There’s nothing more English than tolerating an overcast afternoon negotiating the M4. Ash-grey skies and the smell of cheap leather in budget travel enclosures. On this occasion the concrete landscape outside – particularly the raised motorways which precede Bristol city centre –are keenly reminiscent of scenes from Chris Petit’s austere road journey classic ‘Radio On’. Drab but arresting.
It turns out, upon reflection, that the same sense of infectious atmospherics and inexorability amid inclement weather dictated Simple Things, a city-wide festival with a promising line up constituted by a post-punk comeback (Maximum Joy), the leading lights of grime (Skepta, JME, and Ruff Sqwad) and a heap of diffuse, uneasily pigeonholed electronics (from Holly Herndon to Objekt to Vessel).
Although the bill held plenty of potential the programme started fairly inauspiciously, with the passé, overaffected, inherited indie missteps of Oliver Wilde, an outfit that seemed more in thrall to its influences than possessive of any striking originality. Like Deerhunter with strings but without teeth, their set seemed all too polite and determined to please and in doing so felt flat. Khruangbin, another act which held an earlier slot in Colston Hall – this time in the forum – presented something different, pitching an exotic, rarefied, far east psych with serpentine groove unfurling amidst ostentatious, flower-child get-ups. Edified by reissue culture, they showed some promising vibrancy, but didn’t prove to be an essential presence, especially in comparison with what transpired over the course of the rest of the evening.
Departing from this underwhelming trajectory were Maximum Joy, a band formed from Bristolian post-punk compatriots (the likes of Glaxo Babies and The Pop Group) who – as declared in these here pages by Ian McQuaid – during their time ‘represented a break from the dour frown of post-punk’, a climate-flouting exuberance that was considered by many to be thrillingly taboo in its divergent mirth. Criminally enough, the band hadn’t played together in over twenty five years. Yet after renewed interest in their humble but cultishly charming back catalogue, their appearance at Simple Things was a surprising but well-deserved and overdue inclusion. The set itself proved tremulous but ultimately buoyant, maintaining a rough, unscripted feel familiarly native to the outer environs of DIY post-punk. But for all its allure as a period-specific, consensus term, such an ascription feels unsuitable in this instance. There were no atonal, inscrutable chainsaw salvos in sight. Instead this was music as a vessel, for adventurous cross-pollination between funk melodicism, discotheque abandon, free jazz flights and evergreen lyrical consciousness; post-punk as an optimistic refutation of its eponymous origin. Although far from perfect and far from a united front, with band members appearing more tentative than solid, their original early singles ‘Stretch’ and ‘In The Air’ still sounded impeccably faithful to the original productions, an impressive feat for a band in the infancy of a revival.
It was left till later for more significantly untrammelled happenings. The Soft Moon, for one, sounded considerably less earnest than they do on record, where at times, a run-of-the-mill overspill of goth-angst occasionally derails otherwise creditably produced material. Here as a trio they laid out a mettlesome, tenebrous course like Faith-era Cure wrestled into deeper chasms – the kind Bauhaus favoured when exploring their fecund interest in dub - and more relentless pacing, hurdling towards doom rather than luxuriating in it. If the band can deploy the same raw tenacity they displayed here on future studio-based work, their appeal will only prove even more vital. In the function room-esque surroundings of The Lantern, they sounded peculiarly fitting, as if such disturbed exertions were an inevitable response to the close, stale airs of the room, and an intensely enacted respite from them.
Raising the bar still further and into infinitely wilder spheres were Giant Swan, another Bristol-based proposition who together as a duo performed one of the best sets of the weekend. Concocting a ritualistic noise-techno with what looked like a burdensome array of effects pedals, Robin Stewart and Harry Wright – also members of The Naturals - amassed a vociferously protracted build and then proceeded to layer it with hammering, steel-cap impact, swaying and nodding as they did, a shroud of unkempt, shoulder length hair and lank statures. But what was also discernible from the flailing and the beer-broth of the front row wasn’t just mindless lo-fi violence but a feeling of hard-earnt release whenever the harder foundations of their sound began to kick. Their sound can certainly be associated with the static bleed and untethered psychedelic ferocity of Marshstepper and the Chrononautz, but equally it’s a sound which is fit for function, and even – if you’re that way inclined – for fun. You can writhe if you want to. You can dance if you want to. It’s strangely purging as with any of the best dance music; an opaque, enveloping, growling sizzle which immediately and consistently felt daringly immense.
Unfortunately from midnight onwards there were a few clashes. Still it only took a few moments to recognise the adulation reserved for grime at the moment in the midst of Skepta and JME’s set. The 02 Academy, although an uninspiring corporatized setting, was like a pressure cooker, heaving and dictated by a chaotic call and response, one that was impossible not to be swept up in. Similarly Holly Herndon’s appearance felt almost triumphant in its absolute nowness, with a processed voice which felt somehow trapped but empowered – a virtual poltergeist of connectivity - borne along by substantial plunges of bass and Raster-Noton glitch.
Following in their wake and continuing the upward trend of ever flourishing returns were Factory Floor, with a set which revealed the increasing, enriching influence of Nik Void and Gabe Gurnsey’s other projects. Void’s work in Carter Tutti Void seems to have bred an optimal, streamlined charge whilst Gurnsey’s respective forays into dance orientated 12”s sounds as if it’s consolidating what we all already knew about the band from their DFA LP; that this is artfully engineered club music as much as it is exploratory electronic music. After Dominic Butler’s departure, roles have shifted slightly with Gurnsey switching from drums to mixing desk duties, yet the upheaval hasn’t heralded any dysfunction, at least on the basis of what transpires in the low lit, reconverted confines of the Fire Station. Here the impellent modulation and resolute, acid-forged pulses which gather apace and flare into strategically driving but malfunctioning, hard-edged techno send the entirety of the crowd into heads-down, sweat-caked ecstasy. It’s a highlight which appropriately sums up the defining impulses on show throughout the festival, of hardcore, celebratory energies and tough designs.
Hunee and Objekt capped the night off in Lakota, but there was an oppressive sense of choice throughout the night, a profuse diversity establishing this year’s Simple Things as exactly what a contemporary festival should be; cross-genre, progressive, almost intimidatingly scheduled and ambitiously curated. Back on the bus in the aftermath, attempting to assemble some sense of the experience whilst confronting the inevitable, gloomy mundanity of the return journey, the only thought that sprang to mind was that it was unequivocally worth it. Anything but drab. Most of it arresting.
Main Image - Cameron Sweeny
Vessel & Maximum Joy - Adam Reid
Disco ball - Max Foster