Body-odour stricken masses? An indecent number of Ramones t-shirts? Two buskers playing battle music for two street fighting five year old’s while a fat, drugged up topless man attempts to stand on one leg for the longest time possible? It must be… any typical Saturday in Camden Town to be honest.
However, this particular Saturday the hipster haven/giant Doc Martin’s outlet was host to Camden Rocks, the one day in the year where Camden Town throws open the doors of (nearly) all of its numerous music venues for a day long rock extravaganza. At the top of this year’s bill were metal titans Bullet For My Valentine, Skindred and Funeral For A Friend. I missed all of them in favour of the likes of Little Comets and JAWS, which just goes to show that I’m still a late noughties wimpy indie kid at heart. Nevertheless, the principally metal/hard rock festival turned out to be a far more progressive and nuanced event than either I expected or it had any right to be.
Things didn’t necessarily start off that way. Young metalheads Fallen To Flux brought boundless enthusiasm to their early set at The Good Mixer, but their admirable attempt to toe a middle ground between the intellectually impressive and the simplistically enjoyable didn’t always produce the desired effect. That being said, this was the venue I definitely found to have, somewhat ironically, the worst mixing of the day. The pounding rhythm section of Luke Walley on bass and Chris Trem on bass might have helped songs such as ‘On The Outside Looking In’ reach new levels of brutality, but they also brutalised the cerebral interplay of guitarists Oli Clipsham and Björn Gugu. The set was saved by the solid songwriting of the former who, despite having a weak spot for generic sounding song titles, managed to produce some genuine alt rock earworms in the form of ‘Living With The Pain’ and ‘Playing With Fire’.
While Fallen To Flux sounded like a band deserving of a midday slot to cut their teeth on, Beasts, the next band I caught, really deserved an evening performance. With songs both heavier than Beezlebub’s balls and sweeter than Winnie The Pooh’s honey love tub, Beasts’ animalistic attack hit The Underworld like a hard rock mallet. Frontman Joe Mallory-Skinner isn’t afraid to wear his love of grunge on his sleeve and so the sultry “wooo”s and “ahhhhhh”s that pepper ‘Annie’ and ‘Shade Of Blue’ evoke borrowed nostalgia for a time when the hardest music was also the most instantly catchy. They also win the ‘Song of the Festival’ prize I invented just now for the serpentine ‘Crying Blood’, a titanic leviathan of a track that gradually unfurls over its epic running time to reveal the full splendour the band are capable of producing.
Second in the running for this prestigious pretend prize were the terribly named Buck and Evans for their track ‘Screaming’, which sounds like the successful result of an active attempt to write the perfect blues rock song. The four piece sounded a lot like Heart had they delved into a deeper hue of blues rather than eloping with that flighty Lothario pop to write power ballads. They even describe themselves as sounding like Joe Bonamassa with Ann Wilson, which effectively sums up their potent combination of guitarist Chris Buck’s peerless fretwork and singer Sally Ann Evans’ traffic-halting pipes.
Back at The Really Bad Mixer it was the turn of passionate political rockers The Totems to battle the shit sound tech. Actively attempting to readdress the shortage of protest bands that everyone expected to appear in response to a cut-happy Coalition government and it’s even more callous Conservative successor, this was some back to basics rebellious proto-punk powered by raw fury and hopelessness. Showcasing their new single ‘Austerity’ (due to be released on the date of Osbourne’s upcoming emergency budget), it’s safe to say that the quartet were not a barrel of laughs. Nor, thanks to the man on the mixer, were they a great sounding bunch. Unessential rhythm guitarist Paul Gilligan drowned out frontman Darryl Hockings completely, and only occasional snippets of what sounded like brilliantly constructed lyrical polemic escaped to attempt to incite the audience into the righteous frenzy they were intended for. Thankfully the melodic bass work of Niall Diskin saved the set, but no band should ever have to rely on a bassist for such a responsibility.
