The crop of musicianship and musical talent in the Edinburgh scene is otherworldly. The bar is getting pushed to such a rate that I'm almost happy not to be musically inclined myself. It’s almost intimidating to just watch from the sidelines and to witness all the new flavours and genres and new things that come out. There is just so much variation.
A darkness will descend upon Scotland’s capital in a week’s time. Sonic Dissonance is a new extreme metal festival held across three venues in the Cowgate, at the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town.
Simon Mernagh caught up with Bailey Junior, the festival’s key architect and creative lead, over a coffee amid some blazing sunshine at Pilrig Park to discuss the festival’s past, present and future.
E&D: What’s in a name? Where did ‘Sonic Dissonance’ come from?
Bailey: I hate it when festivals call themselves ‘something fest’; SlaughterFest, Damnation Festival and others spring to mind.
At the beginning of this process, we organisers all agreed that we didn’t want to add another ‘Something Fest’ to the world. One night, Ali [Lauder] and I were just having a chat and we thought: let’s try to find and rank words to put together which could illustrate what we wanted to happen at the festival.
We’re expecting a lot of dissonant, horrible tunes which will, of course, be consumed sonically, so the name just came together naturally. The name should paint a picture of what to expect.
E&D: Where did the idea of having a festival come from?
Bailey: Let’s take it back one step further. I’ve been a part of the Edinburgh metal scene for about 20 years. Now, I work in pretty much every venue in town. I’ve done almost every role in a gig aside from handling audio, from stage managing the Red Crust Festival to working with the bands who came through Bannerman’s Bar for a few years. I started Scapegoat, an underground, grassroots podcast and interview platform to support the metal scene with media products for the bands. It reached a point where I had accrued a lot of knowledge vicariously through other projects I’d worked on and assisting the lead organisers in various projects.
I have had some negative health developments in recent months, and I felt that if I was going to organise an event, it would have to be soon. So, myself and Ali Lauder (Of Spire & Throne, Ageless Summoning, Void of Light) pulled the trigger on the starting gun, with Chris Ryan (Party Cannon) also on hand to help. At my birthday part last year, almost jokingly at first, I proposed organising a festival. Literally the following morning, both of them came back with a list of bands that could potentially play the fest. Everything flowed from there.
E&D: Is it fair to say that you identified a gap in the market, as Edinburgh is not very well-known for its metal festivals.
Bailey: Yes and no. I can happily say that, hand on heart, this is the healthiest state the Edinburgh metal scene has been in for twenty years. There are so many bands playing so many different genres of metal simultaneously. The ‘graduating class’, or the ones which have broken through, have played major festivals and received critical acclaim for their records. Bands like Ashenspire, Frontierer and Endless Swarm have all played gigantic festivals in mainland Europe. A couple of them are going to America and Asia. Although the general scene is very healthy right now, I would say that the doom and thrash scenes are particularly well catered for, as well as grind and some death metal.
The crop of musicianship and musical talent in the Edinburgh scene is otherworldly. The bar is getting pushed to such a rate that I’m almost happy not to be musically inclined myself. It’s almost intimidating to just watch from the sidelines and to witness all the new flavours and genres and new things that come out. There is just so much variation. Festivals like Damnation, Roadburn and DunaJam do something far more catered to a niche but ravenous audience. We wanted to set up an equivalent in Edinburgh. For its many fans in Scotland, we want tectonically slow doom, such that it will bore half the audience to death, but we also want 250 BPM grind. Both will be represented at Sonic Dissonance.
A seed that started my thinking on this was when I had booked the Japanese band Friendship to play the city. Sadly, Covid scuppered the plan, but Endless Swarm was going to be on the bill alongside another couple of bands. So many bands practically begged to book them on this bill because, in their words, they don’t fit in this thrash or doom scene at the moment. Without detracting from those scenes, there simply is a lot of it.
When major bands such as Sleep or Electric Wizard play the likes of Desert Fest in London and attract other nice acts, we try to coax some of the tertiary bands up here in Scotland. If you’re colouring in a picture, you probably never only use one. You don’t trust someone who has only read one book. The more that any scene starts to close its borders, that’s when it goes downhill, We need an offering which encourages folk from all around to come to our shores. Our goal is to get a straightforward 50/50 split between local artists and those from further afield, and for plenty of handshakes in that room.
E&D: You made a conscious decision to try and have it 50/50 in terms of local and international or further fields at least. Why did you take this approach?
Bailey: I encourage others to try new bands. Without thinking that ‘Bailey knows best’, I find myself saying the likes of ‘if you like that, you’ll probably love this’. It’s about expanding our horizons and supporting bands by simply giving them a shot.
It still cuts me up inside that good friends of mine will spend hundreds pounds to go and see Metallica, Iron Maiden and the like, but you won’t see them at the local show. It’s important to bolster the lower end of the spectrum. I know that some lurkers in those crowds would love smaller, more niche bands.
