• January preview: this month’s live highlights in Cardiff and Bristol

FREE FOR ALL FESTIVAL, Cardiff Moon Club and Bristol Stag & Hounds, all January

It’s perhaps not quite up to the excellent standard of previous years, but the newly expanded twin-city Free For All Festival still offers treats only a true curmudgeon (hi!) could gripe at; namely, live music every day for the most entertainment-parched month of the calendar, for zero pence. The Wave Pictures (26th) are the most high-profile name on the two bills, fresh from the impressive achievement of a double album (City Forgiveness) whose variety and sparkling vitality not only means it avoids sagging but beats out anything they’ve done in a good while; but whether you dip in en route to another gig or just take the plunge based an overwhelming thirst for booze, there’s plenty worth catching elsewhere. Inopportunely named Glaswegian bass/alto sax/drums trio Free Nelson Mandoomjazz (Bristol, 9th and Cardiff, 10th) are pick of the bunch, in this fool’s opinion, with two chucklesome Ornette and Mingus-referencing EPs offering shuddering bass and a promising Electric Wizard-meets-Bohren racket. Zinc Bukowski and The Cosmic Nod are among the noisy treats on the 17th, while Dimensions and Homoh will appease similar needs on the 27th. Utter heroes Totem Terrors will be on unreasonably early on the 30th; get there early and stare directly at them for an uncomfortably long time. If the first weekend of 2014 is already too long since you got out of the house, then Brothers’ teen anthems are your best bet. Across the alarmingly windblown Severn Bridge, the double header of Big Joan and St Pierre Snake Invasion round off an exhausting all-dayer on the 25th, while Schnauser (13th) and Repo Man (with FNM, on the 9th) are also worth noting. Start drawing up your must-see lists now.



Two years after dropping two impressive albums in a year, Cass McCombs returned recently with the 90-minute Big Wheel and Others. It’s by its nature a sprawling, rambling affair, but while that should mean it’s disjointed, overlong, it’s remarkably coherent assuming you allow its dazed, narcotic charm to unfurl at its own pace. It’s a record out of time, the preserve of cocaine cowboys and of the hermetic, strung-out underworld the likes of Alex Chilton or Gene Clark slid into in their wilderness years. Except McCombs is at the peak of his powers here, remarkably touching folk balladry sitting beside drugged-out riffola, sweat-sheen sax solos and sinister characterisations of classic Old West archetypes. It feels less like the valedictory shit-or-bust gesture it might appear in the hands of others and more like the natural result of his prolific and single-minded muse, though; it draws equally from the pretty longing of Dropping The Writ and the strung-out literary tropes of PREfection, a hugely assured and addictive classic-in-waiting which should by rights have crowds on this tour hanging off his every ornery, spotlight-shunning phrase.



With the greatest respect to the uniformly excellent bands elsewhere on the bill, this ¡JOY COLLECTIVE PRESENTATION! initially excites due to the live return/full band debut of Tender Prey. Laura’s played under the name for a few years now, road-testing ghostly, languorous balladry and a darkly gothic blues whose resplendent charms unfurl as casually as her almost painfully sporadic live schedule. But! An album, produced by Sweet Baboo and featuring Emma from Islet and Rich from Wrongs among others, is finished and ready to go in 2014, which is splendid news. Selections can be heard here, with the voracious girl-group swagger and flickknife cool of ‘Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of My Heart’ an undeniable highlight. Bristol’s Ellis Jones, aka Trust Fund, is our headliner for this one, and it’s a pleasure to give his heartworn, gorgeously melancholy bedroom pop a bit of the attention it deserves. Mini-album Don’t Let Them Begin is one of those unlikely things that creeps up and floors you with its simplicity and directness, with nods to the voguish 90s angst of Lou Barlow or Jeff Mangum, a bit of lovably ruffled slacker-pop and some beautiful, sunlit melodic shifts suggesting Sufjan Stevens recording on a Pot Noodle budget. Lovely, which is henceforth not a word best applied to Pheenus’ disquieting exploration of the outer limits of saxophone-heavy, bemasked improvisation. Do not miss! Kindly opening up are Wrongs, chiefly to give Rich a break between sets; last seen, by me at least, showing Blood Sport a thing or two at an excellent gig in Four Bars, they’ve become something unique, beyond the few previously discernable influences. Hinted at on their fine second EP, their extended meditations on Wooden Shjips kraut-drone and humming, unsettling Alan Vega out-rock bode well for a full release. Gig of the month, thanks for asking.


