Bestival 2013, Part 1 - By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel
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Bestival 2013, Part 1

We didn't invite Fatboy. People who totally can come to our party, though: Devilman, Squarepusher, maybe Wayne Coyne. Author: and on September 23, 2013
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Somewhere beyond the south coast of UK, skirting the edges of the English Channel, the HMS Bestival set its sails for another weekend of pandemonium. Located in the middle of the Isle of Wight (formerly known as the middle of nowhere), curating duo Josie and Rob Da Bank had free reign to celebrate Bestival’s 10th birthday in their own special way. 2013’s theme was dedicated to all things of a nautical persuasion, which came as a bit of a “finally” moment. Thousands upon thousands donned costumes for the festival’s traditional fancy dress code, but the theme was inescapable anyway: a pilgrimage to Robin Hill requires a ferry trip, so by the time the festival had started, its crowd had crossed the sea.

Once on site, Bestival came into vision: objects d’art such as inflatable churches, glowing swamp shacks and ‘Bestiversity’ education tents were littered across the acres, offering the weird, wonderful and wild variety that defines the festival. Maybe its spirit is best captured by the presence, this year, of a larger-than-life blow-up of Lionel Richie’s head. This devotion to eccentricity seeped into the line-up itself, uniting acts from all walks and corners on one tiny island like a scientific experiment: how many could it fit? Robin and Tayyab, an ideal crossover team, went to investigate this blurring of fantasy and reality, and had to pinch themselves once or twice.

Thursday

Robin: Our festival experience was bound to diverge down the road, because our music tastes make for the equivalent of a buddy cop TV drama — or, you know, we like different things, but agree on Fleet Foxes and a sliver of hip-hop  — but we began Bestival with an artist we could share in. East India Youth makes electronic pop music with a very methodological approach; his droning opener buoyed the sense that his compositions would be much more open-ended (and much more instrumental) than they became, prompting a friend of ours to ponder if a beat was like, ever going to drop. About six minutes into his set, it did.

EIY

East India Youth signed to Quietus’ new record label for his debut EP, which comprised the majority of his set. He’s now moved on to bigger things, but I’ll forever be fond of Tayyab’s pronounced opinion on the set: “I’m drinking a chai tea while watching East India Youth – how Quietus am I right now?”. The set slid comfortably into their roster and more experimental philosophy, with maybe a disappointing absence of the word “wanker”; William Doyle’s voice even sounded reminiscent of Neil Tennant’s, in moments. His exponential layering of synth on “Heaven, How Long” offered even more of a cold shower live than its great record counterpart does, and “Looking For Someone” was even rawer; that shit was hard to stand in front of. It would be the first of many physical interactions with music throughout the weekend.

Tayyab: It was a nice set – a nice way to start things off, if a little rough; Multi-talented he may be, but I feel East India Youth’s voice seemed slightly uncomfortable. After his set, we headed to the Bandstand, a pagoda half-way down a hill with a backdrop of the entire site’s first night lighting up the Isle of Wight. Here, Golden Fable lulled and soothed with their somewhat safe indie pop, easy listening tested only by choral vocal developments, to a crowd that harboured a Wayne Coyne lookalike that was later revealed to be the man himself.

Deep in the Ambient Forest, passing trails of giant glowing fruits, clearings of Persian rugs, hammocks and a children’s playground, the Amphitheatre was loading up its first reel of Bestival’s film line-up. An edited version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916) was soundtracked live by a resurgent East India Youth; Out of the spotlight, his overhaul of the score skipped between ambience and aggressive percussion, booming bass and techno that tempted the audience to start moving their feet. It was as if Doyle had reached out to the potential hinted at by his earlier set, unhindered by pop persuasions. There was a clear contrast between the age of the film and the sonic relevance of Doyle’s soundtrack, though it was also very fitting – the sci-fi classic explores future technologies after all, and was scored well.

mia

The Thursday headliner rounding off the night’s entertainment in the Big Top was M.I.A., performing to support the relatively maligned release of her upcoming fourth album, Matangi. With a setlist including day-old tracks as well as the heavy hitters from her earlier work, her appearance was about the beats and nothing more; The vivid stage set-up, with its glaring lights, sparse musicians and flamboyant dancers sought to build upon the sheer audacity of her music. M.I.A. played a role nearer to that of an MC than a rapper, knowing the focus was on the party than any showmanship. Just as I was then, I’m still unsure of how big M.I.A. actually is – Paper Planes came across as the one-hit-wonder that most were waiting for, despite her formidable back catalogue. Regardless, she ended on her own terms with her undeniably overwhelming hit, “Bad Girls”.

