Published on 19th September 2021
Portals Festival 2021
The Dome / Boston Music Room / Aces & Eights, Tufnell Park, London
11th & 12th September 2021
When this festival was announced last year, Mike Vennart was due to headline and I was all over it like a tramp on chips as his brilliant In the Dead, Dead Wood was one of my favourite albums of 2020. There were several other bands that I really wanted to see too, so it was a no-brainer. Obviously, the unrelenting grip of Covid caused delays and changes, the revamped line-up for the two-day event leaving me in a quandary: Vennart had dropped out and there was only ONE band on the new bill that I’d properly listened to and knew anything about. Add to this the big step of taking the plunge back into travelling and live events, and also the fact that during these strange times I had largely eschewed new music in favour of the comfort of established favourites. Was my head in the right shape for this? Did I feel up to making the trip or should I bail? I finally decided that for my own mental well-being I should crack on, so booked the hotel and travel. I listened to odd tracks for some of the bands playing, to slightly inform the inevitable clash choices, but pretty much went in blind.
First things first; this isn’t a prog festival. It’s a festival of ‘experimental rock music’, which should be the same kind of thing, but it was different in almost every way. The audience is younger, the majority 20s to 30s with only a few of us old codgers visible. A handy side-effect of this is that there was always somewhere to grab a handy half-hour sit down as young people don’t covet the limited seating. Result! The music is often heavy, but it isn’t metal. It can be intricate, but in different ways to my usual fare. It can be doomy, but with plenty of atmospherics thrown in. It can be a singer on their own, an instrumental soloist, a duo – or a group of over 20 players. It can be fast, or slow, but almost always uplifting.
I’d been to The Dome before, but didn’t realise that the Boston Music Room adjoined it so there was no need to leave the venue to get to either of the main stages, the crowd trooping up and down the stairs to the relevant stages between sets. With Aces & Eights just across the Tufnell Park intersection, the three venues form a pretty tight unit. So, eyes down…
Upon arrival, thanks to diversions on the way up, Katie Malco was already on stage in the Boston. I quickly found a spot to take it in: Katie singing alone, accompanied only by her trusty Telecaster, played left-handed. She certainly has a fine voice and beguiled the already swelling crowd with a set of quite lovely original songs, plus a beautiful version of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting. She released her debut album, Failures, last year, which is well worth a listen. The album versions are often more arranged, but in their stripped-down live takes the fragile melodies shine vividly.
Jo’s is one of the few names on the bill of which I was previously aware, although I hadn’t investigated her music too deeply. I was looking forward to seeing her play and got a great spot at the front of the stage. Just her and her electric cello and effects rack, she was awesome, building layers of sound that meshed into a symphony of different elements. It’s surprising the noises you can get out of a cello when you know what you’re doing! A fabulous performance that garnered a huge reception from the early doors punters in the main room. I’ll definitely be seeking out her live performances in future.
TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE DISASTER
The day’s first dip towards the heavier end of the spectrum (for me at least) are this quartet from London who play an atmospheric style of instrumental post-rock, with a focus on melody and dynamics. As they say on their Bandcamp page, “Our riffs will hurt you, and our ambience will make you cry”. Driven by a big bass sound (which I particularly liked) the twin guitars offered complementing sounds, coming together to ramp up the heaviness as required. It was an intriguing set, sometimes punishing but certainly atmospheric and often hypnotic. They did a fine job that kept me wrapped in what they were doing for the whole time and I’ll definitely be checking them out further.
Next up, Vasa from Glasgow. This band have appeared previously on TPA, Nick Hudson’s reviewing their Ten Years of Chaos Theory show just prior to lockdown last year, and subsequently looking at their Heroics album and interviewing the band’s Niall MacRae. The quartet ramped the intensity up nicely after Tacoma Narrows, soundscapes permeating an energetic performance with great drums and deft use of 6-string bas, which is always nice to see. Overall, an excellent set.
Back to the smaller stage for Luo, a duo I first heard supporting Battles in Bristol a couple of years ago. Their subsequent debut album Unspoken was one of my favourite releases of last year and I’d been looking forward to seeing them play again. Sadly, on the eve of this return to live performance after the long lay-off, they suffered the theft of a lot of their equipment, but with some gratefully received assistance they managed to gather replacement items and, from the resulting show, you wouldn’t have known there was a problem. They played a blinder of a set, rhythmic, nuanced, and very well put together, skittering drum patterns set against washes of synth and keyboard driven melodies. This is a band well worth checking out.
