The inner city festival tends to be seen as the poorer cousin of the proper mud n’ tents experience. To be fair there are some definite downsides to the urban version: you don’t get the scenery, there’s no camping for that communal experience and there aren’t any dodge ‘ems for you to struggle to keep down your 8 pints of overpriced Tuborg on. Also there’s all that hoofing it between venues past KFC and pound shops which kind of takes you out of the festival vibe. It’s not quite the Experience with a capital E that leads so many people to stump up exorbitant ticket prices before they even know who’s playing.
Cardiff though has a couple of secret weapons up its sleeve. I’m not sure if it’s by accident or design but most of its best gig venues are all on the same backstreet within literal spitting distance. The street is also a stone’s throw from a beautiful park and an actual castle – if scenery is your bag then even Glastonbury doesn’t have a damn castle. Without all the schlepping between stages and with the one major advantage to the city festival – drinks prices that won’t make your wallet bleed – Red Sun is off to a good start.
And then there’s the line-up. Red Sun are new upstarts to the festival game but they’ve clearly been doing their homework on the UK scene– there’s a slew of weird and wonderful bands from across the heavy spectrum from pummeling hardcore through sludge to bluesy stoner, psych, punk and all sorts of glorious surprises in between. There may not be many names recognisable to the casual fan perhaps but they’ve pulled in bands from all over these fair isles to create a unique showcase for the UK underground. On paper it’s an excellent place for bands to introduce themselves to new audiences and for the uninitiated to get a feel for the state of the heavy scene we have here at home. And with the whole weekend costing £20 there’s little dent in the festival punters beer money. So it would have been foolish not to head on down and see what’s what even if I wasn’t doing the lords work and writing words on it for E&D.
Kicking things off in Fuel Haast’s Eagled set a suitably gloomy and fuzzy tone for the weekend. A decent few people had managed to make it in from work for the 6:10pm start and they were treated to a few lengthy doom numbers with a decidedly grunge streak. They’ve got a versatile singer who switches between a despondent, low, Nick Cave-esque croon to more Chris Cornel style wail with some growls and more straight forward rock vocals in between. Some of which works better than others – the higher pitched vocal fails him a couple of times early in the set before he’s warmed to the task. But with some suitably moody slow paced fuzz and a lively drummer they pull in a few different directions – it’ll be interesting to see where they go.
Next up in Fuel were The Death of Her Money who sped things up ever so slightly with some fierce, lurching alt-rock with heavily distorted vocals that brought to mind the weirder end of the Amphetamine Reptile stable of off-kilter 90s bands like Chokebore, Barkmarket et al. They had to battle some technical issues – guitar pedals not behaving, the drummer smashing his way through a snare during the second song – but they put in an early contender for most intense performance of Red Sun with some focused, closed-eyed screaming and, y’know, did I mention they smashed their way through a snare drum? They may not have had their best night here but they were certainly intriguing enough to warrant further investigation.
Still in Fuel we had a bit of a wait for The Art of Burning Water who took their sweet time in getting started. Eventually their AWOL bassist made his way to the stage so late that they had little chance to properly sound check and had to instead launch straight into a gnarled, messed up blend of hardcore/d-beat/metal/crust/etc and immediately proved worth the wait. With an excellent sense of dynamics, flitting between furious balls-to-the-wall speed and slowing it down for some massive headbanging moments ,they made a few converts of the curious who wandered in to catch them – myself included.
I had to wrench myself away before the end to head next door to the Moon Club to catch. Any regret at leaving TAOBW behind were quickly washed away as they pulled out the first ‘whoa shit!’ moment of the festival. It’s almost trite to point out when a 2 piece manage to make a racket befitting a bigger band these days but VAILS sounded truly monolithic. Me, I always think of Big Business when confronted with a heavy bass/drum combo and there were a few moments reminiscent of their rumbling metal style, but overall they’re a more traditional stoner rock oriented proposition, happy to lock into a riff and hammer it mercilessly into your skull. Their bassist/vocalist has no right to pull the tar-gurgling bellows out of his small frame – a man his size should not sounding like a late-period Tom Waits. And yet he does. Their set was greeted with the majestic sight of a room full of heads banging in unison and received a reception almost as huge as their gargantuan sound.
By this stage of the evening the mood was high and the beer was flowing – something Trippy Wicked had evidently been taking full advantage of. Their singer/guitarist was visibly worse for wear, apologising between songs for his inebriated state. He needn’t have bothered – sure, it’s likely one of the sloppier performances they’ll have put in but they were having so much fun it didn’t really matter and their straight up upbeat stoner rock stylings made for perfect bouncing around drunk material. The solos may have suffered but the riffs kept everyone smiling. They were due to play an acoustic set later in the evening – given how they looked at this point the smart money was on them not making it.
