So it’s November, the nights are drawing in. The days of lying face down in a boggy campsite to the sound of your favourite band playing in a tent 3 fields away are but a distant memory. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little taste of festival again before Christmas? Well, without the mud anyway. Yes? Well handily, Constellations festival / “all-dayer” can provide you with just that.
We start with Hookworms who conjure some of the most vivid imagery with their music I’ve heard since Alexander Tucker’s Imbogodom . Picture the scene – an alien swamp with many moons hung low, ethereal and glowing (actually Chinese paper lanterns illuminated with projections, but oh it works so well). Out of nowhere come wolverine howls, against a background of primordial mud from which you expect a progeny of intermediately intelligent lifeforms to spring, adorned with green mossy tendrils, shaking and vibrating with the rhythms that created them. Hyper-evolved worms one could easily imagine. Totally evocative mathjam.
Maybe this is a math thing, or perhaps a prog thing, but Vessels too, who play the same room later are seem to whip up imagery of full-flowing mountain rivers, unstoppable and loud, with ripples and undertones and unexpected precipices and crashing waterfalls. Theirs is an ordered chaos of progression, crouching at pedals in a stage crammed with instruments, screwing with the concept of a “song” – a force moving ever onward.
Our next three bands were lacklustre by comparison – EXITmusic seemed awkward as a full band on stage, to the extent that their pleasant-but-more-boring-than-Band-of-Horses-melodies were just about singer Aleksa Palladino’s please-compare-me-to-Chrissie-Hynde-vocals and Kate Bush hairdo. Double Muscle fare a little better and are a band everyone wants to like, but seem to draw too many of their influences from too many other bands and don’t make it their own. There’s anger but not enough of it, there’s playfulness but it’s too polite. Maybe the muscle could do with tripling (ho ho ho). Ditto too, for Bos Angeles who played later in the day – an inoffensive post-indie-rock combo, although with a saving grace in their deliciously understated velvet-gravel vocals. By stark contrast Stalking Horse – as you might expect having risen from the combined ashes of Grammatics and This Et Al – are dramatic, drawing you in, binding you in their spell. Their experience shows with their fierce, dark melodies – flowing, soothing, yet perkily exciting, and flawlessly executed.
Constellations this year is dominated by guitar bands, but one of the few electronic acts, Vondelpark, now enchant us with floaty echoes over staccato offbeat electro, reminiscent of the glacial Ólafur Arnalds or Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Their abstract soundscapes are small, the size of your back garden – which you might easily think is also the home of your friendly neighbourhood ghost.
The festival has a Special Guest this year in the shape of Stephen Malkmus. From the start of his set, pioneer of garage shoegazer rock with Pavement, Malkmus and his band the Jicks came across as genial, and genuinely pleased to be playing Leeds “for the first fucking time ever!”. He’s the original student rock slacker, voice soft and liltingly disjointed as ever. And while his music hasn’t really changed all that much since the Pavement days, it doesn’t really matter, because listening to the Jicks, you are enveloped with warm guitars which invite you to join the band on their fireside sofa, snuggled under favourite blankets with a massive pile of crisps and crap telly, soothing away that argument you just had with your boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other, knowing that tomorrow everything will be ok again.
If The Jicks are a band to cheer you up by soothing, then the Givers are a band to cheer you up by sheer passion and joy. A cross between Tunng and Grouplove, Givers burst with a kind of folk rock that has the bollocks to make you remember this isn’t some simpery la-di-dah fluffiness. I hate to use the word fusion, but it is kinda nice when you pluck elements of rhythm (note: this is a two-drummer band), and folk, and forces of nature (with the emphasis on force), and it just works. And then Wild Beasts take to the stage. Majestic, saucy, and with singer Hayden Thorpe on knowingly playful form, the Beasts’ set is full of a splendour that oozes lavish cheek in an almost orchestral manner.
Constellations this year might not have had the frenzied onslaught that last year’s Les Savy Fav and Sleigh Bells provided, but that’s not always what makes a festival. For me it’s about finding new music and stumbling across bands, and if that includes some of the absolute gems from this year’s Constellations, without getting muddy and where my drinks are always chilled, then I’m not going to complain.