By: Jamie Jones
Photos: Gemma Shaw | More Photos
It’s a fine July afternoon and the sun is shining down on Womanby street, the hidden alley of scuzzy delights that sits across the road from Cardiff Castle, and something is happening. Every beard in Wales seems to have gravitated to this one unassuming spot. It’s the middle of the day, on a weekday no less, but the ale is flowing as it were the night of some grand Welsh sporting victory. And the walls of the Moon Club, the Full Moon and Fuel are all vibrating as if a fresh tectonic fault has just appeared beneath South Wales and is already feeling uppity. This can mean only one thing: Red Sun is back.
So we stuffed Jamie Jones’ pockets full of beer tokens and sent him over to see how Cardiff’s premiere stoner/doom/sludge festival is getting on in its second year.
The weekend starts in The Moon Club, which it must be said is not the ideal setting – Red Sun is one venue down on last year with Clwb Ifor Bach not participating, meaning the 3 stages are now crammed into 2 venues. And so Tradish fire the starters pistol for the festival on a tiny stage with a backdrop of open doors and people filtering in behind them. But the bar is full of eager punters and their fairly Tradish-ional (sorry, couldn’t resist) stoner fare whets their appetites nicely. Iron Bird, back onstage after a long lay off, follow up with more of the same tried and tested stoner rock grooves, with the occasional blunt force Helmet-esque riff to liven things up. But it’s JØTNARR playing next door in Fuel who kick the weekend off proper for me. The name may look Scandinavian but they actually hail from Colchester and come armed with a blend of black-metal ferocity, post-rock majesty and crusty-sludgey nastiness that’s really quite something to behold. Remember the name.
Elephant Tree played last year’s festival and in the interim they’ve somehow managed to lose a sitar player. Which is frankly quite careless. Now a stripped back power trio they sound crisp, clean and frankly rather wonderful, making a compelling argument for being the best stoner band in Britain right now. Local heroes Thorun took the stage next for what was billed as their ‘final gig,’ a claim no one seemed all that convinced with. Their brand of muscular instrumental stoner metal is always a treat, so if they are done it’ll be a sad day in the Wales stoner scene. No one is getting their hankies out just yet though.
They’re well received by a near full room, half of which disappears before Hark take the stage. Maybe it’s the last train being due or maybe the patrons of Red Sun have gone in a little too hard on their first day but it feels odd that Wales’ finest heavy band, returning triumphant from touring all over Europe, should be greeted by a half full room. If it bothers them they certainly don’t show it, playing a rawkus and impressive set. Installing their own back line into the hardly sizeable Full Moon may have been overkill, like calling an airstrike in a knife fight, making the volume a little too oppressive. But the songs from last years’ Chrystalline album are as good as ever and the new stuff from the upcoming second album is sounding potentially quite special. The night ends with me suffering from a nasty bout of tinnitus and the sensation that the last 4 cans of Red Stripe may have been a mistake. As it should be.
As is tradition for Red Sun (not to mention any other event lasting two days or more) me and my festival comrades were feeling a little fragile on Saturday. We made it into the Full Moon just in time to catch Grifter, only to find that some kind of scheduling SNAFU meant that they and Gulah had been switched around on the bill. Gulah played last year, but in an entirely different guise – apparently they had a few drinks with a gentleman at last years festival and woke up the next day to find he was their new singer. We’ve all had nights like that – I can’t touch brandy anymore in case I join yet another psych-folk collective. They’ve slowed things down somewhat for Gulah 2.0, now sounding a little like Clutch at their most ecclesiastical or Orange Goblin at their most blues driven. They may be out of practice and play the odd song in the wrong key but when they hit the right notes it’s a sound that suits them.
There were rumours of dark happenings downstairs in the Moon Club so we skipped Grifter (sorry lads) to check out Blackmoon 1438, and I’m still not quite sure what it is I saw down there. I think it may have been a case of wrong venue/wrong time for them – the bass/synth two piece were clad in sinister dark robes, looking like refugees from a Sunn O))) obsessed cult, brandishing gongs and bells in some unsettling ritual. Which may have been more effective without the backdrop of daylight and smoking punters behind them. Their blend of trip hop beats, huge clanging bass and Brit punk vocals make them sound like 3 bands fighting in a sack at times but there are moments where they slip into a seductive groove where it just about makes sense. Sadly this isn’t quite their day.
Back upstairs VAILS leveled the Full Moon with a typically humongous sounding set. The Swansea two piece are quickly becoming one of the best bands around these parts, consistently bringing down an avalanche of sludgey stoner heaviosity whenever called upon. They were the surprise of the weekend for me last year – this time around they blew me away yet again, though this time it wasn’t so much of a surprise. After that I took a breather for most of Barbarian Hermit’s set, instead opting to nurse my hangover with a bit of a sit down and a lovely milk stout from the Gravity Station bar in the Full Moon. From what I could tell from my brief forays into the room their blend of big dumb stoner doom went down a treat – hopefully I’ll get a chance to catch them when not feeling like an entire herd of rampaging wildebeests are all rutting on my frontal lobe.
