With the recent cancellation of Infest the UK's biggest (and best) 'Alternative Electronic Music Festival' which usually takes place across the August Bank Holiday weekend, the emphasis on alternatives increases. Only here in the UK your options are limited. There's the Whitby Gothic Weekender if Goth is your thing. Down south, even including the Southbank circuit of the likes of Ether, there's nothing that can replace Infest.
Thankfully, to soften the loss, scene elder statesmen Flag Promotions do offer up two one-day festivals usually worth checking out: Black Celebration and Elektrofest. The latter, usually popping up over the Easter Bank Holiday, has provided some great moments down the years since it first appeared in 2000. Its weakness though has been an over-familiarity with and reliance too much upon repeat visits from acts that are a staple of Flag events. This year was no exception with only one and having never appeared on a Flag promoted bill before. Whilst it's satisfying to see familiar faces when they deliver the goods, more UK debuts and acts new to the festival would help raise the bar on delivery at the event.
The first new faces were Cult With No Name [left] who, despite their name suggesting something potentially quite sinister, couldn't be much further from that idea. Erik Stein and Jon Boux are two self-confessed electronica balladeers whose reliance on strong composition and arrangements rather than piles of equipment and multi-instrumentation means we get a distinctive set, much of which is built around the two distinguishing characteristics - Stein's voice and Jon's piano.
Having listened to their second album Careful What You Wish For I had some sense of what to expect, but the live set helped tipped mixed views on that firmly into the supportive. Their strikingly stripped-back piano and voice only cover of The Stranglers' Golden Brown, though not of their own writing, tells you all you need to know about these guys. Vaguely Scritti Politti at times, Cult With No Name bring high standards and a refreshing focus on ballads to a genre too often bereft of those qualities.
I've never taken to Sandrine Gouriou's soul style vocal delivery and Seize's music has always left me equally unmoved, but then I don't particularly like the acts they cite as influences (Kosheen foremost amongst them). Today's show did nothing to change that and Seize having appeared on countless Flag bills over the years (and two previous Elektrofests) was the first indication that the festival was content to fall back on familiar acts with modest if seemingly dedicated followings to help make up today's roster.
I'd seen electro-Mods Scarlet Soho [right] before and their sharp suited, thin tie stylish electro can be pulled together into a loose London-centric sub-category that could include The Modern (also appearing today) and SohoDolls. They are all the acceptable faces of the UK alternative electro scene whose attention to presentation and hipster delivery pushes them above the darker elements of the scene and are each the sort of act that in more buoyant times of the 80s would have been taken up by a major label as a reasonable punt of chart success following in the wake of the pop hits of the Human League. Their second song tonight was reminiscent of b-Movie's Letter From Afar.
Scarlet Soho provide serious bang for your buck, with major assets being their youthful, energetic delivery and commitment to their sound. Enthusiasm oozing out of every sweaty pore, lead vocalist James Knights yelling out his thanks between songs mustered positive feedback from the limited audience and for the first time there was a buzz about the proceedings. Things were warming up.
Live six-piece Uturns [left] were unknown to me ahead of reading the line-up in advance so I did some (admittedly very brief) surfing on their MySpace page. That clearly didn't properly register as I almost choked on my Guinness when they kicked off their set. Like an industrial Chumbawamba meets punk Happy Mondays via Cabaret Voltaire - whatever you'd make of Uturns the impact they make live is seriously impressive. Coming across like a disparate collective of direct-action squatters, Uturns stand out from most of their past reference points thanks to a combination of their ability to blend divergent musical styles into an entirely new (and convincing) proposition in its own right and good, old-fashioned musical ability.
Italy-born lead vocalist Fran cuts an impressive front man image who delivers on more than just appearances (his use of a Donnie Darkoesque rabbit mask - a nod to the Easter date - will remain as a key image of the entire event), and he's surrounded by five other distinctive individuals who each add another layer to their rich sound. Danb9 (backing vocals and 'body shapes') fulfilled and superseded the role that dancer Baz had in Happy Mondays. His well-placed rapping adding a dynamic counterpoint to the lead vocals. Cesca's female backing voice nicely rounded out a three-piece vocal delivery that was exciting and impacting. Keyboards, percussion and guitar complete the live musical picture. Uturns were a revelation and show just what is possible with a bit of creative imagination and energy. A must-see in future.
