It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Assuming you like running at pace around various Cardiff venues, that is, and if you don’t you’re in the wrong place. There’s a massive amount of ace new music to explore – trust me, I’ve spent the last fortnight on Myspace seeking it out – so spreadsheets at the ready, and off we go…
Thursday packs a punishing amount into six hours and seven venues. Christen the festival in familiar style with Threatmantics (Clwb), currently on career-best form – loud, delirious folk-rock with cracking tunes. Or try Dad Rocks (Y Fuwch Goch), belying an awful name with intricate plucking, mournful trumpet and lyrical quirkiness. Kutosis kick off a fine evening with the Barely Regal label, bringing whipsmart indie punk tautness to Dempseys; dip in there then back to Clwb for Sweet Baboo’s country-rock reboot of his endlessly charming songbook before taking in Sun Drums (Model Inn), alternately blissed-out and uneasy with spooked vocal hiccups woven into pitter-patter electronica. Your appetite for some mid-evening beats duly whetted, Chad Valley’s beautifully melancholic Balearic euphoria – think Tough Alliance, Dolorean etc – should be a must, and Nedry’s marriage of Bjork/Fever Ray ethereal gloom to dubstep wobble in CAI wil stop you in your tracks. An alternate route can be found via Spectrals’ bus station doo-wop fuzz (Clwb) or Right Hand Left Hand’s ever-brilliant math-rock genius (Dempseys), followed by either the redoubtable, insidiously eerie pop of Clinic (Clwb) or Attack + Defend’s one-off live return (Model). Three choices, all excellent, and it’s only Thursday evening. Whichever you choose, haste ye then to Lesson No. 1’s showcase at the Model in time for Nordic tundra-metal titans Arabrot; from there, White Ring’s foggy, bad-acid slo-mo electronica (Undertone), Talons’ fret-tappy post-rock epics (Dempseys) and Samoans’ widescreen, Aereogramme-recalling math-prog (Fuwch) would all be fine options before taking in the twisting, soul-baring tension/release and Shellacian tautness of Bellini (Model). That seems an ideal point to close the first day. You’ll need your rest, after all.
Don’t know how to tell you this, but Thursday’s just an icebreaker. Friday stretches the legs and the stamina still further, typified by the corking one-two across the bows that is Drains‘ cheeky, grungey hood-wearing punk (Chapter) and the magnificent Jesus Lizard creep and flex of the splendid Brandyman (Clwb). A gentler introduction lies with Lucky Delucci (Undertone), reborn as gently anthemic folk-rockers. Standard Fare‘s last Cardiff appearance was blighted by braying goons sharing the venue; their smart, vulnerable and hugely catchy indie-pop deserves better and will be one of the day’s treats. Skip across town to Chapter for more big-hearted joy from Steve Baboo and Rob Voluntary Butler Scheme’s supergroup Wickes, perhaps; followed by a sly outside bet in the form of Stricken City (Undertone), all strident Polly Harvey/Zola Jesus vocals and luminous reverb-soaked, darkly inviting odd-pop. Clwb, meanwhile, sees the re-energised Truckers Of Husk showcase new additions to their supremely catchy math-pop catalogue, and from there half an hour of Bastions‘ furious North Walian hardcore should naturally follow. Plenty of top-drawer electronica once again today – Dam Mantle‘s glitchy, stuttering breaks and burbling dubstep-not-dubstep synths and the sublime Warp Records IDM classicism of Quinoline Yellow go back-to-back at CAI, while the skeletal Nintendo beats and Zomby-esque bleeps of Becoming Real are a hot tip for excellent leery, bassy fun at Buffalo. Hang on there for Visions Of Trees, perhaps, whose horrid name hides an unexpectedly lovely, ghostly North Africa-goes-R n’ B take on Telepathe’s crystalline darkness. Or take in a rare visit from legendary Dutch anarchist post-punks The Ex (Clwb), restless experimental visionaries as relevant now as ever. Lesson No.1 strike again, there. The confident, gleaming psych-pop classicism of The Keys will be a revitalising pop rush for tired ears and legs, so stop in at Y Fuwch Goch for that before deciding between Raffertie‘s queasy, rollercoaster dubstep/rave hybrid (Buffalo) or the Ras Kwame-helmed late-nighter at Clwb where grime don P Money holds court. Or both. No work tomorrow, y’know?
Saturday. Plenty of ways to start day 3 in relaxed fashion, with Ballad of Britain taking a Welsh slant on the UK’s folk music history in the company of Trembling Bells and Richard James. That’s in Chapter, with DJs and Scrabble in Dempseys; hardier souls will dive straight back in to the live tackle. Undertone hosts H. Hawkline, now offering chewy psych-folk songwriting with krautrock leanings, and the lo-fi Welsh language glam-pop of Mr Huw. Throats‘ overdriven math-metal lunacy is the pick of an earthier line-up at Clwb. One of the year’s must-see bands play twice today; Y Niwl‘s expertly turned out surf twang will have you twisting in the aisles at both CAI and the Model. See ‘em twice, pausing inbetween to take in the a nice counterpoint of Still Corners (Buffalo), whose glowing girl group balladry recalls trashy death-disc sadness and Broadcast’s exquisite poise. Nice. Tough choices abound come the evening, and weariness may play a part. The Legendary Meic Stevens (TM), the increasingly ace stirring folk of Evening Chorus, the sweet acoustic sampledelia of Huw M and The Gentle Good‘s reliably pretty Welsh folk tales all feature on a great bill at Chapter, where the day’s standouts Trembling Bells later bring awesome, soaring Incredible String Band folk-rock. Do. Not. Miss. Cate Le Bon clashes directly with them, which is truly gutting as her bucolic, earthy psych is ever a treat. She’s on in Buffalo, and should you be in town you can also catch Let’s Wrestle and their endearing, shambolic lo-fi heartbreak pop, or the return of elusive Peel faves Melys (Clwb). Spector-worthy pop thrills abound in Clwb, too, with the way-underrated wistful C86 joys of The School and the unnervingly young Magic Kids‘ Sesame Street Beach Boys vibe. Clutch them to your weary bosom, before racing off to the Model to catch some of Beach Fossils‘ insidiously catchy, chiming indie pop, then to Dempseys where Veronica Falls offer expertly poised girl-group angst and smart male/female harmonies. James Blackshaw should not be missed, should you be able to get into the MMH; his staggering 12-string guitar mantras would ideally be showcased at Chapter, but that’s my tough luck. Whether you’ve chosen some of the above, or Perfume Genius‘ much-vaunted exploration of crushingly bittersweet Sufjan Stevens balladry, shoegazey FX and Antony Hegarty’s glassy vulnerability, do whatever is necessary to cram into the Model Inn for Islet‘s closing set. Surely hopelessly oversubscribed, their feverish, joyous polyrhythmic attack and crowd-bothering interaction will echo the crazed scenes of last year’s Strange News and Right Hand Left Hand shows. Those forking out the extra dollar can move on to catch the once-in-a-lifetime realignment of Swans at the MMH; the rest will drag their sorry frames to Clwb, or to the Silent Disco, and reconvene at Dim Swn (Gwdihw) on Sunday to drink away the pain to the strains of Gruff Rhys and Pete Fowler’s soothing DJ sets. I’ll be there. I might need a hug.