Saturday, 31 August 2013

Gig Review: Infest 2013

I just checked, and it has been 3 years since I last attended Infest. That is moderately appalling, considering it is my favourite UK electronic festival. Still, I went this year and now you get to read all about it. You are truly blessed.

I headed down to Bradford in good spirits if not rude health, almost perishing of dehydration on a train that was running the heating in the middle of one of the warmest British summers on record. I realise to any overseas readers that seems like borderline Arctic conditions, but you must remember that my genetics have gifted me with the equivalent of several walrus-hide overcoats in terms of body hair. Ladies.

Currently Infest retains the same layout as on its return to the revised Bradford Union venue a few years past, and while it maintains the same issues – stairs leading down to the front rows of the audience, a somewhat rambling multi-room layout – at this point I am detached enough from my nostalgic love of the old layout that I am beyond grumbling. Additionally it seems somewhat gauche to do so, since every other aspect of the festival is managed superbly. Copious bar and (non-intrusive) security staff, excellent timekeeping and a joyous compère in the form of Mr Tails all lead to a warm atmosphere quite unlike any other festival I have been to.

The Friday was launched in style by Metal Tech, a self-confessed 'kissdustrial' act who take on a '90s industrial rock sound before slathering it sexually in glam stomp and silly. They came, they threw out glowsticks and party poppers and they conquered. There are some serious musical chops going on with the construction of tunes, though the beats backing them could do with a bit of sophisticating. But maybe they don't want to. Maybe they just want to put on makeup and masks and make bitter muso twats like me grin, just a little bit, despite ourselves. Metal Tech closed with a German language number called 'Hammstein' that, if my Deutsch is standing up from GCSE, contained the chorus line “My little dancing pig”. That's worth the price of entry alone.

Long-running UK act Inertia followed. I have seen these guys a few times over the years and each time they strike me as almost getting close to attaining their own identity beyond borrowed beats and synths. This is the best I've seen them, but I still can't in all honesty recommend them. These days they come across as a bronze medal-winning Mesh, which could be fine if you don't have anywhere else to go. But before they are inevitably claimed by their eponymous emotional gravity well, it'd be nice to hear what just being Inertia sounds like.

Next up was Dive, solo project of Dirk Ivens – and this blew me away. One man, contorting on stage to a minimalist old school industrial/EBM fusion with noise elements. That sounds like a total grab-bag, but in practice it slots together so perfectly. The performance being centred entirely around vocals – all music was 'on tape', as they'd say back in the day – lent it a slightly surreal performance art vibe as Ivens beat his chest and addressed the audience via microphone and loudhailer. Constant slow white strobe accompanied the claustrophobic beats, flickering independent of the rhythm and helping to build what was undoubtedly an intense but approachable performance. Excellent musical construction, exquisite delivery.

Friday's headliners were Pride & Fall, a band whose futurepop/darkwave crossover material has never particularly grabbed me. This night was no exception. They seem to be trying for a melancholy poetry with their material, but for me every single stanza rhymes with 'boring'. It comes across as overwrought and self-indulgent, which is perhaps a criticism-by-numbers for a band who arguably fit under the incredibly broad umbrella of goth. But they just leave me rolling my eyes, despite an obviously professional live presence and an enthusiastic reception. More power to you if you still have the teenage flights of fancy to appreciate this stuff.

Two things were hammered into place by the first day of this year's Infest – firstly, this may have been the best sound I have ever heard at a festival. Aided by a superb sound setup, most of the weekend's bands (with one exception, noted below) were crystal clear from the front of the stage to the back of the crowd. Kudos to the engineers. Get out there are work every other festival I attend, please. Secondly, the second real strength of this festival year on year (after atmosphere) is the variety. Other alternative electronic festivals haul a bit of pick and mix on stage, but typically there is still an overriding sense of whatever is fashionable that year. Not so Infest. If you don't dig a particular sound, there will undoubtedly be something very different along in a minute.

And just to illustrate this, Saturday began with Manchester's AAAK – As Able As Kane if you like your capital letters spread out a bit – who come across as an energetic, defiant blend of old-school industrial and grebo. It's always a thrill to hear live guitars and drums as festivals such as these, and this year we were spoiled for them. A political kick wrapped in proto-Madchester punk sneer, AAAK 'ably' prove they 'kane' hold their own in good company. Punnage, motherfuckers. This is what life has driven me to.

