Simple Things festival review – neo-glam, power punk and the giddy glow of trance

Various venues, Bristol
From HMLTD and IDLES to Nadine Shah and the British Paraorchestra, festival season wound down with a wildly eclectic lineup – and no need for wellies

With most British festivalgoers having packed the mermaid leggings away for another year, Bristol’s Simple Things gives wristband junkies one final hit by setting up shop across a number of the city’s indoor venues. Like the Great Escape, Tramlines and other similar ventures, national stereotypes about queuing are tested to their limits; on the plus side you don’t have to tape up your feet against welly-chafe.

The foyer of the Colston Hall – soon to be rebranded to exorcise the spectre of the slave trader it is named after – plays host to, in their words, “the most incongruous sight in the history of popular music”: neo-glam troupe HMLTD, who you suspect would rather be playing a Transylvanian castle orgy than a thoroughfare in a medium-sized arts venue. Dressed like Beetlejuice and the Lost Boys doing their Goldsmiths foundation year, they play not so much songs as flounces in sound, as frontman Henry Spychalski constantly beseeches the hipsters in the front rows, who studiously try not to fall in love with him.

Not so much songs as flounces in sound … HMLTD.
Not so much songs as flounces in sound … HMLTD. Photograph: Ro Murphy/Simple Things festival

Like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, the band occasionally cohere into sumptuous anthems such as Proxy Love and Satan, Luella and I, the rest of the time remaining cacophonously empty – though, per their Atari Teenage Riot-style noise meltdown at the end, there is sometimes beauty in that emptiness.

They address the Colston controversy, as does Nadine Shah in the main hall, who also rails against mental illness, the immigration crisis, the “fascist in the White House”, Theresa May and the “bastards that manipulate” the people of her native north east. Backed by grizzled blokes in the mould of the Bad Seeds or PJ Harvey’s band, she looks genuinely pained and despondent amid their driving blues swagger.

Her simmering disenchantment is alchemised into pissed-off contempt by IDLES later on in the same space, a homecoming following a year in which they’ve built a rep as a major new UK punk voice. Feet rooted to the spot, frontman Joe Talbot dances like a metronome, singing not entirely ironic snatches of improbable hits – Harry Styles, Adele, Zed Bias’s Neighbourhood – amid the dramatic three-chord anthems.

Dramatic three-chord anthems … IDLES.
Dramatic three-chord anthems … IDLES. Photograph: Ro Murphy/Simple Things festival

As well as Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson, Talbot rather recalls John Lydon, who crops up on screen after them during Leftfield’s performance of their 1995 debut Leftism. His guest spot on Open Up remains their high point – recasting him as a political house diva was a masterstroke – and the set turns the hall into a sweatbox as they settle into the centre of a Bristolian Venn diagram between junglist swagger, dub skank and techno energy; perhaps they even pre-empted the fraught mood of dubstep. But their breakbeats are like guy ropes that don’t allow much transcendence, and ultimately patronise the audience, while their visuals could introduce a Nick Knowles gameshow on daytime telly. Back in the foyer, Marie Davidson achieves far more with less, essaying coldwave whose tiny palette of sound is inversely proportional to its power.

The festival’s big commission is a new work with the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble whose players have various disabilities including near-total paralysis. Their orchestration of Kraftwerk could have been excruciatingly twee, but despite being unavoidably retrograde, the arrangements are bold: the melody from Trans-Europe Express rings out of a dizzy whirl of sound, while Autobahn’s smooth pootle is chaotically recast as Mad Max’s morning commute.

Over in the Academy, the eight-strong Insecure Men – a Fat White Family side project – play excellent luau balladry that recalls both Graham Parker and Mac DeMarco, before Italian producer Lorenzo Senni plays the strongest set of the day. Dancing behind his gear like a bandy-legged toreador at a Migos show, he takes the giddy beauty of trance and gives it the only thing it lacks – funk – on tracks that wriggle ecstatically around an elusive on-beat.

In a strange way his radically distilled loops share something with the highlight of the Lantern venue: (Sandy) Alex G, Frank Ocean’s guitarist whose emo-slacker songs, straightforward on first sight, have a dog-whistle of oddness to them. Choruses sit around for days, galloping drum machines appear from nowhere, and his melodies, like Senni’s, are so finely constructed you may need only one of them for bars at a time.

Come nightfall, two figures continue the tradition of white selectors championing dancehall culture – in a converted fire station The Bug adds clouds of hissing steam to his digidub seven-inches, while Dre Skull, playing from the lectern of a courtroom, is abetted by his MC genially donating a rider of Red Stripes to the sparse but enthusiastic dancefloor. Later still in Lakota – a giant smoking area with a nightclub attached – Detroit techno originator Juan Atkins plays a smooth, slightly colourless set into the wee hours.

This ping-ponging eclecticism reflects a young curatorial team weaned on the level playing field of the internet – a generation for whom there is only quality rather than genre. They make other, more aesthetically narrow festivals seem witless and dull, even before you have to put the wellies on.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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