Primavera Sound 2018: The festival that keeps calling us back


Primavera Sound keeps calling us back.

We say the same thing each year – that this one is the last, that it's time to try another festival – and each year they tempt us back, with their big names and surprise picks and their uncanny ability to spot acts on the edge of escape velocity.

Then there is the site: massive solar panels, a crimson underground lair, dockside platforms amid mega-yachts and water skating ramps, a beach – an actual beach, with sand and sea and everything! – and that's before you even get to the more traditional main stages and the futuristic Auditori concert hall.

However, there were questions going into the festival. Would booking the Arctic Monkeys summon lads, stag dos and Fratelli-chanting louts to Barcelona? Would the swerve towards more electronic and rap-focused bands alienate the indie kids? Did the booking of Primavera stalwarts Beach House, Mogwai and The National indicate that the organisers were perhaps running out of ideas?

Wednesday

Barcelona’s own Holy Bouncer were the first band we encountered. Fresh from a successful Liverpool Sound City, they didn’t seem overawed by the huge stage or by the pressure of being on home turf. The excellence of tracks such as Coyote and the OTT extended jam of Anticipation ensured that they didn’t stray the wrong side of cliché, and the cohesion of their set was testament to the long hours spent honing their live game.

LA glam-punks Starcrawler didn’t fare quite so well. Singer Arrow de Wilde’s “size zero” aesthetic has most of the audience grimacing. She does not look healthy. The tired riffs and Queenadreena-style antics are no substitute for originality or genuine power, and no amount of posturing will resurrect this relict style of music.

Belle and Sebastian
One of the more irksome aspects of this year’s Primavera was having to pre-book tickets for Spiritualised in the Auditori, which led to a snaking queue in the midday sun and several unhappy punters at the end of the line missing out. Those lucky enough encountered something extraordinary. Accompanied by an orchestra and a choir, and underneath a gigantic glitterball, Spiritualised played an atmospheric set that encompassed their whole career but concentrated mainly on Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Jason Pierce remained enigmatic throughout, sat side-on to the hall and uttering barely a word, but his faithful congregation were enthralled, pronouncing it not just an early festival highlight but one of the best live sets ever, full stop.

Back in the night air, Belle and Sebastian grated. Their fay between-song banter has always struck this reviewer as being slightly creepy, as has their insistence on getting young women up to dance on stage. There's no denying, however, that The Boy with the Arab Strap is a tune.

Thursday

With a long night and an abundance of acts to get through, we decided to start Thursday under the dappled lights of the cool, air-conditioned Auditori Rockdelux. Delorean are probably most famous for being "virtually kidnapped" in Mexico in 2013, but they were at PS18 presenting their tribute to fellow Basque Mikel Laboa. Our expectations of a relaxed, understated beginning to the evening were immediately undercut by the blue and yellow strobes and kidney-punching bass. The band were probably most effective when repressing their more artistic, atonal tendencies in favour of arpeggiating, moody synth lines, but their booking was an indication that the festival hadn't lost its knack for innovative and interesting programming.

Back outside, we descended the steps underneath the tilted solar panels to the adidas Originals stage, where we'd hoped that F/E/A might syphon off a few thousand kilowatts of that photovoltic power. Unfortunately, they only managed to deliver meat and potatoes post-rock, recalling Pelican at their safest, with the nominal frontman's sound manipulation failing to pierce the pedestrian din. Even more lacklustre were The Zephyr Bones, whose wishy-washy psychedelica sent us off in search of more substantial fare.

Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler served this purpose admirably. They only have one trick, but they do it well: John Carpenter-esque synth soundscapes with ISS footage and space-cop future landscape projections in the background. They even survived a mid-set gear breakdown without losing the crowd, and celebrated this goodwill with raised fists and cheers as the show got back on the road.

It was a more sombre affair over on Pitchfork for The Twilight Sad's set, with the band still reeling following the death of Scott Hutchison from former tour-mates Frightened Rabbit. Singer James Graham tweeted beforehand that he "might need some help" in getting through the set, and help is what he got, with ecstatic cheers throughout their closing cover of FR's Keep Yourself Warm. The band, playing their first gig since late 2016, were understandably rusty, but now's not the time to be critical. Besides, with James on the floor, leaning against a monitor and laughing through the tears, they produced one of the images of the festival.

Levity arrived in the shape of Sparks singing "props to our peeps and please keep your receipts, we are suburban homeboys" over on the Primavera stage. Another highlight involved pencil-moustached keyboardist Ron Mael, who had maintained a frown throughout the majority of the set, walking to the front of the stage and flinging his pink tie into the crowd before performing some kind of music-hall skank in his high-belted grandad kecks. They perhaps made a blunder in not saving This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both Of Us until last, which resulted in a mass exodus with two songs remaining; but the Mael brothers, posing for a selfie in front of the crowd, didn't appear to be too bothered.