I’ll tell you a story. About five or six years ago, myself and my pal Duncan watched a post-metal band called Hundred Year Old Man play to eight people. Impressed, Duncan added them to his Red Crust Festival last year. We put them on just before Conan and there was 700 people that lost their mind. Tears were shed, because the music was so emotional and it took over people’s bodies, like the folk were just slack-jawed, holding their pints, not even drinking.
We had an inkling that Conan fans might dig their music, despite the radically different styles. It went well for them at Red Crust, and now they’ve got another territory to go to. But without this kind of intervention, the next time they played Edinburgh again may have only been for another handful of people.
E&D: You mentioned some international festivals, but in terms of a comparison closer to home, I was reminded of Glasgow’s North of the Wall when looking at the Sonic Dissonance lineup.
Bailey: Yeah, there are similarities: not only in terms of the diversity of the bands, but also the fact that it’s split over three venues, each a hop, skip and jump from each other. It was definitely an inspiration. I’ve also been lucky enough to go to Damnation a good few times, latterly with a press pass, so I granted a peek behind the curtain. Gavin McInally, who runs Damnation, is another inspiration. The original venue (Leeds University) is effectively multiple venues If you literally cut the floors out and then put them next to each other. This is pretty much the square footage that we’re doing at Sonic Dissonance.
I think the penny definitely dropped when Damnation moved to the BEC Arena in Manchester, essentially one big, fuck-off warehouse. The first time, I was sitting there and thought ‘this is literally the same amount of steps between the metal venues in Edinburgh’. People are happy to move. Initially, I was so worried that if fans are at a stage, would they want to walk five minutes to another venue? 10 minutes to go get a beer and then go to another venue? Then I realised that folk at Desert Fest travel a fair distance between venues.
When you’re not at an arena or a uni campus, you just follow the congregation of black t-shirts. You’ll know whether you’re going in the right direction.
E&D: Why did you choose these three venues? For the benefit of any readers unfamiliar with Edinburgh’s geography, two of the venues are basically attached, and the other is a very short walk away.
Bailey: Yeah, the Banshee Labyrinth and Bannerman’s are pretty much neighbours. If you were in a drunken stupor, you could fall out of one door and into another without realising you’re suddenly in a different pub. The other bar, Legends, has undergone a number of name changes over the years, but it’s just down the road. You could throw a stone and you can hit it as well. All in all, we have a capacity of about four or five hundred across all of the venues.
I’m a visually-orientated person. When I started the project, I instantly imagined a conga line of metalheads moving between venues up and down the Cowgate. The idea took over like a drug. I could see the dark mist of one band finishing and another one starting, while bemused tourists and musically uninclined locals looking on bemused as the black t-shirt brigade takes over half of one of the most popular streets in Edinburgh. It’s almost like a coming out party. We’re here and we’re proud of it.
I’ve found that metal gigs in Edinburgh are quite demure and hidden away. There’s less mixing happening in the crowds. I think this contrasts with places like Glasgow. Crowds in Edinburgh have simmered down a lot. I don’t want it to turn into a Bosch painting every single time a band starts but sometimes that’s necessary, right? It doesn’t have to be extreme in any way, shape, or form, but crowd participation needs to come back in Edinburgh. Bands that have played and worried about how they went down with what they perceived as a lukewarm crowd, despite selling out the show. Jocular energy is literally what I’m looking for.
By way of contrast, Wormrot played Glasgow a couple of months ago, and something magical happened. Shortly after the music started, the audience split into thirds. The crowd surfers were at the front, alongside those who were climbing on the stage and jumping off. An intense pit engulfed the middle, and then at the back was all the old folks nodding along. Nobody was accidentally in the wrong part. It was like a hive mind: everyone knew what to do the second it started. I just thought that this was wonderful. That also gave me inspiration for this festival because I’m putting on a lot of angry bands, and it may get a bit out of hand at times. I want people to feel able to cut loose in a safe environment, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on the rooms to make sure everyone’s safe and sound.
E&D: Have I identified something of a Warhammer theme with the imagery? I’ve noticed that the three different venues appear to have distinct characters in the poster, for example.
Bailey: The visual identity of Sonic Dissonance came together organically. To step back a little bit, one of my first projects was a music video for Party Cannon. It used Street Fighter-inspired graphics and featured Dani Filth beating up the whole Party Cannon crew. That was the first thing I’d ever animated. What a place to start! It turned out well, and I decided that this art style would be my weapon of choice. If folk came to me for anything animated, it will be sprite art, and this remains my specialty. I consider the venues to each have unique identities, with contrasting layouts and features. They also boast different punters, and many of their clientele would have loyalty to one bar but perhaps not the others. So, I saw that like choosing your character in a video game. I made the ‘hero’ for each venue, followed by a map of the overall space and the layout plan for each venue in 2.5 dimensions. We then made the bad guy, the demon skull overseer of the festival. You know when you buy a special edition of a game like Dark Souls and a figurine of a character from the game is included? Well, I’ve made about 50 3D models of these skulls. [shows a picture].
E&D: That is horrifying. I love it.
