The Dome / Boston Music Room / Aces & Eights, Tufnell Park, London
14th & 15th May 2022
Having thoroughly enjoyed the last Portals Festival, held at the same venues in September 2021, I was keen to experience it again and duly bought an early-bird ticket, the quality of the event rendering the line-up virtually immaterial. Last time I knew pretty much none of the bands, this time I only knew three, and that’s because they featured on the previous bill. I decided to once again go in blind and not listen to the other bands performing in advance, which meant that there were few expectations, just a sense of anticipation of the quality that would no doubt be on offer.
Again, it’s worth noting that as a festival of ‘experimental rock music’, this is not a Prog festival. The audience is younger, largely inhabiting the 20s to 30s range with a significant female presence, and only a few gnarly old codgers like me visible. The bands covered a wide range of styles, much – but by no means all – at the heavier end of the spectrum, but without it becoming samey or venturing far into metal territory. The textures ebb and flow, post-rock and math-rock being the most favoured elements, but that doesn’t give the full picture, the music generally favouring atmospherics and dynamics over intricate musicianship, however there are many seriously skilled musicians involved. Band formations often vary too, with duos and trios of sometimes unexpected instrumentation.
As last time, the timings had alternating acts on the stages of The Dome and the adjoining Boston Music Room, with alternate sets over the road at Aces & Eights to coincide with the BMR. With no expectations of which bands I really wanted to see, I stayed within the Dome and BMR without venturing to Aces & Eights, seeing all but one of the twenty-five acts who appeared on the two main stages…
It’s early afternoon in the Boston Music Room but time For Breakfast, the festival’s opening act being a sextet from North London. They played a varied set, taking in post-rock, noise, dream-pop, psyche and prog, led by the impressive voice of Maya Harrison. Starting a little tentatively, they grew in confidence as they went along, the instrumentation used to fine effect with some lovely contributions from flute and saxophone. There’s a distinctive moodiness to the band’s music and they seem fearless in the way they play with genres. They certainly have something and I’ll be checking them out further. The sound was a bit too loud, but as first band on, levels were no doubt being tested.
From a sextet to a duo and Kent’s Upcdownc, who I’d heard of via Phil Lively’s review of their I, Awake album for TPA, but I didn’t know what to expect. They were a trio for that album but appeared here as just a drummer and guitarist. The sound was BIG and the performance i-n-t-e-n-s-e, focusing on the effects and guitar of Chris Garth, with attentive support from drummer Dale Forster. The whole weekend would become a wet dream for pedals enthusiast, and that started here with a vast array at Garth’s disposal, driving a dense and atmospheric sound that worked well live. The red lighting throughout added to the spooky vibe, and ending the set with the guitar hanging from the lighting gantry and howling feedback was a master-stroke. Highly recommended.
Another change of direction with this trio from Peterborough. FES (or the Flat Earth Society Band) describe themselves as ‘guitar pop’, but there’s much more going on in their upbeat and energetic style. The immediate focus is singer and guitarist Polly, who delivers sublime fingerstyle and tapping technique that takes their accessible sound towards math territory, as well as having a lovely voice. It’s all very engaging, the whole band seeming to have a blast, and that energy is palpable in a very well received set. I loved it and I’ll be making a point of trying to see them again.
After their performance at Portals in 2021, CLT DRP were at the top of my must-see list this time around, and they didn’t disappoint. They used the whole of the bigger main stage to put on an exhilarating show of empowering punk energy with solid beats, either out of a box or nailed down by drummer Daphne, in a spot-on sound. Scott’s treated guitar sounds like anything but, courtesy of another massive array of pedals, and Annie’s angsty and confrontational vocal style is pitched just right. I really am surprised that this works as well for me as it does, but they’re fantastic on stage and deserved the ringing applause they received at the end. A dynamic, visceral and thoroughly entertaining performance.
