The sparkling sunshine outside is matched by the talent on show inside Alexandra Palace on a wonderful day
There is a mass of pasty white legs slowly making its way up the substantial, winding hill that leads to Alexandra Palace. The palace grounds are strewn with hungover bodies, draped in black t-shirts, supping cold beer in the scorching sunshine, trying to summons the wherewithal to cope with a third day of I’ll Be Your Mirror. The sunlit halls of Ally Pally, as it’s known to the locals, are decked out with intricate wall mosaics, marble floor tiles, huge bay windows and Archers of Loaf merchandise: a bizarre combo by anyone’s reckoning. But then, ATP pride themselves on doing things differently.
Having been Slayer-ed and Mogwa-fied in successive nights, the 140-year-old royal abode must have been hoping for a quiet Sunday in the sun, and you can almost hear its foundations emit a justified “why me?” as Blanck Mass takes to the darkened West Hall for a terrifying, marvelous set of deep, bass heavy ambient drone. One half of Fuck Buttons, his eponymous solo debut of last year took a while to reach these ears, but has become one of our belated discoveries of 2011. More tempered and less immediate than his work with FB, his solo stuff is equally startling when heard in the flesh. The subtlety of his music is transformed into something much darker when churned out at about 200 decibels, in front of a visual backdrop of dismembered limbs, leaving half of the small crowd wondering whether they were still feeling the effects of Saturday night’s ingestion. A power cut about half an hour in sounds, momentarily, spectacular, but leaves Blanck Mass miffed and the rest of us questioning ATP’s failure to invest in solar panels.
Continuing the slightly unnerving theme are Demdike Stare, a pair of experimentalists who take the audio / visual concept further than Blanck Mass. A black and white film montage plays out behind them, Hitchcock-esque snippets: voyeuristic, mysterious and perfectly tailored to their claustrophobic, percussive music. It fails to attract the masses, however, as a dash to the heaving beer garden attests. Ally Pally boasts spectacular views of London and many revellers have yet to even make it through the doors, preferring to take full advantage of the locale.
In the well-lit, carpeted Panoramic Room, The Tall Firs have been playing for 20 minutes. “The next bit is our sad section,” says Aaron Mullan, on the back of three songs in each of which someone has met their maker. Having missed Codeine the day before, veterans Tall Firs were a “must-see” on our schedule, but while their brand of slowcore is equally dour, it’s only fractionally as enchanting. The pair is ill-suited to such a fluorescent setting and struggle to generate any kind of atmosphere. It’s disappointing, but we reckon they would fare much better in a suitable venue. Matters are compounded when Thee Oh Sees take to the stage in the West Hall, threatening to drown out the Tall Firs. A quick jaunt across the palace reveals a good crowd assembled, but we fail to see why. The Oh Sees have been subject to a fair amount of hype in recent years, without really justifying it on record. In the live arena, too, they tick the box marked “style” rather than “substance”; that “style” being very shouty and mostly forgettable.
One of the highlights of the day comes in the form of Siskiyou back over in the Panoramic Room. Founded by former Great Lake Swimmer Colin Huebert, the Vancouver band have released two fine records in as many years and while their patter is substandard (“you know that feeling when you’ve sprayed deodorant but it still isn’t enough?”), the music and the manner in which it’s delivered is first rate. Huebert’s voice is Spencer Krug-esque and his harmonies with the spasmodic drummer are a joy. The rollicking Twigs and Stones and fantastic cover of Neil Young’s Revolution Blues steal the show, in what’s a terrific performance.
Yuck’s self-titled debut, released last year, was promising but patchy. This evening’s twilight set in front of a swelling crowd, though, is outstanding all the way through. They have the same effortless, don’t-give-a-fuckery as early era Blur: dripping with attitude, blasting out hummable, poppy indie rock. Album opening one-two Get Away and The Wall along with Holing Up sound superb in the West Hall: even the hippest of hipsters – and by Jove are there some hip hipsters here – couldn’t keep their toes from tapping, their heads from bobbing along approvingly.
Anyone else a big fed up of this “50s revival” we’re having rammed down our throat? Does the omnipotence of the cupcake (or, as Charlton Brooker so eloquently christened them, “muffins with clown puke topping”) really constitute a revival? Most of the music that dabbles in such dark arts is worth avoiding, but to their credit, Tennis are one of the more palatable of the “Keep Calm…” brigade. Their second album is a big improvement on their first and once you get past the Marty McFly pastiche, they have some very decent tunes. Lead singer Alaina Moore has a beautiful voice, and from the moment she opens her mouth, has almost all of the cross-legged Panoramic Room in the palm of her hand. Not The Skinny though, who make a break for the Archers of Loaf, only to find that their set has finished 20 minutes early.
Which means there’s only one thing to do: sit around and wait for The Afghan Whigs. There’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up, for this is whom the majority of today’s punters have come to see. The band cut striking figures in front of a blood red curtain. Each track, from Crime Scene Part One, through to Faded gets a raucous reception. Greg Dulli is in masterful form, his voice carrying the years wonderfully. EL-P has cancelled his show due to the death of a loved one, which means the Whigs’ headline slot has an extra half hour of play – they seize it with both hands, even squeezing in a Frank Ocean cover (Lovecrimes) before departing to huge applause. A fine way to round off the weekend… welcome back.