set made for a stellar highpoint to a day that had barely started. Drop them a line and buy the album. It is gorgeous.
Jesse picks up a guitar at one point and unleashes a scree of noise. After some time, the corneteer leaves and is replaced by a singer/guitarist who changes the sound slightly and reminds Mic of Daisy Chainsaw, but if they had been injected with lead. Her vocals are half-spoken and mantra-like and there is a luminous ethereal quality to them, so when the ever -volving set includes both her and the corneteer, the tribal intensity of the drums feels as though it will eventually stop your heart. Seriously impressive.We then head back to Rough Trade for Olanza, another local band who play a narrative take on angular post-punk. Vocal-less, the four-piece rely on the interplay of their chiming guitars as the rhythm section pushes it in all directions, the soaring drummer splashing cymbals enough to generate a tidal wave. Their post-Slint noise is fierce and forceful and the two shaven-headed and bearded guitarists stand right and left of stage as guest bassist Annie soaks up the attention and moves with the irresistible rhythms. I never tire of this sort of thing, and they put enough of a personal slant on it to make me seek out their LP. You should do the same.
Back to SWX for the insane sight of Bonnacons Of Doom; about half-a-dozen people on stage wearing shining disc masks that make them look like some sort of astral version of The Residents. Fronted by a cape-wearing woman coming on like a high priestess, she wails over the top of a tribal post-metal sludge fest with guitars that sear and scorch through the dramatic light show. Her voice has real power and cuts through the righteous maelstrom like a knife through butter. The glinting masks behind her make the whole scene appear like some post-nuclear metal band that had survived disaster and were just waiting for Mad Max to stride through the bar-room door. Crazy stuff.
We escape back to the relative cool of SWX, but the upheaval that Gnod are causing on stage is anything but chilled. The band seems to be travelling on a trajectory that makes the sound angrier and louder and more ferocious each time we see them. Gone are the experimental jaunts and japes from ten years ago, and now they are a monolithic behemoth, seemingly taking up where Godflesh left off, but with none of the vulnerability and far more firepower. The third twin drummer attack of the day with Jesse Webb once again claiming a drum-stool, this is by far the most devastating.The brutality of the group, caught in the ire of Paddy Shine‘s vocals and reflected in the shrieking of the two guitars which seem to be set on stun, even when at rest, is matched by an excoriating light show; all bright white and epilepsy-inducing shudders. The lights conspire to fabricate imaginary portals to Heaven along which the group are only too happy to escort us, and these moments of transcendence where the entire band lock in as one are perhaps the real moments of the set. It is hypnotic and relentless, the volume eye-bleeding, but coupled with some real clarity — although the guitars behave like some sort of torture victims desperate to wrest themselves from the players.
What greets us onstage at SWX as we arrive for the King Khan And The Shrines set is totally unexpected. There must be eight or nine cape-wearing crusaders on stage, three of whom are blowing saxes and trumpets, all fronted by an enormous Sikh man, dressed in an appalling beige suit with silver lapels. It is as if Rocket From The Crypt had been injected with hormone serum and James Brown had been born in the Punjab. Drums, capes, joy, a big belly, medallions, soul-soaked madness; it is all on stage and it is the first time that the audience has been picked up and transported somewhere joyful. King Khan has a sweet Texan-influenced vocal that can fly into a soul screaming roar, while the band egg him on with ever more ebullient playing and playful behaviour. When he goes off halfway through and returns wearing a velour off-the-nipple all in one and an enormous feathered headdress, he has the audience eating out o the palm of his hand.
After a cold shower (not really), we head to the Lanes for Triptides, We missed Wyatt E and Ego Death Star, but Triptides are the real sound of the Astral summer. They look like they have just stepped in from California, with loud shirts, wavy hair and moustaches. The songs rush by like an ocean breeze on a hot day. Harmonies abound and the sounds of an antique organ fill the air. They really look the part, and when the resonance of a 12-string electric merges with the harmonies, it is like The Byrds have stuck their head around the corner just to see what’s happening. The dapper bassist with his mandolin bass looks fab and picks out some deliciously sultry lines, and some of the songs move with a hazy langour that suit him perfectly. The 12-string soars on the thermals laid down by the rhythm section, and the phased vocals and the orgasmic face the guitarist pulls when soloing are priceless.
It is about 9:00 pm now, and we have missed Creatures and barely seen Mattiel at this point, and are growing peckish; so after a brief glimpse of the sixth-form psychedelia and Marc Bolanesque outfits of Temples, we have some scram and head to the Lanes again for LA Witch. There is something sleazy and Velvet Underground-ish about the guitars and simple drum-beats, and the trio look drop-dead cool on stage, as if their LA vibe was frozen in this gradually cooling English evening. It’s all simple garage beats, bratty vocals and trebly shrill guitars, like a California headache from too much sun. It is cutting and trashy, a primal garage attack with Cramps drums, and the razor-like guitar is the antithesis of the solid bass, while the solos wail like cars travelling through a concrete underpass. Possibly the most charming part of the set is when they wish the drummer Ellie happy birthday, the ice facade cracked and they dissolved into cute smiles and inter-band love. My only complaint is that there is little variation in the tempos of the songs, but it is pretty good.
You have the feeling that there is unfinished business from back in the Glen Branca days, and he was the only one who could take those ideas in another direction. There is always something familiar about the chords Thurston uses, and perhaps that is from thirty years of listening to Sonic Youth, but where this differs is the complete lack of any pop influence. It is about how the guitars behave without restricting them to even a loose song structure. It must also be impressed how much Deb Googe‘s influence plays here. She treats the bass as if it were another part of the guitar assault and anything that the boys are doing, she is also doing; so if it is a few minutes of insistent strumming right up by the pickups, it is the twin guitars and bass thrumming out the message.
It was 11:30 pm and we had been soaking up music constantly for ten hours. There was an enormous queue for the Lanes to see Bo Ningen and as that was the only venue left open, it would have been like squeezing a quart into a pint pot. The Thurston Moore Group’s set was a good time to leave and allow the myriad of different groups we had experienced to settle in on our consciousness.
-Words: Mr Olivetti-
-Pictures: Michael Rodham-Heaps-