Merthyr Rock Festival 2012 [31 Aug – 2nd Sept, Cyfarthfa Park, Merthyr Tydfil]

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!

Kerrang: Fuelled By Relentless (Skindred, Yashin, Feed The Rhino, With One Last Breath) – The Garage London, 5/6/12

As the Kerrang Awards loom, a loosely linked ‘tour’ with varying qualities of headliners can always be anticipated – 2012 was no different. The first of this short string of gigs was held on a freezing cold, very rainy Jubilee weekend, an hour and a quarter after it was supposed to start. Christ, even Queenie had to be having a better time than this.

Firstly, music aside, we were at the ‘Fuelled by Relentless’ tour, held at the ‘Relentless Garage’…

‘Can I have a Relentless?’

‘Nope, we don’t have any.’

‘What energy drinks do you have?’

‘None. Not Even Coffee. We hate Caffeine. Dirty Dirty Evil Caffeine,’ ( I may have paraphrased).

‘In that case, fine sir, can I have a thimble-full of lemonade?’

‘Yes, yes you can. That’ll be fifty quid.’

True story bro.

The tragedy of caffeine absence aside, myself and my drowned companion eventually made our way through the crowds, rung out our sodden coats and set up camp near the overpriced, understocked bar.

First up were With One Last Breath (3.5/5), a pleasant Asking Alexandria-style outfit, fresh from a triumphant support slot on Of Mice and Men’s most recent tour. Now, I rather enjoy this relatively new genre – the smattering of synths, the inevitable clean nasal-y vocals, some chunky riffs and just enough shouting to piss of your mum, but not enough as to scare off the teenagers. And, on the whole, the boys did good. With some catchy hooks and near pitch-perfect clean vocals, WOLB managed to create an atmosphere that almost crackled with energy. Yet while I enjoyed the majority of their set, sometimes their riffs dwindled and fell into mediocrity. But hey, not every song can be a cracker, right? Despite this, with such a fast-growing young following, they’ll no doubt be heading towards large tours of their own.

To say Feed the Rhino (3.5/5) were the wildcard booking of the night would be a massive understatement. This was hardcore, bearded, angry and ready to flatten you; a musical shovel to the face. The Kent five-piece delivered a blistering slab of aggression to an enthralled and increasingly bruised crowd – the first mini wall of death of the evening was nothing short of a joy to behold. A tip of the cap to all involved. Throughout their set, old material from ‘Mr Red Eye’ blended seamlessly with new tracks from the upcoming ‘The Burning Sons’, cementing FTR’s place as British hardcore stalwarts. While I can’t say they’ll have many crossover fans from the WOLB and Yashin camps, it’s safe to say they definitely won over a chunk of the audience who were otherwise unfamiliar with the genre.

Yashin (4/5) are going places. They have the songs, the musicianship, the showmanship, and most importantly, the hair, to become Kerrang’s new darlings. Firstly, I’d classify myself as a Yashin fan; I’ve seen them multiple times, have the CD, the t-shirt and the overriding sense of age that comes with attending one of their shows (At such gigs, as soon as you pass 18, you’re automatically demoted to drinking at the back of the room with the dads.), and their set was good. Not brilliant, but good. Yashin have damn good songs – catchy, often anthemic, and a lot of fun to listen to. They’re arguably masters of the clean/scream dual vocal approach and have a very tight, practised stage presence. Despite this, they seemed to fall a little flat on the night; clean vocalist Harry Radford seemed to be slow getting on his game, and their choice to play predominantly new, unfamiliar material may not have been the best. While down the front, they had their obligatory die-hard screaming fans, at the back, those of us who fancied a nice drink and a dance were forced to endure the overly-vocal musings of a decidedly anti-Yashin herd of elephants. You’re facing forty, pissed and hungry. We get it. Now shush. Despite their valuable input, the set was incredibly enjoyable – vocalist Kevin Miles unfurled a vocal versatility that just about blasted everyone else’s efforts out of the water; the screams had a great natural tone, and the growls were deep and clear enough to wake Cthulhu from his watery home. The new material, despite a muted reception, sounded catchy as hell, and like so many others, I’m more than keen to hear their upcoming offering ‘We Created a Monster’.

