Mayday Sunday and the sun is shining on Chapel Street, as vans and cars spill people and instruments outside pub doorways. Sounds From The Other City 2012 sees all four of the original SFTOC venues The Salford Arms, The Black Lion, The Kings Arms and The Rovers Return back in action - back in 2005 the day featured just 24 bands, few of them known outside the local area and most long gone - though we'll be catching up with one of those alumni later this evening. Venues have come and gone - I suspect nobody will be lamenting the loss of Peel Hall after a fair few trekked the length of Chapel Street last year only to find it at capacity, whilst late-00s venue The Mark Addy was always rather more suited to being the sort of gastropub that charges 13 quid for "Baked Ham with Cannons Mead & Salford Honey" (Salford honey? Seriously? I knew the place had gone up in the world a bit since I lived there, but nothing quite says middle-class-ification like the advent of beekeeping) than hosting live music, given that it possessed neither a stage, PA or anywhere vaguely sensible to stick one.
Back in 2005, that inaugural event boasted an after-party at some new underground artist collective place called Islington Mill, though it was some way from the venues in largely uncharted territory, at least by the majority of Manchester's gig goers, and most of us didn't bother. Last year festival goers moved in single file between orange tape and bulldozers on half-dug-up footpaths and battled with sandstorms as the wind whipped the construction site that was most of Chapel Street; today the sun gleams off fresh pavements - and as Chapel Street evolved, Sounds From The Other City grew.
There are 83 bands on today - so many great names from Manchester and Salford and beyond that it's hard to know where to start. At least it would be, were it not for the fact that with wristbands collected at Islington Mill bang on 3pm it would seem silly not to make the first stop Now Wave and Off With Their Heads' bill in the main venue space there. They've deliberately booked a majority female bill, so who the hell is that with the mullet and droopy moustache of a 70s prog rock drummer, making ambient and atonal sounds on a saxophone? Ah, right, that'll be Electrelane's VERITY SUSMAN, and the stick-on face fuzz is actually one of the less experimental and bizarre things about her set. Which within its first couple of tracks has already covered looped avant jazz, spaced ambience, and - and it's not often you get to write this in a music review - some "Star Trek Voyager" fan porn-fiction involving Captain Janeway and Seven Of Nine (many thanks to my more Star Trek knowledgeable companion for help here) having some girl on girl (or specifically woman on half-droid-thing-lady) action, read by someone who sounds frighteningly like newsreader John Humphreys (it clearly isn't, but wouldn't it be great if it was?). Some beats creep in and by the time the sci-fi ladies get to the real filth - interspersed by Verity's sung mantras - it's all gone Kosmische psych-rave. She even does a song of more conventional structure (and closer to Electrelane territory) at the end and it's lovely, all pulsating electrobass and synth wash. I think it's going to be a good day.
Verity Susman and Great Waves
It's something of a relief that Underachievers at the Salford Arms is a little late kicking off, as I fear there may not be many more chances to take a breath today. And GREAT WAVES who open their typically tasty looking bill are well worth the (short) wait. Enveloped in a thick pall of dry ice with a half-shadowed moon projected behind them, I like the way they've thought about how best to present their beautifully chilled electronic shoegaze. The word that keeps springing to mind is "shimmer": the rich layers of synth, the echo-drenched guitars, the scattering of electronic percussion across the top, whilst vocal melodies like the Bunnymen on a quiet, thoughtful day keep the whole thing grounded. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened had Spacemen 3 reunited, not to do the retro thing but to make new music together, with Jason Pierce's perfect strung-out space ballads mixed with Peter Kember's grasp of electronica. Might have been something like this.
The smoke machine, according to a tweet from Underchievers, is playing havoc with the kitchen's food hatch. Victories At Sea are next up but it would be a waste of a day like this to just go watching bands I know I like, so I hand over to Adam and a few minutes later (that really slow pedestrian crossing over Trinity Way is going to really start to piss me off quite soon) I'm sitting in a back pew at St Philip's Church where Edinburgh's WITHERED HAND is holding a pretty full church spellbound.