Some changes to the stage times meant I could dash straight over and catch Lacertilia in Clwb Ifor Bach (N.B. I’m told by the locals this translates as The Welsh Club, but I’m slightly suspicious they may be messing with me). They’d already started when I walked in and I was not prepared the sight that awaited me – their long haired vocalist was wearing a poncho that looked not unlike a rug, some tight space-themed leggings with tiger heads on the knees, big black boots, some poorly applied face paint and, inexplicably, a pair of pink rubber gloves. It was, shall we say, a bold look. Questionable sartorial choices aside the South Wales 5 piece were rampaging through their heavily Kyuss indebted fuzzed up rock set and the first few rows were going wild. Mr Pink Marigolds crawled through the crowd during the calmer moments, writhing around between bemused audience members, whilst mosh pits erupted around him. The numbers weren’t quite enough to make crowd surfing a possibility but the by now pretty drunk audience were undeterred, doing some carrying folks-around-for-a-bit instead. When the singer crawled out into the crowd for a final time he was forcibly raised into the air, belting out the song whilst doing a circuit of the room atop some wild eyed crowd members. It was quite the spectacle – half of the room didn’t know what to make of it. The other half couldn’t stop grinning.
Then it was back to the Moon Club for Friday’s headliners Desert Storm who had a fairly intoxicated audience to play with and straight from the off their bluesy stoner grooves got them going. They left me a little cold – as a huge Clutch fan I couldn’t help but be distracted by just how many of their moves are ripped straight from Maryland’s finest’s playbook. To be fair to them they’re damn good at it – tight as a coiled spring, they jam with swagger topped off with a pitch-perfect young Neil Fallon-esque voice. But it was all a bit too familiar to these ears. I seemed to be in the minority however – if anyone else noticed the similarity they were too busy shaking their boozed up asses to care. Once they’d done a fair number of the attendees headed to one of the 3 club nights between the venues to choose from, looking like they’d overdone things and forgotten there were another couple of days left to go..
It’d just gone 1pm when the festival goers who had managed to haul themselves in for the early shift gathered in Fuel looking a bit peaky. I doubt I was the only one cursing to whoever decided Conjurer should get things under way – they aren’t the most hangover friendly of bands. They play metal with a capital flying V, shifting in gears between thrash, death and groove metal and even slowing down for some doomy moments as well. Their twin vocalists contrast nicely, a fine mix of guttural roars and shrieks. For a band yet to commit their work onto record beyond demos they’ve already got an impressive set and play with ferocious confidence. Due to a band pulling out they were given a second set a couple of hours later – much to their confusion (“we’ll be playing mostly the same stuff…um, maybe we’ll throw in some Conjurer covers…”). They had a decent crowd and hopefully a fresh bunch of potential converts for that one too – its early days but they’re well worth keeping an eye on.
At this early stage I felt the need to keep moving lest I fall asleep in a corner so I charged straight upstairs to the Moon Club to catch ANTA’s set. Once I’d stopped staring at the drummer’s fabulously ostentatious gong I fell into a trance – they ply their trade in the kind of instrumental post-rock that requires pedal boards big enough to surf on, and whilst they were on the heavier end of that scale they still play as if to inspire more chin stroking than head banging, which made for a welcome change of pace from all the relentless heaviosity that had been on display thus far.
The Cosmic Nod went a step further into more meditative territory with some spaced-out psych jams. In an ideal world they would have started the day; their relaxed guitar noodlings would have been much easier on our sore heads. Enjoyment of their set depended on your tolerance for guitar heavy jam sessions, the length of which was determined only by how long they have left on stage. For me their laid back grooves made perfect sense and made for an immensely enjoyable set – there’s a risk they’d get a bit dull on their own but in this context they were just the ticket.
Back down in Fuel The Brackish made it a hat trick of instrumental acts for me. An already eclectic day just kept getting more diverse – I was now faced with some heavily jazz infused rock. Technical and busy without descending into smugness they did almost tip into overly polite coffee shop territory once or twice, but they had enough of an edge and sense of fun about them to get away with it. The closing track, ‘Surfs Down’ was particularly enjoyable – an interesting twist on old surf rock music it seemed to catch a few late-coming audience members by surprise and earned them an enthusiastic ovation.