I had heard of Voronoi from Nick Hudson’s TPA review of their The Last Three Seconds album and their recent collaboration with Luo, but I didn’t know what to expect from them live. It turned out to be a hugely enticing keyboard-led trio with bass and drums playing an amalgam of jazz and a variant of prog metal that changed direction and texture with ease, heavy when it needed to be and deft and light by turns. As one of the only bands of the weekend with an actual lead keyboard, courtesy of Aleks Podraza, it was a beautiful additional dimension and I could have watched much more of them. Another band to make a point of seeing again.
JARDIN DE LA CROIX
Next up on the main stage, Jardin de la Croix, a Spanish quartet with a French name. Their set immediately drew me in, with both guitarists, positioned at either side of the stage, adding tapping to the dynamic instrumental post-rock sound, the left-handed bass player making for a good focal point centre-stage. With one of the guitarists also adding keyboard elements, it was a highly engaging listening experience that I got a lot out of. The music flowed beautifully, building intensity and then dissipating the tension to make for a set that could have lasted a lot longer. At the end the bass player jumped down from the stage and played the final few bars in the crowd, before leaving his bass on the floor and clambering back up, the instrument being retrieved for him by a helpful audient. A great find for me and I’ll be exploring their music further for sure.
London-based instrumental quartet Codices have an energetic style that mixes post- and math-rock, utilising the dynamic shifts of the former and the intricacies of the latter to produce an upbeat sound that demands attention. They played well and immediately struck up a good rapport with the crowd, producing the goods and going down very well. They certainly have something and there’s plenty of variety in the music, tapping filtering into the mix via the complementary guitar styles. Thoroughly enjoyable.
ALPHA MALE TEA PARTY
My second time seeing Liverpool trio Alpha Male Tea Party, and it won’t be the last. Their heavy math sound doesn’t disappoint, getting the crowd bouncing as they defy physics to work effortlessly through the twisting arrangements. It all thumps into the chest nicely and it looks like they’re having a great time doing it, with much humorous banter and gentle ribbing. There are much worse ways to spend the best part of an hour, and as I managed to snag the only seat that I found in the Dome all weekend – a bar stool no less – I let my legs dangle and twitch happily in tune with the groovesome sounds.
From Salt Lake City, USA, Blackshape describe their largely instrumental sound as “Heavy Beautiful Math”, and that’s not a bad place to start, but it doesn’t fully describe the subtlety and cinematic quality that the band have. The three guitar line-up adds different textures and builds a wall of sound that is laid-back whilst being intense at the same time. The sporadic high register vocals work well, but for me, and on this occasion at least, their music works better on record than it did live, based on what I’ve heard of them since the show. That said, certainly a fine band with a quality all of their own and another interesting diversion to underline the variety that can be found within this scene.
It’s immediately clear that standards’ guitarist Marcos Mena is an exceptional talent. From California, standards are a guitar and drums instrumental duo, Mena covering loads of ground to deliver jaw-dropping lines via a technique that takes in cross-hand tapping and finger picking. It’s an upbeat and sunny cornucopia of delights and I could watch the guy play all day, multiple lines taking shape and threading effortlessly around each other. It’s quite something. From where I was standing it seemed that the guitar was a little low in the mix, which was a shame, but it was still an unexpected and hugely enjoyable set, with lots of good natured chat with the audience. This was their last show on a European tour, so you’ve missed them, at least until next time.
A change of direction with False Advertising, a grungy pop-punk trio from Manchester who delivered an entertaining set of catchy songs with an edge. Singer/guitarist Jen Hingley switched places with drummer Chris Warr for some of the set, leading to a nice contrast, and they powered through their songs with plenty of energy. Jen in particular has quite an engaging voice, and as we were approaching the end of the evening it was probably a good spot for them, catchy and easy to get into, and they put on a good show.
