Popularly crowned the SXSW of Europe,Brighton’s Great Escape Festival has earned its reputation by thrilling pundits and regular punters alike for ten years now. This year promised to be a great one for the psych/dream pop/gaze crowd with both emerging acts and old faces (Mew at Drowned in Sound stage!) on the billing. From experience, this is not a festival for people who like everything planned and you can spot them grumbling about schedule changes, app not working, venues not marked etc. But that’s missing the point. TGE is about new experiences, sublime discoveries and utter disappointments in equal measure. The first band can set the tone for the weekend though, so it’s a critical choice not left to chance.
Australian psych rockers Flyying Colours were the clear winner for band no. 1. Arriving at the Komedia early enough to avoid an inevitable queue, we ended up cradling a pint and gritting our teeth through a set from hip-pop duo KLO – who were ok but not the best start to proceedings. However, when it was time, the Melbourne four-piece hit the stage and instantly lifted both the roof and spirits. Suddenly it was packed and we were squeezing past the congregation of bobbing, balding camera-wielders around the new bassist Melanie Barbaro, stage right. At times muddy sounding, the band seemed unperturbed, their shapes cutting through the spectral neon haze, giving us more post-lunch wig-out than you’d expect at one in the afternoon. Though the mix was poor, songs were recognisable as Wavy Gravy, Not Today and new single Running Late from their ROYGBIV EP.
A very good start, which led us into some other highlights for day one including a gorgeous acoustic set from Flo Morrissey at Unitarian Church and a deliciously intense aural altwave onslaught from The Microdance played out in the window of Albion Hotel (much to the bewilderment of the passing, chip-munching pedestrians).
Starting day 2, with the exception of a head soothing set from Glasgow’s C Duncan, there was little else remarkable on offer. After a few rounds of Time Crisis and several ill advised attempts at bagging assorted stuffed toys in the arcades on Brighton Pier, we headed back to try out some alternative venues. You might wonder what kind of insanity would lead someone to stray from the easier path laid out in the official programme to be part of the festival’s seamy underbelly, affectionately known as The Alternative Escape? Year after year, the Alt Escape’s plethora of unorthodox venues and quirky spaces serve up the kind of unplanned inspiring moments mentioned above. Cambridge four-piece Tape Runs Out were the Alt Escape mid-festival highlight. Their gentle, exquisite sound gave us all a soft hug and some contemplative respite from the business of the city. An awkward, unnecessary apology for the makeshift band logo taped to the dulcimer (yes, a dulcimer!) gave the air of a band that really cares about the crowd. Then, they play… and it’s confirmed. What strikes you immediately is the sense of space in their songs, with sparse layers of guitar and hammered string that don’t compete for your attention. Opener, ‘Make It Work’ creeps in and builds as Liam Goodrum Bell‘s pleading mantra gradually increases in intensity. But it’s never too much, just like Bark Psychosis at their most hushed and intimate. It’s followed by both tracks from their EP Friends/Flowers, where Tape Runs Out again show a maturity and range in their songwriting that is just at odds with this venue, a tiny pub aptly called The Fishbowl. Glances and grins exchanged with nodding people in the crowd and it’s clear this is the inspirational stuff. There’s a few overheard comparisons to Ian Masters‘ projects, Sarah Records and the like but TRO has a beguiling sound all of their own that you could listen to all day long. But it’s over too soon. The band packs away and we’re off back on the well-beaten path to a “proper” venue, where it will be packed, sweaty and completely predictable.
Next up at The Haunt, was The Garden, from Orange County. Twin brothers Wyatt and Fletcher Shears propel themselves around stage like Wham! dressed as bezerker goths in their self-styled Vada Vada genre “which disregards all previously made genres and ideas”. Not quite, as Bauhaus and Julian Cope might attest to. For the last few years, TGE has hosted the Japan Rising showcase at the basement of Queens Hotel. It’s always fun, with free Sushi, friendly label people and a merch stand you won’t see anywhere else. So kicking off day 3 there with Taffy was a rare treat. A katana rolled-in-sugar, their edgy guitar-driven pop sounded live something between Boo Radleys and The Charlottes. The stay was brief though, as another no-way-am-I-missing-them-again AC30 signing Pinkshinyultrablast were due on at the minuscule Black Lion just around the corner.
Layers of distorted, delayed bliss and pounding drums spilled into the street outside and for a moment I thought it was too late…. It turned out to be an unscheduled set from Fever Dream, crammed into the corner snug with the largest amps that would fit and they were playing a selection off their Moyamoya album. Unexpected, unintended and another moment that makes you love TGE’s synchronicity. No one was budging after Fever Dream, as Pinkshinyultrablast wheeled in yet another massive amp and shoe gaze rack of pedals, this promised to be special. Some technical problems with her vocal effects were clearly frustrating Lyubov, but it wasn’t obvious in the immense opening soundscape of Wish We Were. By the time we got to the drop off point into oblivion heralded by that amazing bass hook, it didn’t matter either. The whole place, including regular lunchtime patrons were transfixed as they launched straight into Holy Forest, transporting us beyond the wood-paneled pub to a Tarkovsky-style dacha looking onto the snowy whiteout beyond. Russian movie metaphors aside, the fact that you can see one of the most tipped bands of this genre in this intimate setting is the reason people keep coming to TGE, each year the bar is raised and each time the festival effortlessly strides over it. Roll on next year, to another Great Escape!