The man known to the state as Dan Willson apparently cut his teeth in indie bands called Barrichello and Peanut (which are, let's face it, both brilliant indie band names) and he's part of that whole Fence Collective thing with the likes of The Pictish Trail and King Creosote, so I had a fair idea what general form his music was going to take - but no idea at all just how incredible and spine-tingling it would be. His songs cut straight to the soul via some slightly odd chord sequences, his words are so personal you feel almost voyeuristic and his high pitched voice is at once vulnerably weak and heartbreakingly soaring; just a few weeks ago I was privileged enough to watch the legendary Daniel Johnston in a church and I honestly feel like I'm back there. Even down to the complete silence in the congregation during songs and enormous applause between: the former may have started as respect for the performer and those watching, but by the end it's clear people are genuinely transfixed.
Seaman and curry. Not, as you may be forgiven for thinking, the description of a Heston Blumenthal dish.
Leaving there, I'm drawn into the Angel Centre by the smell of curry and the sound of some sprawling art-pop experiments. The vegetable curry (three quid with rice for a decent sized meal - no festival rip-offs here) is delicious, although carnivorous friend reports the chicken one's less so; the music comes courtesy of SEAMAN - listed as Seamen in some of the literature but we have had confirmation it's definitely an A; information online is impossible to find if it even exists, swamped by footballers, sex and the Navy - this is quite refreshing actually as it removes preconceptions. We hear poetic vocals, fun twisty technicolour guitars and psychedelic grooves.
Feeling slightly smug at having been able to eat without missing any music, come-uppance is swift via a series of fruitless wanderings as both the Crescent and the Old Pint Pot are between acts; it's very tempting to just stay put at the latter, boasting as it does the best beer garden ever for sunny afternoon drinking, but duty calls so back to Islington Mill it is - to find the main space has been taken over by a 20(ish) strong drum troupe! This is most definitely not the fine electropop of Sunless97 I'd been expecting. Oh hang on, what was that Twitter, you have news?
Ah. This explanation doesn't, however, sate my now nagging craving for electronica so it's back up to the Kings Arms (oh, hello again Trinity Way; please fuck off now) for MEDDICINE. She - young Londoner Monika Krol - kneels at the side of the stage, her hair tumbling over her boxes of flashing lights and switches: yes, one of those electronic artists, a scientist at work. A few of the crowd are sat down too. I join them: it works from down here, the floor trembling with the deep bass vibrations. It's an intriguing melange of light and the dark, of spaced chillwave and industrial foreboding, of distorted vocals sung live into the wires and twisted beyond all recognition - if this music was a picture, it would be a hipstery fake Polaroid of a disused steelworks with police tape around the rusting gates.
Meddicine and Waterworld
Up to the Blackfriars end of the "festival site" next (glad I had that curry now!), where it seems scheduling is running on a Ryanair-esque model of being little more than a rough guide. Presuming the band on in the Rovers Return (later confirmed by the Trash-O-Rama promoter) are WATERWORLD. Waterworld are so lo-fi they actually pause one song part way through while one of them tries to remember how it goes. More than most bands on this bill, they kind of suit playing in the corner of one of the last decidely un-gentrified pubs down here, where the house vodka is more Texaco than Absolut and the carpet could probably write a fascinating autobiography. In that they sound like that strung-out, shambling period in 90s US indie where bands like Pavement were doing their own, more tuneful, take on early Fall. I know it's not for everyone but I just love that kind of wilfully flat world-weary vocal drawl and a bare-bones three-piece "proper indie" sound. And these do it pretty damn well. When they can remember what they're doing.
Pop next door (ish) to catch about five songs' worth of STALKING HORSE. There are so many things to like here. Vocals reminiscent of Tom (Forward Russia) Woodhead's wayward adventures. The fact that the guitarist is wearing full can headphones. The fact that they have a really crap table lamp on stage. And the way they have a load of fantastic songs which, as well as (second album) Forward Russia, recall Foals, Mogwai and the more experimental end of shoegaze all at once. To be honest I need to see this band at their own gig; I'd love to stay but I have to get back to the Rovers as I don't want to miss LASER DREAM EYES.
