Despite Merthyr Rock only being in its second year, I already regard it as one of my favourite festivals and a more than necessary summer break. While Wales has produced some incredible bands over the years – Funeral For a Friend, Lostprophets and The Blackout but to name a few – it never quite got a break as far as festivals are concerned. That was until 2011 when Hay Festivals decided to not only rock the valleys, but blast a fresh crater into those grassy hills. Last year’s lineup was a day shorter but stellar nonetheless. Managing to snare such names as Young Guns, My Passion and Skindred for your first outing is beyond impressive, so to say there were high expectations for 2012 would be an understatement.
While I had tickets for all three days and attended each accordingly, alas, I am only one person and no doubt I missed some incredible performances on various stages over the days. So count this as a highlights package. Saying that, I varied my tastes and aimed to experience a good cross-section of all music available and you know what? Merthyr topped itself, the whole thing was bloody glorious, from the setup to the food to the weather. Parts of it were so brilliant, that I’m starting to think I dreamed it…
Despite my eventual glee, Friday was never going to be my night. I could liken the experience to being attacked with an indie machine gun; me and the Kooks get along about as well as Inigo Montoya and the man who killed his father. So who was headlining? Razorlight. It was going to be a long night.
But thankfully, before all that hat-wearing frivolity kicked off, there were a good few bands to get through. First on my agenda were The People The Poet (4/5) (formerly known as Tiger Please), who could easily have been awarded the title of ‘best vocals of the weekend’ without having to have seen any other acts. Their singer has the most luscious, rich, gravelly and overwhelmingly divine voice I’ve ever heard; imagine chucking whiskey in a cement mixer. To top this, their music is full and indulgent with all the simplicity and charm of traditional folk music. No doubt, they’ll be earmarked for future NME readers to fawn over, but until then, catch them before they realise how damn good they are. Also, they sang the cheeriest song of the weekend about abortion, so if that doesn’t merit a listen, I don’t know what does. Saves The Day (3/5) were a band I was more intrigued than excited to see. Like many people, I remember flailing around my bedroom in 2002, straining my voice, singing along to At Your Funeral. But that was it. I knew little of their work since and was interested to see if they could still perform, or were reduced to a dull, bland band, feeding off their own sense of nostalgia. My expectations weren’t exactly confounded, but they hardly surprised me either. They’re still a comfortable band with a solid, fun sound, but their lack of dynamism on stage reflected in the audience’s reaction, really limiting their performance. Razorlight (3/5) are an odd one for me to try and sum up. I had many of their hits inflicted on my ears while sitting in the refectory at college, so I was grudgingly familiar with much of their set before they started playing, but that wasn’t enough to make me raise a smile. I could simpIy say that I found the entire set to be dull as dishwater. Soulless music for people that can’t be bothered to look beyond the charts. But that’s a silly, dismissive response. There’s no doubt that they’re all competent musicians and their sound was as crisp, clear and as ‘together’ as it had been on the radio. But when it came to going further than those four or five radio-friendly hits from the past few years, they fell more than a little flat. Their armoury is badly stocked, but I don’t think this phases their general audience.
Saturday was a far greater draw in terms of crowd size, and it’s unsurprising considering the quality lineup in place. After the traditional pre-gig Nando’s excursion, I found myself in front of the re-named James McLaren stage (a wonderful Welsh music journalist who tragically passed away recently), in the presence of Bastions (3.5/5); a tight little hardcore outfit whose raw energy and unbridled power really stood out amongst their fellow bands. While they weren’t exactly challenging any existing genre constructs or techniques, they were really quite good. Fitting somewhere between Brotherhood of the Lake and the more simplistic side of Polar, I wouldn’t be surprised if they joined TDONs books before the year was out. After a brief break from the stages (with signing sessions galore, it’d be rude not to partake), I soon found myself in the presence of Rise to Remain (3.5/5). Rise to Remain are a damn good, young, interesting metal band that seem to have shot up the ladder of success pretty quickly, but suddenly got stuck on one step and haven’t been able to shift since. With a set varied enough to please any metal fan – rabid or casual – and a charismatic frontman in the form of Austin ‘My dad’s in Iron Maiden, ain’t he’ Dickinson, they certainly had all the ingredients, it was just in the cooking that something didn’t quite fit. Yashin (4/5) however seemed very sure of themselves. Perhaps too sure. Yashin are the archetypal scene frontmen; they are hair and iPhones and suggestions of sex. Their online presence is more centred around hair than music, and soon enough their only receptive audience will be the young girls that pore over their filter-heavy pictures on Instagram. In short, Yashin made me feel old and disconnected. That’s the bad stuff. To their credit though, Yashin make damn good music. Although they’re hardly putting a new slant on the dual vocalist routine, they certainly have the best of the best; all screams are powerful and controlled and all clean singing is well-pitched with a really sweet natural tone. With poppy melodies expertly juxtaposed against grinding basslines, their music dances between fun and anthemic with enviable ease.
