It's been a long two years since I attended Infest, the
's premier alternative electronic festival. I sat out of 2008 due to a general lack of interest in the lineup, only to be told by all and sundry that it had basically been the best thing since sliced bleep. 2009 saw the festival lying fallow as the regular venue (the Bradford University Student Union) was being refurbished, and it is this reconstruction rather than the time away that has made 2010 feel so different to previous years. UK
I suppose it's a strange thing to comment on, but the older build of the venue was very distinctive, an open and relatively airy space that contrasted nicely with the somewhat claustrophobic beats and synths that are Infest's stock in trade. And after a number of years attending, the new layout is somewhat discomforting. Brightly lit pool table-strewn bars might make for a decent place to chill out and chat inbetween bands, but they definitely don't help when many people are relying on a little bit of low lighting to make their costumes look somewhat less ridiculous. More practically, whatever architect the university employed that decided that the main stage area should have access at the very front, a bar along the side and a cloakroom at the back should be taken out and flogged to death with lengths of brightly coloured wool and string.
This year I spent far more time catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, but I guess I might have some words to fling out there surrounding the actual bands, which is probably why you are spending your time reading this. I didn't see all of them because – well, because I didn't really want to. Critics have days off too, you know. So, then. A patchwork coverage of Infest 2010.
The first band I spent any time watching at all was De/Vision, who headlined the Friday evening. However, you really couldn't tell that I did watch them because I can remember almost nothing about them. A general sense of average and downbeat Depeche Mode-esque synthpop with no real hooks or melodic devices is all I get when I scavenge my brain for memories or rogue emotions.
Saturday was a little more productive for my nascent critical career, since I managed to catch three whole bands. Openers Northern Kind played synthpop of a different kind, with an altogether more mainstream feel and aesthetic. Female vocals, male synthchap. Again, nothing I hadn't seen in many bands before and a surprising lack of catchy melodies for a genre more or less based on such. Memmaker, by contrast, peddled a high octane hard dance with noise and industrial elements that was difficult to ignore. The duo leapt and spun around the stage with an infectious enthusiasm that is all too rare when seeing man/men-with-box style performances, and showed a distinct crossover potential. At times, what they were doing was not a million miles away from the likes of older Pendulum with a pleasantly glitchy Pow[D]Er Pussy spin. Enjoyable and popular material, though a guest vocal appearance from Jamie Blacker of ESA seemed something of a misfire. The final act I caught on Saturday was Agonoize, who were to these ears basically Suicide Commando with blood instead of straitjackets. They really didn't catch my attention at all. I suppose I am just getting tired of slightly gritty industrialised beats, high-pitched synthlines and screechy distorto-vocals. In the name of all that is electronic, please do something new with established sounds people.
Before I cover the final day, a word on the DJing. While for the most part the technical skills were excellent (only a couple of clunky mixes passed through my ears over an entire weekend, which is decent) and most of the DJs seemed to have very little problem filling a large floor, I am a little perturbed by the direction the festival (and scene as a whole) is going with its choices of dancefloor material. In short, if I want to go to a hard dance festival/club there are plenty around already. For a scene that uses the terms 'industrial' and 'EBM' and 'futurepop' a lot there is, and was, precious little on display of any. I know it isn't in vogue right now, but catering purely to the emergent demographic of listeners is a major sign of a scene about to either topple on its arse or evolve completely. It'd be sad if the non-raver contingent had to go elsewhere for their fix.
If you ask me (and since you are reading this, you effectively are) then Sunday was by far the best day for bands this year. My day opened by arriving at the venue just in time to see Concrete Lung and their blistering Godflesh-esque industrial metal assault. Bands with guitars are always welcome at Infest, largely because they provide a bit of a break from the rest of the lineup. But when they are as crushingly monolithic as these guys, well – that's a treat as well as a break. In a live setting the clean vocals don't gel as well as the shouting and growling, and while I'm as aggro-politico as the next guy bands denouncing the BNP and the English Defence League from stage has gotten a bit old for me these days. Having said that, there was at least some context with the latter having engaged in a mini-riot/parade with the police and protesters the day before – only around 2 miles from the venue.