SEPTEMBER GIRLS, Start The Bus, 12th

Accepting the trade-off between winking Big Star-referencing name and lifelong confusion with Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Golden Grrrls and countless others, Dublin five-piece September Girls at least cover old musical ground in a refreshing way. A rumbling, MBV-smeared take on the by now wearyingly familiar but still difficult to resist c86/Girls In The Garage revivalism of recent years, with welcome low-end clout and a darker, shoegaze-nudging palette akin to Belfast’s (yes) Girls Names or recent tourmates PINS. ‘Wanting More’ is their finest yearning girl-group gem to date, chiming ensemble harmonies rising above the reverb-heavy murk, but there’s more than enough in the handful of singles to date to suggest their upcoming Fortuna Pop debut Cursing The Sea will be worth a listen.



California-born virtuoso of the banjo and fiddle, balladeer possessed of a pretty unnerving voice seemingly beamed directly from turn-of-the-century Appalachia and collector and archivist sans pareil, Frank Fairfield is a curious thing; how authentic an interpretation of the past can someone give before they can stop being seen as pastiche, or novelty? For all the notes of purity, of ‘legitimacy’ in his backstory as a vagabond, a street musician discovered despite himself, the reason his takes on the old-time American music (and, more importantly, his originals) work so well is the spirit and verve with which he plays; the discordant whines and drones drawn from the fiddle, the broken-down arrangements and a voice that could be lifted straight from the collections of archival outsider folk music he’s curated for Tompkins Square. He’s the real deal, but that doesn’t matter. Breaking off from his Cass McCombs tour support, this will be Fairfield’s first time in Cardiff since 2012; you sense that stuff drawing on or bastardising this wonderful music, however good-naturedly, is ten-a-penny in Gwdihw, but it’s never seen or played with a fraction of this authenticity, skill or love.



Pints aloft in praise of Ben Red Medicine, here helping to buck the trend for a stay-at-home January with this first outing of 2014. It’s a thoughtfully compiled line-up, too, with some loose parallels to be drawn if you strain your eyes; three solo performers – in this instance at least – all offering idiosyncratic, oddball pop with considered intelligence and no little wit. APR’s decade-plus trawl through complex, politicised and often deeply affecting electronic pop music as Pagan Wanderer Lu ended not with a bang or a grand gesture but a simple reshuffling of letters; now trading under his full birth name, he’s recently released a second album in 18 months (Dinas Powys, a more low-key follow-up to the career-best The Signal And The Noise), taken his busman’s holiday sideline band Local Sports Team to eastern Europe (and back) and become a dad. He’s showing little sign of slowing down creatively, which is a welcome thing. Haydon Hughes’ work as Y Pencadlys should be familiar to anyone reading this website or speaking to its contributors for more than five minutes. Genius stentorian electro torch songs like the brilliant recent single ‘Mae Pawb Yn Haeddu Glaw Yn Waeth Na Fi’ are pitched somewhere between Laibach, John Maus and David Wrench; insidious, captivating and ludicrously enjoyable. If you saw him slay a packed Peski stage at Swn, you know what to do. Rosie Totem Terrors has a bunch of really bloody great solo demos up on Soundcloud – dreamily sad sketches, loping drum machine lullabies and, in ‘Peanuts and Pickled Onions’, at least one sparkling hit of caustic, funny and damnably catchy new wave pop joy. Think Marine Girls, Raincoats and such. YES.



Gorgeous otherworldly folk incantations from a dispiritingly young San Franciscan whose intimate, insular sound-world prompts some over-familiar comparisons (Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, and an idiosyncratic register recalling Joanna Newsom) but arrives remarkably fully-formed and assured, so much so that by halfway through her self-titled album you find you’ve stopped doing anything else, drawn in and adjusted to the hypnotically relaxed tempo of Pratt’s music and her tranquil, gently quivering voice. If you fell for Angel Olsen’s glorious, dolorous Half Way Home, or, say, Sharon van Etten’s low-key early releases, this is one for you. Support comes from Belgian improv folkster Bram Devens, aka Ignatz, whose rickety constructions and muffled, faltering vocals have enough in their best moments to coalesce into something still chilly and distant but gently affecting with it.


HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT, o2 Academy, 18th

Our most cherished chroniclers of all that is absurd, vexatious and beautiful in this sceptred isle, HMHB have reached a fairly cosy routine as they approach their fourth decade; an album every couple of years, with little fanfare and remarkably consistent high quality, and a dozen or so gigs a year in locations both sublime (Matlock Bath, Leamington Spa and Holmfirth) and ridiculous. Last time round it was shoddy price-hiking echo chamber the Solus, this time the charmless environs of the Academy. No matter, for the laureate prose of Nigel Blackwell, as essayed so brilliantly in Taylor Parkes’ magnificent 2011 appraisal for the Quietus, remains as pin-sharp and deliciously florid as ever. Railing despairingly against music industry flotsam, pricking comfy middle-class English mores and cataloguing the forgotten minutiae of moribund everyday life with unerring resonance, Blackwell has consistently been not only our funniest songwriter, but at the same time one of our most poignant and most acerbic. Forget the early stuff, it’s their least enduring; anything from the magnificent This Leaden Pall onwards is gilded with wonder, and last year’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond) is Blackwell’s most feverishly creative and blackly funny in a decade. I lost a great friend this year, someone whose own daunting intelligence and daft quick-wittedness resonated in any number of ways, and some of my fondest memories of him involve relishing the joy of HMHB lyrics. Wish he was still here to go to this one with me.



Consider this an apologetic round-up of sorts; you’ll find a few interesting-looking and budget-priced events like this around various reliable Bristol venues this month, but this takes precedence for a few reasons. Firstly, as the Cube are wont to due each January, it’s free entry. Secondly, the Cube only went and reached their target for purchasing the venue leasehold, which is a bloody fantastic achievement. Thirdly, you get to see Trust Fund (again!) and the blackened dub/Kraut vibes and shuddering electro-drone exaltation of Fairhorns for the aforementioned low, low price. Straightforward decision, right? RIGHT. While noting this on your calendar/wall/face, allow room for the tip-top Howling Owl label showcase with Vessel, Oliver Wilde and Giant Swan (Arnolfini, 18th), improv violin/drum chaos and beauty care of Mines and Yoni Silver (Arnolfini, 24th) and the gathering of Leeds/Bristol label Birkhouse Recordings types Ekoplekz, Tlön and Robin Stewart (Cube, 10th). Tlön’s Stuart Chalmers also does a Bang The Bore event with Roger Turner and Urs Leimgruber (Café Kino, 5th), and anyone into that kind of tackle (or, indeed, anything I’ve mentioned here) should certainly check the four-way collaboration between Henry Cow’s Tim Hodgkinson, pianist Denman Moroney, bassist Dominic Lash and much-travelled percussionist Paul Lytton (Arnolfini, 8th) for wild, exhilarating and free-spirited avant-jazz improvisation of the highest order. And you thought there wasn’t much on this month.



Writing this in the midst of #UKStormcraziness, we’re assuming The Grain Barge hasn’t been blown from its moorings; if not, then this is a gig that you’re highly advised to, uh, get onboard for. An early evening (6 – 9pmish) solo jaunt for three excellent musicians more usually seen in bands, yr Sunday will be headlined by Palomica, a Brighton chap called Nicol, also of the great band Frozy, who’s been quietly releasing seriously lovelorn, gently shimmering tweepop for a while now. Check recent album Sometimes It’s A Struggle and be aware that if he plays ‘Cardinals‘ the world will break. Steve Brett has played in pretty much every Bristol band that’s needed him (Boxcar Aldous Huxley, I Know I Have No Collar, etc) but is currently in the classy Nervy Betters, as well as running the utterly brilliant Stitch-Stitch label (seriously, buy that Ray Rumours CD). And in best-band-name-ever place we have Oh Peas, aka Rosie from Totem Terrors when she’s not playing as Miss R Smith. If her set here is only 10% as good as the dreamy, playful, magical shambles of her Soundcloud page then we’ll all have won.



The sunny, chucklesome psych-pop likes of ‘Sneaky Sneaky Dogfriend’ that Connan Hosford and his Mockasins peddled at Green Man back in 2007 seem almost earthbound now by comparison; the Polyphonic Spree-style singalongs had already curdled like Peter Gabriel’s stage panstick by the time of Connan’s full-length debut Forever Dolphin Love, a place where Syd Barrett’s more batshit lyrical fantasies were given alarmingly free reign to a soundtrack of amniotic Floyd/Flaming Lips spaciness punctuated by dense, curious psych-pop nuggets the equal of anything off the last four Of Montreal records. Indeed, it’s Kevin Barnes’ haphazard path from whimsical psychedelia to paranoid, strutting faux-funk oddball that Mockasin seems to be tripping along, judging by the curdled Prince offcuts and asthmatic falsetto prevalent on 2013′s follow-up Caramel, a genuinely strange and unsettling beast that suggests Ariel Pink taking on the Isaac Hayes songbook. And losing. Weird and sort of wonderful. Just noticed Teleman are the tour support, which is good news for you if you’re considering this one; the Pete and the Pirates alumni strip back their clean, linear pop, remove a layer or two of guitars and retain the crystalline tunes and trembling vocals to excellent effect.


