The Weird Tale of Mutations Festival 2015

Back in the Year of our Lord 2015 Weird Metal Blog – accompanied this time by a mysterious individual known only as The Partner – ventured forth to the English coast to attend the inaugural edition of Brighton’s Mutations Festival, organised by One Inch Badge.

The Mutations Festival, spread across several venues in Brighton, was conceived with an implicitly Weird premise: “a creative mass of genre hybrids and expression,” promised the creators, “delivering some of the most inspiring, creative and interesting music the world has to offer.” So whether it’s Lightning Bolt’s mash-up of electro-dance music, bass-heavy rock and all-out messy noise, or Chelsea Wolfe’s blend of folk, doom and electronica, the line-up promised a weekend where genres slip and slide across each other effortlessly, where musicians step out of pre-conceived performance boundaries, and where the compound mass of it all bursts forth as some kind of new creature from behind the veil of musical conformity. If this approach produced an element of eclecticism and unpredictability, so much the better.

Beginning as an innocent jaunt, our trip quickly descended into an almost indescribably Weird tale of spontaneous strip-clubs, masked troubadours and disappearing venues. Overall our response to the festival was positive although a few crucial details dampened an otherwise great event. We present this account for you here, warts and all, though it may cost us all our sanity…

Confusion at The Old Market

The logistics of Mutations makes sense on paper: begin with several small venues running gigs concurrently, upgrading to fewer gigs at bigger venues with less clashes as the days progress. One day focussed on venues on the Hove side, the other on Brighton. Clutching an already much-studied Mutations line-up scroll that we printed and lovingly inscribed before the event with occult symbols and musical preferences, we shouldered the turbulent wind through Hove to find the first venue, The Old Market.

Yet no lights where on at the inn. After some four-letter words were exchanged, we compared our scroll with the similar timetable we’d collected at the ticket stall, and realised that there had been last-minute adjustments implied yet not made explicit on the new timetable. Our powers of divination were clearly at a low.

After a 15-minute walk back to Brighton we arrive at The Hope and Ruin – a 90 capacity pub venue whose name suggests something of our weekend’s endeavours – with time enough to catch a few songs from Saintseneca. This folk rock band from Ohio, playing Mutations on their first time abroad, made for a strong opening act with their hearty, earnest ballads, spiced up with surges of synth and unusual instrumentation such as the Turkish bağlama.

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Brooklyn indie rockers Widowspeak followed, charming the crowd with Molly Hampton’s deliciously smoky voice, and their Mazzy Star-esque dream pop, peppered with flavours of psychedelia and shimmery crescendos.

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The Church of Nobody

Feeling suitably comfortable and relaxed following such a laid-back band – establishing the ‘frame of normality’ that generally prefigures a horror tale – The Partner and I were unprepared for one of the undisputed Weird occurrences of the trip: the singular singer that is Willis Earl Beal. We’d heard Beal on Youtube, in traditional singer-songwriter mode with a powerful voice singing blues and soul numbers, accompanying himself with an acoustic. So when a black-clad figure with a fedora, Zoro mask, a cape, a stool, and only an iPod in the way of instrumentation, took to the stage, this was clearly going to be something far more odd.

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Beal’s show, its seems, has developed into performance art, with him standing on the stool, prowling dramatically with his cape, and never removing his mask. As soon as he opens his mouth, it was clearly the same guy, but this time crooning along to cheesy soul backing tracks from his iPod, with no live instruments. Beal exudes charisma, amusing and confusing the crowd in equal measure with his intentionally ironic banter. He asks us not to clap at all during his performance, which we adhere to until the very end, and assures us that “narcolepsy is okay.” Despite the occasional moments of raw, tender emotion he achieves, Beal tells us that “These songs are cliché. My emotions are cliché,” and that “I hate playing these songs.”

This kind of anti-art borders on the pretentious, where the performer slates their own art as they create it as a symbol of the something oppression of the something postmodern, non-representational, abstract something else. “Welcome to the Church of Nobody,” he says, but Beal is far from a blank everyman; he is an incredible singer, with a voice that I’m sure could easily bring audiences to tears. We’re not quite sure where his satire is directed here – at the audience, at himself, at certain genres of music or types of performers, or all of the above – and this makes the atmosphere a little tense, the laughter uneasy.

Pretty soon though, people start to get the joke and we’re able to enjoy it for the weird and memorable event that it is. There are more comic moments when audience members totally fail to grasp Beal’s humour. Upon hearing him state that “I do a bad British accent”, a women scoffs in reply “Yeah but which region – Newcastle?”, to which Beal responds “I do a bad black accent, too.”

Beal is called back for an encore, where he performs a self-penned ballad a cappella, to rapturous applause. No one really seems to know what happened but Beal is hugged and congratulated as he makes his way back through the crowd, whom I’m sure like myself are keen to hear that voice on something a little less ironic.

