South By South London: The Capital’s Finest Exports Shine at Brighton’s Mutations Festival.

Between headline sets from Black Country, New Road, Pussy Riot and Squid, there were plenty of revelations throughout the bill. All in all it was worth braving the rain and howling sea winds.

Words: Lloyd Bolton | Photo (main): Igor Mukhin

Headed down to Brighton on the train from Finsbury Park for the length of a slow sunset, it was time to close festival season. With three days stacked with great bands and a Sunday night dance party, there was a lot to look forward to. It would also be nice to see Brighton where I had not been since King Gizzard at The Haunt (now Chalk) in 2016. A key difference upon returning (alongside that venue name change) was the discovery that it is a particularly good place to be of legal drinking age, being home to what felt like the highest number of pubs per square foot of anywhere in the country. Though the weather dissuaded all but the maddest of Englishmen to brave the sea, it was invigorating to crinkle over the stones on the moodily grey beach being lashed by real wind and real rain.

This year’s Mutations was designed to be dominated by the best of the past and present in London’s scene. On top of prime time sets from Black Country, New Road, Shame, Warmduscher and Squid, there were Windmill-curated late-night bills at the Hope and Ruin and elsewhere staples of their past (see Lynks) and present (eg. Cowboyy). Several years hence from the initial bm of the venue and its associated acts, the lineup, while full of exciting new prospects, also called forth a warm nostalgia for my Schlagenheim days of adolescence.

Pussy Riot’s Self-Hagiography

The first order of business (at least for me and anyone else arriving from London after work) was the Thursday night headline from internationally venerated Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Like most of the audience, I did not really know what to expect from this performance except yelling, garish outfits, and, most likely, some rather loud guitars. This was quite far off the mark. For one, the music was in fact more technological, involving live drums and a synth-heavy backing track, over which there was indeed plenty of yelling, but also occasional hooks to dance to.

Also, the music was really only one component of this set. For one, it was introduced by a talk from its producer explaining the history of the group. The gig crowd, already a few bands and beers in, was not entirely sure what to do with this information, responding with tentative woops to be on the safe side at criticisms of the invasion of Ukraine and mention of art awards won by the group and its predecessors. The show itself followed this informative lead, taking the form of a live-scored documentary, which was projected behind the band with subtitles of the lyrics being sung. Pussy Riot sang the story of Pussy Riot, like Medieval minstrels creating their own hagiography. They were preaching to the converted, so the show did not feel as edgy as their frontline work in Russia, but it was an intense and thought-provoking experience.  

Scuzz and Groove with Opus Kink, Warmduscher and Fake Turins

The rest of the weekend was all about music. And rain, I suppose. The deluge on the way back from Pussy Riot soaked my only pair of shoes and only pair of trousers for the rest of the weekend. Uh oh. Luckily, I was able to have both mostly dry by the time I needed to head out again on Friday afternoon.

The Mutations website proudly declared that there was no need to worry about queues to get into any of the venues this weekend (people always worry about queues to get into venues at city festivals). Cleverly, they had been careful to list only as many tickets as would fill the rooms of their headline shows, and the bill had been designed such that nowhere else was expected to hit capacity. At least they tried, but come time for Opus Kink, one of my must-sees for Friday, I found myself in youguessedit the first queue of the weekend. It seemed like a peculiar oversight to put a local band gaining exponential momentum in one of the smallest rooms of the weekend but there you have it. At least the Latest Music Bar staff were able to pipe the music from downstairs into the speakers on the ground floor so we could hear what we could not see. Thankfully most of the weekend was untroubled by queues. I merely found it especially tickling that they fell at my first hurdle having bigged up their work to prevent this.

 I got in about halfway through the Opus set and was impressed by what was perhaps the best the group have ever sounded. Though the 5pm crowd was generally not as raucous as any of their audiences should be, they had a couple of die-hard dancers down front. A new tune they debuted stood out particularly, pumped with jazzy Louisiana charm. I look forward to their diving deeper in this direction.

I was thankfully able to create for myself an ersatz equivalent to the Warmduscher/Opus Kink show in London this week, for which I am double-booked. Happily I can report that anyone planning to catch that (or any of the rest of that tour) is in for a scuzzy treat. Warmduscher were all noise and groove, with walls of distortion undercut by a succession of irresistibly funky basslines. To give it a writerly label, I would hazard ‘post-kitsch funk rock’. Though the middle of the set drilled down into a more straight and less entertaining string of rocky punk songs, the groovy bookends of the set explained why these are one of the most sought-after live bands going.

From Chalk, a quick march was in order up to the Hope and Ruin to catch Fake Turins. As far as venue-to-venue distances go, Mutations was very reasonable, all taking place within a fifteen-minute radius. I was able to make the majority of the Fake Turins set, which constituted a reminder of their various strengths. Musically, they offset similarities with the likes of Talking Heads and Roxy Music with an ability to stretch tunes into bubbling psychedelic grooves, evolving songs while all the while getting heads bobbing and toes tapping. After their set Angus from Opus Kink was telling everyone how they are his favourite band to share a festival bill with, as is he invariably able to dance out any tension associated with his own performances.