Small complaints, and good to see as many cyberkiddies rushing off to buy their EP afterwards as there were fleeing from the stage as soon as a riff kicked in.
Shortly after came Patenbrigade: Wolff and their strange construction site/20th century propaganda themed stage show. If you're having trouble picturing that, don't worry – so am I, and I was actually there. Men in safety helmets and orange jumpsuits, female singers coming onstage as sexy site managers, Weimar-era projections mixed with safety messages. It had the potential to distract from the melodic and mostly instrumental synthdustrial (just made that up, quite happy with it, probably already a genre somewhere) that was spilling out from the stage, but the material was strong enough to carry the act. Far more varied than the majority of Infest bands, this both helped and harmed. Short song lengths and variety are great attention-boosters, but also have the potential to drive you off if they suddenly switch to an unpleasant tack. It was the vocal-led synth ballad that did for me. Still, well worth checking out.
Ayria were mostly notable for the hyper-energetic stage presence of frontwoman Jennifer Parkin. She was bouncing around the stage and cheerleading the crowd so enthusiastically that, combined with the vibrant colours penetrating into my cortex from the stage and crowd, I felt like I was watching an entire season of
on fast-forward. The music is dancefloor friendly electropop, and the audience reacted quite strongly to a singer who was actually interacting with them physically and speaking between songs. That might sound normal at any other festival, but I suppose when most of your acts both want to maintain a cool aloofness and don't have English as their mother tongue you pay a debt in stage banter. However, the music didn't do much for me. Both vocals and synths had a tendency to not move very far from a one-note standing point and I was left struggling to make out not just one song from another, but one section of a single song from another section. That's pretty critical when the music is trying to get me to bounce along with a big grin on my face. Still, top marks for effort. Lazy Town
The final band of the weekend I caught was Nachtmahr, and this might result in a bit of a ramble. The whole military fashion thing has been ongoing in the cybergoth scene for a few years now, and this act take it to an extreme with a retro costume and lyrical theme to complement the stompy march of their crunchy beats. Live they are both engaging and visually striking (the crowd reaction very similar to that of audiences viewing Combichrist a few years ago, making me wonder if Nachtmahr will follow down the same genre-dominating route), complete with military imagery-filled projections and pretty uniformed ladies standing to attention behind the rest of the band. I am aware that it is an aesthetic choice, and that the band distance themselves from any linked, unpleasant politics a casual observer might impose upon them.
And usually I would be the last guy in the world to be offended by any of this.
But for some reason, it all made me feel very uncomfortable. Maybe it was the aforementioned fascist-friendly rally that took place the previous day, close to the venue. Maybe it was the costumes being slightly too Hitler Youth. Maybe it was the N-emblazoned flags being waved by many of the fans. Maybe it was the slightly desperate proclamation from lead singer Thomas Rainer to reassure listeners that the band was Austrian, not German. Maybe it was the guy standing next to me in full replica Nazi uniform. Most likely it was all of these subtle cues on the wrong day.
Afterwards, speaking to fans I was told by a number of them that the aesthetic was ironic. Really? I was under the impression that a subtext or alternate meaning was required for irony in performance. If I wear a Ku Klux Klan outfit just because I think it looks great onstage, that isn't irony. At one point one of Nachtmahr's projections states "WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER", inbetween shots of bombing runs and rolling tanks. This would be alongside utilising imagery of said wars to gain fans and sell records. As far as I can tell, what they're saying is that war is not the answer but it is cool.
And that just ain't right.
One post-script, since I always comment on the actual mood and organisation of festivals – as per usual, the Infest team seemed to do a first rate job of pulling their annual cyberfun together. Clean, well-ordered, plenty of relevant facilities, a great atmosphere and tailored perfectly for the audience. Despite all my venue and musical grumbles I had an absolute blast for three days straight, so major kudos to all involved.