The Church of Somebody

From the Church of Nobody to somewhere much more grandiose: All Saints Church. This beautiful nineteenth century Anglican church in Hove was an inspired choice of venue, although its location at least a 30 minute walk from Brighton centre was less well conceived.

By the time get there from The Hope and Ruin, we’ve missed the majority of Irish dance/rock/pop duo All Tvvins‘s set, as have many others. It’s not Weird sitting in a grand 850 capacity venue with around 15 other people in the crowd, it’s just a little depressing. All Tvvins soldier on, playing up-lifting Midnight Juggernauts-esque anthems with vigour and energy despite the unfortunate situation, clearly pleased to be playing such a venue.

Wolves and Water

Returning to The Old Market, we’re glad this time to see the glow of lights that promise warmth, fellow festival goers and local band Written In Waters. Again we miss the start of their set due to the distance between venues, walking in to be instantly impressed as aptly-named front-woman Beth Cannon unleashes her incredible force-of-nature voice upon the hall.

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Dressed up in furs, sequins, short skirt and flouncy dress, Beth commands attention even before hearing her diverse, fiercely passionate singing.  Showcasing a huge vocal range Beth’s voice is elastic, achieving clear high notes one second before effortlessly switching to sultry low, almost growling tones. The black-clad band, hanging back playing it cool, reference some of our favourite artists – Bjork, PJ Harvey, Pink Floyd and the classic songbirds of jazz – and we decide pretty much instantly that we’ll be seeing Written in Waters again.

The Partner and I bought a Mutations ticket predominantly for Chelsea Wolfe, let’s get that out of the way: they can do little wrong in our eyes. Given her towering and intense stage presence, not to mention her ethereal beauty, it’s difficult not to feel like a blushing teenager around Chelsea herself, especially when you’ve positioned yourself a mere metre away from her and she hands the front row roses at the end of the set.

Like Beth, Chelsea’s voice is also a powerful centre-piece for her band, albeit in a subtler and moodier manner, and it’s on fine form tonight despite her struggle with illness on this tour. Tonight’s set list draws exclusively from their latest record Abyss (2015) – their most guitar heavy and Doom-laden to date – and its predecessor, just as dark yet more electronic in formulation, Pain is Beauty (2013).

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The songs on Abyss are especially notable for their dramatic use of dynamics, where a stripped-back verse strummed/sung just by Chelsea may be abruptly broken perfectly with the band crashing in full pelt, or dirty staccato power chords may stab through in atmospheric sections. They sound especially heavy tonight with Ben Chisholm – the band’s multi-instrumentalist member who plays mainly bass and synth live, yet co-writes much of their material and seems to conduct their performances – saving back some deep bass jabs from his box of tricks, in order to give the sound even more weight later in the set.

Watch out for Chelsea Wolfe: they’re set for greatness in 2016.

Satan is Real

Chelsea implored us to check out her “good friend” Josh T Pearson who’s playing over in the church shortly, so of course we do just that. This was another unexpectedly surreal performance. Josh T Pearson is a folk/country singer from Texas with a voice as immense and moving as his white ten-gallon-hat and matching suit combination is cheesy. The church haven’t arranged sound checks, so Josh entertains the crowd whilst tuning and checking his acoustic. Fortunately Josh has a fine repertoire of smooth deadpan one-liners, which send peels of laughter echoing into the intricate nave. “Phones off, vibrators on, Ladies,” he drawls, “I am available. All of this could be yours.”

The most memorable track from Pearson’s set is ‘Still Born to Rock’. “This one’s kinda heavy,” he tells us, taking a deep breath, and he’s absolutely right.  Beginning with the line ‘We were gonna have a baby’, the song deals with the stereotypical conflict where the musician’s wife provides the ultimatum: the music or me. He chooses music, of course, and that’s why he’s ‘still born’ to rock. That titular pun would be amusing if it were not so inappropriate and if the song were not so powerful – a soaring, heart-wrenching ballad that has the whole church transfixed.

He’s joined at one stage by a friend, a bearded chap clad in an all-black Wild West outfit, large cross around his neck, who provides vocal harmonies and winds his guitar chords around Josh’s. For this part of the show they play mainly obscure hymns such as ‘Satan is Real’ in order to ensure that these lost treasures do not vanish altogether.

Walking past Josh after the show, it seems that his banter did the trick as we see him pressed up against the wall in a corner, sucking face enthusiastically with a young lass, whilst his friend waits back in the church, watching the final act, Christopher Owens.

All Saints Church does Owens, former Girls frontman, few favours. It needs a strong soaring voice like Josh Pearson to fill its cavernous eaves, not a mild-mannered mutterer like Owens. For some his angsty miserablism may seem earnest and honest, but the Partner and I endure three songs before sneaking out to have our own after party back at the hostel…

…except that the bar we were told was open until late is closed and the cheesy techno seemingly drawn from a 90s’ computer game at floor-pounding volume is coming from underneath our nice quiet hostel room. What is it? Oh just The Pussycat Club getting started. Didn’t we tell you? Yeah, the hostel shares a building with a strip-club – have a great stay.