Although a name lost on many (mostly those not old enough to remember him first time around), Robert Marlow [right] was still the elder statesman on today's bill, if only for his longevity if not voluminous output - his debut album The Peter Pan Effect, recorded under the auspices of one Vince Clarke, only saw the light of consumer day some 16 years after it had been recorded! Having returned to recording and live performance in recent years he as now dropped the surname and teamed up with Gary Durant. Between them they continue to produce the melodic light synth pop that Marlow briefly made his name with in the early 80s.
For some reason Marlow himself seemed to be struggling with a bad bout of nerves tonight, even getting the name of his partner wrong during the introduction! His awkward, self-deprecating jokes about being able to find the band's latest album "in your local skip" were unnecessary and counter productive as they struggled to generate much support from the crowd. Material from their new album Inside Outside just released on Sweden's Energy Rekords, worked well enough, My Teenage Dream was especially good, but for this member of the audience it was still debut single The Face of Dorian Gray that made the biggest impression.
I name-checked The Modern earlier and though there are loose similarities with Scarlet Soho they are a different proposition. Recently reformed after a line-up change and a couple of years giging as Matinee Club, their populist take on rocky synthpop is a tad too bland for these ears, though they do boast some solid and memorable tunes like Industry. The remix of Sometimes (not an Erasure cover) was another high point. Despite the sartorial glamour of lead vocalist Emma Cooke, it's synth player Nathan Cooper who is the driving force live. Although three of them share vocal duties, Cooper is the one that leaps out at you and not just because he often actually does - leap out that is. Again, The Modern have appeared at Elektrofest before.
If there is a band that has come to symbolise the Flag penchant for turning to reliable acts it's Roi Robertson's Mechanical Cabaret [left]. But then Robertson is managed in the UK by Flag - so fair enough! Previewing/Performing several songs from the third album Damaged Goods (Major Records) and down to a solo figure at the last minute (Steve Bellamy from Greenhaus was due to help out on keyboards tonight but he and his own act had to pull out due to family illness), Roi had to cover all the bases himself. His efforts to go on with the show deserve every praise; song arrangements, backing tracks, live setup etc. - all had to reworked just 24 hours before in order for Mechanical Cabaret to appear.
It must have been a reaction to the elevated pressure, but his performance was stunning. Probably the best I've ever seen. The stage persona (subtlety tailored from song to song to align with the subject matter) is nicely rounding out now (as is Robertson's voice) and the new material was uniformly strong, unmistakably Mechanical Cabaret but demonstrating definite progression, an embracing of analogue synths and a harder edge. The hard labour is certainly paying dividends. If you've yet to sample this act live, you're lucky, there's never been a better time to dive in.
XPQ-21 [right] I'd last seen at Flag's 2006 Black Celebration. Putting aside the relentlessly entertaining show front man Jayênne always puts on (which in itself would be worth the price of entry); their live impact just gets better every time I'm fortunate enough to see them. This was full-on, hard rocking electronics and the perfect headline act for the festival. It's worth risking being on the receiving end of one of Jayênne's stray boots as he leaps around and leans out into the crowd to catch a good view of his creative facial hair sculpting!
A blinding cover of Bauhaus classic Bela Lugosi's Dead was exhilrating with Jayênne's voice perfectly suited to the gothic lyrical delivery. It's hard to believe XPQ-21 are not at their best live on stage but after this performance I'm going to revisit their albums with a view to a purchase or two. Unfortunately, my pleasure had to be cut short yet again due to the rubbish tube and train services in the UK, meaning I'd have been stranded if I hadn't bolted early to make sure I caught the last underground train. Of course, had the event been running to schedule, this wouldn't have been a problem. Please! Just stop putting gigs on a Sunday finishing after the public transport system had shut up shop - how difficult can that actually be!?
The varied style line up was major asset this year - no one sub-genre dominated (as has happened in the past) and this was all to the good, but too many familiar Flag-promoted bands may have contributed to apathy that would explain the surprisingly thin turnout. There is the chance to raise the bar and really deliver on the promise that has always been present at Elektrofest. It needs more new faces or those that we don't get to see so often, and a few UK debuts if at all possible. Oh, and if it could not be on a Sunday and end whilst there is still a means to get home I'd be very happy. Thank you. Finally, a special mention for DJ Joe the Waiter - unquestionably the finest selection of tunes between acts I've heard in years. 8/10 in parts (Uturns, Mechanical Cabaret and XPQ-21) but on balance overall 7/10