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Swn Festival 2012 - Cardiff - 18th-21st October 2012 (Live Review)

Thursday, 25 October 2012 Written by Owen Sheppard
Swn Festival 2012 - Cardiff - 18th-21st October 2012 (Live Review)

It’s 2am and for the last eight hours I’ve had my ear drums appeased and pummeled. SWN Festival 2012 is finally here and what an opening day it’s been. Rather than face the prospect of camping in some distant mud infested field, SWN is one of the UK’s biggest urban festivals. Set in Cardiff where 16 of the city’s most notable bars, clubs and music venues host over 150 gigs and DJ sets. Thursday was by most accounts, the smallest of the four days and a bit of a warm up for a frantic weekend; here is how it kicked off.

ImageThe evening began at 8pm at Cardiff’s premier live venue, Clwb Ifor Bach with Pulled Apart By Horses and the ironically named Blues Band in support. Ironic in that they were far from blues and far from sounding as mundane as the name “Blues Band” might suggest. Their riffs came thick and fast, the beats were boisterous but playful while their front man took it upon himself to wander through the audience to demonstrate his yelping vocal prowess. It was visceral, in your face and from what I could see, most were finding it pretty entertaining.

At 9pm Pulled Apart By Horses took their turn to be greeted by a crowd of mixed opinions. A minority were far more familiar with their material and more than happy to bounce around, raise suitable havoc and sing every lyric. But most seemed to have turned up through intrigue to see what the fuss and critical hype these guys have acquired was about. As per usual, they delivered an incredible set of hay-wire rock punctuated by intense shredding and blood curdling yells. The intelligence in their song writing and clever chord progressions stood out and It’s this aspect of their music that generates their crossover appeal to music fans who probably wouldn’t bother with much other music of this intensity. But PABH are the exception, and once again they prove their worth.

Off we went now to Buffalo Bar to check out Foxes, an act comprised of one female singer song writer and a band of two: drummer and synth/keyboard player. Apart from a more low key production and an electronic edge, it was reminiscent of Florence and The Machine and for the 50 or so in attendance; it was quite an almighty sound to behold. A wonderful voice and songs noticeably laden with hooks, even on first listen. Definitely an act to keep your eye on.

But tonight’s main event was the 1pm performance of Mercury Music Prize favorites, Django Django at our third stop of the evening: The Solus. The four-piece encapsulate a sound that’s the offspring of New Order and post 2008 Radiohead. It’s complex and mathematical but they have a rare talent of crafting this unique music with brilliant pop choruses intertwined within the splashes of electronica, guitar lines and vocal harmonies. They seem energetic enough as well but the huge crowd who’ve turned out for them are disappointingly docile throughout. It’s not until their hit 'Default' that any real signs of life come from the audience but the last three songs of the set-list manage do the trick. Better late than never though, and its pogoing and indie shuffling galore.

My final stop of the day took me to “Undertone”, the tiny basement of The 10 Ft Tall. We wrap the night up with a filthy dose of UK grime and hip hop. The venue is cramped, dark and thoroughly unglamorous the ideal setting for raving. Gone are the skinny jeans and fringes that we’ve seen so far at the festival, in are the high top Nike trainers and bass ball caps. London MCs: Elro and Spooky Bizzle laid waste with rapid word play and enormous beats. It’s all good fun despite it, at times, sounding kind of like verbal sparring at 2am in a Hackney kebab shop. Day 1 was over, but the tone has been set with two things to expect- a huge variety of new/underground artists, and wonderful surprises.


Friday kicked off a tad later but saw the biggest gig of the weekend from Wakefield indie darlings, The Cribs at The Great Hall, while DJ Sets from Bodhi, Toddla T and Steve Lamacq brought the rave to The Moon, Clwb and Undertone until the wee hours.

The Invisible coaxed some hip swaying as they showcased their infectious funk and electronic infused R&B and their track 'London Girl' provided a wonderful highlight.

Over at the Cardiff Student Union, The Great Hall, we were too slow to catch the end of Frankie And The Heartstrings but The Cribs made the speed walked journey feel more than worth it. They treated the surprisingly mosh eager throng to classics - 'Another Number' and 'Hey Scensters' as well as sure fire hits like 'Men’s Needs' recent numbers 'Chi Town' and 'Come On, Be A No One'. The Jarman brothers were as chatty between songs as ever. Gary was unashamed to remind us that they’ve not played in Cardiff for three years, plus Ryan revealed all on his recent Asthma diagnosis as he toked on his puffer. Bless.