I figured I may as well make this festival double up as an extreme calf workout and went back up yet more stairs to the Moon Club for Repo Man, where the day got weirder still. There is a mural of John Peel’s face on the outer wall of Clwb Ifor Bach which you get a good view of on the way into the gig room at the Moon Club, featuring the legend, “Keep it Peel.” Of all the bands at Red Sun Repo Man lived up to that motto the most: if the great man were still around he’d probably have them in session every other week. A choppy blend of post-punk/pre-Britpop indie/Slint informed post rock they manage that classic old trick of appearing totally shambolic whilst playing pretty tightly wound songs. Their vocalist is a sight and sound to behold – part punk-poet, part street corner preacher drunk on visions of some total collapse, he rants and raves atop the din in a manner not unlike The Fall’s Mark E Smith, stopping occasionally to add to the racket with some sax or violin. The only trouble with their set was some annoyingly muddy sound – they may have spat more words than anyone else over the weekend but the vast majority of them were completely unintelligible. But the passion cut through regardless and made for an exciting and unusual performance.
There are a good few 2 piece acts showing up the idea of the power trio as excessive and decadent these days; adding a guitar to the mix is starting to look like a bourgeois proposition. Alonsgside VAILS we also had Clay Statues making a case for this: their punkish driving rock served with a harsh, screaming edge is so potent that I got the feeling a guitar would just get in the way. Their bass riffs are more than enough to create a mean sound, the mix of wanton heaviness and poppy structures bringing to mind old favourites like Therapy? and The Wildhearts, albeit with a dash of post-hardcore thrown into the mix. They started the set with audience members thin on the ground but ended it with a rapturous crowd and I heard their name mentioned a few times out in the communal area between venues throughout the night. It’s safe to say they made a few friends at Red Sun – and rightly so.
Clwb Ifor Bach had decided to switch to the upstairs room for the Saturday adding an extra couple of flights of stairs to ascend and bolster my impromptu calf strengthening project. Opium Lord were already in full swing when I made it to the top – though ‘full swing’ might indicate a bit more pace than what was on offer. They play slow, miserable, myopic sludge/doom metal that sags with raging disappointment. The singer paced round in circles in the gap between the stage and the audience, screaming at the ceiling, occasionally wandering into the middle of the crowd and dispensing with the mic so he could screech unaided amidst the gathered doom lovers. Everyone nodded slowly, looking as if they’d just been told their cat had just died. Then on the stairs back down they could be seen grinning and shouting, “that was fucking awesome!” Doom fans are a strange bunch..
Shortly afterwards Ten Foot Wizard were whipping up a storm in the Moon Club with a good ol’ southern rock boogie. Just as intent on getting hips shaking as they are making heads nod they have the crowd eating out of the palm of their collective hand from the first note onwards. That is until they felt the need to go down a Clutch-esque jam alley and slow their momentum down for a while. It seemed a bit unnecessary for a festival set with a well warmed up crowd but it didn’t last too long – before you knew it they were serenading us with their romantic love ballad Covered in Tits and capping off their set with some wild Theremin solo action.
Back in Clwb Ifor Ibach merry doomsters Spider Kitten were kicking off their set. Doom is one of those genres that is either brilliant or awful and rarely anything in between. For a few tracks Spider Kitten were the former, despite some sound issues meaning one of the three vocalists was far too high in the mix. Then they played a couple of untitled and seemingly unfinished tracks and a Zappa cover that didn’t really work in their slovenly plodding style. They’re clearly a work in progress and showed signs they were on their way to something great but they aren’t quite there yet.
For me the one real mis-step of the line-up over the weekend was having Steak, Bongcauldron and Thought Forms all clash on Saturday evening. I agonised over which I’d rather see and opted for Thought Forms as they offered something that no one else did at Red Sun. I’m not sure what the other two rooms looked like but Clwb Ifor Bach was half empty for their set – as well as splitting the audience it felt to me like opening the upstairs didn’t really seem necessary as the crowd wouldn’t have come close to over-filling the smaller downstairs room. Those who were present seemed to enjoy the set all the same, though given the eye closed trance like vibe they inspire that wasn’t visibly obvious. Their woozy, dreamy jams are a crucible of My Bloody Valentine, post-rock, Sonic Youth and a whole lot of other influences that coalesce into some awkward yet meditative grooves. The crowd stood silent and closed eyed throughout, lost in their ghostly realm. It was strange fit for the festival admittedly but a fine set from a band I’d been hoping to catch for a while.