Stalking Horse and Laser Dream Eyes
Despite featuring, on drums, that survivor from the first Sounds From The Other City (he being former FictionNonFiction promoter Max whose brilliant, elusive and sadly defunct Suicide-meets-post-punk band TVH3 played at the Black Lion in 2005) Laser Dream Eyes very much do not suit playing in the corner of one of the last decidely un-gentrified pubs down here; the remaining non-SFTOC pub regulars largely retire to a safe distance as Max and a keyboard player in white face paint crank up a relentless, urgent, driving beat with little in the way of conventional melody attached to it. Meanwhile Karl Astbury makes heavily reverbed yelps and proclamations like a young(er) Alan Vega trapped in a locked cell. The place is absolutely rammed, all the way back to the end of the bar, but for those down the front the experience becomes still more engaging as Karl claws at the crowd and the wooden banister around the makeshift stage like some kind of wild animal with his beautiful panther-black hair. The music is basically several parts Suicide to one part early properly fucked-up Mary Chain and to my mind you can't go wrong with that.
Time to go check out Bad Uncle's audio-visual stage (this year run in collaboration with Hear Here), scene of some of the most interesting parts of SFTOC past (A Middle Sex soundtracking Hitchcock's "The Lodger" in 2009 sticks in the memory even now) and it looks like this year is no exception. That we have already missed special performances by Vei, Nasdaq and Well Wisher makes me wish this event was a standalone all-dayer on a different Sunday where you could just hang out all day having your mind expanded without missing loads of other great bands - mind you, they'd have to improve the bar beyond today's pyramids of not especially cold tins of lager. My companion at this point is a SFTOC first-timer and thus has never experienced the weird and wonderful world of the United Reformed Church before, and his head's already trying to rationalise the demonic sculptures, potter's wheels and oil cans covered in large photographic portraits - and that's before we get inside the live room.
We walk in and a wall of noise hits us full-on. Danny Saul - a man who when the mood takes him can make ambient/classical inspired guitar music so delicate it makes Vini Reilly look like a rocker in comparison - is flinging his whole body and guitar across the stage while the speakers tremble under the weight of some seriously heavy doom that sounds like Earth on bull steroids. Of the six or seven minutes we catch of this, about five of them involved the same humungous chord. We have stumbled across the finale of WODE - although fellow MM scribe Jon tells me the preceding 25 minutes were not dissimilar. Companion and I mutter a collective "Bollocks". Still, we made it here in time for ISLET and TEETH OF THE SEA.
Srange things are afoot in the United Reformed Church
Even attempting to use mere language to describe what happens over the next hour and a half isn't going to be an easy task, and I did consider simply publishing my review notes, a string of disjointed half-sentences such as "A sliced cabbage mutates like a kaleidoscope", before realising they read rather like the nonsense that results from someone trying to write down what's happening over the course of a hallucinogenic trip experience. Not sure this is going to be much more coherent, to be honest.
Islet are known for their wayward and energetic live sets in which any or all of the band might wander around the crowd making odd noises into people's faces and using available objects such as radiators and furniture as percussion; this isn't like that. They're sitting in the darkness, two of the male members either side at tables of equipment and the girl between them, curled up tightly like a cat with her boxes and pedals spread out in front of her. (There are indeed usually four of them; no, I have no idea). The resulting piece is slower and more fluid than Islet's regular output, though they've always been pretty fluid - a kind of amorphous psychedelia inspired as much by contemporary ambient artists as art-rock. One person in the crowd is flat on his back throughout. The visuals were specially created by Cardiff film maker Ewan Jones Morris and each takes an image or concept and mutates it slowly: digital colour blocks; the aforementioned cabbage; a cat with a deathly stare; timelapse cityscapes; a plastic waxed strongman with biceps aloft. They're really quite unsettling, and Islet create a soundtrack to match; shifting sounds laced with wordless cries fed through a mesh of effects. The lights eventually come up, and we're lost for words.
