Having decided not to bother with Infest in 2004 and 2005, the line ups not being tempting enough, I took a punt last year and was amply rewarded with probably the best Infest to date. 2007 sees the UK's leading alternative electronic music festival reach its tenth year, so a strong line up to celebrate the 10th Anniversary was essential. They may have been a couple of safe bets (both having performed at Infest before) but with each having big global followings, the wise old heads at promoters Terminal Productions opted for VNV Nation and Apoptygma Berzerk as the two main headline acts. This tactic paid off handsomely as this year's event was the first in its ten year history to sell out in advance. Cult 80s London electronic-industrial outfit Portion Control headlined the first night and with another nine UK debuts this was set to become yet another essential Bank Holiday weekender.
Events began on the Friday evening with 'tongue-in-cheek' band The Gothsicles. Yes, Gothsicles. In the US they've supported some big names so, in the words of the official programme: "...somehow we went and booked this band called the Gothsicles Jesus fuckin' Christ" and that's the official word! I'd taken the precaution of checking out the unfamiliar acts online beforehand. This measure ensured that, forearmed, I knew where in the packed three-day schedule I could afford to miss the odd act or two (sorry Dope Stars Inc). The Gothsicles really only got in by the skin of their teeth since they were the opening act. They were as unpleasant as anticipated, but I was already nursing a serious headache (one hour into a three day event of loud electro noise - great). The band's huge back projections of classic video game Galaxians were the best thing... make that the only good thing.
The festival organisers broadly group the acts into three main strands: Embracing The Melody (i.e. ones that actually bother with tunes - ABP, VNV, Rupesh Cartel, Faderhead and The Gothsicles), Punishing The Machines (the really noisy stuff - 13th Monkey, Greyhound, Caustic, Synnack and E.S.A.) and Breaking The Boundaries (guess - Portion Control, Soman, Painbastard and Dope Stars Inc.). Next act Greyhound were firmly established in the second category. They didn't appear to actually do a great deal, or much at all really, nevertheless they produced some fine noise. Crouched just inches away from the PA (grabbing some photos for you dear reader - see right) their output caused my guts to wobble like never before. Live, in carefully measured doses, this had some compelling moments. Not sure I'd listen to it at home though.
The first evening drawing to a close we were onto the first of the big hitters - Portion Control. Big from my perspective at least. The promoters seemed a little unsure of their currency, but if there were any ignorant or doubting observers in the capacity crowd there were a darn sight fewer once these old hands had exited the stage. For this was unquestionably a major highlight of this year's event. Mainly because Portion Control appear to revere what I understand and love as 'electronic music'. Theirs mostly has a harder edge that means the industrial label is often (reasonably) applied to their sound. There is a distinct punk element too - most obviously represented in the often barking vocal style - but also woven throughout their approach to composition and performance.
Uncommonly, most of this glorious one hour set, chugged along in the mid-tempo region - something most younger bands seem either incapable or too scared (particularly live) of pulling off these days. However, over the decades it's in this moderately paced zone that I've found the most rewarding music to have been produced. I know some hate comparisons, but the overall effect was what one might imagine that Front 242 could have sounded like had they not forsaken their roots and instead continued to push the boundaries of the mid-tempo heavy electronics angle.
Having disappeared in 1987, and presumably fueled by the state of the nation, Portion Control reappeared in 2004, and what they've been producing since is a sound for sore ears. Sharper than ever before, the years in stasis have seen them mature in every sense. They are now producing some of the most considered and thrilling agitprop music I've heard. Of the newer material, Lambeth (from their Onion Jack IV EP) stood out, in part thanks to the juddering Derek Jarman(esque?) visuals of a Britain in decline. What was originally an instrumental had a smattering of vocals added to the live performance. Whilst Blind Eyes from the 2004 return double album Wellcome was the epitome of everything that makes Portion Control such a great act - a perfect fusion of electronics, attitude and rhythm. Of the older material a re-engineered Chew You to Bits ticked all the right boxes. Although many electronic bands use projected visuals to add another dimension to the live show, those utilised by Portion Control (under their VMAG - or Visual Media Assault Group tag) were as much as part of the overall effect as the music - the two blending to produce a multimedia performance the likes of which I hadn't seen in a long, long while. As their lyrics opine: "There is hope and there is vision...". Yes, and we have Portion Control to thank for it.
