Yes, the Primavera Sound Festival (PS) has become a sort of a monster in terms of space and attendance, for European standards (it’s not like Glastonbury and thank God for that, since it’s held in a city, and not in the middle of nowhere), and that can be a bit annoying if you try to catch any of the headliners, like Radiohead or PJ Harvey, in 2016 (QRO 2016 recap). This year the Barcelona festival happened Tuesday-Sunday, May 30th to June 4th.
But, if you’re not much into the headliners, like it happened with us this year, then the PS is still the ideal place to get to know an incredible bunch of young/experienced lesser known bands, people you perfectly see yourself listening to in five years time. Just keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.
Primavera At Apolo – Tuesday, May 30th
On Monday, after Jeremy Jay with his retro-futurist techno-pop, and The Wave Pictures, which let’s just say that for yours truly were boring (do you remember when Ira Kaplan takes the path of the Noise Hero and makes those long noise solos with no point at all? Those were The Wave Pictures to me), Tuesday was a whole different affair, with a bunch of Polish bands under the “Don’t Panic! We’re from Poland” banner.
Hanba! were the first surprise of the PS 2017. A street rebel band equipped with an arsenal of 1930s tunes about the difficult times the Polish had to endure, the quartet were pure energy and fun, and songs like “Korpo” and “Philosophy” painted a critical landscape of their country in a time of rapid change and incredible economic and cultural growth and, also, of the destruction of democracy and basic rights for people. Punk and klezmer were mixed fast and speedy to leave no one indifferent.
While Cigarettes After Sex were offering hand-tailored, lazy noir dream-pop which was ideal for decompressing after Hanba!, Poland’s Jaaa! changed the style and tone of the La 2 ballroom, right after their compatriots. Their mix of Arms and Sleepers, Thom Yorke or Moderat with some guitar touches to achieve more density make them the right band to celebrate. To celebrate what? Whatever, but to celebrate something.
Last of the Polish contingent were psychedelic-metal quintet Entropia. When they don’t do the scream bits, they play intricate and complex melody sections. When they scream, they get close to Deafhaven but without losing their composure. Well worth a listen.
Primavera at the Forum – Thursday, June 1st
After an overdose of Riot Grrrl energy with Nots, who presented their new work, Cosmetic, the PS 2017 were one of the places where This Is Not This Heat were invited to expose their unusual take on industrial rock, punk, noise, Can and even King Crimson, after many years away from the business. A familiar face in James Sedwards, Thurston Moore’s current guitarist, gave a clue on the range of sounds we could hear from such a hidden and obscure band. Highs and lows, calm and storm, this almost unknown band (to many, at least) are the missing piece of punk.
Italy’s Persian Pelican offered a mix of classic pop tunes and rhythms that become an unexpected balm for those who were up to more hard music afterwards. A while later, French combo Vox Low, the new creature by two former members of Think Twice, represented another shift in style in the PS, this time inundating the distant Bacardi Stage with a clever mix of krautrock, electronica and sophisticated pop. It takes them a while to reach a song’s climax so if they can correct this they could develop an impressive catalogue of melodies.
Scotland’s Lord of The Isles decided to go for a techno set which was not bad but that disappointed some of his followers, anxious to hear this sonic landscapes à la Fennesz. So from there, and while Solange offered an incredibly well calculated gig, with high-level scenography and impeccable performance, yet a bit lifeless. The Molochs were our next stop. Their summer pop, reminiscent of The Byrds, Dylan and The Beach Boys (in spirit, not in sound) was refreshing, in a very hot day.
The Afghan Whigs may not be to everyone’s taste, but when you put passion over music execution and you can captivate everyone attending your gig, either with your old tunes or with your current creations (“Gentlemen”, “John the Baptist”, “It Kills”… you name it), you can only feel respect for them.
Midnight point: Slayer or Australia’s Gold Class? After a set by Bon Iver that clashed with the Whigs’ (accounts differ on Vernon’s outcome, but generally his new songs were pretty well-received), Gold Class won the bet. They’re from Melbourne, post-punkish and in their only record to date, It’s You, most people seem to focus on singer’s Adam Curley Morrissey feel. But this is just the forest that one can’t see for the trees. Gold Class are powerful, dramatic, urgent, fresh, noisy, subtle and clever. Tracks like “Pervert”, “Life as a Gun”, “Michael” or their most recent single “Twist in The Dark”, leave you excited and wondering how far they’ll go. I have the same enthusiasm about Gold Class as I had for Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, when they came out. Huge.
