All Tomorrow's Parties 2008: Explosions In The Sky

Camber Sands Holiday Park, West Sussex. 16-18 May

All Tomorrow's Parties 2008: Explosions In The Sky

Photographer: Peter Corkhill26 May 2008

First and most noticeable is the increase in security. Is a one-heavy-for-every-five-punters ratio necessary? And since when is filming forbidden? No doubt it’s out of the organisers control but this is new, and we don’t like it. Nor do we like the downsizing of the line-up (40 acts from 52 at last December's event) and the reduction of the ATP-programmed TV channels from 2 to 1. One has to wonder if the North America-heavy line up selected has forced ATP to cut corners.

We’re not being finicky but there is definitely a different feel to this festival; a younger crowd, and one suspects a lot of first timers. It wouldn’t really matter who attended, provided they put a cork in it while the bands are playing, which is exactly what they do NOT do while Explosions In The Sky play on the main Pavilion Stage. Instrumental post rock is not for the impatient so perhaps it’s down to first-day excitement, but the level of crowd chattering during the band's nonetheless impressive set is unbelievable. During the quiet sections the talking is at a steady roar and as the music builds, incredibly, so does the volume of talking. In a way their set sums up why this festival feels a bit off.

Complaints aside, let us say this: All Tomorrow’s Parties is the best three days you can have in May and this is why we’re so sensitive to any changes to its fragile ecosystem. The beauty of ATP is its specialist feel, not to mention the supremely surreal sight of a gaudy holiday camp being inundated with bearded weirdos for three days. Most of the line up is made up of obscure acts handpicked by guest curators, such is the ATP tradition. In this instance Explosions In The Sky have been entrusted to turn us onto some amazing music we might never have encountered otherwise.

Because of a smaller capacity, and without the camping element (accommodation is in basic ‘chalets’), it’s not the kind of festival you go to as a 'festival tourist'. This isn’t Glastonbury and you’ve really got to see bands to make it worth your while. And see them you will; both onstage and off since without any cordoned off VIP areas the rock stars roam the grounds free range. It’s not unusual to find yourself within hugging distance of the likes of Steve Albini, Thurston Moore, Krist Noveselic or J Mascis and you couldn’t say that about many of the mainstream festivals.

So onto the music. Though many of the acts over the weekend are unknowns, as it turns out it’s mostly the safe bets who pull out show stoppers. Perhaps none more so than noisy Austin crew …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. Live, as on record, they can vary from incredibly good to exceedingly average in the space of a song – no doubt a side affect of their noble refusal to limit their musical scope. On Saturday, however, thanks to a carefully selected setlist and a palpable energy in the air, they hold it together and pull out a truly transcendental set. They stick mainly to darker tracks and highlights, such as ‘Baudelaire’ and ‘Will You Smile Again’, from their first two records, remind an enraptured audience just how powerful their unique twist on melodic guitar music can be. Unusual for ATP their set is also one of the only times we get to properly rock out this weekend – it’s not until Japanese post rockers Envy close the festival with a blast of anguished loudness that we experience such brute force again.

Elsewhere the entertainment is of the polite variety; Jens Lekman charms the entire audience with his storytelling pop and witty Swedish ways, Okkervil River add a touch of Americana with their similarly literary, folk-rock tunes. The National defy their Stateside roots with their melding of Joy Division and U2 and it’s a powerful concoction, one that British ears seem almost genetically programmed to love. They wield an impressive mood in the atmosphere-killing, daylight-bathed Pavilion Stage but it’s hard not to notice their lack of truly memorable songs. It could be said that Toronto collective Broken Social Scene suffer the same affliction, but as it turns out their triumphant set on Sunday evening is one of the most enjoyable. While the likes of Emily Haines and Feist are sometime co-singers with permanent BSS member Kevin Drew, for this show we are treated to the sultry tones of Amy Millan of Stars. Her enthusiastic stage presence and haunting vocals lift their set, and when they bring out EITS, J. Mascis and others for an old fashioned all-star jam it is a rare classic rock moment at ATP. 

While the macho hip hop of Wu Tang members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon proves too much for us, and the feel good hip-hop of De La Soul is somewhat lost thanks to dodgy sound, the subversive sounds of poet/rapper Saul Williams truly hit the spot. Reinvented as race transcender Niggy Tardust, to Bowie’s gender bender Ziggy Stardust, he is sharp, eloquent, and commanding over a soundtrack of restrained industrial beats and riffs. Original, confrontational and unforgettable, the most poignant moment comes with the callback in the song Niggy Tardust. Saul sings: “When I say nigger / You say nothing. Nigger…” Half the crowd mumble in response “Nothing”; Saul cuts them off with a no-nonsense, “Shutup!” Genius.  

Even with just three stages there’s inevitably going to be sacrifices made – especially with the added temptations of a water park, cinema and ATP TV (no regrets for missing music for the brilliant documentary ‘King of Kong’). Still, a lot of bands to be packed in and others deserving of mention are the brilliant French three piece Papier Tigre, whose abrasive angular rock is tight as ever, the reunited Polvo who play a surprisingly dispirited but nonetheless welcome set, and Constantines who open the weekend with classy brooding rock led by the addictive rasp of Bryan Webb.  
Saving the best for last, though, we present band of the festival: New York’s finest genre-defying foursome Battles. They play two headlining shows to ease overcrowding and it’s a good thing seeing as many miss out on the Saturday show (We won’t say we’re not bitter, but watching Badlands with a spliff was a good consolation prize). For their second Sunday night show the venue is evacuated before their set and everyone is forced to re-queue, prioritising those with special wristbands who missed out the previous night. Unfortunately no one is informed of this system, and a massive queue of unhappy people are left for half an hour to contemplate a riot (too hungover). Happily, though, our wristband gives us pole position, square in front of John Stanier’s drum kit. Needless to say, expectations are high and not least because on this very stage, at this very festival exactly a year ago, they gave the ATP massive a show to remember. And we’ve had a year to remember.

Somehow their performance tonight seems even more profound, although it’s hard to tell whether that’s because we’ve had another year to digest the nuances of their breakthrough record Mirrored or whether they’ve actually grown even better. What is interesting is that ‘Atlas’, their trademark ‘catchy’ song, is not a highlight. That honour goes to space techno of ‘Leyendecker’ and the pure joy of watching some of the most clean cut, all-American looking boys ever to grace a stage turn out some of the most forward thinking prog pop to reach ever a mass audience. Hypnotised by the superhuman grooves Stanier afflicts upon his kit, our initial quibbles concering the festival gradually evaporate. Long live Battles, long live ATP!   

by Jenny Perkin

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