Unfortunately, there was another sad occasion over in the Auditori, with Echo Collective playing tribute to Jóhann Jóhannsson by playing his 2016 album Orphée. With the smoke billowing down while the orchestra played and the samples crackled, we were left reflecting on the loss of another artist who's left us far too soon.

From the first notes of The Truth, The Glow, The Fall, it was clear that Anna von Hausswolff was in the mood to deliver something special. Together with her band, they droned, shimmered and pummelled in the red light, von Hausswolff's hair frequently hanging in her eyes as she loomed over the keyboard, creating the unnerving, phantasmagorical impression that she was somehow able to turn her head 360 degrees. And the set pieces! The drums kicking in on Ugly and Vengeful, the massive and cataclysmic middle-eights deployed with insolent ease, the operatic high notes soaring amid the tumult. Perhaps best of all was von Hausswolff headbanging throughout the acceleration of Come Wander with Me, oblivious to the cross-looking tech sent to indicate that they'd already overrun their finish time by 15 minutes. An hour of glorious evil.

Chvrches
After the death of his son in 2015, many speculated on the impact it would have on Nick Cave's career. Would the tragedy finish him? We all should have known better. He's come back out high-kicking and slinging that wiry frame around stages all over the world, with more intent and purpose than ever before. Jesus Alone was a suitably spooky start, with its mist rolling off the sea and Warren Ellis's radar-like samples whistling over a swampy delay. Then the slowed-down version of Mercy Seat and the tetchy prowl of From Her to Eternity. Distant Sky was affective enough to survive the apparition of Else Torp on the big screen behind the band, which in other hands could have been a bit cheesy, while Jubilee Street has morphed over the years into a powerful beast with an anthemic, exhilarating climax. Set highlight though was Stagger Lee, with Cave openly flouting health and safety legislation by dragging up around 50 tearful and awestruck fans from the first row to sing right in their faces about pumping the devil full of lead. Anyone expecting Cave to shrink away after personal tragedy might be surprised to find this perceived curmudgeon connecting with his audience on a very literal and more personal level than ever before.

There was concern that Nils Frahm’s set might be this year’s equivalent to 2011’s Animal Collective performance, which turned out to be a wilfully obtuse crowd displeaser and the final nail in their critical coffin. Worries of mournful, atonal piano laments performed to a rapidly dispersing crowd were quickly banished, however, with an intricate and eminently danceable wall of beats, loops and continuous keyboard playing.

Chvrches over on the Heineken were fluorescent, poppy fun, with one caveat – stop letting the man sing – while Here Lies Man brought the first full day to a close with some fuzzy, Iommi-infused afrobeat rock.

Friday

The second full day began with Waxahatchee; a perfectly acceptable bevy-weather accompaniment, but they suffered in comparison to The Breeders over on the Mango stage. Deal and co broke out all the old favourites, and the All Nerve material added new variation to a set full of classics. Josephine Wiggs taking centre stage on MetaGoth was a particular highlight, as was a solid rendition of Gigantic, which illustrated how much the Pixies miss the compositional nous of their former bassist.

Over on the Heineken Hidden stage, Josh T Pearson seemed to have transformed from an anaemic Alan Moore into a bleached-blonde Rutger-Hauer-in-Blade-Runner cowboy. “You’ll wonder how anyone so handsome could have been so sad”, he drawled before one of the slower numbers. Quite so. And with the setting sun warming our beer and casting our eyes asquint, we all felt a little more Texan at the end of the set.

The major clash of the festival was that of Mogwai with Shellac and The National. In our eyes, there could be only one winner, in spite of the undoubted quality of those other bands. Mogwai always deliver. Rano Pano should be the new national anthem; Don’t Believe the Fife glimmers and then explodes; and despite experiencing it countless times, the explosion of noise in Mogwai Fears Satan continues to be the eighth wonder of the world. Star of the show is Cat Myers, still standing in for Martin Bulloch; she provides aggression and groove, as well as being a focal point for a band that hasn’t always exuded star potential.
Mogwai
Thundercat rocked up to the Ray Ban stage in a red hoody with his bazillion-stringed bass for another festival highlight. We’re not sure if he’s jazz, prog, or R’n’B, but he undoubtedly appeals to fans of all three genres. A phenomenal musician. Inspiring, too, that music so outré can summon such a huge crowd.