The Black Angels are in that moment where the machinery they put into work onstage is unstoppable. Some drops of shoegaze, some others of psychedelia, well-crafted pop and the knowledge on how not to repeat themselves make for a very good choice in any given festival. Right after, Australia’s King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were not as dense but they were proved their versatility and sonic punch to those who didn’t want to absorb Aphex Twin’s epileptic electronica, as you can’t go wrong with tunes like “People Vultures”.
But for yours truly, after the delicious Gold Class, the gig of the night was The Damned. It’s incredible how they dominate history. From urgent hymns like “Love Song”, “I Just Can’t be Happy Today”, “Neat, Neat, Neat” or “New Rose” to their usual covers of “Eloise” and “Alone Again Or”, all they do seems effortless and exudes vitality, fun and electricity. Vanian’s voice is still in very good shape, and he’s still the quintessential goth-punk frontman.
Finally, Tycho have a starting point close to Boards of Canada, and they add layers of sound and details and textures which sound ok, but what could be heard in the amphitheatre stage had two problems: each song sounded the same as the next or the previous, and each composition could be one or two minutes shorter, at least. The full band Scott Hansen has now is really good, but they don’t really seem to know exactly where they’re going.
Friday, June 2nd
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club gave us reason to go watch them the following day at Barcelona’s Contemporary Culture Centre (CCCB), so they’ll have their review a bit further on. Accessing the Auditorium was almost Mission: Impossible to watch Phurpa, so we went to check Vaadat Charigim. The Israelites are a shoegaze power trio who also have an eye on post-punk. Open spaces mix with tights bass lines and blunt drums to set up an interesting melange that runs away from their primary ‘90s pop and places them close to the New Order of Get Ready, but more experimental.
The same way Arcade Fire gave a unexpected gig on Thursday, introducing the tunes of their new record, whatever it is called, Mogwai did so as well on Friday, with new recruit Alex Mackay in keyboard and guitar duties, the Glaswegians only played in its entirety, and for the first time, their forthcoming record Every Country’s Sun. At this stage they won’t make a radical departure from their usual instrumental sound, but if you had to discover the band with one record, this could be a good one. All ingredients, all traits you can identify with Mogwai are there: the sonic landscapes, the pop side, the noise, the excitement, the drama… Everything is there and everything sounded very promising.
For the nth time Shellac played the same kind of set, and for the nth time it worked. How they do it, I’ll never know. Afterwards, William Tyler displayed his lovely instrumental folk with a band, and that was good since one of the clashing bands by schedule were Descendents, the hardcore veterans; Korea’s Diealright will also have their review further down this text; and Mac DeMarco ended his set stripping, right after burning his hair with a lighter. With a fully nude drummer, his set was fun and arguably the most bizarre in the whole festival.
Arab Strap were one of those bands that we couldn’t let go. With a full line-up, the Falkirkians reminded us of their sheer quality. Their (figuratively) decadent and defeated repertoire received new vigour with a wise selections of songs, such as “Speed Date”, “The First Big Weekend”, “Here We Go”, “Don’t Ask Me to Dance” or “Rocket, Take Your Turn”. Aidan Moffatt still keeps this pose of “been there, done that” and transmits that distracted feeling of not really knowing where he is, whereas Malcolm Middleton was his usual low profile self. Their blend of indie and electronica is still irresistible and one can only wonder what could come up from this, if they make new music…
Swans once again went around the darkest corners of their catalogue, but whereas in other festivals, such as the Le Guess Who? In Utrecht (QRO photos of Swans), or the PS itself in 2015 (QRO photos of Swans at Primavera Sound ’13), they went for shorter tracks and then just pushing the autopilot button, this time it all sounded too mystical, too atmospheric and bordering on mental onanism. Elsewhere, Sleaford Mods had terrible sound problems that marred their performance, but both Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn used that in their favour to display even more anger.
The xx had the usual problem bands focused on small details and sensations have in an enormous stage, like the two you have in the ‘Mordor’ area of the festival (yeah, that’s how the PS forum users call the two biggest stages in the festival). Their subtlety works better in an enclosed venue, not in a U2-sized kind of place.
At the Night Pro stage, a very nice project from Peru. Astronaut Project were, in PS guise, a trio of electronic dream-pop, fronted by Alberto Zegarra, a singer, guitarist and producer in his native country. Their classic take on pop and melody got everyone dancing and songs like “Dance Like Aliens” with its catchy chorus “I need somebody to love!” make them an interesting band to follow and to discover what they do in South America. Watch this space, we’ll hear about them soon.