TEETH OF THE SEA
I’d been looking forward to seeing Teeth of the Sea as the day’s last band on the main stage, but maybe as the result of a looong day and much standing, my wearied state probably left me at below optimal reception levels. It didn’t help that the sound was oppressively loud, despite retaining a lot of clarity, but with little interaction of any kind it seemed to take them ages to get anywhere in a beat heavy, ravey sound, perked up sporadically by trumpet. As is often the case with the last act on, numbers started to thin as the set progressed, and though the faithful pleaded for an encore, none was forthcoming. By this time I had (foolishly it seems) decided to dive out before the final act of the evening, Aiming For Enrike over in the BMR, and head off to grab some long overdue food and a well-earned lie down.
Fully refreshed and after having experienced my first ever official grown-up brunch with friends, I stroll back into the BMR just in time for In Violet who, it’s fair to say, are FUCKING LOUD! Even with plugs rammed hard in I had to call for a hasty retreat after taking a few pics in front of the stage. In the relative respite of the outer fringes, what they were doing gradually filtered through and by the end of the set I was enjoying their furious electronic noisiness, driven along by an on-point drummer. Can’t say I’d be keen to go again, but they know what they’re doing and it’s another something different.
THE ST.PIERRE SNAKE INVASION
A different kind of heaviness on the main stage with Bristol’s The St. Pierre Snake Invasion. From the off the screamed vocals set me on edge and I didn’t think I’d get much out of their set, but to be fair, the singer built a good rapport via some strangely rambling comments and pithy self-deprecation. The sound was heavy but with energy and contained enough variety to keep it from getting samey. Probably not a bad I’d go back to, but they played a very tight set that was well received.
I very much enjoyed Gilmore Trail’s take on post-rock, the Sheffield quartet deploying every facet at their disposal to build an engaging set, dynamically taking delicate elements and pushing the levels to heights of austere power. Yes, it was indeed cinematic, in the way a lot of good post-rock is, with plenty of light and shade to give it depth. Very nice.
And now for something so completely different it has to be assumed that the artist wandered into the wrong festival by mistake. Natalie Evans writes soft and personal songs that are lighter than air, and Natalie herself has a demeanour to match: you have to hope that she wears heavy shoes to avoid being blown away in a moderate breeze. But this was the perfect relaxed set for a Sunday afternoon, Natalie singing, playing some lovely harp and adding acoustic guitar, played so delicately that the strings barely vibrate. For this performance she is joined by a three-piece supporting band, including a cello and bass player, a keyboardist and backing vocalist (also doubling on bass where required), and a subtle drummer/percussionist. Her lilting songs wafted through the venue on Natalie’s delightful voice. Just lovely, and no earplugs required.
T.E. MORRIS & JO QUAIL
Sunday afternoon’s different vibe continued with this beguiling collaboration between the electronics of Tom Morris and Jo Quail’s electric cello. I’m not familiar with Mr Morris, but Jo’s performance at last year’s festival was amazing and I’ve heard plenty of her work since. This performance was based of their For the Benefit of All album from 2020, and it’s a moody and intense kind of an ambient experience, very atmospheric and a compelling watch. Morris hunches over his electronics, beads of sweat forming and dripping from the end of his nose as he concentrates intently, Jo watching every move and adding subtleties as the music progresses, closing her eyes to solo where the opportunities allow. Completely alluring and another intoxicating stop on this very varied roadmap.
Blanket sound a lot like their name, all-encompassing, slightly claustrophobic, but ultimately quite warm, mostly as a result of the voice of Bobby Pook, a calm and serene presence at the heart of the often foreboding sense swirling around him. He’s like a beacon of hope. The music is certainly heavy at times, but not unremittingly so, and the Blackpool quartet use dynamics and harmony well in a balanced set of their own brand of post-rock. I enjoyed them a lot.
Redwood were a last minute replacement for Pupil Slicer, who were unable to play due to illness. Having just finished a run of shows supporting The Dear Hunter, Redwood were certainly match fit and played up a storm. The music is jangly and song-driven with the harmony vocals making for an effective focal point. There’s a laid-back energy and with three guitars in the line-up, the quartet have the firepower to increase the power when required. Good songs, well played and with plenty of movement on the slightly cramped stage.