Having popped into town for some headache-busting Syndol, the Saturday lineup looked promising not least because the smaller acts (again from my pre-event research) all, bar Dope Stars Inc., seemed worth seeing. My research was only partially successful. Disappointing were, first and foremost, Caustic. Being partially made up of The Gothsicles didn't help, but they started off well with a toast to the late Tony Wilson. Unfortunately, it was largely down hill from there on. The singer was sporting a Slayer T-shirt and began the set by pouring a can of beer over his head and said motherfucker several times. When it wasn't too heavy it wasn't bad but the vocals left me cold as did most of their set. 13th Monkey confounded many who believed they might be named after Terry Gilliam's sublime 12 Monkeys by having a little monkey mascot sitting on their operating table and projecting comical clips of the Monkey TV series! The industrial breakbeats and noise went down well and kept the dancefloor busy. It was instrumental bar the samples and the somewhat leftfield cover of Peter Gabriel's Shock The Monkey. But it lacked a distinctive edge and before long, it kinda became audio wallpaper to me browsing the CD stalls instead.
Rather, it was down to the first act of the day, Synnack, to make the biggest impression of Day Two. Created by former cut.rate.box main man Clint Sand, Synnack lived up to the promising and accurate description in the programme ("A live experimental electronic band... blending IDM, ambient, industrial and noise") whose noise was liberal but not oppressive just for the sake of it. Punishing but not fatal. Sand was joined on stage by Autoclav1.1's Tony Young and between them they produced a one-time-only VJ display of audiovisual material completely remixed live on stage using Ableton Live. The resultant dance-like techno rhythms and beats suffused with an alternative outlook developed into a well-constructed dark soundtrack. At its best this had an epic quality that would work wonders in a huge open-air location where the visuals could be given prominence over the performance - with Synnack simply providing the score. If they can come up with (or find) a suitable narrative film idea this could be realised without any major reworking and could be seriously rewarding. Penultimate track Underneath Outside residing mainly in the dark ambient soundtrack territory was an unforced high point.
Somehow, in spite of their second-from-bottom billing, Germany's Faderhead were creating something of a buzz amongst the Infest faithful. Word seemed to be that this guy was a rapidly rising newer name (just the sort of act that the Infest organisers pride themselves on booking) and shortly after they'd taken to the stage it was apparent that the positive vibe was well placed. Mr. Faderhead was joined on stage by live drummer Alex Montana and keyboardist Dr. T. Although not entirely my thing, it's very hard not to be impressed by Faderhead. He's so obviously into what he's doing and he does his damnedest to see that you are too. It was good to see and hear a proper, real, full drum kit - still (sadly) a rare treat on this scene - even though the music didn't obviously need the extra push that live drums deliver.
He informed us that he normally uses a guitar but that due to those darn 'technical difficulties' we had to forego the pleasure this evening. Chance are, given their style, I'd have probably liked this less if they had used a guitar. "We have come here to play fucking heavy metal." he warned. It wasn't, but it was fine. Current (and very catchy) single Girly Show raised a big cheer proving that there were some FH fans out there enjoying every minute. By the end of the set Faderhead was easily leading the race for the 2007 Infest newcomer public vote.
By the time Apoptygma Berzerk appeared there was precious little space on the dancefloor to squeeze yourself in but (thanks to the promoters) my press pass meant that for the first few songs at least I was in the relative luxury of being in front of the barrier. The grandeur of Apop's live shows are well-known with stories of truck loads of lighting equipment just so the right atmosphere is always recreated. For me though, tonight didn't seem to have the A-list edge that the band has demonstrated in years gone by. Some have criticised the band's more recent forays into guitar-driven pop rock territory (cf. recent single and cover of Kim Wilde's Cambodia) but here they stuck mainly with the tried and tested formula and many of the career-spanning favourites were very much in evidence. The sound was great, though, curiously, the light show wasn't as epic as it usually is. Nevertheless, Stephan Groth and company did deliver a solid show - as ever. Their cover of Shine On by House of Love now sounds entirely at home in their set - perhaps due to the guitars being more prominent than in the past.