Day Two:

Alma play warm, glowing soundscape pop in the vein of Sigur Ros, carefully layering their sound to glorious noisy crescendos. As the first artist of the day, we couldn’t ask for anything more suitable and The Prince Albert – an intimate pub brimming with character – quickly fills up with folks who clearly feel the same.

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Aside from having an awesome name, Merlin Tonto are just the band for ratcheting up the energy a notch with their steady and trippy electro. Mixing live drums and bass with a whole host of synths and miscellaneous noise boxes, their sound could be mistaken for featuring a fair quota of improvisation – although this is clearly not the case when they unfortunately have to abandon one track due to a malfunctioning input.

The Monster and The Haunt

Steeling ourselves against the wind as we head toward the coast, we find The Haunt – a 375 capacity venue which the Guardian rather unfairly describes as recreating the feel of a student union bar. Dragging itself in slowly, a putrescent assemblage of sea wrack and primordial oceanic ooze, lumbers the Sea Bastard.

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This local crew deliver doom/sludge metal that’s so low-down and dirty you feel it in the gut, but importantly with enough groove to make the fair-sized crowd lurch and sway along. The stage is dominated by towering guitarist Oli and his monolithic Matamp stack, which delivers the tonal perfection and warm heaviness coveted in the doom scene, while vocalist Monty keeps banter to a minimum, rasping out sickening cries. Sea Bastard are infused with Weirdness, especially in the nautical imagery, ceremonial occult madness and tentacled horror of their album art. This show, therefore – at a waterside den of iniquity – feels like the definitive experience of the band.

And now for something totally different. Blanck Mass, the electronic solo project by Benjamin John Power, released a critically acclaimed debut album Dumb Flesh in 2015, and it’s showcased live tonight, achieving the piercing volume and presence that electronic music can easily provide. Yet by this point it’s becoming seriously overcrowded in here, so it’s getting pretty difficult to dance in the way that you need to enjoy this kind of music. Positioned toward the back, it’s completely impossible to see Benjamin at work, but at least we can focus on his epic melting pot of backwards vocal samples, energetic beats, triumphant synth surges and near ambient textures.

Transcendence

Like most people into doom, I love Sleep – the seminal act from whose rhythm section Om were formed – and, having seen the former at the Forum, London, last year I know they deliver one of the heaviest live shows around. Yet despite the quality of their counterparts I’d woefully underestimated the power of Om’s live show, which is just as intense as that of Sleep but achieved through a softer, meditative approach rather than the former’s incredible crushing heaviness.

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Mixing tracks from their most recent album Adviatic Songs (2012) with earlier material, Om’s set is perfectly crafted to ease the crowd in gently but building, layer by layer, until I’m totally enthralled. They begin with the core Om sound: Al Cisneros’s low, subtly-eccentric voice muttering over warm, looping basslines that shift and slide, working in harmony with Emil Amos’s steady, expressive drumming.

Sometimes collaborator ‘Lichens’ (Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe) joins them onstage tonight, playing keys, percussion, and guitar. Initially adding melodic synth layers, hypnotic and wild tambourine playing (seriously, it’s amazing to watch), Lichens also emulates cello parts from the record (such as on blissful ‘State of Non-Return’) on his guitar. He really comes into his own, however, when he sings. About half way through their set, Lichen’s launches into ‘Addis’, the first track from Adviatic Songs, a meditative track underpinned by tabla and featuring a gorgeous vocal line sung in Hindi, which – contrasting with the rhythm-heavy grooves that proceeded – sounds incredible.

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Weird Metal Blog has seen Sunn O))), Earth, Boris, Bong, and other big names in drone metal, but seldom has a drone show achieved its trance-inducing goal as much as Om’s. There’s only one way this could have been improved: put Om, with their transcendental and spiritual drone, in the church, and watch us all become born again.

The Disappearing Venue

The final day of Mutations culminated in performances by Lightning Bolt and Metz at seafront venue Concorde 2. At least it was meant to. Given only a crude map on the official timetable which we cross-referenced with Google Maps, we followed the road along the seafront expecting at any moment to see the venue. Yet somehow, in the wind, rain and inky darkness, we never found it.

Unlike conventional Weird Tales, this one ultimately had a happy ending. The darkness did not swallow us up into a gateway between dimensions; we had no brushes with insanity and found no recourse in suicide. Leaving Mutations with Om as ‘headliners’, means their exceptional performance was fresh in our minds, and our experience of Mutations was certainly positive overall.

Yet, with a little more guidance on finding obscure venues from the official materials to help us poor confused festival goers from outside Brighton, Mutations 2015 would have been a perfect weekend of musical experimentation instead of a frustratingly Weird Tale. Roll on Mutations 2016.

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