Writing a review of a festival from an objective perspective can pose quite a challenge, not least because each musical encounter is so heavily imbued with personal and external events (and often experienced through a lens of intoxication); but also due to the sheer impossibility of taking everything in and seeing and doing everything that’s on offer. To write purely about the music from a detached viewpoint and nothing else would be a disservice to All Tomorrow’s Parties, and I must acknowledge that the music is only one of the things that makes the weekend at Butlins so thoroughly entertaining. Chalet parties, the excellent waterpark, amusement arcades, the beach and the peculiar sight of watching Ariel Pink and others wandering around a kitsch British seaside resort all set the ATP experience apart from most festivals (honourable mentions to Bloc, Bangface etc.), and the intimate atmosphere is something I’ve yet to find replicated elsewhere.
The Butlins resort did seem slightly emptier than usual, and there were rumours that as much as a third of the tickets remained unsold. However, the line-up was one of the festival’s strongest; and there was no shortage of musical clashes, not to mention the intriguing cinema programme, which included oddball Japanese horror; some excellent documentaries from the Sublime Frequencies label, who also had several artists performing live; and a fascinating and hypnotic four hour ‘History of Sound Art’ installation.
Second on the main stage on Friday were Black Dice, who seemed intent on exploiting all possible frequencies in a frankly ear crushing set. The volume on the centre stage seemed quite inconsistent across the three days, and while the penetrating squelch of the Brooklyn collective’s low end was a welcome getting ‘thrown in at the deep end’ start to the festival, ear plugs were definitely requisite. It was a much more beat orientated set than their previous work might have suggested, presenting the audience with a skewed take on dance music, yet still very much in keeping with the group’s tendency to stray from traditional musical structures.
Next up was Lee Scratch Perry, who arrived twenty minutes late, looking like a cross between Flavor Flav and Sun Ra and performing with a lot more verve than most in their seventies could manage. Unfortunately, the performance was somewhat disappointing, with the little of his set that I saw being prosaic and far removed from the music which earned him the reverence he is accorded today.
One of the weekend’s highlights was Werk Disc’s label head Actress, **who played a 75 minute live set on the second stage on Friday night. He worked new beats in with previously released tracks, closing with a resounding version of ‘Maze’, the highlight of last year’s ‘Splazsh’ full length, and his set was supremely paced throughout. The only criticism that could be levelled was that the volume in the room was slightly quiet, although after the clamorous cacophony Black Dice conjured earlier in the evening this didn’t prove to be a cause of much dissidence. Closing the centre stage was recondite minimalist hero **Terry Riley, playing keyboard with accompaniment from his son Gyan Riley on classical guitar. It was a relaxing end to the evening’s programme; yet it never veered towards dreariness and was satisfying to watch a composer still producing and performing interesting music at the age of seventy-five.
Saturday began with the Wet Sounds installation in the swimming pool, which was unfortunately hampered by its popularity – the amalgamation of the general din of the swimming pool and the chatter of the punters made for a difficult listening experience, although arguably the ambient noise could be construed as part of the experience. Above the water a steady drone played out, and beneath the surface there was an mishmash of meandering elevator music and found sounds; although others reported that on the Sunday performance music from Animal Collective member Noah Lennox’s recent LP ‘Tomboy’ was played, with different channels emerging from the speakers above and in the water.
Vladislav Delay’s **set on late Saturday afternoon was similarly well paced to Actress the night before, and despite a few dull moments it was an enjoyable and interesting hour of manipulated loops chugging away, periods of relentless stabs of low end, and an idiosyncratic use of danceable distortion. He was followed by **Meat Puppets, playing their 1985 album ‘Up on the Sun’. For those familiar with the album it was doubtless an impressive show, but it came across as a little mediocre, despite being played with admirable enthusiasm; although the prolonged jam at the end was a welcome, and admittedly entertaining treat.