The temperature in the venue jumped rapidly in no time at all and pretty much everyone on the floor mirrored Groth's sweaty brow. There was a muscular performance of End Of The World - a track that really stands as an anthem and a great pop song. By now the crowd were wired and the sea of black-clad bodies were heaving in unison in all their head-bobbing and arm-waving glory. Non-Stop Violence was the first song of the first encore and the opening notes were just the thing to lift this appreciative if flagging bunch of fanatics. Love Never Dies (aka the one with the Carmina Burana sample) wrapped up another solid performance. For me though the sensational edge has been blunted slightly and although I'd certainly step out to see them again their once essential nature is perhaps in doubt.
Sunday... note to self: think about booking a B+B next year. As modern and well-equipped (and reasonably priced) as the student halls of Bradford University are, they've also got some seriously loud fire doors that automatically SLAM shut every time a festival goer, whose had a few beers and doesn't give much thought to such things during the wee small hours of the night, comes and goes. So feeling slightly bedraggled from rough sleep for two nights and still struggling with neck pain (which caused the headaches) I sought out a sports massage at the local Fitness First to start my final day. Suitably loosened and finally headache-free, I embarked upon Day Three. This experience was made way more pleasurable than I'd have hoped with E.S.A. and Rupesh Cartel providing an unexpected but much appreciated sonic boost.
Englishman J Blacker, aka Electronic Substance Abuse (E.S.A.), has garnered a rapidly rising reputation that, on the strength of today's opening slot performance, is well deserved. Having spent a good few years in the black and death metal fields, he has more recently aligned himself with the harsh industrial genre and has earned a lot of club play in Europe over the past three years. Again, the official guide was spot on: "ESA brings real songwriting and dense emotion to the table... introducing strong structures and meaningful progression." After a long filmed intro, the projections of a serial killer going about his grisly business in graphic and bloody manner on a naked female victim created a suitably grim visual accompaniment to the noise. It made for unpleasant viewing and that seemed to be the point. I think :wumpscut: are one of the few artists have have explored in detail the inner workings of the really dark side of the human psyche and it's never seemed exploitative - kinda like the music equivalent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - and ESA come close to achieving the same effect. Erica Dunham of Unter Null (who appeared at Infest last year) was a surprise guest vocalist on We All Know The World Is Wrong. The overall effect is sometimes oppressive and (especially the visuals) borderline repulsive but it does feel like art rather than misguided or irresponsible. Only the (warranted) cheers and applause of appreciation at the end of the set felt uneasy given the final scenes of the on-screen killer standing back and admiring his fatal handiwork.
Promising some much welcome light relief were Sweden's Rupesh Cartel. Billed as playing 'catchy, danceable electro pop' this overused description regularly leaves this sometime 'electro pop' fan wincing with a mixture of embarrassment and disappointment. Well, you can forget any such labels as far as Rupesh Cartel are concerned. Viktor Ginner and Daniel Gustafsson's take on the genre is everything that it can and should be. Yes, the vocal lines are very melodic and you can readily hear every word (and, no apology is required for that!) but the music often uses harder edged electronic sounds but aligns them with quality hooklines and clever, rather than obvious, composition. Early Alphaville was about the only useful point of reference I could produce and, given that I adore and admire early Alphaville, that is no faint praise. Comes The Hour, Comes The Man seemed to capture all the Rupesh Cartel qualities - great melodies, hard percussion, arpeggiating sequencers, string synth backing and inventive and unexpected breaks. That they name check Interpol as 'the best band in the world' is further evidence that for Rupesh Cartel synth pop needn't mean cheap and nasty. With their talents they could single-handedly haul this much abused genre back up to the heights it once deserved. It came as no surprise that shortly after their set the official merchandise stall had sold out of all their CDs.
