Swn is a crawl festival and whoever coined such a term for these inner city events, where every conceivable performance space is turned over to hundreds of bands for four enjoyable days, must enjoy a delicious sense of irony.
What starts on Thursday with a gentle stroll between the triumphant headline sets of Django Django (7/10) and Pulled Apart by Horses (8/10), quickly becomes a painful crawl over the hot coals of Cardiff’s streets as the days progress. Every footstep soon becomes a decision. The crawl to the bar. The crawl to the next band. The crawl home, and out of bed the following morning. By Sunday every footstep stings with immediate regret; only offset with the belief that every step is taking you closer to discovering new and amazing music.
Thankfully Swn is always packed full of amazing new music. Now in its sixth year, the festival has grown from humble beginnings to seemingly taking over Cardiff every October. Where it once felt like a word of mouth secret between passionate Cardiff music fans, now virtually every one of the city’s streets buzzes with a musical beat.
So while bandstands and impromptu street gigs divert the attention of shoppers across the city, Pete Fowler (best known for his Super Furry Animals’ artwork) is conducting a live painting session at a pop-up gallery on the High Street; and if you were walking down the Welsh capitol’s main shopping thoroughfare on Saturday afternoon you would have bumped into East London’s Urban Development Vocal Collective (8/10), delivering a guerrilla gig immediately after their joyous performance at Buffalo Bar.
Friday has a great set from Newport’s electronic dreamers Jewellers (8/10), but the day belongs to Liars (9/10) and Bo Ningen (10/10). Across town at Cardiff University the Cribs, who played the inaugural festival in 2007, are making a triumphant return to Swn, but it’s Liars performance at Clwb Ifor Bach that is the first were-you-there talking point of the weekend. Brash, visceral and beautiful, Liars set is as sharp and cutting as their suits, switching marvellously between trickling minimalism and periods of crumbling, scattered noise.
Up the road at Dempsey’s, Bo Ningen’s midnight show is both improbable to behold and deliciously infectious. Drowned in translucent purple lighting that sets off wonderfully their ankle length silk robes, Bo Ningen are a relentless g-force of hypnotic, repetitive riffs and distressed vocals that forms a hypnotic, Krautrock whirlwind.
Saturday sees Dad Rocks! (7/10) wrap the Moon Club in a wondrous, Icelandic etherealism that feels like a warm Christmas Eve with friends, Holy Mountain (8/10) splatter Clwb Ifor Bach in the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s dying screams as he’s dragged through a foundry of death riffs, and Portasound (9/10) provide a wonderful mix of Metronomy-style synthpop and the kind of analogue filth that Fuck Buttons make in their nightmares.
Over at the National Museum’s domed and elegant Reardon Theatre John Grant (9/10) delivers a sermon of love, loss and heartache. It’s evidently more loss and heartache, Grant introducing a haunting ‘Where the Dreams Go To Die’ with the words, “I hope this is the last album I have to talk about this shit.”
Gallops’ drummer is incredible. So many people at O’Neills seem to have turned up solely to see the Wrexham quartet’s frenetic sticksman that Swn could have just stuck him on the bill and saved the rest of the band the trouble of travelling down to Cardiff. Thankfully the rest of Gallops (9/10) are here as well, and they close Saturday night with an intense hour of dramatic, resonating post rock and hardcore, spliced together with turbulant electronica.
Anyone not crawling on Sunday clearly missed out on the double disco fun the night before. Kudos goes to any Swnster who made both Cardiff’s Vinyl Vendettas’ amazing DJ set at Clwb Ifor Bach and the messy Silent Disco fun at Cardiff University. If you’ve never had a fine-moustached gentleman scream System of a Down’s ‘Chop Suey’ at you while you croon the words of ‘Disco 2000’ by Pulp in their ears face, you definitely need to try a Silent Disco.
At Clwb Ifor Bach, Cold Pumas (8/10) threaten to run off with Moe Tucker’s tumbling power beat before Peace (8/10) pinch Tim Burgess’ hairdo and ‘Between the 10th and 11th’s fuzzy psychedelia. On the opposite side of Womanby Street, Islet (8/10), having already wowed Swn the night before with a sold out headline show at Chapter Arts Centre, play a secret set at the Moon Club. Typically chaotic, vibrant and genius, they are a blur of dislocated rhythms, wandering band members and beguiling choral chants. In between all of this, there’s just enough time to see Shy and the Fight’s (8/10) sublime mix of crescendo-laced melodies and the kind of earnest, heartfelt storytelling that makes the Hold Steady so compelling.
A little down the road at 10ft Tall the Staves (8/10) enchant with tender harmonies that feel so wondrously light and tender you worry they might float away into the Cardiff air. It’s a world away from the electro-filth emitting from the tiny Gwdihw café bar. First Pol (7/10) crafts some delicious Vitalic-style electro before Plyci (9/10) delivers an hour of incendiary Boys Noize-influenced analogue bass that makes Gwdihw’s front-room-intimacy feel more like a Friedrichsain squat bar. It’s left to the Weeks (9/10) to close a perfect Swn 2012 in messy, distorted fashion, the Jackson, Mississippi band playing a blistering and unannounced set of jagged garage blues that feels somewhere between the Strokes and Lynyrd Skynyrd.