Closing Time on Queens Road

After a brief excursion to catch the tail end of Squid, I returned to the Hope and Ruin to find I had lost my spot. This had been designated as the afters venue for the weekend, based on the theory that most of the audience would go to bed after the headline act. This would be a reasonable prospect except that the headlines were done by 10pm, leaving most inclined to squeeze some more music out of the day. As a result, the Hope was largely inaccessible between 10 and 12 each night, and I found myself instead taking a break from the bands over a Guinness or two in the Quadrant a few doors down. Thankfully I was able to see O., the second last band of the night. Their set was very impressive, finding a more defined sound than I had previously gotten from them. They now seem to cut deeper as a dance band. The saxophone parts, which I once found a little too fussy, have become more streamlined, joining the consistently amazing drumming to form a more convincing argument for a dancefloor.

O. were followed by a blurry Personal Trainer set, with the chaos of the music anchored by the states of undress of half of the band, two of whom were down to their underpants. Just as this final set died down I began to feel beerily sleepy, and gladly headed home to recharge for tomorrow.

“Anyone Else Just Out Of Bed?”: Rain, guitars and Burger King

Saturday was another day of rain, but with so much to run around and see that afternoon it did not make much difference. I did not notice I was feeling particularly hungover until stopping by the Cowboyy set in a packed-out Folklore Rooms. Too much for midday. I recharged on a pit stop for coffee and then a thoroughly disappointing Burger King. They really don’t make that stuff like they used to, at least the veggie options, having scrapped the bean burgers for quorn patties that are so dry and…

Revitalised, I caught the second half of The Murder Capital for their secret mid-afternoon set at Chalk. They seemed as bemused as the rest of us to be hearing such heavy noisy music at such tender hours, singer James McGovern asking “anyone else just out of bed?” After this it was business time as I hurried along to a string of must-see sets. I finally got to check out Spang Sisters, playing a more afternoon friendly set of delicately constructed songs to wear glasses and a sweaters to. I cut out early to make sure I got to see all of Jessica Winter at Komedia.

South By South London: Jessica Winter, Lynks, Nukuluk and Black Country, New Road

Winter is an outstanding character. Her songs (which she puts together alone) are tremendous in construction and lyricism and had my pop heart singing, though I am usually ambivalent to anything so radio friendly. The only problem was that the venue was too quiet, a rare experience in my gig-going lifetime. I longed for ‘Do You Do You’ to rattle my chest but alas. The incredible natural strength of Winter’s voice, her flawless outfit (an explorer’s hat/tartan two-pice/bra combo) and the setlist of uninterrupted hits managed to compensate, however, making this a top performance of the weekend.

From here, it was a quick dash through cinematic rain, which halved the journey time to Patterns. I caught Tim Perry – here on important curator business – stood outside checking the Man City score, and he expressed an enthusiastic admiration for such rain, arguing that it befits the English seaside experience. Inside, we saw the bulk of Nukuluk, who really sound like no one else with their blend of hip-hop, punk and electronica. ‘Covered in Gold’, introduced as the next single they will release, was a standout from the set. Up next was Lynks, who never fails to do the business. Backed by dance duo ‘Lynks shower gel’, they were obviously winning over what seemed like a large portion of the audience who were as yet uninitiated (this in spite of yet another slightly-too-quiet sound system). This gave me that rare and wonderful pleasure of sharing in someone else’s laughter at a joke you know well as Lynks ran through all the hits.

Following this was new Black Country, New Road, who now topped the bill after Animal Collective were forced to cancel their tour. Having seen them at Green Man, I had already been introduced to the new set of songs and was impressed by the new cohesion that it felt like they lacked back in August. Unsurprisingly, a near-constant tour schedule around Europe and the US has ironed out the rapidly assembled setlist. The audience seemed to hang on every new detail, as has become the norm among what has long been a casually cultish following. Though there was not the energy and joy generated by a set of familiar songs, there were plenty of moments of magic where the group’s unparalleled instincts for musical interplay came to the fore.

After Languishing in the Quadrant Once Again

After a quick excursion for dinner, I found myself once more in Quadrant jail (a nice jail with nice company) as the Hope and Ruin filled up following the Shame set at Chalk. Fortunately, the crowd had died down by the time the Windmill late night party began. I caught the elusive XVOTO, playing what I hear was only a fifth or sixth live show. Formed of Saigon Fury of HMLTD and Jazz Alonso, they are severely limited by other commitments. It is therefore imperative that you catch their next show. This was everything I wanted to hear at midnight on Saturday night, with pumping semi-live dance tracks, jazz drumming and visceral multilingual rap, interspersed with for more soulful pop offerings. The set was completed by three backing performers from ‘We Might Be Mischievous’, improvising performance art to one side of the stage. They were not quite straightforward dancers, acting more like muses from an academic painting, especially as they combed and cut hair from a wig vest one was wearing.From here, the energy was kept aggressively up by AV Dummy, live-action hip-hop backed by spiralling lightning-speed guitar playing. I was enthralled, even though it was difficult to make out any words other than the frequent ‘fuck yous’. Closing the night was Fat Dog, the new Windmill hype band who had already packed out The Prince Albert that afternoon. They lived up to their reputation, fusing techno and post-punk elements with Fat White Attitude that had the room moshing from wall to wall.

After this finish line sprint I was spent, ready for bed and ready to return to London. With an early Monday morning and already so much great music behind me, I gracefully left the seaside before the closing party, a dance-based lineup headlined by Bob Vylan. Mutations was a tremendous weekend of music, with so much to offer and an impressive string of big names to catch in smaller venues than usual. Keep an eye out for their line up next year, especially if they promise to do more to limit the almost-inevitable city festival queues and to turn the goddamn volume up at all the venues! With this achieved, they have it within their reach to become the unmissable city festival on the alternative circuit.