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Octernal Festival 2013 Review

Taking over the Brudenell and Left Bank Church this bright and rainy October 19th Saturday, a who’s who roster of Leeds’ DIY music promoters lined up a hell of a day, whatever your musical speed. Indie twang to heavy metal roar, every taste was catered for and every earhole a goal. And how.

magnapinnaFirst to play are male rock three-piece Magnapinna. They are bare bones in nature. A guttural bass plays stunted, repeated patterns underneath eerie Slint-like guitar lines and discordant chugging. But it’s the tight drumming which really locks everything together, holding Magnapinna’s mercurial time signatures in place. The drummer hurls angry shouts into the microphone, crafting a sense of macho paranoia and personal breakdown. One song also the bassist vocalising with spoken word, progressing to shouted word as he grows angrier. Magnapinna are very technically talented and perform an entirely dark and engrossing half hour set.

Then we had a band that remained one of our favourites for the rest of the day. Big Joan came all the way from Bristol, and along with Spectres are strong evidence that that city has a great music scene for noise lovers. Imagine if Siouxsie Sioux was fronting Public Image Ltd. and you aren’t far from the truth. Dubby repeating basslines and animalistic drumming rumble under screeching guitar and the singer’s powerful vocals. Their performance was exhilarating. A track that sounded like Liars’ ‘Scarecrow on A Killer Slant’ if a particularly pissed off PJ Harvey had gotten involved stood out the most for me. With some brilliant use of harsh electronic sounds at times, when they left on a heavy metal rock out everyone left satisfied.

Derbyshire five-piece Crash of Rhinos harken back to the 90s Midwestern emo underground. At times inspirations such as Braid and Jawbreaker are clear, with pelting guitar chords, anthemic vocals and intelligent lyrics. At other times math rock influences become apparent with slippery time signatures and American Football-style guitar fiddling. But the band excellently hold their own against these influences. All five members sing at points during the set: when they harmonise together it creates a powerful sense of fraternal camaraderie. It’s really unique and warming. Crash of Rhinos vary between hardcore crashing and melancholic introversion but are always personal and passionate.

Fever DreamLondon trio Fever Dream are shoegaze music through and through, though more in the Yo La Tengo camp than My Bloody Valentine, with plenty of guitar wig outs full of wild stabbings and monumental bends. They also had some of YLT’s clever use of minimal softer sections, in particular on the sumptuous ‘Glue’. Their heavier sections had more bite than most shoegaze bands tend to, and they weren’t afraid to quit studying their Converse and rock out. Tight drumming and simple then sinuous basslines finished off the package nicely.

A quick tea break and relocation to Left Bank Church had us arrive just in time for something quite spectacular. As the sun set through the stained glass windows and evening chill set in, Waheela played to all intents and purposes the soundtrack to either the world’s end or its creation. Waheela play music inspired by post rock, noise and drone, but which belongs to neither. With their backs turned, the musicians of Wheela start an ethereal drone and the lead singer pre-emptively has an orgasm: orgasm faces being a recurring feature of his performance throughout the set, as well as nipple rubbing, bending double, and trying to go super saiyan for the first time. He is possessed. I initially found this to be a distraction, but as the set progressed the music possessed me too. The singers primal screaming became captivating and worked really well over the chainsaw guitar drone and tribal drumming. It was altogether intense.

The next band’s sound couldn’t have been more different. Two piece Finnmark! play endlessly endearing indie pop. The sort of indie pop which would appear on British radio if British radio were any good. The frontman sings a charming Ian Curtis-baritone over a twangy guitar. The resulting sound is similar to a quieted down Television Personalities or Pastels. It’s unmistakably English. The songs touch on Leeds, Gothenburg and Through A Glass Darkly, with each song as immediately appealing as the last. The highlight of the set is ‘Everyone’s Dying’, in which the singer matter-of-factly recounts a series of unfortunate deaths, contrasted with a twee chorus of bah-bah-bahs.

BleachedA dash back to Brudenell and we got their just in time for Bleached. Their music has a certain immediacy which makes it even better in a live setting than on record. The four piece play a catchy blend of punk, lo-fi and pop, similar in many ways to fellow female-fronted garage revivalists Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls. Scrappy three chord guitar riffs accompany memorable pop hooks; the music is fun, danceable and entirely Californian. As the set progress, pockets of enthusiastic and joyful dancers spring up around the room. The members of Bleached come off as cool as fuck, with the singers head shaking ‘I take no shit’ attitude being a defining feature of the band.

Then it was time for the last heavy band of the day. And by God if they didn’t seem intent on finishing off whatever sound-sensitive apparati in my ears were left unfucked by Waheela. Conan are the music of doom. Not so much a wall as a cliff face of sound, with droning oscillating guitar and bass so damn bassy that your eyeballs tingled and the foundations of the room vibrated. The whole crowd headbanged in unison along to the pounding onslaught. The amazingly dextrous drummer grounded you in the sound, essentially providing the high end “melody” through neat flairs and fills. As much an experience as Waheela, they certainly make music that elicits feelings of dread.

And now our ears make a return to the softer end of the spectrum to recuperate. And as soon as they opened with ‘Beachy Head’, it was obvious we were in for a belter from Veronica Falls. The blood of The Vaselines and C86 runs deep in their veins, though live some of those influences become more subtle and hidden than on record. This is a result of the jangle of their guitars being toned down by an unexpected punchiness to the guitar, a percussive quality that really gives the songs drive. The female vocals had a greater brattiness to them too. All of this was very enticing and very charming. Even going out of their way to play a request for ‘Stephen’, a song they admitted to not playing all that often, for a member of the crowd named… Stephen. Really rocking out on their last song, Veronica Falls won me over completely.

PoltergeistLast but not least we had headliners Poltergeist. Decked out, like most of the stage, in white so as not to interrupt the effectively trippy back projections, two former Bunnymen and a skilful drummer treated the crowd to some gorgeous instrumental post-rock. Songs were brilliantly paced, shifting gears and changing instrumentation just when it needed to, skilfully dodging the potential for monotony or lack of interest instrumental music always risks. A great range of tones and effects in the music, from stabbing postpunk to swirling shoegaze and some honest to God solos. The bass playing was fantastic, all groove and melody, and the ever tight drumming evolved and altered songs playfully. They were a suitably chilled ending to an oft manic day.

Too many chefs spoils the broth but a horde of high-calibre promoters apparently produces amazing lineups. Team Octernal certainly pulled it out the bag for us today. Set to be the first of many, keep your eyes out for the next. If it’s even half as good as this year’s, you’re in for a treat.

Co-written with Pete Hufton.