Wieloryb are this year's contingent from veteran art noise label Forms Of Hands, and they play a blinding set of techno-tinged noise soundscapes, leveraged by a dynamic and infectious songcraft that pushes through the somewhat willfully difficult barrier many of their peers lurk behind. The end result is a dynamic, infectious and danceable set that stood out as powerfully unique to ears that are too often bored by the 4/4 crunchy beats of live noise acts. A melodic underpinning was provided on many tracks by what hacks like me tend to summarise as 'Eastern' vocal samples, which is about as effective a description as one would get describing every singer west of the Prime Meridian as 'Western' vocals. Still, you know what I mean, don't you? Yeah, you do. We're all going to hell. Except for Wieloryb, who are awesome. A mixed-gender duo also highlight something that struck me as extremely positive from this year's festival – a much higher number of women on stage who aren't there simply to dance or look pretty in uniform. This is a good thing, and laughably overdue. It's not a historical problem with Infest specifically, but one with the scene – and hey, the music industry as a whole – that can only have passed you by if you are either utterly ignorant of these things or an MRA asshole. If you are an MRA asshole, stop reading and pollute some other site. We don't like your kind round these parts.

Next up are French trio Chrysalide, who stride onstage blackened and raw to deliver a festival-topping set of early '90s industrial power tempered in a crucible of 21st century sounds and howling screams. Many comparisons have been made to Skinny Puppy, and while that is entirely accurate it struck me when watching how much these guys also sound like a gnarly, pissed off version of ohGr's solo work as well. Making comparisons seems somehow to undermine what Chrysalide do, since the shrieking violence of their performance comes as a breath of fresh air even over a weekend with as many quality acts as this one. It's all sweat, contortion and closed-eye bellowing over a bedrock of beats and synths forced open wide with a bloody, rusted ribcage spreader. If you can stand another band comparison, they come across as Mindless Self-Indulgence only created for rabid adults instead of attention-deficit-afflicted toddlers. Vital. Get yourselves on the bandwagon before it builds up full speed.

Typically after a set that explosive, the following act would struggle to build up a head of steam. But for new wave veterans Click Click, it's a chance to infect the entire venue with their slithering, creepy melodies that sneak softly inside your skull and perform unspeakably horrible, but consensual, sexual acts with your psyche. Frontman Adrian Smith - a withered Lex Luthor in Lennon glasses whispering secret things to the rodents under your bed – occasionally brings out random instruments to play into the microphone before tossing them over his shoulder with disdain, while his brother Derek pounds drums with stone-faced glee at the back of the stage. It's powerful and disturbing and oddly majestic. It has inspired me to raid their back catalogue thoroughly, and I would be surprised if many others watching were not doing the same even now.

Click Click
Controversial opinion for pretty much everyone else at Infest 2013: I didn't enjoy Da Octopusss much. European hard dance with pseudo-dubstep bits performed by two guys in gimmicky Cthulhu masks, their recorded material struck me as interesting enough with a degree of horror creep to it that at least somewhat justified the Lovecraft angle. But live... well, with a sonic/visual experiment that will blow your tiny minds, let me attempt to replicate the set for you.



Seriously, have a bit of non-telegraphed dynamism. Was your father betrayed and murdered by treble? Have you sworn revenge? Are you even now polishing a dagger in a run-down Eastern European hostel room, weeping as you anticipate the joy of plunging it directly into the stomach of the cymbal unwittingly waiting for your violent attentions in a backalley absinthe bar populated by human traffickers and government informants?

Probably not, is the answer.

But of course everyone except me and a few others are left ejaculating with joy on the dancefloor. It's my own fault. I can't just like things for being things. I need some kind of existential reasoning. 

Fuck it.

Saturday's headliners were Imperative Reaction, a band I am most enthusiastic about on record. They peddle a distinctive brand of driving electronica that comes across to my ears as almost identical to '90s American industrial rock acts – the likes of Gravity Kills and the criminally forgotten Machines Of Loving Grace – only sacrificing traditional rock instrumentation for pulsating beats and synths. However, live they chose to represent their sound with limited synthwork and vocals backed by guitars and drums. This was, to my ears, an absolutely critical error. By translating your work into another genre framework, you really risk exposing the weaknesses of your songwriting within said framework. Imperative Reaction write great heart-pounding electronic anthems. They do not write great rock songs with added synth. It also highlighted that as a live rock act, they simply do not cut it. I'm sorry – and many rivetheads and cyberwhatevers might be left frothing in fury at this – but the standards are simply higher for live performance. Them's the breaks.

