Ritual Union Festival delivered the goods for the third year on the trot, bringing 45 bands down to Cowley Road for a day of joyous musical revelry. I will preface this ranking by saying that all the acts I saw were of a very high quality and are well worth a listen, but for me, some shone brighter than others. So without further ado, on a scale of least enjoyable to irrefutable masterpiece, I give you Ritual Union.
Eight – Heavy Lungs
The major downside of doing a ranking is that someone must inevitably end up last, and this is particularly upsetting here, since Heavy Lungs, on most festival line-ups, would be leagues ahead of their competition. This is not the case here, though. This was my second time seeing Heavy Lungs in Oxford, after their riotous performance in the O2 academy supporting IDLES last year. That performance, though, was in front of a crowd destined to lap up whatever Heavy Lungs offered; after all, one of IDLES’ biggest songs to date – ‘Danny Nedelko’ – is named after their lead singer. When the IDLES cord is cut though, it becomes apparent that Heavy Lungs struggle. For a start, and it pains me to say this, the songs just aren’t that great, and there is little to set them apart from the slew of other post-punk bands plying their trade on the UK circuit today. The crowd was largely indifferent towards them, at least until Danny Nedelko, the undeniable bright spark, whose glorious dancing and passionate delivery will always make Heavy Lungs intriguing at worst, ploughed into us and sang at our faces. There were promising moments, and I maintain that Heavy Lungs have potential in spades, but as of now, the songs just don’t do it for me.
Seven – Teleman
I feel bad putting Teleman so far down the rankings, since I am sure they suffered heavily in my estimation because of the mastery that preceded them (don’t worry, we’ll get there), but sometimes this is just the way things go. The performance was fun, groovy, and – as was frightfully apparent by glancing at the crowd – very danceable. They are reminiscent of both Hot Chip and Metronomy but sadly fall short of the former’s musical muscle and the latter’s big hooks. Overall, the performance just felt a bit lacklustre, especially considering their headline slot.
Six – She Drew the Gun
This was good. I’ll start with the positives; the instrumentation was a fresh blend of guitars and keyboard, and the grooves they produced were consistently arresting, serving as the perfect backdrop for the long spoken-word passages of Louisa Roach. These passages, however, did prove to be the major detraction for me. The content was interesting and important, maybe even vital, but the delivery was, if I may be frank, really quite annoying. The whole performance came off as self-righteous and preachy as Roach marched the stage like a prophet, bestowing infinite wisdom upon us. The lectures I get at university are ample; I don’t need more in my free time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for delivering important messages in music (Nadine Shah, in the very same place, achieved it spectacularly in the best performance of last year), but this just fell very flat, as was manifest in the dejection and apathy of the crowd. If this can be improved, their live show will become a serious tour de force.
Five – Psychedelic Porn Crumpets
Say what you will about the name – hardly something that would make me eager to spread my love for the band – this was a mature, well-paced and exciting gig. Yet another success story from Australia’s burgeoning psych-rock scene that includes Tame Impala, Pond and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Crumpets deploy elaborate fuzzy riffs, catchy choruses, and a whole lotta fun, to create a hugely enjoyable sound that proved to be very popular amongst the Ritual Union crowd. A lively but friendly mosh pit was present throughout, while the band echoed the joyful goofiness, if not quite the versatility, of the aforementioned King Gizzard. My sole criticism beyond this is that the performance hasn’t lodged itself in my mind as vividly as some of the others.
Four – The Soft Cavalry
In contrast to Teleman, The Soft Cavalry likely benefited in my mind from their positioning in the line-up, since their warm melodic lullabies were a welcome change of pace to the pummelling noisy punk that had preceded it. Their set was sadly cut short but was nevertheless long enough to make a fan of me. The harmonies between bandleader Steve Clarke and Rachel Goswell (not only vocalist and guitarist of the now-legendary shoegaze band Slowdive, but also Clarke’s wife), were quite simply beautiful. The shoegaze influence is ever-present in the winding ambience of the songs and of course, in Goswell’s ethereal vocals, but The Soft Cavalry is its own beast; a folky aesthetic and the guile to include spiky basslines and captivating guitar set this group apart. The true crowning achievement, though, is the production. All the sounds coalesce in a marriage so pleasurable and alluring that it even rivals that of the two singers.