Friday

Robin: Friday came into focus slowly. The first cancellation to stifle our plans was Woodpecker Wooliams, whose early set on the Replay Stage (also sponsored by Rob Da Bank, though only jeans adorned the tent canvas) was exchanged for the righteously intimidated Laucan, a duo of minimal compositions on electric guitar and cello, who had expected to be playing a quiet set inside Sunday Best’s tiny record store tent. Their music wasn’t lost in translation, though its intimacy shifted: instead of playing within arm’s reach of their audience, they were looking out on a small scattering of the tired and wet. We would come to know the Replay Stage as a cramped and sweaty place by the end of the weekend, but for Laucan it felt massive, as if we were sharing in their most unpredictable moment.

Things moved swiftly to the party hitting main stage. Caravan Palace, riding freely on the electro-swing phenomena, played a set of coercive dance music, of which I remember the seemingly endless scat-singing; I also remember jumping, a lot. I can look back on it now as a really communal warm-up, and it worked fine.

Tayyab: Caravan Palace were genuine fun when the lead singer brought back dances from ages thought forgotten, though the electro-swing was for the most part, gratingly cheesy (sorry). Perfect for the main stage Friday afternoon crowd, mind you. They were followed by family-friendly rap-duo, Too Many T’s, whose job it was to humour a crowd impatiently waiting for the Wu-Tang Clan. Their attempts at comedy were irrelevant and in vain, and their greatest moment bar leaving the stage was when they played others’ tunes. It was odd to see two, seemingly well-to-do Caucasian chaps act as hype men while the renowned aggression of M.O.P’s “Ante Up” rung out to a crowd of many, many thousands. Even odder, was when Wu-Tang materialised.

Mathematics, their tour DJ, led the way, and was soon joined by Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, U-God and Masta Killa. That was it. Among them, I could count merely one major Wu-Tang character, and it sure would have been better if Ghostface had performed a solo set. It was the music equivalent of receiving a box of chocolates and opening it to find only fudge was left. Half an hour in, I took flight back to Replay, land of floating jeans, to see Drenge tear the place apart, eviscerating any doubts or guilt I had about jumping overboard earlier on.

Robin: You could feel the spirit with which Wu-Tang’s entrance was met floating into the atmosphere as their set dragged on. As with the righteous M.I.A., there was a sense the crowd had tricked themselves, from one or two songs, into expecting a religious experience. The difference being that they had ignored the interrogating new art M.I.A. was pushing, whereas Wu-Tang left ostensible fans sitting through another chapter of a stifling nostalgia tour that only a couple Wu members care to remember. So yeah, it wasn’t good. It was disappointing, even, but only because I was trapped among a crowd of dudes holding up the W between their thumbs, screaming abuse at the hypemen introducing Wu to the stage. They were waiting for very particular moments, but they flew by. And of course Mathematics stole the show.

scotch

I ran out of Wu fever far too early to stick around, and headed for The Walkmen, with whom I share a perpetual tragic romance when it comes to festivals; I watch them from afar or get to appreciate three songs max, which never end up being the ones I came to hear. I wanted that to change here, but festival destiny is unyielding; I saw them play three songs, each gentle in build and shimmeringly aggressive at climax, and then left to see DJ Scotch Egg play with Devilman. I passed Jessie Ware on the way, duly noting her suggestion to “dance sexy” for her next song, but not knowing if it applied to the terrifying music I was about to witness.