In the end it all reduced itself to a mushy mess with drums riotously pounded over the top, like someone a few seats away on the train listening to anonymous German techno while your earphones are pumping in metal-lite. The sound itself struggled to maintain it's weekend-long clarity, and I was left listening to my favourite song by them – the brainmelting asskicker 'Judas' – and shaking my head at the unrecognisable mess before walking away. A shame.

Sunday opened with Yorkshire's own Autoclav1.1, whose live performances I have in the past considered to be sub-par to the recorded output, with too much emphasis on big beats and noise elements. OH GOD HERE YOU GO AGAIN, you think. Well, wrong. Dead wrong. Focusing far more on the strengths of the often disturbingly melodic and ambient elements of the sound, the performance was a lesson in the fragmented destruction of elegantly-weaved industrial soundscapes. Colourful and vivid visuals only served to augment the dreamlike quality of the music. A lack of sleep on my part doubtlessly helped provoke this, but Autoclav1.1 annihilated my brain-based cobwebs with aplomb. More of this, please.

Future Trail are next, functional but comfortable EBM traditionalists who are unafraid to mix their 1998 blueprint with 2013 sounds. Some elements of synthpop breaking through, but mostly a sound we have heard before and will hear again performed with workmanlike precision. Nothing spectacular, but potentially an act to watch in the future if they can find their own voice a little more.

It wouldn't be a UK alternative electronic festival without a spot of electro-industrial to make me swear under my breath and barely tolerate long enough to gather fuel for the review. And so I bring you XMH, who I suppose don't do anything wrong with the formula laid down by other acts. It's Suicide Grendel Tactical Commando Sekt, and they are here to goblinise your vocals and go UNK UNK UNK SQUEAL UNK UNK RAARGH. I shouldn't complain too much. They are certainly competent at what they do, and the frontman is undeniably energetic and providing a focal point for the crowd to get enthusiastic about. It's just a sound that is so ubiquitous as to be utterly irrelevant for me. Plus I am getting a bit sick of men standing on stage and screaming about bitches, sluts and whores like they're the next Andy LaPlegua. Issues much?

Sono are pretty much the opposite of electro-industrial, as a synthpop act with the emphasis on pop and a significant investment in huge quantities of melody. They seem pro as it comes, as well as delighted to be on stage – always a great combination – and frontman Lennart Salomon spreads his friendly enthusiasm to all corners of the crowd as they Depeche Mode it up with the best of them. There's some minimalism and hypnotic sensibilities at work that are enough to lift the songs up from merely fun pop tunes, and the end result is a more than solid addition to the lineup.

Cervello Elettronico are a surprisingly leftfield choice as the penultimate act of the weekend, and they reel out a set of refreshingly old-school glitchy techno sounds. While my bass-based criticisms over the weekend are mainly aimed at Da Octopusss, it's good to hear a beats-centered act that knows how to layer its material right up the scale to provide a sparsely lush experience. Slightly trippy, a bit evocative and ever-so accomplished.

And then Covenant rolled on stage to detonate the venue. With their unique take on a synthpop/futurepop crossover they are an act that carry elements to appeal to most of the varied audience, and are one of the few acts who can get away with performing a festival set remarkably laden with more obscure tunes – including no less than three from their debut album “Dreams Of A Cryotank”, which I can comfortably say probably does not sit in the music collections of many folks in the crowd. I find myself in the odd position of not having much to say about Covenant. They are solid gold headliners, and they know it and play accordingly. A storming 'Call The Ships To Port' comes off the blocks with astonishing energy and only ramps it up in the now well-established blood-pounding instrumental kick that follows the chorus. The entire venue levels up and bursts into life. Light flashes, sound solidifies and a short time later everyone wipes themselves down and agrees that yes, that was A Very Good Thing.

I achieve approximately zero sleep that night (for no fascinating or controversial reasons) and rise at dawn to wend my way home. Somewhere nearby there is a wobbling, grinding beat of a party still going down. A few seconds later I realise that it's a broken extractor fan breathing its last.

And that's why I love Infest.

Bands Who Receive The Bastard "At Least 50% Of The Set" Live Seal Of Approval: 
Metal Tech, Dive, AAAK, Wieloryb, Chrysalide, Click Click, Autoclav1.1, Sono, Covenant

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