Next I briefly stopped by The Monarch pub for some strangely cheerful metal in the form of In Search Of Sun, a band who obviously seek to shine a light in the blackest of genres. When the band took to the stage led by the skin-headed band leader Adam, um… Leader, I fully expected a Lamb of God style assault of guttural roaring and inhuman chuggage. What I got was around 50% of that, all switched to major chords and injected with a lethal dose of optimism. The result was admirable, but mildly cloying and ultimately less engaging than it should have been. So I muscled my way out and headed on down the sardine tin that was Camden Road to find fresh musical pastures to graze.
And thank God I did, because the next act I caught were the stunning Hands Off Gretel at The Barfly. My schedule had them listed as Hands Of Gretal, the missing ‘f’ and misspelt name leading me to expect an anarchist, dyslexic, black metal band or some such novelty. Instead I discovered a high octane whirlwind of a punk band that sounded something like the Frankenstinian lovechild of Royal Blood and The Runaways. The four piece were fronted by the enchanting Lauren Tate, whose riot grrl green bunched hair, coquettish stage presence and Harley Quinn grin combined to rewrite the definition of a manic pixie dream girl. Despite her diminutive stature, Tate boasted a voice guttural and heavy hitting enough to match Brody Dalle or Courtney Love at their most vicious. The rest of the South Yorkshire band, who only formed at the beginning of the year, sounded like they’d been performing together forever, bass and guitar seamlessly exchanging melodic duties on the brilliantly named ‘Oh Shit’ while drummer Laura Moakes impressed with her penchant for a drumstick spin. It’s always a pleasure to walk in on a band and be convinced within five minutes that they might just be your new favourite thing ever, so thank you Hands Off Gretel.
Meanwhile a ruckus was being incited in the packed Cuban bar by the, frankly insane, Asylums. The band whirled around the stage like Taz the Tasmanian Devil and family: knocking equipment over, howling inaudible lyrics and drenching the first couple of rows with sound and sweat. Guitarist Jazz Miell smashed out schizophrenic riffs from under his long blonde mop, blowing away my initial impressions that he looked mildly like an alt rocking Chicken Little, while frontman Luke Branch seemed barely to touch the floor. This was audio/visual equivalent of cocaine, and revitalised many a flagging spectator through sheer audacious energy.
I didn’t expect any such engagement from shoegazers JAWS, the Birmingham-based purveyors of lackadaisical dream-pop. But despite frontman Connor Schofield’s lazy tones and Mac Demarco-esque guitar licks, the band actually displayed far more energy than their glo-fi track output would suggest. The sun stroked guitar interplay of ‘Gold’ and ‘Stay In’ displayed far more heft in a live context and, when backed by the thunderous drumming of Eddy Geach on the likes of the strangely Alice In Chains-y ‘Bad Company’, transformed their summer jams into tropical storm soundtracks. When I first saw their name on the Camden Rocks line up I thought that, at best, their set would stick out from the hard rock crowd like a sore thumb, at worse they’d get bottled Plain White Ts at Download style. But the self-confessed metal fans have shown that their forays into jangly guitar pop need not lack the heft of their heavier bill mates.
Speaking of heft …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead brought their gritty post rock blitzkriegs and confusing song structures to the Electric Ballroom. I’d never visited the famous club before, and honestly expected it to be ballroom sized. It’s not. It’s ruddy huge. But if any band should have been able to overcome the vastness of the venue it should have been the punk/prog multi-instrumentalists. But no matter how amped up and angular their attack, the band seemed strangely dwarfed by their environment. Though their opening tracks ‘It Was There That I Saw You’ and ‘A Million Random Digits’ were impressive displays of virtuosity, complex as hell yet wrung out effortlessly by the band, the novelty of instrument swapping and unpredictable sonic diversions soon wore thin, as did the quality of lead singer (and I use that title loosely, they all sang) Conrad Keely’s voice. He sounded like Gerard Way if the My Chemical Romance man downed a jar of bleach after every song, which is fine if you’re a tiny band opening the Hawley Arms, but not if you’re prepping an audience for While She Sleeps and Bullet For My Valentine.