Tayyab: The RBMA (Red Bull Music Academy) Stage stood defiantly, in its own corner of the site. Unprotected – nay, unhindered – by fencing, it held its ground thanks to the hefty line-up it boasted, plus some powerfully whirring spotlights. DJ Scotch Egg played here under the sun, however, surrounded by a crowd drawn together by some esoteric mystery, a wink and twinkle in the eye when they’d mention they were off to see Scotch Egg.

devilman

I found his solo set to be pretty lame. Sure, it was cool how he played his music through a Nintendo Gameboy, though any redeeming features for unabashed chiptune electronica come few and far between. More interesting happenings came about when he ditched the toys for a bass, joined by a partner as his Devilman performance got underway. The pair were playing noisy, heavy-set dub, a transformation I’d have considered inconceivable had I not seen it with my own eyes, heard it through my own ears, felt the rumbles through my own bones. With no prior announcement, no sweat broken, Devilman’s vocalist emerged to an eruption of cheers, soon drowned out by his screaming, like a ritualistic, demonic possession. The trio also had the best prop, as a man in a suit stood by the set, brandishing a katana with intent and comic clumsiness. It was ridiculous, utterly brilliant and certainly an unexpected highlight of the festival for me. Jagwar Ma seemed tame and tasteless after such a performance.

Robin: If Jagwar Ma felt tasteless, though, it was because Devilman let their set circle the drain, washing away any sense of taste Bestival might have suggested. I’ll admit their katana-wielding businessman friend was a nice touch, and a hilarious one, but I’ll also admit that I jumped back when he started pointing it at us devoted headbangers in the front row. The band’s lead singer, wasting no time before heightening the intensity of the set with his skramz, also knocked me back: he brought fear to the crowd more directly, kneeling over the barrier and hovering over us like we were submitting to his music. Threats at the back and noise at the front, Devilman was enthralling because it was scary. I kept my eyes in as many places as I could, which made it a highlight for me, too. But like a kid scared to go to bed after a horror movie, I welcomed the sight of a smiling DJ Scotch Egg shaking hands with crowd members when it was over. What a nice dude, I thought, clutching to a sticker he’d handed me (his record label, by the way? “Small But Hard”). I was relieved. By Volume might be all about the music, but shows like this make that feel like pure idealism. Sometimes you need a musician to be kind, take your hand and tell you it’s gonna be okay.

hopkins

Tayyab: The Flaming Lips were set to ignite the Main Stage but I couldn’t not catch Jon Hopkins, not with the year he’s having. The Big Top was one third full, and the best bit about it was that everyone who was there wanted to be. With what was perhaps one of the best crowds of the weekend, the tent held plenty of room to dance. Hopkins played a set featuring selections from the recent, acclaimed Immunity as well as Insides, drifting between the more beat-driven productions and occasionally dazzling with stargazing ambience. There was no visual set up, but for the man at work on the stage, and a near-tangible sense of delight floating through the air. I’m sure only a small minority of that euphoria could be attributed to the empty balloons and canisters on the floor – for the most part, the vibe was innocent joy. After that, I went to go and see Wayne Coyne preach on some giant pedestal with wires flowing out of it, backed by some guys playing instruments and a giant visual display that contrasted eyes with vaginas.

Robin: I want to take a little sidebar here to talk about how much stock I’d put in the Flaming Lips’ live show. I’ve been told so many things about it over the years, each story more mystifying than the last. Their show was described to me once as being like a birthday bash for the world’s most popular kid; after that, like a bloodless family reunion. I’ve heard it talked about like it’s the only lecture you’ll need to take notes on, and most importantly, it’s been billed as a magically unpredictable event, one I’d have my own story about when I finally saw it with my own eyes.

I wasn’t disappointed, but those definitions I had to describe a Flaming Lips show, this magical event I’d never seen? They dissolved. Wayne Coyne came on stage, steadied himself on that giant pedestal, and stood like the grimmest incarnation of himself possible. He still sparkled, a fluorescent blue outfit lighting him up, but he was fixed to the spot like a barely sentient statue. He breathed, but with the lowest quality of life. For the set opener, The Terror’s hope-eating “Look… The Sun Is Rising”, he preached, but into the eyes of a baby doll prop he’d taken on stage with him. It was a gruesome little drama; his only movements were with his hands, pointing them skyward, or using them to hold onto items like wands (for, you know, “The W.A.N.D.”), megaphones and bags of tension-alleviating confetti. It was a kid’s party, but for the gloomier, slightly cooler kid, the one who wants to stand-still and contemplate the bigger things.

flaming lips

The Terror has instilled a sense of sadness into the stock Lips’ show. The performance wasn’t as disturbing as the record itself, but happiness seemed to evaporate from the majority of Coyne’s words, and the band followed suit. “Race For The Prize” was played with a painstaking near-ambience, and its percussive thrust was removed almost entirely. On The Soft Bulletin, the song sounds like an ambitious sprint to a bittersweet ending; here the pace was set as if its characters were setting off for something inevitable and futile. Throughout the song, Coyne asked for the crowd to pick the band up, like they needed us to fill up a cylinder with the sands of love in order to get through a song he had billed as “sad”. He did this routinely through the show, and it became the only specific dialogue he opened with his fans: love us, cheer for us, because otherwise we might not make it. Fittingly, the Lips played a cover of Devo’s wacky “Gates of Steel” like it was healing their dying hearts.

