Focus Wales 2014 officially kicks off with an eclectic bill of ten recording artists across two stages at Central Station in Wrexham.
Art rockers Blood Lips get things started with their experimental indie rock. The 3-piece prove to be multi-instrumentalists, with the two guitarists also playing keyboards and all the members sharing vocal duties, fitting their varying singing styles to fit each song. This is experimental but accessible and brings to mind bands like Editors. With no clear bass player (the guitarists occasionally employ a bass tone Jack White-style to account for this) the guitar lines hit you hard. A great start to the evening.
On the other stage, a girl dressed in fluorescent clothing leaps onto a man dressed in a full suit and a bunny head. This is Mizkai. DJ Kairi Mori, looking like Lady Gaga if she was a character in Pokémon, wires two Nintendo Gameboys through a mix desk to create trance and dance music which is entirely unique. “Is this a good introduction to Gameboy music?” asks Mori, as the bunny hops in front of the stage and a second girl in fluorescent clothing does the splits. It’s psychedelic, trippy and really quite brilliant. It’s just a shame that she’s on so early in the night; the 8pm audience are just filtering in and seem reluctant to rave just yet.
The Undivided are a four-piece stadium rock group in the vein of Kings of Leon. Pumping bass-lines, major chords and heavy use of “woah oh oh” backing vocals are the order of the day here. Their new single “Breathe” is set to be played on local radio, lead singer and guitarist Joe Disson informs the audience. With their anthemic sound, it wouldn’t be a shock to see these boys at Reading and Leeds Festival in the next few years.
Electronic pop duo Half Avian produce a sound which is ambient, intelligent and immersive. Mike Payne and Maff Stenning create music which is beautiful and atmospheric. They seem like the wrong choice for this point in the evening. It’s now 9pm and the crowd are ready to dance; perhaps Half Avian and Mizkai should have been switched. Despite this, the duo’s electro sound is utterly brilliant and impresses the rapidly growing audience.
It’s always a good sign when a band playing music so loud it hurts your ears indicate to the sound desk that they want the mix even louder. Steel Trees are that band. The powerful and heavy rock sound created by these boys belies the fact that they have but three members. With an alternative rock sound with a clear grunge influence which draws on bands like Dinosaur Jr, Steel Trees have an incredible sound which is enhanced by the band’s stage presence and energy. Accompanied by raw backing vocals, pumping basslines and energetic drum-lines, lead singer Tom Hannon whips his guitar around the stage until his guitar strap comes loose. This is rock music played as it should be; big and loud.
With the audience’s ears still ringing from the previous act, the sweet pop sound of Baby Brave is a welcome change in proceedings. The Wrexham four-piece create a jangly, folky pop sound which brings to mind acts like The Magic Numbers and Talking Heads. Their sing-along pop gets the crowd dancing and prompts singer and guitarist Emmi Manteau to proclaim, “This is good for a Wednesday evening, isn’t it? Start as we mean to go on!” Indeed.
Orient Machine’s alternative / progressive rock makes for a fascinating experience. With a heavy distorted guitar tone and the vocalist alternating between shouting and screeching, this is a thoroughly immersive experience. Extended instrumentals are enhanced by a light show and half of Wrexham’s yearly dry ice supply. Enigmatic and confrontational, this is an impressive set.
New Wave act Bloodflower play the smaller stage, despite having enough equipment to populate a small country. The conditions may be cramped but the variety of equipment – including extra snare drums, drum machines, keyboards and laptops – creates a stunning sound inside such a relatively small venue. Vocalist Jonnie Owen has an incredible vocal range, something he enhances further with the use of a loop pedal and two microphones to create multi-layered vocals. Their half hour set flies by, and with timings between the two stages becoming tight, Owen has to beg the organisers to let the band play their final song. He shouldn’t have to. They’re the best act of the night.
Bastions’ first chord hits you like a ten tonne truck. Loud and heavy, this Hardcore four-piece’s sound almost takes the crowd aback. Bathed in red light, vocalist Jamie McDonald stalks around the stage like a man possessed, while the heavy guitar and bass tone engulfs the assembled audience. The whole band throw all their passion and energy into this performance and the vocalist is audibly breathing heavily as he thanks the audience, in between songs. It’s the kind of performance which leaves an audience breathless too. “It’s such a beautiful thing that music can bring people together like this,” McDonald enthuses before they rip into the next song. By the set’s conclusion, McDonald has collapsed to his knees as the other band member’s furiously headbang around him. It’s a fitting end to a tremendous set. Relentless. Exhausting. Brilliant.
Camera’s accessible rock closes the night’s proceedings and the local favourites are a good choice to do so. The 5-piece’s set, infused with influences of Elbow and Radiohead, goes down a treat with the audience, who dance and sing along joyfully with the music. It proves a fitting end to a great first night of Focus Wales 2014.