Our first trip to Dempsey’s was on account of Bo Ningen who took to the stage at midnight. Probably the most obscure band we found all festival, the four Japanese experimental rockers brought an impressive eye brow raising racket. What they were on about though, I couldn’t tell you. I can’t speak Japanese, sadly.

From then on it was clubbing galore. Lamacq span the rock classics at The Moon while Toddla T dropped everything from house, hip hop and electronica at Clwb Ifor Bach. But our night finished up once again at a bustling Undertone where upcoming Welsh DJ Bodhi impressed with some outstanding mixes and a trigger happy finger for anything from Disclosure to Frank Ocean. One thing I could conclude from day 2 was that I will definitely be coming back to Undertone more often.


It was an early start on Saturday for Gnarwolves who overcame sound problems and a misbehaving bass amp to deliver a set of Descendents reminiscent skate punk. The Moon Club provided the ideal venue and the 70 or so crammed upstairs seemed to admire their efforts and among those watching The Brighton lads were a member or two of Kids In Glass Houses.

Still in their late teens, the indie three-piece: The Knox entertained a modest crowd at the St Mary Street O’Neil’s overlook by SWN Festival Curator John Rostron. Straight-forward guitar pop with a jolly stage presence was their contribution to the afternoon.

A murky evening sky was just creeping over Cardiff when promising and hotly hyped R&B three piece Alunageorge took to the stage. With their singles 'You Know You Like It' and 'Your Drums Your Love' already getting frequent air play on Radio 1, they put some slink in to the hips of a Buffalo Bar so overfilled it had the bouncers operating a one in - one out system on the door. The bands sexy melodies and grooves had us charmed from start to finish.

Fourth stop of the day was to the ground floor of Clwb Ifor Bach for an exhibition of heavy metal raucousness with a face to face set from Turbowolf. Their Frank Zapper look-alike front man was more than happy to stick mics in fans’ faces and implore us to go as bat shit mental as we could. Easily One of the most intimate and intense gigs of the festival.

Caught up in the whirlwind of sweat and riffs, we were sadly turned away at the door to catch Palma Violets who were just kicking things off to a full capacity top floor of Clwb Ifor Bach. Disappointing of course but it swung the door open to investigate Tall Ships who were entertaining a staggeringly big crowd of their own at The Moon Club. Mixing serene folk and beautiful vocals broken up by electronic bloops and clicks, it was like watching James Blake meets Dry The River. Some of the best music arises when genre stereotypes are jigsawed together and Tall Ships sound like they’re on to something special.


After three long and exhilarating days darting from venue to venue, the streets of Cardiff felt like they were winding down by Sunday. For most summer festivals the Sunday usually provides an unforgettable climax. Perhaps it was just festival fatigue kicking in but with arguably the biggest acts of the festival out of the way, Sunday felt slightly underwhelming.

Arcane Roots drew the smallest crowd I had seen at The Full Moon all festival despite being no less notorious than other acts who’d played there. A shame as they put on a performance of startling quality, an amalgamation of early noughties Biffy Clyro quirkiness, pummelling riffs and a leading voice comparable to past performances of Cedric of At The Drive In.

Having been cited by critics for containing two ex-members of Joe Lean and The Jing Jang Jong, and for recently touring with The Horrors, you could have taken a stab at what Toy were going to sound like. They brought layers of synths, dizzying guitar effects and driving drum beats that, perhaps because of the limitations of O’Niell’s acoustics, ended up sounding like a noisier version of The Horrors. A powerful racket but it seemed to lack variety or hooks. They’d be a shoe in for an award for “most hipster looking act” though.

Leeds rockers Hawk Eyes had unfortunately pulled out of their 8pm set at The Moon but Welsh band Islet were there to take their place. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get when you turn up to a stage being set up with three drum kits. Playing topless with matted hair flying, they looked and sounding like a pagan ritual with synthesisers. It was very much new era MGMT meets Animal Collective with Welsh accents. Some in the crowd loved it. Some looked puzzled (myself included). But they seemed to walk away victorious.

SWN Festival came and went in four tinnitus inducing, alcohol guzzling days and nights. Curators John Rostron and Huw Stevens have a lot to be proud of, not missing a trick when compiling a line up brimming with genuinely promising new talent and proving that Cardiff’s music scene, with its many great venues, is a force to be reckoned with. It’s Festivals like this that open your eyes to the fact that whatever is happening in the charts, great music is out there in all shapes and sounds, you just need get off your bum and go and find it.

Click HERE for images of Swn Festival 2012.

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