Bailey: Yeah! The first 50 people through the door will be given one, and we have made a couple for bands who already pre-ordered theirs in certain colours. Again, imagine that conga line is walking between Legends and the Banshee holding 50 skeleton heads! In terms of merch, we’ve also produced a limited edition of the small, 32mm, Warhammer 40,000 standard models. Each one of them comes in its own individual box wrapped with the layout and spare bases, like what one would expect with a purchase from a White Dwarf shop.
I was toying with the idea of making the skull into the festival ‘mascot’. Think of Download festival. They tried with their little Download dog. Where’s that gone? Ditto with Bloodstock’s demon head or Wacken’s cow skull. I think they’re all missed opportunities, and I wanted to have a better go in my little DIY sort of way.
In a sense, I’m trying to fill the gaps I’ve noticed in other, larger festivals, despite the small scale of Sonic Dissonance. If I can do it with a tiny budget and way fewer resources, then why aren’t they doing it? You know what I mean? Everyone can print a t-shirt, and I’ve done that too. Well, you can also 3D print your own models. It’s about trying to build a little bit more of an atmosphere. We’re actually building a video game HUD right for each of the stages: there will be a life bar and a mana bar on every stage. When the band’s playing it literally looks like it’s a video game screen. We just need to make sure that they’re sturdy enough, that they’ll last the duration.
I would doubt that anyone will know every single band on that bill. If they’re taking a punt on me to curate their audio playlist, then I’ve got to put as much effort into the overall experience. I’m hoping to build something for folk to latch onto, instead of just offering another bunch of bands. Let’s make it its own thing which stands out.
I would love it if bands took a similar approach. Of course a band could print vinyl or produce a run of tapes. Actually, what about a bunch of sweat bands because they’re all gym bunnies, or protein shake containers? Make something that makes sense for the person or band that’s doing it. But it’s not a cookie cutter thing. If you are making your own standalone thing, make it stand alone. That’s the philosophy I’m trying to practice with the festival.
E&D: I think it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of ambition and drive. Where do you see the festival going future?
Bailey: That is a difficult one. I’m for another one happening. Maybe. I hope that the name will carry on, perhaps without me in the driving seat. I wanted to do a ‘one and done’ by making the thing that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m more than happy to be the co-pilot like as I’ve done before with a couple of the old guard in the scene. I’m up for collaborating, but I personally very much doubt that I will be putting as much effort into a singular event as this one, but as I say, if someone else wants me to help with brainstorming or a concept, my little black book and I are all ears. I’m leaving it open-ended. I want to help the local scene as best I can, whether that involves the Sonic Dissonance branding or not. If you’ve got a decent enough amount of bands and you’ve got a vision, then I would love to help.
There is only a limited amount of time that I can then still do stuff in the scene. I’m trying to break every barrier for entry down for folk. Take my art studio as an example. If there’s a paintbrush, pencil, canvas, spray paint, rendering farm of computers, cameras or anything else that you need, I’ll help you out. I keep on looking back at my 14 year-old, disenfranchised self and think, ‘what would I need’? I want to make that happen for the community at large. I want to leave a little bit more of a solid foundation for the next graduating class behind me.
E&D: I’ll ask that question that nobody wants to answer. Obviously, you’re happy for everyone to be on the lineup, but is there anyone in particular that you’re excited to either have on the lineup or to personally see?
Bailey: Frankly, I’m still amazed that Abyssal agreed. They’ve toured with Mayhem and are black metal royalty. Musically, they are quite strange, and so visceral in the live context. Having them do a sonic black mass around midnight in a dank cave is going to be insane. I asked them whether they would want to play at a 17th century cave and they were fully on board.
Otherwise, I’m good friends with the guys from Wallowing. They play tectonically-paced space doom. The call themselves ‘Wobblenauts’ and they play in beekeeper outfits with illuminated chest pieces. Simply put, they are nuts. Mastiff are always a gut-punch, sludgey black metal of a totally different grade. I’m looking forward to see them absolutely level the place. Deus Vermin are amazing too, an absolute black metal tornado, with one of the most shrill vocal styles. It will cut your soul.
I could sit here all day listing off names. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I am excited to see every single name on that poster. There’s a reason why every band is on the bill: each one of them brings something different to the table.
E&D: Thank you for this fascinating interview. Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers?
Bailey: I just want to give a shoutout to my co-conspirators and enablers Ali Lauder and Chris Ryan. They’ve helped me tenfold, as have the venues. I’m so grateful to the many folk who have encouraged me with my weirdness. The community has rallied around me since I’ve started to become more and more ill, and I’m quite humbled
Separately, the good guys at City Cafe have kindly agreed to offer patrons of the festival a reduced menu, with prices off food and drink. It will also act as an overflow space for anyone who feels a little overstimulated or in need of some relative tranquility away from the chaos.
Aside from that, I would encourage your readers to arrive at Sonic Dissonance with an open mind. If you’re there and you like one weird band, just know that another, differently interesting band is waiting on another stage. If you are a black metal fan and you see that there’s a slam death metal band on, you may not instinctively gravitate towards them. But just let the vibe and the spirit of the festival take over. I hope that any reservations about a particular style would dissipate by the second or third band that plays.