A similar drums and synths set up to Luo, but “Two Headed Drum Trigger Noise Party Machine” Big Lad are a much more visceral beast. Indeed, it wasn’t long before drummer Henri Grimes was stripped to the waist, dripping sweat like a waterfall as he pounded seven shades out of his cowering kit, seemingly atomising a couple of sticks during a tour de force performance amid the swirling and bleeping heavy dance synth tracks. The floor was bouncing wildly as the crowd got into the rhythms. Having not had a proper album launch for their just-released Power Tools, bleeps-maestro Wayne Adams jettisoned a vinyl copy into the crowd as an impromptu launch of his own. I prefer Luo’s more subtle approach but as a hell-raisin’ party set of near-Biblical steroid-driven proportions, Big Lad were marvellous. Phew!
THE HYENA KILL
The first vocals in quite some time came courtesy of Manchester’s The Hyena Kill in a heavy and intense set. Unfortunately the volume was cranked up way too loud and it masked a lot of the good work that the quartet are clearly capable of, having now listened to their latest A Disconnect album. The partially screamed vocals work well on record but the sheer volume (despite me deploying the plugs) was too much for my wizened old ears and I decided that a food break was beckoning. The small open courtyard between the two venues proved a convivial place to sit, chat or nosh on quite delicious (if ridiculously expensive) vegan chicken burgers, and ponder why vegan chicken is even a thing.
This was a lovely set by Brighton alt-poppers Orchards, but slightly marred by a catalogue of guitar issues. ‘Lovecore’ (the title of their debut album) sums up the sound quite well; it’s upbeat, infectious and bouncy and gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling. The driving rhythm section were excellent, with upfront bass, and Lucy Evers is a fine singer and engaging, slightly kookie front for the band. Sam Rushton’s heavily treated, fast reverb guitar sound frequently went into Battles territory, but a faulty pedal rendered him silent for large parts of the set, which was a great shame as his playing was excellent and gave the music a distinctive edge. But the band persevered and, even without the guitar for parts of some of the songs, they won over a supportive audience and deserved the applause. Good band.
The stage at the Boston then hosted OHHMS, from Kent, and it turned out to be too loud again, which was a shame as the sound levels and clarity were excellent for every other band over the weekend. The only ones I found too loud were these and The Hyena Kill. OHHMS live is a raggedly brutal thing, there were some interesting bits to be sure, but the vocals are too shouty for the sake of it, lacking in dynamics, and they just didn’t grab me. Nick Hudson enjoyed their Close album last year, so maybe I need to give that a spin…
Back to the Dome for the evening’s headliners Bossk, another intense band but cut from a very different stripe. Their colossal wall of sound three guitar frontline worked very well, doomy and dynamic, resonating very nicely in the large room. Guest vocalist Johannes Persson was on hand to add some typically uncompromising death metal growling which worked well in the austere sound, but the set benefitted from them being used sparingly. A fine end to the evening for me as I headed off with my bag to find the hotel, good stuff indeed if you can take the vocals.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I’m back in the Boston in plenty of time to catch the first band of the day, Modern Rituals, from London. Their brief set was raucous yet groovesome with some quite shouty vocals, but they certainly blew the cobwebs away.
When I die and stroll up to (hopefully?) the Pearly Gates, I would wish for Human Pyramids to be playing to greet my arrival. I appreciate that would mean that they’d also have to be dead, but, y’know… sorry guys! 🙂 They were absolutely glorious, and very well-named as with sixteen people on stage for the full set, including a string quartet, a brass section, xylophones and a full-on post-punk band at the core, plus an additional 8-piece chorus for the opening and closing numbers, they could easily stack up to form a pretty decent edifice! Seriously, they couldn’t all fit on the stage! With it all kicking off it was like being bathed in music and I was crying my eyes out – completely joyous and overwhelmingly uplifting. Mastermind Paul Russell – conducting the massed throng throughout – is to be heartily congratulated for his sheer balls! This is what live music should be about, taking risks and coming up with something exhilarating and – for me – sensationally unexpected. This was their first live performance in nearly four years; if you ever get a chance to see these guys, just do!
Well, how to follow that? Short straw went to Garganjua, from Leicestershire, with their sludgy doom sound and tribalistic drumming. The part-screamed vocals were pitched at just the right level and worked a treat in the live setting amid a warm – as in ‘the Fires of Hell’ – sound. I enjoyed their set more than I thought I might.