Something completely different on the main stage – God Damn! A metallic punky shitstorm was verily kicked up by the trio of guitar/vox, keyboards (covering the bass) and drums, gleefully and with gay abandon. And very entertaining it was too, with humorous asides from front dude Thom Edward. Whilst partaking in a spot of two-handed tapping, Thom stuck his pick to his sweaty forehead, to be retrieved later for more standard fayre. Genius. With Thom tied to his mic most of there time there wasn’t much movement, but this was a big, brash, riffy and furious tour de force.
And then, as if by magic, my Band of the Weekend suddenly appears! All dressed in black, Poly-Math kick into a blistering and visceral set that has me grinning from ‘ere to over there. The quintet dive and swoop through the angular instrumental compositions with ease, bolstered by the relatively recent addition of saxophone, which gives the music even more resonance and the ability to jump-scare. It’s like the bastard offspring of early-King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator and NoMeansNo after a particularly boozy lunch. These are all good things for me and I twitched and jerked in unison with the twitchy and jerky antics of the front-line, the guitarist surveying the crowd like an evil David Tennant. The unison bows were just the icing on the cake; they know what they’re about and they do it brilliantly, never clever for the sake of it. Soon to be touring again – just take my money!!
PRESS TO MECO
Probably the nearest thing to a stadium rock band over the weekend, Press to MECO were very well-drilled and capable as they strode like colossi through a crowd-pleasing set. It’s a weird amalgam, from occasional post-hardcore vocals to accessible alternative rock to intricate three-part harmonies – hard and heavy one minute with convincing pop sensibilities the next. They can certainly play and they put on a great show with mass crowd participation and an upbeat vibe that got everyone bouncing. With plenty of energy, this trio were a good late evening choice.
Straight outta Wigan, Boss Keloid are an unusual proposition; heavy as a bag of chisels yet with distinct folk and progressive influences. As noted by Mr Lee Mellows, “Gentle Giant: The Death Metal Years”, which is certainly appropriate, and apparent within the strange dynamic. Its a compelling listen and I was completely hooked in, the multi-faceted songs delivered beautifully by singer Alex Hurst over the pounding rhythms as guitarist Paul Swarbrick picks out often delicate and tricksy folk lines, pedalled to enhance acoustic guitar, string or keyboard textures. It’s a marvellous listen, dirty and earthy, and I’ll definitely be making a point of seeing them again.
And so to the final band of the night, yet another new name to me. As it turned out it would be hard to think of a better closing act than Swedish quartet PG.Lost, who played a set of post-rock in their own distinctive style, atmospheric and with wordless high register vocals from the bass player, who also added synth textures. When the vocals kicked in the feel shifted toward Mew territory with a shoegazey feel that was very nice. There’s a definite Scandinavian feel to what they do, which is always welcome, and the warmth of the mid-paced, expansive and detailed music kept the foot tapping and the head nodding with a distinct sense of wellbeing. The two guitarists complemented each other very nicely, but when one of them – notably the band’s main spokesman – started having technical difficulties, there was an uneasy pause as he wrestled with his pedals, the others clearly unsure what to do or say. Upon resolution, and with a quip that he should have joined an ordinary band that didn’t need to use so many pedals, we’re off again to a blissful conclusion. A very nice way to end such a great 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, particularly because of the clashes between the BMR and Aces & Eights. All the bands who played at the Aces are included below, along with the one I missed from the main stages, as it is only fair that they are also featured here to evidence the sheer diversity on offer. Here is a sample of each of these acts, in the order in which they played, starting with bands that the inestimable Chris Parkins managed to catch that I didn’t, with his photos…
ASIAN DEATH CRUSTACEAN
Not fancying the ‘punky indie’ of False Advertising at the BMR, I wandered over to see Asian Death Crustacean at the tiny basement live room at Aces & Eights, which was crowded but not rammed. The name sounds like they should be a death metal band, but they turn out to be a four-piece ‘experimental’ (a general label covering all the bands at this excellent festival) post-rock band who stray into heavy riff territory from time to time, who played a very enjoyable set. (By Chris Parkins) [Nick Hudson’s TPA review of the band’s Baikal album can be found HERE.]