Speaking of tiny bands, Tropical Contact were one of my surprising discoveries of the day. The music of this Huddersfield group would be described by a lazier man as peppy lad rock… alright then, it is peppy lad rock, but really well written peppy lad rock. In the days following Camden Rocks I was completely unable to shake their endlessly catchy ‘The Wheel’s chorus of “Uh oh, she’s driving me crazy, and I know that your suspiciously in love with me” from my head. The harmonies of singer Ben Janet and helium-voiced sideman Joe Gallagher (Gallagher? I feel less bad for labelling them lad rock now) nearly convinced me that they were brothers, so suited were their voices to one another. Their music wasn’t especially innovative or new sounding, but in another time it could have surfed over the airwaves like a glorious gobby dolphin. The band found a fan in Ginger Wildheart anyway, and he’s probably got better taste than you.
On leaving Tropical Contact’s performance at Dingwalls, I ran slap bang into one of something excellent that couldn’t simply be scheduled. With a generator connected to a rack of amps accompanied by a reduced drum kit, singer Longy was preparing a guerrilla set in the middle of the canal at Camden Lock. Stating that he and his band would play until they got kicked off by the police, the ex-busker got back to his roots with an extraordinary riverbound performance. As people stopped to take an interest, his audience swelled on both sides of the water and the numerous levels of the cafes and bridges about. The man himself had a fantastic voice that overcame the threatening wind, while his band, especially his phenomenal drummer and trumpeter (trumpeteer? trumpetorean?) Oh Camden, you do still have the propensity to be spontaneous and wonderful
One of the band I was most excited to see were the talented Little Comets who, after making waves with their boppable but mildly forgettable landfill-leaning In Search Of in 2009, have gone on to write two stunning albums worth of music in the interim period by infusing elements of afrobeat and more complex song construction into their sound. But the band’s headline slot at the Jazz Café was weirdly subdued. “I’m not great at public speaking” a shy Robert Coles tells the rammed venue, which I know to be a lie as I caught the band on their Life Is Elsewhere tour and saw him establish a brilliant rapport with the audience. Though every tight harmony, potent couplet and escalating guitar line are present on the likes of ‘A Little Opus’, ‘The Gift Of Sound’ and the beautiful ‘Violence Out Tonight’, the band’s hearts don’t seem to be in it in the usual way. Maybe it was their self-awareness that they really didn’t belong on the bill of such a raw, heavy festival, or maybe there was something else going on behind the scenes that we were unaware of.
One of the downsides of having a city-based festival is the curse of queueing for venues. If you really, really want to see a band that are headlining their respective venue then it’s worth getting there an hour early, missing other artists you might want to catch in order to avoid standing outside while the strains of your favourite song reverberate out of the wall next to you. This is what happened to me with the electrically charged Turbowolf, who were probably brilliant. I can’t say for sure as I was stuck outside smouldering gently. So instead I went to catch Red House Glory headlining the Hawley Arms, which was brilliant compensation. The local boys (their bassist lives next door to the venue) performed like they were headlining the Underworld, shredding through their highly-charged Screaming Trees style of blues rock like there was no tomorrow. Opener ‘Painkiller’ boasted a riff to level mountains to, while ‘Lead Me Away’ featured some powerful bass-pedalling that drove the song ever onwards, ever upwards.
Camden Rocks did, indeed, rock; but it wasn’t the one-track day of heavy riffing and overwrought screaming I thought it might be. Some of the greatest surprises came when the festival branched out, taking in new and interesting influences while retaining a deep-rooted commitment to impactful musicianship. Camden’s musical heritage, unlike much of the rest of its cultural legacy, remains wholly undiminished, allowing it to put on a stellar show. Even if you’re not a Bullet For My Valentine fan (and if you are, how did you end up here?) there’s something to find somewhere that you’ll either enjoy or find interesting, check it out next year.