Next up, Axes with their thrilling and frantic math rock sound. But what’s this? It’s only Human Pyramids’ Paul Russell on guitar with the HP rhythm section plus another guitarist. The band is again well named, the two guitars out front, swooping, weaving, squabbling and making up. The stop-start rhythms were negotiated with aplomb by the bass and drums and this was a highly engaging instrumental set with smiles aplenty on stage and in the crowd. A fun show, both playful and dissonant, and a band that I’d be very keen to see again.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy CLT DRP from what I’d heard. How wrong I was – they were awesome! The Brighton electro-punk outfit delivered a fearsome set, with one of the best drum sounds I’ve ever heard! Scott’s heavily treated guitar, courtesy of the expansive pedal board, added to the electronic sheen, along with the mix of Daphne’s real and sampled drums. Out front, Annie took no prisoners and it was a fantastic watch from my position crammed in at the corner of the stage next to the speaker. Definitely worth seeing this band again.
Pijn are another band from Manchester, specialising in atmospheric, slow-building, rhythmically industrial pieces with slabs of heavy doom at the core. The drums are key, complementing the scenes of trains, windfarms and factories that played out on the screen behind them. A pair of percussionists joined them for one track to build the rhythmic centre even further, and very effectively too. The fact that the set was played as a complete non-stop whole from start to finish, each track moving steadily and with purpose into the next, made for a visceral journey that I very much enjoyed. Another fine discovery for me.
THE GURU GURU
Like a punky, electronic nervous breakdown, Belgium’s The Guru Guru played a punchy and dynamic set, led from the front by the theatrical delivery of walking dyspeptic ulcer Tom Adriaenssens, garbed in pyjamas and slippers (he’ll need a new set after this sweaty performance!). His edgy delivery of these quirky songs, including a lightbox to stand on for extra effect, was the focal point for a riffing storm of treated guitars and thumping rhythms. The bass sound was marvellous and the overall dexterity was matched by the energy as the quintet made good use of the limited space on the Boston’s stage. A shade of Cardiacs here, punky angst there and rocking riffs all around, it was an excellent set of the unexpected from another band I’d be keen to see again.
ALPHA MALE TEA PARTY
From Liverpool, the thumping mathy post-rock of Alpha Male Tea Party got a big thumbs up. The trio pounded through a good natured set with ringing guitar, growling Rickenbacker and much witty banter from the frontline. The enthusiasm was palpable and they were as tight as you like, negotiating the twists and turns with ease, successfully adding a compelling layer of darkness to the material. Highly recommended.
Lots of guitars amid a bouncy and frenetic sound with heavier elements. I was enjoying it but my stomach was grumbling and my mind wandering so after about half of the set I headed off to grab a bite to eat. With end-to-end bands the downside is deciding when to grab a break…
This was a magnificent set from the Wrexham band, driving through with sheets of shining guitar over a swirling mix of bright synth rhythms and soundscapes, the vibrant drums set against electronic percussion adding to the hypnotic whole. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and they certainly got the crowd moving.
Coming on to an intro of Metallica’s Enter Sandman, this was the nearest thing to a regular rock band all weekend (that I saw at least), but at this stage of a long weekend, that was no bad thing. As the singer said, gesturing the banner trumpeting the experimental nature of the weekend, “the nearest we get to experimental is that most of us are gay and we have a keyboard!” It was an upbeat and good-natured set of actual songs with a melodic punky edge from a more than capable band.
Last artist up was hip-hop/jazz producer and drummer Richard Spaven, in a trio format with guitar and bass. This set was probably nearer than most of the others to my comfort zone, which made it interesting that the crowd dwindled markedly. It may have been the thought of Monday’s work-day looming, or knowledge that Tufnell Park tube station would be closing shortly (which I didn’t discover until later!) but it was a great shame as Richard and his confederates performed a scintillating set of varied exotic rhythms riven with melody. Richard himself is an absorbing player, toying with rhythm, clearly experimenting as he plays, revelling in creativity, as the bass in particular keeps everything anchored. The set took in hip-hop, trip-hop, jazz elements and reggae and the core of listeners who remained were properly treated by expert performances all round. Richard appeared quite bemused as to why he was on the bill at an event like this, seeking to justify it by encouraging his audience to listen with a broadminded attitude and recommending artists from his area of music that we should listen too. Some present knew his work, most did not, but all who stayed clearly enjoyed it immensely. Not only a fantastic curveball choice but the perfect way to end a quite wonderful weekend.