Skindred (5/5). Where to start? I’ve been to hundreds of gigs, seen countless bands, endless musicians and enough gimmicks to finish off Eurovision, but never, ever have I seen a band that consistently delivers like Skindred. Being charismatic, animated and distinctive is one thing, and being note-perfect and skilled is another, but somehow, by some cosmic interference, Skindred were created to embody all such traits. Benji Webbe’s showmanship is almost as notorious as their genre-destroying sound; Ragga-Metal…Punk…stuff. Whatever it is, it works; it’s a sound so distinctive and personal to the Welsh outfit, that to hear anyone else try to imitate it would feel alien at the very least. The set thrown at the Garage was a well-considered mix of old and new- starting with the veritable aural assault of ‘Roots Rock Riot’, and finishing with crowd-favourite ‘Warning’ (where the patented ‘Newport Helicopter’ was out in force). Anthemic tracks such as ‘Trouble’, ‘Nobody’ and ‘Stand for Something’ were delivered with all the ease of seasoned professionals, yet performed with all the passion and intensity of a Rottweiler on crack. As ever, Skindred’s set was intermingled with a plethora of samples and mismatched outros – from recordings of the Imperial March and Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, to brief performances of AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ and their own ‘Rudeboy for Life’ (a hugely underrated song that should really grace more setlists). Samples and snippets aside, it is Webbe’s stage presence and empowering speeches that really wrap up the live Skindred experience; through collective gestures and shirt-swinging, the crowd move as one, but through his speech, we all feel as one. His impassioned sentiments of ‘liking what you like, and fuck everyone else’ ring true through the generations and result in a palpable sense of unity and togetherness. Quite often, Webbe takes digs at the audience, layers on sarcasm like concrete, or uses high levels of self deprecation to get laughs from the audience – yet tonight his tack was different. It was positivity from start to finish; no mid-way pauses, no insults and no slurs. To leave this Skindred gig as anything other than sweaty and happy, was nothing short of impossible.

Merthyr Rock/Hit The Deck – apparently better than Reading Festival

I may just be digging my own grave around here, but I’m not a fan of huge festivals. I’m all for the live music, overpriced chips, getting a bit tiddly in a field with my mates, but trying to sleep in a tiny rustling pod next to a tent full of rutting scene kids just isn’t my style. I like cut price chain hotels, kettles and tiny sachets of coffee. And to that end, mini day-festivals are fast becoming my favourite summer past time. In 2011 the gods made it so that the UK was gifted with a veritable plethora of day festivals. Thank you benevolent unseen beings, thank you.

Although I couldn’t get to half as many as I wanted, two particular tiny festivals made such an impact on my well-rested and showered self, that I feel compelled to share their merits with the world. They’re also both running again in 2012 with equally as good line-ups, so why not book a nearby hotel room and get your party on!


Merthyr Rock

As the summer draws to an end and the UK’s largest festivals have come and gone, leaving a wave of blurry photographs and fabric wristbands in their wake, outdoor music tends to go into hibernation until the next year. While those attending Download, Sonisphere and their indie brothers plough money into huge week-long camping excursions, those left behind either through money or travel constraints are left with a certain bitter taste in their mouth. And that is when Merthy Rock comes into play. For little over twenty quid, you had the opportunity to spend a wet September day in a tent in a Welsh field… wait. Okay, perhaps it’s not the most glamorous location in the world, but the lineup soon silences any disparaging comments. While the small, tent-free outdoor stage ultimately suffered at the hands of the Merthyr weather, the main tent provided an exhaustingly wonderful string of bands, none of who could be said to have given a half-arsed performance. With signing sessions throughout the day and burger vans that didn’t require you to sell a kidney in order to afford a tray of wilted chips, it’s a small festival that really deserves to pick up momentum and continue for many years to come. While 2011 was a two-day festival, with sets from Ocean Colour Scene and Goldie Lookin’ Chain on the 3rd, understandably more attention was showered on the day of the 4th where home-grown heroes The Blackout were headlining. Before the Welsh wonders took to the stage, we were treated to solid, quality performances by the likes of My Passion, Young Guns and Skindred to name a few. While all other bands were well and good, The Blackout stole the show with one of the most powerful and emotionally-charged performances I’ve ever seen. Definitely a ‘Woodstock Moment’ for all waves of Blackout fans.


Hit The Deck

Hit The Deck, hosted in Nottingham’s veritable rabbit-warren of a venue, Rock City, was a particular musical highlight of 2011. A one-day, cripplingly wonderful ‘alternative’ spectacular spread over three smaller venues, Hit The Deck proved its worth in booking some of the hottest new bands on the UK scene and secured its future success. While hosted in a run of the mill, rather unremarkable venue, Hit the Deck festival managed to comfortably secure its own identity and enthusiastic following. Rather surprisingly, on the whole, it was an incredibly well organised set up with clean rotation on the merch tables, smooth switch-overs between bands, good scheduling and an expert grouping of genres. With mini competitions for small unsigned bands to play opening slots, it also felt very inclusive, accessible and an achievable aspiration for future young groups. Personally, my highlights of 2011 included a beautiful little surprise set from rising stars, We Are Fiction, a performance by Young Guns which proved so compelling that the venue had to operate a ‘one in-one out’ policy and a triumphant show by Deaf Havana who continued to prove that they didn’t need a screamer to tear the roof off the building. With yet another promising lineup in 2012 (Including Kids in Glass Houses and Yashin), you’d be a fool to miss out.

So go on, part with your cash and get adding to that wristband collection!