Second go around for OCTA, Tom Raybould and Mark Foley’s ambitious audiovisual takeover of the Sherman’s performance spaces and foyer bar. The brief, basically: half a dozen quality local bands, innovative visuals, DJs and interactive curios (last year’s Wall of Pong is replaced with actual table tennis, giving the foyer the feel of an opulently-decorated youth club).
Albatross Archive are first up in the smaller theatre, where a relaxed tone is set as those arriving early recline around the chunky tiered rows. Their blend of florid, complex piano-pop and fidgety percussion is well-served by the impeccable sound, coming over with a well-practiced clarity, but while there’s laudably lofty intent in their composition and moments recalling James Blake or even Dirty Projectors, it’s too mannered to coalesce into anything truly satisfying. A voice near me uttered the word ‘Keane’ a couple of songs in, which sadly isn’t completely harsh. Totem Terrors fare much better, holding their own in the shadow of some eye-watering Casey Raymond video art whose equal-opportunities genital close-ups would have shaken the concentration of lesser bands. Tonight they draw heavily on the forthcoming, fully-funded second album; as suggested by the longer set in the Sherman’s foyer a few months back, the new stuff is rawer, less clipped, and all the more intriguing for it. Given that they can sometimes look isolated on even a small stage, they do pretty well at owning the space too; particularly Rosie, who ricochets about as her guitar gnashes and squalls with unspooling ferocity. There’s some frayed edges to them here, some blood on the lips. Good stuff.
No stage is too daunting for Y Pencadlys once he gets going, of course. Coiled and wracked with nervous energy, he paces in tight, intense widths of the stage, screaming and gesturing towards the warped grins of the children on Casey’s visuals. Possibly gesturing in solidarity, possibly not. Hard to tell. Some bracing swearing out of the way, he settles into his stride, a now familiar cut-and-paste repurposing of a dozen or so Pencadlys songs into a breathless half-hour or so of pneumatic, martial techno and his splendidly off-kilter baritone crooning. The compelling, magnetic strangeness masks the subtle variations between his gigs, the way song fragments bend and buckle, naggingly familiar bits popping up unexpectedly. A perfectly unstable balance of kinetic futurism and freewheeling showmanship. Special every time.
Alternating sets between the coliseum-style smaller theatre and the gorgeously reupholstered main room is a neat trick tonight, not least because of the effect the sheer size of the larger theatre has on the performers and audience. The line-up, well-chosen as it is, offers plenty of variation even when the visual aesthetic is consistent, but there’s an interesting psychological effect felt when you’re seated among a few dozen in a room that could seat six times as many. Rhodri Brooks and Eugene Capper tackle it head-on by bulking up; here they co-front a five-piece band who move confidently between country rock, a little psych and more than a hint of Teenage Fanclub. Eugene offers a terse narration on the opener, and he and Rhodri alternate vocals thereafter. Brooks’ warmer, deeper croon fits the spiritual Nudie suit a little better, but the two voices dovetail nicely on material that shares something with kindred spirit Richard James’ recent album; reflective yet pleasingly experimental, evoking the West Coasts of both the US and Wales. If they can bridge their mellow acoustic country folk and playfully weird tendencies on record they’ve nailed it.
Gwenno‘s somehow not only perfectly at home in the grandiose main theatre but weirdly appropriate when said theatre is seven-eighths empty. Poised over a table full of samplers and keyboards, with footage of industrial blight and renewal (and shots from Koyaanisqatsi) playing on the enormo-screen behind her, the socio-political commentaries and chiming hauntological pop of Y Dydd Olaf coalesce into a dreamworld 1970s Open University lecture beamed from a dustily majestic post-war palais. By the time Cotton Wolf‘s defacto headline slot arrives, a few hours of sitting in comfy theatre seating could have made it undeservedly anticlimactic, but they too work a treat. Originals like ‘Moxa’ and ‘Cloud City’ are lean, clipped and expertly tailored four-minute travelogues, shiny, shimmering constructions in steel and glass that perfecly complement the whirling rave-era visuals on the giant screen. They work in their gorgeously air-cushioned remix of Gulp’s ‘Vast Space’ and it fits seamlessly, nimbly skipping beats underpinning slivers of Lindsey’s vocals. Like much of tonight, it may be designed for a less formal setting, but like everything here it’s testament to the clarity and thought that’s gone into making this much more than just some good bands in a nice room.
Totem Terrors pic from @riffsinthediff via @totemterrors. Crappy Gwenno pic by me