Thankfully I’d perked up a bit for Death Pedals – their frenetic noise-punk would have been too much to bear otherwise. It’s a rampant, unstoppable whirlwind of a sound that makes a reviewer want to pen overblown analogies of runaway freight trains coming loose from their rails and jack-knifing through small villages. In a weird way their electric yet strangely controlled savagery is kind of comforting – for one zen moment amidst the maelstrom I found myself musing on the notion that so long as Britain keeps coughing up bands like this then, despite everything, we’re all going to be ok.
HAG are on next and quickly mesmerise the place with their masterful riffery. They’re a band not a little in debt to the Melvins – when I mention this to a friend of mine a passing guy turns and says to us, “yeah, they’re practically a Melvins tribute band. But I fuckin’ love the Melvins, so that’s fine by me!” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but they invite such a heady comparison without being diminished by it, which is impressive work. We then head upstairs to catch Desert Storm, who put in a typically solid set of bluesy rock tinged with loose Southern vibes. I caught them at last year’s Red Sun wasn’t quite feeling it – perhaps I was in a better mood for this set, or maybe it had something to do with the feisty porter I was drinking, but I was enjoying their set this time around. I say ‘was’ because during their final song a very large, very tattooed, very naked man joined them onstage and proceeded to whirlybird his flaccid member at the crowd. Me and my friends left soon after for the last train feeling baffled and slightly traumatised.
Come Sunday afternoon, once we’d scoured our minds clean of that image, we gathered ourselves and set off once more unto the breach to catch opening band Godbomber, who were ranting and riffing to the surprisingly large Sunday afternoon crowd. One of the good things about a festival like Red Sun is that a chunk of any given audience is made up of fellow bands, making for a warm, community vibe. The downside is that the crowd tends to get a little tipsy and forget it has to be onstage early the next day. Heil Zilla for instance looked more than a little worse for wear, and if you’re hungover with a set to play a highly technical mathy sort of style is the last thing you need to be faced with. They weren’t as chatty as usual and made a good few mistakes but they were still good value, even if it wasn’t their finest hour.
Up in the Full Moon Estuary Blacks were this year’s biggest surprise for me. A proggy, post-rock tinged take on stoner, they had an elegiac quality that stood out from many of the spit-and-sawdust types that made up this years bill. They only played 2 songs so far as I could tell but they patiently built up to such sweetly fuzzed out crescendos the time flew by. I need to see more of these guys.
Also breaking the mould for the bill were Oblong, but for entirely different reasons. Giving an entire 3 day bill of heavy bands a lesson in intensity, Oblong were frankly quite terrifying. The singer patrolled the front of the crowd, emitting inhuman screams and screeches while eerily atmospheric doom riffs crashed down at with unnerving ferocity. There was also some dude in a silly hat rambling incoherently – it doesn’t quite make sense but there’s the seed of something truly frightening in Oblong.
After those two the next few bands seem a bit meat n’ potatoes. Baron Greenback barreled through an enjoyable set of sludgey stoner that leant as much towards Mastodon as it did the usual desert-dwelling influences. Wizard Fight on the other hand are more straight forward, with a tendency to grab a riff and club it to death and beyond, playing a blend of crusty stoner that leaves you feeling a little bit dirty for having heard it. XII Boar on the other hand seem like they’d be just as happy doing a stand up comedy set as they are playing Southern rock boogie, entertaining a sparse crowd with a few bawdy gags amidst their merry Motorhead-cum-ZZ Top riffery.
Which left Slabdragger to bring things to a crushing end. Riding high from this year’s well received Rise of the Dawncrusher album they play with the confidence that whilst their riffs may not differ from many bands playing this fest’ few can approach the sheer weight they bring to them. It’s a hypnotic low end siege to the senses that makes for a fitting end to proceedings.
To pull something like Red Sun off in Cardiff – where crowds can be fickle and with bands sometimes reluctant to cross the Severn Bridge – is impressive once; to cement it as a fixture in the calendar is no mean feat. It must be said that this year missed Clwb Ifor Bach’s involvement, but on the plus side the Gravity Station, now a permanent fixture in the Full Moon, is a welcome addition. I finished the weekend utterly spent, having been riffed senseless for 3 days, with my liver feeling battered and my brain feeling bruised. It may take me a year to recover – after which I, along with the heavy loving folks of Cardiff, will be more than ready for Red Sun III.