However they were no kind of preparation for Saturday’s headliners Hogslayer. It’s safe to say they were the most hyped band on the bill with more buzz about them than a big ol’ sack o’ bees and The Moon Club was jam packed with the excited and the curious. It was either genius or madness to not put them in the much larger room in Clwb Ifor Bach – they could have pretty much filled that place but it wouldn’t have had the same kind of sweaty claustrophobia that aided the malevolent atmosphere they stoked up in the Moon Club. They kept the crowd waiting before starting, giving us a countdown from off stage while showing off an even more ostentatious gong than ANTA’s. Eventually they all walked on in matching black hoodies (apart from one guitarist who clearly missed the memo) wearing heavy camouflage face paint which, in the dark, made them look uncomfortably like some ill-advised emo minstrel act. They might want to reconsider that look..
But that thought quickly dissipated as they started playing and all hell broke loose. The pit went crazy. Bodies were raised and bodies fell – they weren’t so much crowd surfing as being offered to the gods, lifted high enough to punch the ceiling and play with the dangling lights. The singer stared wide eyed like a predator surveying potential prey, demanding more from the already crazed crowd. Some bands just want to watch the world burn. Musically they have been accused of being one paced on record, and live they do little to counter that – it’s a slow, sludgey form of brutality informed by the likes of Eyehategod, Crowbar and Will Haven. But it benefits from it’s relentlessness – it’s like being in an a boxing match where your opponent is clearly in a different league but has no intention of knocking you out – you’re just being punched in the face ceaselessly, methodically, rhythmically, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The crowd thinned a little as the set went on – this kind of intensity isn’t for everyone. But despite the frothing anger of the songs they couldn’t help but gush about the reception they received and the madness was all quite light hearted: at one point one of the girls working the bar next to the stage leapt into the crowd and was carried in a big u-turn to be placed triumphantly back on the bar. It’s a strange thing seeing so many people come together over something so trudgingly violent and full of rage. There’s probably a sociological paper in that, but that’s by the by – the point is that in the live arena Hogslayer justify the hype pretty comfortably.
Me and my festival comrade started the Sunday a little later on Sunday due to personal reasons I couldn’t possibly disclose (and definitely have nothing to do with us stopping up until 7am to watch a certain much anticipated boxing match) so we missed the first few bands of the day. Our final leg of the festival eventually started back in the Moon Club with the confusingly placed apostrophe of Akb’al. Theirs is a very 90s aesthetic– they look and sound like a forgotten gothy alt-metal band you might have heard on a Metal Hammer cover CD, or as if they’re auditioning to be on the soundtrack for the remake of The Crow. It’s all moody guitars, angtsy lyrics and bouncy technical basslines that wouldn’t be out of place in a nu-metal revival. Not quite my cup of tea but they got a good reception – and I heard nothing but good things about their acoustic set from later in the evening,
Our weary bodies couldn’t handle travelling far so we stayed to watch Aberdare’s Dead Shed Jokers. They were celebrating releasing their debut record, Peyote Smile, and despite having a fine line in comic stage banter and an irreverent style they’re clearly taking things very seriously – they were one of the best sounding bands of the festival. Musically they’re very much a retro-rock affair, taking quite a few moves Led Zepplin, performed with great energy and style. I got the feeling that their rather silly band name is one people might be hearing a lot more of.
Once they’d finished I felt a bit more energetic and headed over to Fuel to try and work out what was going on with Korsakoffs. Sadly I failed – they sound like they’re playing bits of all their favourite records in the same songs, lurching from US punk/post-hardcore to NWOBHM, MOR soft rock to doom, and a whole slew of other points in between. Most of their genre pit-stops were enjoyable but they didn’t really gel together and their songs didn’t quite add up to the sum of their parts. They were clearly enjoying themselves however and their mood was infectious – it was hard to come away from their set not feeling good even if you didn’t quite get into it.
Gulah were next on my to-see list in The Moon Club. They’re another band who have been drinking long and deep from that Kyuss well. And why not? They play straight ahead stoner riff-rock much like the kings of the desert themselves with a fair bit of Fu Manchu thrown in with some gritty, growling vocals. I’m not sure if the last part is a fixture of their sound – their singer apologised repeatedly for sounding rough and after spotting him at the front for a fair number of sets over the weekend I’m not surprised he wasn’t feeling in top shape. It suited him though and they brought some excellent driving riffs and smooth stoner grooves. Generic? Perhaps, but their flair for what they do was undeniable.
Speaking of generic Nomad were next up to bring some doomy metal. “We’re Nomad from Manchester and we’ve come to make some ridiculous noises,” they stated in one of the most brilliantly concise and true introductions I’ve ever heard. I didn’t quite get them myself – they riff long and slow and roar loud and true but there were little in the way of surprises or interesting flourishes. Perhaps at this point in the weekend their sound was a little too familiar, or perhaps they’re one for the real genre purists, but hey – they seemed to win over just about everyone but me.
