We leave the calm and cultured atmosphere of the Town Hall behind and wander down to Digbeth for the start of the festival proper. Sadly we are denied a satisfying blast of Art Of Burning Water’s face melting power violence because one of them has hurt his hip loading in their gear, invoking the ‘we might be getting too old for this’ theme again. AOBW have been around a while but they are still one of the younger bands on the bill. So, it’s over to The Crossing to catch Charles Hayward who is certainly getting up there at the top end of the age range and is enjoying an incredible creative period of benign grandfatherly influence on a lot of younger musicians not merely through the records he made decades back but through his physical presence and hands on collaborations with them. For this set he’s on his own though, his remarkable drumming augmented by machines and his own occasional vocals. Watching Hayward play the drums is a wonder and a joy, complete mastery in the service of restless invention. Cheering on virtuosity for its own sake is pretty tiresome but he never does anything just to be flash, alongside the constant forward motion he maintains a sense things could go off in any direction at any moment but not collapse into chaos. Everything is free but he’s in control. The vocals are less awe inspiring and occasionally the songs tip the ‘dread hand of prog’ but then, that’s where he started out. The acts on the Boxxed stage tonight are threaded along one of this year’s strands, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Napalm Death’s surprisingly enduring and influential masterpiece ‘Scum’. I say surprising as one of those grey beardy types who saw them play The Mermaid down the road all those years ago. While Napalm were prime movers on that scene and kind of the most fun, certainly the most extreme of the bands; it seemed like a musical dead end, pushing a strand of an already inward looking scene to an absurdist conclusion. They recorded ‘Scum’ for a split LP that didn’t happen, left it under the bed and two of its main architects had moved on before a new line up even recorded the second side. When you consider the work they all went on to do later it’s easy to see why they might have felt it had run its course. All three of the trio on side one are here this weekend one way or another. Nicholas Bullen is producing a special performance called ‘Universal Detention Centre’ that feeds samples of early Napalm Death recordings into his boxes of switches and electronic gadgetry and spews huge waves of filthy noise out into the crowd. It is suitably full on and abrasive from the start and, even with apparent technical glitches, does not let up until he’s done. He’s screaming away into a mic for a good deal of it although heaven knows what about as even that’s being processed and added to the roaring maelstrom. It is, I have to say, absolutely magnificent. I’m grinning from ear to ear like an idiot for the entire thing. This is not just any old racket, not the callow teen punk ranting of Nik Napalm. This is the full grown, multi-faceted, shifting and relentless racket of 30 years of disappointment.
Back in the big room Xylouris White look to be turning slowly into each other and by extension some sort of art-folk chuckle brothers although their stage presence is much less grating. Jim White is another captivatingly capable drummer who stares and smiles into the crowd, all the while playing fluid, rolling drums like he doesn’t even have to think about it. Has anyone started calling this post-folk yet? Let’s hope not, that sort of thing requires a slap. There’s something elemental about the music they make, it’s ancient and modern, wide screen but very human.
I have long been wary/terrified of Melt Banana. Their records often seeming like a screeching, insistent punishment for some unclear transgression. The fact they are playing the kids’ gig tomorrow, while making a small degree of sense, has also caused me some disquiet. Last year they toured and released a split with Napalm Death although sadly they missed out on the fun to be had from a full on collaboration. What would be your choice of duet for Yasuko and Barney? ‘Something Stupid’ maybe? ‘Islands In The Stream’? It could work, check out their pleasing, if slighty too gentle, take on ‘We Will Rock You’. All my long held concerns about them are blasted away by the hyperactively thrilling onslaught of the live experience. Through a roaring pa, shaking the air around you, they sound so much bigger, the patchwork of noises so much richer and more complex. To be brutally honest Yasuko also sounds less gratingly chipmunk like. She bounces around the stage gleefully waving an illuminated multi-coloured chaos pad that looks like those old ‘Simon Says’ games. Tapping it sets off all manner of alarms, explosions and waves of noise. Simon says…Kawaii Grindcore Go!
A pattern is developing of uncontrollable grinning in the face of teeth rattling noise in a gutted warehouse alternating with more cerebral beard stroking delights in the comfortable fully equipped environs of The Crossing. This year there’s a third venue (Wild) squeezed in between them but I don’t actually make it in there tonight at all. Not just an extra stage but a fuller programme means there’s a lot more overlapping and clashing than before, there is always something to be watching and no way to do it all, leading to the familiar festival trade offs. So as we return to The Crossing Charles Hayward is back on stage, this time leading rag tag improv crew Anonymous Bash. Featuring bits of Gnod and grown out of a residency in their Islington Mill lab they’re a kind of limitless experimental multi genre sprawl held together by Hayward’s amazing percussion and experienced guiding hand. This can go either way I guess, last time I saw them they were a fantastic, joyous, communal party and everyone on and off stage was having an absolute whale of a time. But the ‘dread hand of prog’ has not been banished. Wearily conceding that tonight they sound quite a lot like Gong, we bail out and head elsewhere. In other circumstances we may have given them longer to pull it together but there’s all the fun happening elsewhere.
Not to worry because over in Boxxed local drum & bass monkeys PCM are closing things out with the usual assault of clattering beats and weird noises. Exhilarating and punishing in equal measure it puts that big dumb grin straight back on my face. As their part of the ‘Scum’ celebrations they’re throwing in some bonus grindcore samples and have got Mick Harris (inventor of the term ‘blast beat’ if not quite the actual beat) to record some new drum parts for them to work with. The last five to ten minutes of their set pushes this ferocious drum battery to glorious heights and forms a perfect end to the first day. Saturday is looking both incredible and really, really long.
A few days later, former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will interview the current Napalm Death line-up on BBC Radio 2 and confess himself a huge fan. The world, or at very least the UK, is melting.