Three – PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS
Right. I’ve counted and re-counted the number of times I’ve typed PIGS to be sure I’ve got all seven down (yes it’s a silly name), so let’s crack on with the review. For a band as primal and aggressive as PIGS (x7), I feared they might struggle with a slot early in the day, before the cover of darkness and before the crowd had been loosened up with a few drinks; I couldn’t have been further from the truth. PIGS (x7) delivered a blistering set, full of piss and vinegar, spitting out brutal, sludgy acid rock and crafting a ferocious mosh pit in the process. It was wild. The inter-song banter was probably the best of the day too, with vocalist Matt Baty at one point proudly declaring, ‘this song is what it’d be like if Aleister Crowley went on bake-off.’ Many know of Crowley from Ozzy Osbourne’s classic ‘Mr. Crowley,’ and you can be sure that the Black Sabbath frontman would’ve appreciated a gig like this.
Two – The Murder Capital
This one was pretty special. With sharp dress sense and even sharper musical sensibilities, The Murder Capital looked and felt like a big deal. The set began patiently, with sparse guitar parts and jagged bass, creating an ominous, foreboding tone. Every so often, more and more noise would creep into this sonic wasteland, until vast, cavernous walls of static filled the room – a suffocation of sound. The other bonus of this sparsity was that it put focus on the depressing gloom of the lyrics. They are delivered in a variety of ways – be it sad, dejected, angry or indifferent – and repetition is utilised in such a way that the words, although hardly catchy, bury themselves deep within the memory nonetheless. The audience is given the time to dwell on small phrases that are vague enough to make them truly consider what is being said. The performance can be best summed up in one image; vocalist James McGovern offering a sardonic grin as he casually shakes his tambourine along to a dreary drum beat. It was also lovely to see them supporting the other bands throughout the day. Top marks.
One – The Comet is Coming
Electrifying. Breathtaking. Faultless. Despite the quality on display throughout the day, I’d be lying if I said that anything came close to this. Shabaka Hutchings (here using pseudonym ‘King Shabaka’), has been one of the most important figures in the British music scene over the last couple of years, and within just a few seconds of this live show, it became most evident why this is so. Revitalising jazz through masterful, rousing and innovative saxophone playing, King Shabaka is absolutely worthy of his moniker. The three-piece have such a distinct identity, and keyboardist Dan Leavers, (‘Danalogue’) and drummer Max Hallett (‘Betamax’) are both as integral to this as Shabaka. For a start, all three are quite simply superb at their respective instruments, which is always handy. This can be witnessed in absolute clarity, since each of them are given the freedom to go off on galvanising and explosive solos. It is when playing together, though, that they are at their most powerful.
Their update on jazz is not merely refreshing, it is essential, maybe even historic. Propulsive, chunky synths give the tracks a rampant momentum, made even more thrilling by the unmitigated bluster of Hutching’s saxophone. The drumming is intricate, but potent. What makes the live show so perfect though, is that every single beat is timed to perfection. As soon as a solo reaches its climax, a filthy synth pattern is introduced, which will itself build with steady groove until it explodes into an even wilder house beat, and then just when things are threatening to get a bit too raucous, or the crowd is about to lag, suddenly they jump into a spacey ambient piece. It was so precise, so academic, but somehow also so animalistic and off-the-cuff. In short, it was the best live show I’ve ever seen. Show me someone who wasn’t dancing; I’ll show you a liar. Show me someone who wasn’t smiling; I’ll show you a cheat. Most heart-warming of all, is the fact that the band were quite clearly loving it every bit as much as those watching. I’m not a particularly cheery fellow, but I’m still buzzing from that over a week later.