A hat-trick of riff worship in the Moon Club was completed by the rather excellent Elephant Tree from London. You know you’re in for some spacey stoner magic when you see a sitar being tuned when you walk in, and they didn’t disappoint – lazy doomy grooves crowned by a majestic guitar tone with the sitar filling out the sound with a pleasing drone, it’s an infectious vibe they have going. They have a few tricks up their sleeve too – when the sitar player puts his instrument away and plays frontman he’s in possession of an excellent voice which suits their sound to a T, reminiscent of Sixty Watt Shaman frontman Daniel Soren. Even more promising was the fact that the highlight of their set was a new unrecorded song, giving a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come from them. They finished their set with a warped take on Wild Thing which worked much better than it had any right to, capping off one of the highlights of the weekend.
However if they were hoping to leave the festival as winner of the ‘best riffs of the weekend’ competition I was mentally judging then back downstairs in Fuel Thorun had other ideas. Instrumental stoner/doom/metal always brings to mind cult heroes Karma to Burn in my mind and there are moments where they stick to head down rock n’ roll where the comparison is unavoidable, but they have many other strings to their bow, occasionally veering off into the realms of post-metallers Russian Circles for instance. It can be hard to hold the attention of a crowd for a full set as an instrumental band at a festival and I’d be lying if I said they managed it throughout, but the high points were good enough to warrant that rare thing in live music – a genuine encore, where the band has started packing up and are coaxed into playing another track, rather than that usual fake trick of just walking off for a few seconds and walking back on. It was thoroughly deserved and showed the depth of their set as they launched into a track as good as anything they’d played thus far without a second thought.
Bast came next. Bast are heavy. Really heavy. They play an experimental take on black metal with a twist of Neurois esque-post metal and crushing doom, wielded with effect that could be called psychedelic if it didn’t feel like being crushed under the weight of the sun. I’ll level with you – at this point in the festival it was too much for my brain could handle. The possibility of collapse was all too real. I made it half way through their set before I had to slink off for respite, vowing to check out their stuff later on. Having done so I wish I’d have been in a state to enjoy them properly as their ep Spectres is really quite impressive.
There was only one more band to close the festival and heading back to The Moon Club it felt a little like marching in for one last battle in what would be at best a pyrrhic victory. Thankfully that band were The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a much less heavy proposition than Bast for a fragile mind to handle. Many bands at Red Sun sounded like 70s throwbacks but Cloudesley really do look like they’d been thrust forward in time in a Delorian touring van. There’s more than a little Spinal Tap about them, albeit with a lot more self-awareness, with a merry cockney vibe one guy described to me as being like the rock n’ roll version of the saucy postcard style ‘Confessions of a…’ film series. They sound exactly how they look – big dumb classic rock played for shits and giggles by 3 guys who’ve turned writing these things into a craft, like they’re running some kind of British rock heritage society. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered at this stage and whilst the crowd may have suffered some attrition over the 3 days (an inevitable downside to having your festival in pubs) they drew a decent and lively crowd determined to wring every drop of fun out of the festival with some beer soaked singing and dancing.
And so Red Sun drew to a close and the crowds coalesced in the area between venues, as they had throughout the weekend, to smoke, drink, chat and swap stories. One thing a review can’t quite convey is the laid back community vibe that blossomed in this backstreet area and permeated throughout the three bars. Every band seemed blown away by the atmosphere, thanking Owen the organiser and anyone else they can think of from the stage. While chatting to a gentleman from Nottingham he tells me that Red Sun has been, “better than Desertfest” – admittedly he had obviously enjoyed a few black IPA’s from the Moon Club at this point and, crucially, also enjoyed not paying London prices for them. He also said something more revealing – he’d seen a fair chunk of the bands on the bill supporting bigger, often international bands while out on the circuit, and it was great to see them all in the same place. Which might make Red Sun sound like a parade of bridesmaids to Desertfest’s Bridal Convention, but that would be unfair – we have a habit of taking our homegrown bands for granted here and Red Sun provided a unique opportunity to see a great many of them at the same place and to check the pulse of the UK underground heavy scene. And it’s safe to say it’s in rude health.
If there are hopes to expand Red Sun and maybe tempt some of the bigger bands over the Severn bridge they may be hampered by Cardiff live scene’s big problem: the lack of a mid-sized venue between these fine little clubs and the arena round the corner. But for me I’m not sure that’s really necessary – “Throughout the weekend they were selling festival T-shirts which below the logo simply said, “One.” Everyone I spoke to coming away from Red Sun was saying the same thing: bring on Two.