Forget Mercury Prize, this is a real alternative

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Review by Gig Scene Editor Graham Chalmers

Swinefest V, Wharf Chambers, Leeds.

It’s taken me a long time to reviewthis show, nearly two whole weeks .

First there was the last train home after the gig and the inevitable hangover the following day.

Then the inevitabilty of work and the inevitability it would be really busy.

Finally, the winter vomiting virus which laid me low for a few days – and I’m not laid low very often.

In these days of tweets and blogs and 24 hour news, a fortnight is an utter eternity. In a matter of hours, never mind days, the train has moved on, not just to the next station but across the sea by ferry, or tunnel, to an entirely new continent.

On the plus side, this embarrassing delay has afforded me the time to reflect on what ‘avant garde’ means in music in the modern world.

It’s easy to laugh at ‘avant garde’ events such as Leeds’ Swinefest, especially because much of went on amid the peeling white paint and tattered ‘Beat Capitalism’ posters in this dishevelled hole of a venue tucked just round the corner from the flash bars, restaurants and hotels of Calls Lane was meant to be funny.

But before I reach my grand conclusion, I need to get back to what happened in a night organised, as always, in the case of Swinefest, by Leeds-based noise monsters Legion of Swine led by the diligent and down to earth Dave Procter, known by me as the King of Leeds, such is the high number of Leeds bands of wildly varying styles his gentle sense of humour and sense of purpose has been utilized by during the past 15 years.

Pinpoint lights are swirling round the main room of a venue once run by famous pop anarchists Chumbawumba and known as The Common Place.

Now known as Wharf Chambers, it’s still run as a cooperative and still as delightfully laidback and left wing as ever, a building as a statement in an age when such things normally involve banks.

Until now, the small crowd, which is nearly outnumbered by members of various bands, (not a novelty at far more mainstream indie gigs, I think you will find) has been entertained by visiting German DJ Markus.

There’s been bits of dub and techno and post-punk and very obscure indie and the Velvet Underground.

Now sheets of white noise are bouncing off the faded walls.

Dave is now on stage in his Legions of Swine guise, hunched over a laptop.

Are these sound the product of his computer noodlings or the the DJ’s continued DJ-ing? Who can tell.

The white noise continues as Markus walks past me in his jeans, shades, leather jacket and Trojan Sounds T-shirt.

LoS is the most extreme place Dave has reached so far on his musical journey over the years.

As the swirling red, blue and green lights submerge his shadowy figure, it’s clear tunes are no longer what he’s aiming for.

The noise his computer is emitting sounds like a train wrapped in sheet metal rattling over a viaduct through walls of driving rain to a faint, echoed background of a baying mob.

It make everything that follow seem a lot more ‘normal’ – even if an artist I bump into called Rachel Hinds describes the night later as “ an entertaining evening; welding, teapots, vocalists crashing into the audience and falling over .”

Next up are Forgets, a duo who look like a couple of university tutors from the days of the 1970s when times were looser even if the clothes were mainly shades of brown.

The vocals mix dark, surreal narration with straight-up northern humour.

The music follows this flow of consciousness deftly with washes of guitar effects from the atmopspheric school of guitar effects patented by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie – with a little less beauty and a lot more doom.

There are moments of greatness in a set built of moments, particularly one section where the line ‘we invented death’ appears over and over.

I’ve seen Brown and Benbow before, in fact, they’ve appeared twice at my behest as part of Harrogate International Festival Fringe, once as the unwieldy collective You’ll Learn and the secondly in the unusual surroundings of Tewit Well on The Stray as part of my psychogeographic event , Across The Town.

Boy are they madmen. The younger joker and the older bearded brute.

Beware prejudice, however. Tonight B&B turn out to be the most natural and unpredictable act – totally themselves without fear.

That hairdryer backing married to do what you want vocals also contains a surprise – hints of tunes and melody.

From now on the event will become progressively more sonically ‘normal’ while stage performances becoming increasingly ‘abnormal’, which is the exact opposite of what came before.

Sloth Hammer provide a demonstration of metal welding, real flames and all, as they howl and growl their way through one, long, slow smear of sludge-like metal

It’s as if an old Black Sabbath album was being played very slowly on an old-fashioned turntable. I kinda liked it.

Super Luxury are a dynamic but fairly conventional rock act, asides from the bits of nuditiy and larking around but they’re fun.

The fun continues – and it is fun – and ends with the Yugoslavian Boys.

What started as a funeral ends as a party, these energetic youngsters bouncing around to their own sounds which sound like cheesy 80s pop – of the sort of ‘avant garde’ youngsters might play if they also liked punk.

I get the feeling this bunch are merely playing at being ‘different’ til something better comes alon but I don’t know this for a fact.

At Swinefest, you don’t really know anything for a fact.

It’s a formula which manages to outrun the idea of formula each time through its good-natured openness to the randandom and the daft.

But where has my grand conclusion gone?

Well, what I was thinking was this.

It’s easy to criticise, to pose the obvious question if this sort of ‘avant garde’ night is really that clever and crazy 40 years after Fluxus and nearly a whole century after Dada?

We’re all grown-ups now and these are tough, cynical, self-aware times.

I suppose my train of thoughtb was set off by wondering what on earth DJ Markus must makeof Swinefest, having travelled all the way from Hamburg, a place where he’s paid to play in professional squats where people are paid by the state to live.

I’ll repeat that. By the state.

And the grand conclusion that mind-blowing concept for today’s bickering, mean-spirited Britain set off is as follows.

If the likes of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective and Alt-J and other trendy acts on the shortlist for the recent Mercury Prize really are any sort of ‘avant garde’ , if they actually oprovide any kind of ‘alternative’ to the retro soul, ugly r’n’b and wimpy acoustic ballads which pass as ‘pop’ these days, and I do like these bands, don’t get me wrong, then answer me this - why is their music so unthreatening to anyone?

If the ‘avant garde’ of Swinefest is so marginal to proceedings, why don’t those apparently more ‘successful’ acts make any ripples on the pond ?