Two moments stood out for me, though neither of them have the Lips’ extravaganza you might expect. “Turning Violent”, The Terror’s penultimate song and secret denouement, was sung by guitarist Stephen Drozd and invoked dissonance in the crowd; without Coyne to focus on, we were looking into the performance, rather than at it. It made true on The Terror’s promise to envelop everything in its path. Then there was “Do You Realize??”, for which the sky opened as if it was having an epiphany. Rain poured down for this sloppy, sweet hippy jam, the focus on the crowd as well as the band. In spite of the show’s lack of movement, and the feeling that Coyne was giving an end-of-days sermon for most of his set, a body of people came together for this song about death, beauty and space. That is totally Lips. That is at the heart of all their music, whether it’s bringing all three about or destroying each one in turn. I don’t mind that I didn’t watch the 2008 Lips show, or that I didn’t help Coyne crowd-surf in that probably life-threatening big ball. I just care that I saw this.

fbslim

Tayyab: The rain gained strength, eventually forcing people out of open spaces and into the nearest tents. I was swept into a flood of people watching Belle & Sebastian, who were quick to knock down my perception of them as some acoustic duo. Reeling from slight enlightenment, I stumbled out to see if Fatboy Slim’s Bestival 10th Birthday Bash set could somehow avoid being mindless dross; Norman Cook has many hits tucked away, however his reputation as a DJ these days consists of his unplugged turntables inside a giant octopus during an Olympics ceremony. He had this donk trash playing out, with visuals shouting out “Eat-sleep-rave-repeat!” and it wasn’t even in time with the audio. A quick drop of “Renegade Master” then an MC talking about how “We came here to party,” again and again, then back with the mantra like it was some life-changing revelation. The uninteresting tripe was occasionally held back for small doses of nostalgia, before Fatboy Slim would show how in tune he is with whatever’s relevant by dropping samples of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” and Breach’s “Jack”, then some off-key rip-off of Mosca’s “Bax”. It was all quite bland, which I guess was to be expected, but when such a big deal was made about how a DJ would be headlining a festival of this size, it was especially underwhelming when a caricature showed up in place of an artist who could have spent all these many, many years honing his skills into something special.

Peace worked some way towards restoring my faith in showmanship, as I traded the man fistpumping to tens of thousands for a guitar-led group with a rebellious streak and a chip on their shoulders. If such a description sounds familiar, it’s because Peace are that band for indie-oriented teens of today, though they did put on a good ruckus at the Replay.

Last time I’d seen Hieroglyphic Being, the Chicago-born DJ trawled through the depths of acidic-but-not-quite-acid house and so it came as a surprise when Jamal Moss leapt from house and techno into freewheeling experimental jazz and post-punk, indulging as much as he was educating as the night was relatively young. If his selection was experimental, then Squarepusher’s live Ufabulum show that followed was just dangerous. His visual set-up devoured the Big Top with its abrasive imagery, brutally flashing striking shapes and sequences in contrasting colours on giant arrays of LEDs. They followed the way of his music, glitchcore, breaks and aggressive IDM pulverising all the senses of anyone caught in the near vicinity. Tracks like “Dark Steering” would provide brief respite along with uncertain anxiety, like the carriage of a rollercoaster slowing before pummeling downwards into mayhem. For the last chunk of the 90-or-so-minutes show, Squarepusher left his platform and stepped out front; Tom Jenkinson is also a virtuoso bass player, and he wasn’t about to let anyone forget. After juggling duties between playing bass, cueing visuals and figuring out which of his many pedals to use next, Squarepusher finally let up, and the brave, brave survivors stumbled back to their tents in a daze, taken by something stronger than any drink.

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