We’re not quite sure yet if Idles are the real deal, but they’re certainly vital. No half measures here, no chin scratching: this was sweaty, shouty, visceral punk, generating what was possibly the festival’s only circle pit; a soundtrack for purgatorial pre-Brexit 2018. Early impressions suggest that this is no flash in the pan, and the fact that the band have already been together for six years implies that they could have a long career. If nothing else, seeing these alpha-male Bristolians loudly proclaiming their love for immigrants was as potent a political statement as you were likely to see all weekend. There was even time for some a capella Mariah Carey. Ty Segall’s set over on the Primavera stage, meanwhile, seemed bloated and toothless by comparison; quality very much sacrificed for quantity.

Saturday

Let's Eat Grandma are veterans of the festival scene despite still being teenagers. Second album I’m All Ears is due at the end of June, and on this evidence of it they’ve continued to develop musically, with the addition of a drummer anchoring their sound amid the instrument swapping. Poppy enough for mainstream appeal and experimental enough to satisfy those with more off-kilter tastes, we’ll continue to follow their career with interest, particularly with new tracks as involved and soulful as set closer Donnie Darko.

Ariel Pink, by contrast, is a spent force, and we spend much of the set wondering how this purveyor of revivalist schtick in a Call of Duty t-shirt has managed to pull so many people over to the Ray Ban stage. Lift to Experience fare better in Josh T Pearson’s second outing of the festival. They play in front of a massive lone-star flag, with a longhorn skull in the middle of the stage; their biblical fire and brimstone proves surprisingly amenable to the proto-brutalist architecture of the Port Forum site.

Primavera marina
Slowdive were up next, but by this point we’d had enough mid-paced indie-rock, and besides there was peak bad-tempered congestion at the bar: very much an anomaly at this festival. Watain offered a marked contract to re-formed shoegazers, the Swedish Satanists materialising on the adidas Originals stage with their upturned crucifixes and their blood-soaked leathers. After an unusually heavy last five minutes of Grizzly Bear, we decamped to the Mango stage to see what’s become of the Arctic Monkeys. We’re still in the slipstream of their divisive sixth album – for this writer, the snide moon-based casino concept album is perhaps their finest hour – and it’s intriguing to see how these songs work live. They began with Four Stars Out of Five, and their expanded line-up helped to illustrate that the new tunes aren’t that much of a radical side-step. Unfortunately, the more laid-back vibe seemed to drain older tracks such as Brianstorm of their intensity, and we were soon off in search of something a little more edgy.

With Yves Tumor though, we pushed the dial a little too far. Descending for the first time into the Warehouse, we encountered a deck surrounded on four corners by some of the largest, most crystal-clear-sounding speaker stacks we’ve ever encountered. There were strobes and blast-beats and other terrible noises and in the middle the enigmatic experimentalist himself, leering over his turntables as if they were the only things restraining him from physically attacking the crowd. It was wonderful and intriguing but also highly dangerous for our tinnitus-ridden ears; we lasted five minutes before fleeing, frightened but still curious, to the exit.

We tried to go and see Dead Cross, but something from the Day Pro stage was calling us: a Swans-style wall of feedback with electronic loops cutting through. It was intriguing and somewhat jarring when the song that followed turned out to be more of a post-punk pop tune. The again, Niños del Cerro from Chile don’t seem to be constrained by such genre labels and they provided one of the surprises of the festival. For all our annotated Clashfinders and diligent research there’ll always be a hidden gem stumbled upon by chance.

Spiritualized
There is a feeling with Beach House that they peaked with Bloom, and that they’ve struggled to kick on from there. They are, after all, the premier flagbearers of the “dream pop” genre, and they were supposed to lead it to new horizons. After the disappointment of new album 7, which promised wanton experimentalism but instead delivered more of the same, knives were out. In the context of the set though, new tracks such as Dark Spring and Lemon Glow do add more texture to their set, and we’re left reflecting on what a strong body of work they’ve amassed, in comparison to the 2016 Primavera when we couldn’t tell the songs apart.

After that, we stood under the glowing letters of that eminently instagrammable turnstile to bid Primavera farewell for another year. It’s a festival for all kinds. You want a frat-party beach rave, with Aperol Spritz and pop-up food stalls? An ATP by the sea? Top-tier pop? Primavera Sound provides all those things and more. However, with a degree of repetition creeping in to the line-ups, and the creep towards electronica and dance as the kids move away from guitar music, it will be intriguing to see how they maintain this equilibrium. For the time being though, Primavera is the king of festivals, home or abroad. Long live Primavera!


The Music Manual stayed in the beautiful beachside apartments at Lugaris Beach.

Words by Matthew Eland

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