Lower Than Atlantis (4.5/5), where to start? I’m biased for a start – LTA are by far one of my favourite bands in the UK at the moment, and their innovative, distinctly British take on melodic hardcore is unrivalled. They’re consistent performers, visibly giving their all in every set, regardless of audience sizes. While frontman Mike Duce is the undisputed figurehead of LTA, when they play live, they perform as a unit, with no one fading into the background or playing second fiddle to a more magazine-friendly face. Despite the great sounds coming from the Watford quartet, the setlist was a little lacking – in phasing out much of their older material, their overall stage time lacked a little depth and weight, but with great new songs such as Normally Strange and Love Somebody Else on the list, they could be partially forgiven. While Lower Than Atlantis had grubby charm by the bucketful, Skindred (5/5) had swagger by the craterful. Every time I see Skindred live, as I leave the venue, I’m so buzzing and over-awed by the whole experience that I always think I must have imagined the extent of their mind-blowing performance. I mean, they couldn’t really be that good? But tonight, as the opening bars of the imperial march rang out once more, Skindred not only tore up the rule book, but burned it, buried it and rewrote it. I defy you to find a band more original than Skindred (seriously, name me another ‘ragga metal’ band) and a frontman more captivatingly charismatic than Benji Webbe. With an expertly chosen setlist that had the audience bouncing as one, dancing as one and Newport Helicopter-ing as one, the rag-tag bunch of Newport gents had Merthyr in the palm of their hand. Mixing crowd favourites such as Warning and Pressure with more groove based tracks as Trouble and Cut Dem. Audience jibes and Beyonce segues aside, Skindred are first and foremost a professional band; they take their music and their influence seriously, not only aiming to preach a gospel of fun and partying, but of unity and tolerance – an aim that lies somewhere north of impressive in these cynical times. Skindred are kings, and it’s only a matter of time until we all bow down.
For me, Sunday was mixed to say the least. With my allergies flaring up like nobody’s business, I missed more bands than I ever wanted to, and with old idols destroying their legacy, I left the site with a far different feeling than previously. Annoyingly, Future of the Left (3/5) was the first band I was able to focus all my attention on, and I hardly had to push my way through a packed tent. FOTL were by far the most ‘wildcard’ booking of the festival; with a far more brash and uncooperative sound than most, they weren’t quite on the same wavelength as many of the young festival goers. Despite this, their quirky and fuzzy-guitared take on alt-rock was a real breath of fresh air, and while songs such as Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman were hardly going to have you thinking about your relationships and approach to life, they’d certainly get you dancing. Also, there was a lady bassist. A real life woman, stood there, playing bass, in proper clothes, and being fucking talented. More of this please. We Are The Ocean (4/5) have a beautiful sound and heartfelt, weighty lyrics that you often feel that you could touch, and were always given an edge with a dash of screams. With one screamer down and one clean vocalist taking the full blast of the limelight, my excitement at watching WATO was as much influenced by my love of their music as it was sheer fascination as to how they’d cope with a more stripped-down approach. But despite notable absences, WATO triumphed. They were bound to be a tad shaky while everyone adjusts to their new roles (some of the back-up replacement screaming was pitchy at best), but overall their sound was as awe-inspiring as before. With a bit more movement on stage, they’ll be back to their old selves in no time. Canterbury (4/5) are on their way to something huge. They have a sound so strange and minor harmonies so tight that it should make the listener feel uneasy, but on the contrary, those nice young chaps (who love their mums very much) are phenomenal musicians. As soon as they strike into any song, they begin to create something far larger than themselves, something that far more people need to hear. Canterbury are odd, wonderful and deserve every scrap of recognition they get. Back on the mainstage were Deaf Havana (3/5). Oh Deaf, where do we start? Since hearing Meet Me Half Way At Least many moons ago, I was sold on Deaf Havana’s introspective and self-deprecating output and I was never slow to shower them with praise. But as the success of 2011’s Fools and Worthless Liars began to grow, my appreciation and tolerance of their performance and vocal nature on and off stage waned. Don’t get me wrong, the album is a good ‘un. It’s deeply personal, well written and a rightfully successful release. Hell, I went to the release party, I did multiple dates on the tour, I did the lot. But now, Deaf have egos the size of their venues and are convinced (or James is at least) that their newfound recognition means that their only valid release, their only creation with merit is Fools and Worthless Liars. With a set at Merthyr consisting of only two songs that weren’t on FAWL and the declaration that their much loved anthem Friends Like These was ‘fucking shit’, I left feeling dejected and cheated. When you perform half-arsed (Merthyr’s performance was better than most recent festival/support slots) and believe your own hype, both your fanbase and your band will consume itself. I don’t know what to think Deaf, I just don’t know.
Thankfully, the nostalgia-fest that was A (4.5/5) hit the second stage and released me from my Norfolk-based melancholy. Seeing A live was a real milestone for me as Nothing was the first CD single I ever bought and provided the soundtrack to much of my pre-teen greebo angst. Despite not having performed much since 2005 and barely rehearsing at all for their slot, their performances of oldies such as Starbucks, I Love Lake Tahoe and Old Folks were as good and as animated as the day they were released. The floppy hair and naivety of youth may have been absent, but A worked just as well without. Also, seeing original bassist and Radio rock-king Daniel P Carter back in his rightful place leaping about on stage was a joy to behold. Another nice surprise was that briefly scanning the crowd, I was not met with a sea of youthful faces and fresh piercings, but huge groups of those in their mid 20s and 30s, all embracing this hugely self-indulgent wave of nostalgia. To top off what had already been a brilliant set, the inevitable set-closer of Nothing was made that bit more intense, fun and, well, Welsh, with the sudden unexpected presence of The Blackout vocalist Sean Smith. To say the collaboration was anything short of amazing would be a huge understatement. Riding on a high, I headed back over to the main stage to catch the sharply dressed Kids In Glass Houses (3/5). While I fully understand that they’re popular and they have a lot of young, dedicated fans, it didn’t quite hit the mark with me. Sure, they had fun, bouncy, vaguely electro-inspired rock songs made for dancing, but for all their posturing and nice little verses, it never quite built to anything.
With lineups like this, Merthyr will fast become a stalwart of the Welsh music scene and I wish it all the very best of luck. It’s fun, cosy, amazingly cheap and always a cracker. Roll on Merthyr Rock 2013!