Finally, Operators were another revelation in this year’s PS. Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner went searching for electronic pop and synth pop sounds of the ‘80s and with the help of a keyboardist and a drummer, all he found had a lot of weight and was very dynamic. They could fill a mid-seized stage like the Pitchfork with almost no effort, and in some certain moments they found the connection between Midnight Juggernauts and New Order with surprising results. Don’t miss the chance to go watch them live.
Saturday, June 3rd
At the CCCB we caught Korea’s Diealright. They look at post-punk right in the eye, but mix it with an intensity that reminds of Japan’s ZZZ’s. Chae Song-Hwa, the band’s vocalist, reminds of Savages’ Jehnny Beth and also of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, but somehow more flexible, and she also plays guitar and keyboards. Their first and highly interesting record record, Minor World, leaves the door open to several paths they could follow in the future.
Right after, South Africa’s Marley BloO, from the BloO CheeZe collective, changed the tone radically, with soft crystalline folk with some mysticism to it. Fun, always wanting to break the barrier between stage and audience, BloO’s music is a nice alternative to traditional folk.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club have gotten away of the sort of gothic flow that one could hear in early works, right after Cessna himself left The Denver Gentlemen, where he played alongside David Eugene Edwards, from Wovenhand. Their unorthodox blend of folk, country, gospel, drama and bluesy rock, together with their sense of the theatrical and their insistence of making the audience participate, guarantee a pleasant and fun live experience.
Joie de Vivre. Joy of Life. Happiness. Communion. Celebration. Brotherhood. Sisterhood. Junun, this Indian music project by Israelite Shye Ben Tzur, in which Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has been participating, opened the final day of the PS at the Forum. Under scorching sun, they took the chance to make the amphitheatre dance and jump and smile and chant and clap, song after song. They’re a passionate trip through life with energetic sounds and vibes.
Spaniards Jardin de la Croix were the only local band that we were curious to see. Their solid post-rock is a mile away for that of Mogwai, And So I Watch You From Afar, or Russian Circles, and maybe that’s their problem. They’re way too complicated, as you will need more than one listen to fully understand how a song moves and develops.
Angel Olsen demonstrated that she’s not far in excellence from Neko Case, and she counted on a band that helped her calm tunes get bigger and fill a stage such as the Primavera one, with several thousand people chanting her songs; Metronomy were correct again, but they seemed to lack some spark; and Teenage Fanclub were also correct. They played classics like “I’m In Love”, The Concept” or “Start Again”, but for yours truly they seem to be playing the same song, with the same beat pattern, again and again.
Brazilian Seu Jorge should’ve played in the Auditorium. He played a set of Bowie songs in Brazilian style (so bossanova and other variants), and it was too calm sometimes. Good, but too slow for the Amphitheatre. You could hear Hamilton Leithauser way more. It’s not Leithauser’s fault of course, as the singer was offering some of his own creations outside The Walkmen. Attractive songs like “Sick as a Dog”, “In a Blackout” or “A 1000 Times” show a humble artist with a vast array of voice and guitar technique resources. You may find his take on Dylan or those Tom Waits hints that one can feel if his songs are examined closely, a tad too respectful, but this is a guy who really enjoys being onstage and who always gives more than anybody expects. And he’s really engaging.
The general impression with Arcade Fire was that they never seemed to equal Funeral, and most comments from the audience were like: “Ok, but sometimes a bit lacklustre.” So, then we went watching the fathers of stoner doom – whatever that means – Sleep. They just made a gig for their followers, with no connection with the audience whatsoever and just unfolding their wall of sound and noise.
Preoccupations still keep that anger they had in Women, the art rock combo that started this oppressive and forthright style, that sort of mutilation of melody and light. Only “Continental Shelf” was their one concession to concrete music, as dark, sombre and nightmarish songs like “March of Progress” or “Death” were the cornerstone of the gig. Raw, blunt, even dirty, Preoccupations have secured everything they wanted to do with Women and Viet Cong, and they sounded more authentic and confident than most bands in the PS. And that ending with “Death” itself, lasting 15 minutes more than they had been originally assigned, to the point the festival cut their PA to the audience, was simply magnificent.
Sunday, June 4th
Before a storm cancelled almost all gigs at the CCCB, Brazil’s Bike gave a quintessential prog-rock repertoire, with a heavy psychedelic influence and spiritual lyrics about communion and religion.
And finally, Italy’s Wrongonyou was just three songs in on his songwriting repertoire, faraway form what you usually listen in Europe when the rain poured with no mercy. Anyway, the Italian is yet another alternative if you want to find a new sound and a new way of singing.
-words & photos: Abel Cruz