Some more, then? Yes please. As Teeth Of The Sea set up their equipment the screens promise "REAPER: A RE-IMAGINING OF NEIL MARSHALL'S 'DOOMSDAY'". This film - in which Scotland has been quarantined due to a deadly virus and when a case is discovered in London the government sends a team up to the now effectively post-apocalyptic country - was described in The Northern Echo thus: "As a writer, Marshall leaves gaping holes in the plot while as a director he knows how to extract maximum punch from car chases, beatings and fights without stinting on the gore as body parts are lopped off with alarming frequency and bodies squashed to a bloody pulp." Teeth Of The Sea avoid the issue of the former and play to the strengths of the latter by having remixed the film in the way you would a musical track. Scenes jump and repeat; suddenly the screens are full of barbed wire guns and explosions, to which the band respond with a trumpet frenzy like a post-rock mariachi in hell. Musically we're in similar territory to their regular sets: like 65daysofstatic they always sounded like they should be soundtracking sci-fi, so there are epic tracts of densely layered modern prog, crunching post-hardcore riffs and lulls into ambient (but still rather loud) space. And then there's the finale. The screens flash up the words "GIVE THEM HELL" and the sound explodes into high-octane death techno, two of the band battering on the drum rims. A man's face burns and melts in flames onscreen, then another man in standard-issue apocalypse survivor uniform of white mohican and black eyeliner raises his arms and stares then falls into a baying crowd. On repeat.Fifteen times. Twenty. The music swirls threateningly. Again. Again. The drums crash, the guitars scream. Fall. Burn. It gets more intense, synths explode in a mass of oscillations. Fall. Melt. Like they're testing how much you can take. Fall. Flames. Fall. Then after - how long? Ten minutes? I have absolutely no idea - the sounds fade to echoes of drones.
What the fuck just happened?
The band have played this show a few times now across the country, but this was apparently the last time, and we feel privileged to have seen it, even if it has scrambled our brains. Outside, Chapel Street is aglow with blue striplights set into the shiny new pavements like some Blade Runner future. This makes sense right now. We have no idea where we are going next.
Back in the real world: Chapel Street illuminated, and Andrew Galpin of Daniel Land And The Modern Painters
Then walking past The Angel Centre, the sound of a familiar introduction; they're running late too, it seems, so while DANIEL LAND AND THE MODERN PAINTERS should have wrapped up ages ago we're just in time to catch what previous experience tells me will be the last song, the glorious "Off Your Face Again". They sound immense as the plaintive melody gradually builds to that great guitar-swirling climax across Jason Magee's fantastic drum outro before it all descends into beautiful noise. Jon Ashley and Adam Wheeldon will be bringng you more complete coverage of the set in their reviews of the day.
Where now then? The Pint Pot's still open, with This City Is Ours and Mind On Fire's two stage set-up effectively hosting a party of their own (another all-dayer I'd have loved to have seen more of). I don't even remember crossing Trinity Way but I must have done... SHIGETO is in full flight with his densely textured and dub-heavy electronics, a trip that takes in skittering post-dubstep rhythms and Flying Lotus-like jazz-hip-hop along the way backed by incredible visuals. Geometric equations explode a shower of pixels across the screen and the place is packed, I can't get close but it sounds great from the back. This feels like a completely different world to the one back at the United Reformed Church. The sign of a good festival, that.
I am drinking too much vodka and apologising to people whose sets I missed: Vei; Day For Airstrikes; From The Kites Of San Quentin - artists I would normally run to see, but at pretty much any point today there were at least three places I could have happily been, and precisely none of the sort of crappy landfill guitar bands or half-arsed generic electro acts which at most festivals at least allow you to cross out a stage or two for a while. Is it possible for a festival to be actually too good?
It's twenty past one in the morning when PATTERNS take to the stage - or indeed conservatory - to wrap up the live music in the Pint Pot. The sound is atrocious, but most people are too far gone either through alcohol, exhaustion or simply having watched (and in some cases played in) bands end to end for ten hours to mind too much. They battle through to end on the ever-wonderful "Induction" - and is there a better way to sign off than watching one of your favourite bands play a song you absolutely fucking love at something close to 2am with loads of people piling onto the stage?
I could do another three bands now, but this is where it ends; I get one of those mental taxi drivers who doesn't do red lights and I'm home within minutes, Patterns' haunting chorus still playing in my head. From those tentative beginnings Sounds From The Other City has always set its ambitions high, and deliberately avoided being just A.N.Other wristband walk full of bands you can barely distinguish after the fourth with some budget-munching big name headliner half the punters can't even get in for. And as a veteran of all bar one of the events, I have absolutely no uncertainty saying this was their best yet. And if this is the last - at least in current format (see Jon Ashley's report - then I couldn't think of a better way to go.