Ariel Pink’s well-crafted pop songs lit up the centre stage next on Saturday night, and the crowd he drew reflected the wider audience he has found in the past year – eighteen months ago he played the on smallest stage at ATP. An idiosyncrasy of Ariel Pink is that tracks from his initial self-released and recorded albums sound far cleaner and polished in a live setting, and the songs he played from last year’s ‘Before Today’ were just as refined as their studio-recorded album counterparts. Across on the Crazy Horse stage Floating Points delivered one of the festival’s most exhilarating and dance floor-friendly shows, with a live performance set to projected visuals. Floating Point’s Sam Shepherd set the groove just right, playing extended mixes of his spacey house jams, ‘K&G Beat’ being a particular high point.
Curators Animal Collective seemed very much in business mode during their ninety minute set, which was comprised of almost entirely new material. Those familiar with the Animal Collective live experience ought not to have been surprised, nor disappointed, as the new tracks were diverse and showcased the group’s constant ability to evolve and appropriate their varied influences to fascinating ends. Dave Portner, alias Avey Tare’solo LP ‘Down There’, released last year may not have lived up to the high expectations set by fellow Animal Collective member Panda Bear’s solo work, but was notable for Portner’s evocative vocals; and it was Portner’s voice which stood out again in the group’s performances on both Saturday and Sunday night. Sunday night saw an identical setlist; nevertheless renditions of four older tracks, ‘We Tigers’, ‘Did You See The Words?’, ‘Summertime Clothes’ and ‘Brothersport’ were predictably crowd pleasing. ‘Brothersport’ is essentially a dancefloor banger of the best kind, and when juxtaposed with material from the band’s ‘Sung Tongs’ era the progression of the group is evident.
Group Doueh **on Sunday lunchtime proved why they’ve been one of the figureheads in bringing the Sublime Frequencies label to a larger audience, producing an aural spectacle which proved that group leader Doueh is certainly not in the stasis that so many ‘World Music’ musicians who reach a Western audience often are. **Prince Rama who followed on the centre stage were fairly derivative, and despite being far from awful they sounded (and looked) a little too much like a group in thrall of fellow New Yorker’s Gang Gang Dance.
Oneohtrix Point Never showed a pleasing progression from his early releases, retaining the elements of those works which gave his work its retrophilic charm, and his glimmering synth arpeggios formed part of a set in which he created some incredibly dense and interesting sounds. Both the music and the visuals may have been very much ‘ambient’, but the myriad intricacies of the noises he produced meant it was the weekends most sonically fascinating fifty minutes of music.
A predictable no show from Zomby was a disappointment, albeit an expected one; and it meant a two hour gap on the main stage before Deerhunter songwriter Bradford Cox’s solo set as Atlas Sound. Cox, who was celebrating his birthday (and was presented with a birthday cake on stage by Ariel Pink and others), used various electronics but worked mainly with an acoustic guitar, and played material written as recently as last week, as well as tracks from 2009’s ‘Logos’. The combination of Cox’s vocals, the sounds of his acoustic guitar processed through a delay pedal and Kria Brekkan’s accompanying dancing gave his set an oneiric and spectral quality which was arguably unmatched over the course of the festival. He also drew attention to the tragic loss of Trish Keenan earlier this year, who was due to perform at the festival as one half of Broadcast.
The aforementioned **Gang Gang Dance **were the penultimate act of the festival, and were utterly fantastic. Joined on stage by various friends and other artists performing at the festival, they delivered on all fronts, with ‘Glass Jar’, the opening track of new album’ Eye Contact’, sounding glorious.
It was arguably the most diverse All Tomorrow’s Parties festival to date, and for the foreseeable future at least it looks to be the last edition of the festival in May, with the organisers looking to put on more city based events in the summer; which seems a shame with the regards to the pretty dismal weather that can mar the December editions.
Avey Tare described the weekend as ‘pretty cool’ – and I’m inclined to agree.