As is always going to be the case at an event such as this – and with all the best will in the world – I didn’t get to see every band that performed over the weekend. There was so much going on on the main two stages that I never even got over the road to the Aces & Eights – the Boston and Aces stages clashing throughout the day. All the bands who played at the Aces are included below, along with the few I missed from the main stages. It is only fair that they are also featured here to evidence the sheer diversity on offer, so here is a sample of each of the acts that I missed, in the order in which they played, starting with the first two bands from Saturday, who Chris Parkins managed to catch…
The Boston Music Room was already pretty full when I arrived shortly after the show had started – unlike the recent HRH Prog festival, and indeed the HRH Goth festival on down the road, both of which were probably no more than half full. Maybe it’s to do with the overall younger skew of the audience age range, although there were a number of other older blokes there too. Mountain Caller describe themselves as a ‘heavy progressive instrumental three-piece’ which sounds no different from a load of other bands, but they really have something special, even aside from the fact that the lead and bass guitarists are both female, which is great to see. And they really bang it out with their heavy stoner riffs and an almost cinematic quality; absolutely fantastic, I’ll be going to see them again! (By Chris Parkins)
Transferring over to the Dome; rather more comfortable with the extra space and height (and AC!) but it soon filled up for Midas Fall. Combining “elements of electronica, post-rock and alternative rock with progressive and gothic undertones”, I’ve been following them for years, and championing them to prog-lovers without a lot of success. Although they have had some exposure in Prog Magazine, the Portals audience is far more appreciative. I was surprised, though, that they played a far ‘heavier’ set than when I last saw them in 2018, or than you would expect from their albums or from the video included here. They were a 4-piece instead of their previous 3-piece, with a very energetic guy on bass guitar bouncing around the stage and a very powerful drummer. Elizabeth Heaton’s hauntingly melancholic vocals still sail over the top, but I wonder if this change to a far more powerful style is going to be (or perhaps already is) a permanent thing. Either way, it was blindingly good; another band who don’t get to London very often, so next time they play I recommend making every effort to see them! (By Chris Parkins)
LET’S SWIM, GET SWIMMING
PARACHUTE FOR GORDO
A BURIAL AT SEA
Phew, that was a lot to take in! Twenty-two bands seen in two days, all but one unexpected. There’s definite prog-crossover appeal here with nothing remotely retro, this is all about looking forward. As an experience it brought home to me that Prog (with a definite capital ‘P’) is probably more marginalised now than it has been in years. ‘Mainstream’ Prog now often reflects the classic Blues Brothers quote, “We have both kinds of music here, Country AND Western!” – there are any number of other interesting sounds available that won’t get a look in with the audience. There is very little cross-pollination of listeners, and that’s a shame, underlining the fact that most music listening folk tend to be distinctly tribal, no matter how open to new sounds they say they are. This was underlined by the few who held on for Richard Spaven’s set to close the festival on Sunday, and the broadmindedness that he sought to find in his audience. The usual t-shirt branding I regularly see at gigs was almost completely replaced with the largely unknown, and it’s strange to me how these two elements of what is essentially a similar outlook on music can exist as independently as they do. The young will win out – they always do – and Prog will become more and more niche until it is in large part no longer viable. That is a great shame but I see no way of persuading a significant number of younger listeners to come and see what they’re missing on the other side of the fence. Let’s be honest, they don’t need it; they have all they need right here… they’re not, as is often imagined, trapped in a world of mass-produced corporate pop, they have their own crazy shit going on. Listen to the links above, you may not like all that you hear but I’d be surprised if you didn’t find something to float your boat. A broadminded outlook brings beneficial results…
Ultimately, it’s all just about live music, and it’s great to have that kick-drum thump in the chest again. I’m so glad I made the effort to get here, it was a brilliantly organised event, relaxed and friendly with generally excellent sound quality, so hats off to all involved. Having two stages meant that one was usually in motion, leaving little down time. A good thing as far as the music is concerned, assisted by generally shorter sets, resulting in a constant roll of new sounds throughout the whole weekend, but obviously that leaves little opportunity for breaks/eating/socialising. I think the two stage setup worked very well and as such The Dome/Boston Music Room combo is hard to beat. I heard loads of stuff I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and it has opened the door to a whole other underground, one that is in distinctly rude health. Twenty-two acts (plus the ones I didn’t see!), all different, all trying new stuff, and I got something positive out of all of them, which is a pretty remarkable strike rate. The next Portals event is in May 2022 and I’ll certainly be there.