AIMING FOR ENRIKE
The final band of the first day took the stage at 11pm in the BMR, which was still pretty full of happy punters. I’ve been aware of Aiming for Enrike for a few years now, and it was great to get a chance to see them at last. This Norwegian duo are known for creating an “an extremely exciting, eccentric universe by means of one drum, a number of interconnected guitar amps and a series of loop & effect pedals” (sometimes played by hand), and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Sort of math rock with jazzy influences wrapped up with powerful and heavy dance rhythms; infectiously joyous, the room almost turned into a rave. Possibly a little repetitive after 45-minutes, or so it seemed to me, but I was a little tired and worse for wear by this time of night. A terrific finish for the first day, though. (By Chris Parkins)
I’m a big Jo Quail fan of course, but I found I wasn’t in the mood for her ambient collaboration with T.E. Morris so I decided to pop over to see Sang Froid at Aces & Eights. Not included on the Portals advance playlist I had little knowledge of them other than their description as ‘post-rock/prog’, but if anything I would put them in the art rock category, with a female lead singer/keyboardist. Certainly ‘interesting’ music that I would have liked to have heard more of, but sadly my timing was off and it turned out I had arrived in time to hear just their final song. (By Chris Parkins)
A HEADLESS HORSE
That was a lot to take in! Twenty-four bands seen in two days, most with definite prog-crossover appeal in some form or other whilst not being remotely retro. This is all about looking forward, and continues to underline the lack of cross-pollination that goes on between the Prog world (with that big ‘ole capital ‘P’) and younger bands trying to come up with new music. They’re much better at it than we would often kid ourselves to believe, and it all happens in a parallel universe of culture right under our noses that we (choose to?) ignore. Don’t, as there is much for those with a broadminded outlook to enjoy. Listen to the links above, you no doubt won’t like it all, but I’d like to think that there’s something to make you want to dig deeper. Enter in without preconceptions; nothing sound like Yes or Genesis et al, and why should it? (Although one band at least are clearly versed in the ways of King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator and another appear to have a sneaky liking for Gentle Giant…)
Don’t forget, they don’t need us – and they’re not looking for us – they have their own scene going on, and it was very welcoming and supportive of the artists, no matter what their musical stripe. The Prog community often complains that “if only more people could hear this stuff… etc”, but the opposite is also true as how often do we look at what is going on elsewhere? The usual t-shirt branding I 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. Push the boat out from familiar shores a little now and again, there’s good fishin’ there.
For me, progressive rock needs to be forward looking and hungry for something new, alternative avenues built off the highways of the past to fresh pastures, and checking in on what the highly talented and skilled artists at festivals like this are doing serves huge rewards, and as a live experience it really delivers: no stage announcements; everything running to time; a relaxed and friendly audience who give everything put in front of them a chance to impress and make encouraging noises along the way.
The organisation was second to none and having the main stages alternating kept things moving at a clip with no down time, shorter sets (generally between half-an-hour and an hour) also keeping things fresh. The stage managers and sound engineers all did a fine job and every band enjoyed good quality sound, edging too far towards loud for a few, but generally fine.
My only gripe: the limited number of chairs last time had been reduced even further, making that necessary half-an-hour sit down problematic. Yes, there is seating in the courtyard area between the venues, but if you want to see the bands you generally have to stand as the stage times run on from each other. At one point I sat on the floor against the wall in the BMR – well out of the way – only to be advised by security that this was not allowed. This really is a crazy situation. It wouldn’t need many chairs as most in attendance aren’t bothered (damn you, young people! 🙂 ), and there’s ample room for a few, but to largely stand for nine hours straight, two days in a row is no longer an option for me, as much as I’d like to. Hopefully this is something that can be improved for next time.
Once again, though, a fabulous event. I heard loads of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise, and it has opened the door further to a whole new world of fine music.