ZAIL, Gwdihw, 23rd


A couple of Cardiff shows which you’d be forgiven for not spotting, even in a quiet month; no excuse now, unless you quite reasonably fell asleep reading this ‘column’ after five minutes and have woken up in March. Forgiven for not spotting a Zail gig, because they are now very likely the only extant band in the UK whose entire online presence is a mothballed Myspace, and because Gwdihw’s website is coyly avoiding actually mentioning it; check local press for details, then, but do not miss their wonderful, blissfully kinetic math-rock constructions if it’s for real. Forgiven for not spotting the doozy of a line-up put together by Chain of Flowers, because the venue’s been abandoned for months; if Undertone was a dump when it was in regular use, how bad will it be now? Anyway, don’t be put off by me, as there’s fine stuff familiar and unfamiliar here. CoF’s glowering post-punk and ripping Mary Chain-meets-Spacemen 3 noise attack is a bracing and immersive thing, soon to be heard afresh on their two-track Arches Session cassette which pairs a muscular, agitated new song with their ace Spectrum cover. Get your copy here, perhaps. The gorgeous, remote Codeine/Galaxie 500 dreamworld of Mars To Stay is as always highly recommended too, while of lesser-known guests The Smear offer a gloomy, raincoated take on Mission of Burma stridency and swerving Wipers punk while newbies Bloom have a nice chiming, windswept take on indiefied post-punk and a curiously plangent Operation Ivy cover. All killer, then.



Back to the crypt for another impressive Cacophonous Sarcophagus line-up, not least for the unexpected return of Terminal Cheesecake, notorious North London psych-noise miscreants whose recordings for Wiiija and for Kevin Martin’s Pathological label in the late 80s and early 90s captured a squalid corner of the truly weird UK underground scene. Somehow managing to take in skeleton-rattling dub, frazzled acid rock, nasty Butthole Surfers ugliness and sample-heavy industrial alongside the relatively conventional psych favoured by contemporaries like Loop or Head of David, TC’s anything-goes approach is, on listening to them for the first time in years, both utterly reminiscent of a loosely defined yet very memorable non-scene and yet also easy to hear echoed in the gnarly clang of 90s-indebted present-day lovelies like Hey Colossus or Shit & Shine. Speaking of gnarly, heroically baked Hawkwind-worshipping Newcastle doom monsters Bong will make for an excellent counterpart, winding up huge sheets of monolithic drone like a permanently hypnotised Sleep. Big Naturals’ Gareth Turner brings further doomy heaviosity as Salope, a solo drone project big on hefty bowed double bass, while Michael O’Neill is intense in an entirely different way, harsh electro-noise topped with spat-out beat poetry in a thick Mancunian accent recalling the antisocial political sloganeering of On-U or World Domination Enterprises. Not so far away from Terminal Cheesecake’s heyday, in fact.



Opal Tapes are, as you might imagine, a predominantly cassette-oriented label working in similar aesthetic fields as Modern Love or Blackest Ever Black; a smeared, genre-blurred meeting of ambient, industrial, coal-black and tar-thick house and techno, grubby New Age and dystopian soundtrack music. Aside from the usual release format, the recurring tropes found on a lot of OT releases betray a fascination with tape sounds – the staticky hum and textural erosion of keynote releases like Wanda Group’s otherworldly gem Piss Fell Out Like Sunlight or Huerco S’s smudged ambient excursion ‘Untitled’, for example. Label mainman Stephen Bishop also records under the name Basic House, and both curates and appears at this showcase of established and new OT guests; the treacly, suffocating bass thuds and queasy blanket of hiss and drone on his I’m Not A Heaven Man release may have been tidied up a little by the time he released the Oats full-length for Alter, but it’s still a unsettling listen that those into Andy Stott or Helm will appreciate. Dwellings And Druss, meanwhile, is an offshoot from Manc psych-kraut heathens Gnod, one which (based on the 19-minute offering released a few months back) favours a dizzying bank of vintage synths and sequencers chattering in unison over a foreboding machine throb. Headlining this one is Karen Gwyer, whose own Opal Tapes offering Kiki The Wormhole opened out the pixellated cosmic hum and Oneohtrix/Throbbing Gristle soundbites of Needs Continuum into rangy, longform workouts full of pealing Cluster-inspired electronics and undulating choral vocals. A first-class night in prospect from a strange, excellent source.