In June this year, I moved to Bristol. For ten years or so I have been paying attention to the local music scene in Leeds. I have enjoyed seeing and hearing a wide range of people with names that include Bilge Pump, I Like Trains, David Thomas Broughton, That Fucking Tank, ¡Forward, Russia!, Cowtown, The Scaramanga Six, Pulled Apart By Horses, Sky Larkin, Jon Gomm, Bear Diver, Hawk Eyes, Wild Beasts, Trumpets of Death, Jasmine Kennedy and lots more. Dozens more. It has been a rich decade in the city.
So this week, just about settled into our Bristol flat, I went down to The Fleece for one of the last of their "Best Of Bristol" nights for the season. Four bands, £6 on the door. Perfect. Experience tells me there will be one band that I really like.
And so it turns out to be.
When COASTS came on there were about 15 of us in the audience. Not bad for 8.15 on a Tuesday night. They were a very tidy band. They had nice gear, nice instruments, and they played and sang really well. The sound engineer gave them a lovely full mix with everything working as it should. I was impressed in a sniffy sort of way at seeing a genuine timp on stage. Blimey. Every song they did was well-rehearsed and sounded convincing. There were three part harmonies, rising Roland chords, the excitement of extra cowbell, and the vocalist hammering drums from time to time.
Even so, nothing shouted out to me from under the expert sheen. I wasn’t surprised, later on, to find out that they are linked with a company called Intruder, who are interested in selling stylish clothing and who have a neat-looking roster. For most of their set pre-recorded American voices did that standard alienation thing so that the band could neither announce who they were nor what their songs were called. It was a bit wearing to be honest. It was as if they were playing to some other, imaginary audience, out there.
COASTS' gear took a while to carry off stage, but mixed double WINSTON EGBERT who followed were less encumbered. They came on, played a blinder, and were gone quicker than a bag of crispynut cockroaches. Serena Cherry (drums and vocals) and Liam Phelan (guitar and vocals) gave every impression that they make their feisty punk thrash out of true love for the noise and the mad delight of showing it off. It was fast, heavy, juddering, scary and hilarious all at the same time. Like a hippo on a skateboard. Or a squirrel with the controls to a JCB. Dry sarcasm about Stokes Croft, or a lament for lost metal heroes ... all grist to their fast revolving mill. This was my reward for coming. I loved it. In answer to that age old American Moral Dilemma "When is it OK to kill you mother?" they offered the answer "when she forces you to be a vegetarian". They made it sound fun and each screamed thier different screams. When they were loud they were very very loud and when they were quiet it went silent.
Someone told me that NEOTROPICS were verging on Euro Electropop, and he wasn't far off. Electropop for sure. Bryn, Tom and Rhys play guitar bass and drums while a backing synth track keeps the harmonising swirls going in standard patterns. Dancing might have been an option, but the 20 or 30 people in the audience don't look as if they are going to cooperate. It's all a bit glum and I start to get irritated by the one chord per bar backings and the nearly well-known tune that I can hear in the background, without being able to remember where I have heard it before.
The best tunes could be something really exciting and the last number lifts the set with character and a bit of dynamic tension. But overall the performances have been Lego bricks lined up to create monotony without transcendence.
The headline for the night, whose audience of 50 or so have been coming in gradually, are a quirky band of older music fans with musical ambition and lots of great ideas. Their performance is disruptive and perverse, with occasional bursts of melodic or rhythmic fascination. I can hear some Talking Heads and some Beefheart and some Pavement, and all sorts of other bits of disdainful intelligentsia. The 1980s are a strong suit in their game. B52s get a look in at an early stage.
It's disappointing that their audience don't feel confident about making a bit of a night of it. There is a sense of friendly support and general approval in the room, but very little genuine engagement or excitement. A mordant slacker approach can work as incitement, but perversely the rhythm section hasn't really got the drive or the punch to make that work. The attack tends to come in vocal bursts and extemporisation that stall and distort the flow without cracking the Mark E Smith whip at any point. Being Tuesday I sense this might not be the best gig they've done this year. So I hope to see them again before too long.
So I got to see four bands and really liked one of them. All the others were well worth the money and time and a different writer would have picked a different band to be enthusiastic about.
But the one thing I'm still puzzling about was the apparent lack of contact between the bands. As far as I could tell only ATTACK HORSE stood through other bands' sets and the supporters who had come for COASTS seemed to leave as soon as their band's set was done. Give that the Fleece is a big room with a pretty good stage, big sound and a lot of publicity I would have expected a total crowd of at least a 100, with most staying all the way through and most members of all bands being in the room for a lot of the time to support the other bands on the bill.
Maybe this was an exception – a last exhausted gasp towards the end of a good summer, with the big Autumn gigs yet to come. I'll be finding out gradually as winter rolls on.
Suggestions for exciting Bristol music happily accepted. As you will have already noticed, I've got a lot to learn.