Painbastard, despite having a name that universally prompted laughter amongst friends, I had some hopes for. Having previously checked out their website and listened to a few tracks on their MySpace page - this promised some solid harsh electro peppered with the odd more 'reflective' song. I even really liked the quality artwork on their last few releases (No Need to Worry, Overkill and Storm of Impermanence). But live these were a major disappointment. All the subtleties of their recorded work lost amid a barrage of all the clichéd trademarks of the genre. The vocals were too often a grumbling mess and it was near impossible to match this to their recorded output. With his Aviator sunglasses and black shirt the synth player looked like a blonde version of the T-1000 in cycle cop guise from Terminator 2, and the lead singer an extra with all the trimmings from Mad Max 2. Having revisited their MySpace page since the festival, partially just to check I didn't somehow imagine their sound, Poison For Your Soul still sounds like Suicide Commando at their finest, whilst the ballad Torn doesn't bear any resemblance to the act I watched on stage. I'll give them another go, but it could be that I'm just gonna have to mark these down as one to listen to at home but not bother to see live. Occasionally, it just works out that way.
I confess to knowing virtually nothing about Soman before this year's festival, but Kolja Trelle's self-applied description of 'industrial for clubs' sums it up enough. However, that's 'clubs' generally, not just on the alternative scene, meaning that there's as much techno in Soman's sound as anything else - if not more so. This was as close as Infest got to a rave this year and like most of that stuff if you're not high on life or anything else then there's a big risk that it'll just leave you stone cold - and it did me. I could not see what all the fuss was about at all. But what do I know? The audience loved it and the guys on the Music Non Stop stall said Soman's latest album was one of the weekend's best sellers.
Finally, the end was nigh but the good news was that we were virtually guaranteed to go out walking on air as one of the most reliable alt.electronic acts, VNV Nation, had the honour to close this 10th Anniversary event. All of front man Ronan Harris' chatty charms were required this evening since one of Mark Jackson's cymbals collapsed after the first song. Ronan's attempts a filling in time became increasingly surreal as he gamely kept his calm whilst technicians rebuilt Jackson's 'Meccano drum kit' as Ronan called it. Speculating on whether or not Jackson could continue with just one cymbal, Harris' patter stumbled onto an hilarious gag about Def Leppard that proved these guys never take themselves too seriously. Equipment up and running again VNV went on and did their live thing that they do so well. Before they came on stage I was thinking it really was about time that they upped the ante somewhat and employed additional live support instead of relying almost entirely on playback. Much to my surprise (and delight) they did just that and two backing synth players added satisfying additional support.
The new material from their latest album Judgement often feels like VNV by-the-numbers. Ronan even admitted as much saying at one point "This next song sounds a lot like all the others!" which you can only give him credit for. I didn't spot anything from the sub-par Matter and Form but then the 2005 release did stop me in my tracks of purchasing almost every release - a position I've yet to change - so if they did then it didn't register. Still, their back catalogue remains the gold mine of musical wonders it has always been and with decent renditions of several favourites (including Standing, Solitary, Legion, Beloved, along with an appearance of early treasure Praise the Fallen) they maintained their unblemished record of providing a stonkingly good evening's entertainment.
Epicentre from FuturePerfect proved to be a terrific first encore, but it was left, thankfully, to Electronaut to close the proceedings for another year. I could listen to this track for hours, for me it enters Philip Glass territory for its hypnotic repetitiveness and it has some of the finest sounding electronics you'll ever hear. Being picky, I have no time for the 'pointing the microphone at the audience during the chorus' thing that some lead singers feel compelled to do - Harris indulged himself a bit much tonight (Groth did the same thing to the same detrimental effect the night before); and I've always found it disconcerting (if nothing else) that Ronan and Mark are happy to end a performance standing, waving and chatting again before slowly walking off stage. A much as I commend their anti-rock star attitude, call me old-fashioned, but I like to be left with an abrupt departure with the final tune ringing in my ears - carrying me, lifting me up to another natural high. They announced a UK tour in December which with met with a roar of approval - I already have it in the calendar.
For a 10th Anniversary, Infest 2007 acquitted itself respectably. The headliners were always several pairs of safe hands, but there was something of a polarization of the acts into 'essential' or 'couldn't care less'. Not an issue in itself, but when the assembled sellout masses get their kicks from the likes of Soman, Caustic and The Gothsicles there will always be a time when the balance tips away from what fires me up to that which leaves me baffled. Still, I guess an optimist would say that's one of the strengths of this diverse and welcoming scene. Now, where did I put that directory to Bradford B+Bs... 7/10
- Apoptygma Berzerk/Portion Control - Infest 2007