The Unofficial Tramlines: An Official Success
Whilst the main Tramlines party is happening at Hillsborough Park, the rest of the city celebrates the occasion with its own events. Phil Weller and Anthony Firmin immerse themselves in nine stunningly unique and daring bands at Sheffield’s City Hall Ballroom
Words: Phil Weller | Photos: Anthony Firmin
Drenching the early arrivals in dense reverb guitars and hazy, almost celestial atmospherics, Manchester’s Pijn delivered a Jekyll and Hyde set to kick off the day’s diverse cluster of bands. For all their moments of lulling and hypnotic ambience, where much of their magic lies in what they don’t play, there are times when they stamp their feet and roar with a devilish and demented fury. Even when their soundscapes are sparse they still sound huge and as we arrive into the pillar columned venue, with its grand high ceiling and fancy chandeliers – this isn’t your typical gig venue – the band are deep in reverie, exponentially wrapt in their music and that, in turn, arrests the audience brilliantly
The electronic tinted progressive rock of Leeds troupe KOYO swiftly followed, instantly injecting more energy into the spacious room. The spirit of Pink Floyd haunts and echoes in their dreamlike sound, swathing layers like a high tide coming in waves on the back of spaced out drumbeats and thick, oozing synthesizers. Jettisoned adds more jazz and King Crimson influence to their set, its enormous acid trip central riff one of the best guitar highlights of the day and is suitably embellished with supple vocal harmonies.
One of the heaviest bands on the bill, Svalbard’s hardcore powered aggression comes across more brazen and less intelligent and deft than the two bands before them, but don’t let that fool you. They play with their foot feverishly weighed down on the accelerator, guitarist/vocalist’s Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan trading off rapid fire power chord riffs and ravaged, throaty screams, but there’s more to the band than meets the eye. As their set progresses and they venture down more musically explorative avenues such as the emotively shifting, harmony draped rhythms of Disparity and the brooding dynamics of Revenge Porn, which builds from troubled clean tones to a monstrous Converge fashioned pummelling before ending in a place where the two sides of the band entangle perfectly, they leave a lasting impression upon many in the crowd.
By the time post-rock magicians Talons take to the stage, it is abundantly clear just how good the acoustics are in this venue. The tom heavy drumming of Alex Macdougall ripples through the room with a real weight and grandeur and it brings a greater, more enveloping intensity to their two pronged violin flavourings. They indulge the crowd with swirling and spiralling passages which wade through and are characterised by the sheer amount of delay and reverb they are cloaked in. The result, with the grating yet sullen and darkly tempered Monuments a highlight, is a set of surreal otherworldliness. For 40 minutes they invite us into their dramatic and thrilling musical world, only to release us, breathless, at its conclusion.
To be the most avant garde act on a line-up as all-encompassing as this is some fete and it is Jo Quail that takes that honour today. The London born cellist, standing lone on stage behind her futuristic looking electric cello, utilises a loop pedal and innovative ways of making sounds out of her instrument – hitting the neck, scratching the strings with her bow – to ascend from silence into an illustrious kaleidoscope of complimenting and contrasting colours and sounds. Visually, it’s difficult for it to ever be massively engaging and as such her set is best appreciated as a listening experience more so than the full audio/visual package, but there’s no doubting her creative flare and unique approach to classical music. Plenty of people flock to her merch stand after her set in a show of appreciation for her leftfield musicality.
Whilst their bassist Adam Hutchison, thanks to his ‘fro and ‘tache combo and his choice of attire looked remarkably like a 70s tennis player, the music of The Physics House Band, which takes a lot of 70s influence with the likes of John Abercrombie and bubbling, jazz-addled synth work into their sound, produced a set as fun and danceable as it was technically gifted. They play with energy and smiles, the flexible, meandering basslines and dazzlingly discombobulated drumming of Calypso encourages movement from the crowd whilst Surrogate Head is performed with fire and flavour. They showcased some new material too which was met with excitement and appreciation whilst the booming sax and Mars Volta vibes of The Astral Wave flaunted some serious guitar work with blurred fingers aplenty.
By far the most anticipated band of the evening, at least with regards to the number of fans adorned in their merch, Iceland’s Agent Fresco, who also arrived with new songs to test out before a live audience, struggled with their in ear monitoring system early on and the difficulties and frustration those issues caused were worn on vocalist Amor Dan’s face across their first few songs. And that, in the end, helped make their set so much more triumphant. By the halfway point they’d replaced their animosity for a fearlessness and grace. See Hell combined polyrhythmic intensity with heartfelt vocals and sugary, infectious rhythms whilst Angst, which followed, provided 90 seconds of chaotic and mercilessly impactful prog metal punch. Eyes Of A Cloud Catcher, a song written to help their vocalist convey the emotions of losing his father to cancer, is received by the crowd with warmth. Cancer affects all of us, we’re in this together, they seem to respond, wordlessly. The room united with Dan standing before the crowd, holding hands, smiling and hugging those around him, the temperature rose, eyes teared. Charm and humanity fizzled palpably before closing track The Autumn Red converted the mournful emotions present into a charged feeling of pride and strength.
Suddenly, the room is full of unfamiliar faces and it’s clear that Jamie Lenman, who admits mid-set he hasn’t played this city in a long, long time, has plenty of fans desperate to see him in Sheffield. His metallic thunder meets early Green Day, Cave In and even earlier Nirvana aesthetic was as riff heavy as it was sing-a-long friendly. He commanded the crowd, interacting with them throughout, his entertainment factor undeniable. One Of My Eyes Is A Clock is met with rapturous cheers as it rattles through the PA, All Of England Is A City has the crowd in full voice and a cover of Toto’s Rosanna is as obscure as it is inspired. It’s 9pm now, the drinks have been flowing and these fun, accessible jams, such as the funeral grind of Lenman’s final track, Mississippi, is just what the doctor ordered.
And so this is it, the final act. Greeted with a smaller crowd than the last two acts, the bar shutting up and the merch stalls now evacuated, Gallops still turned on the party. Their dance/electronic elements, which fuse with their love for jazz and progressive exploits is quite the niche and it kind of plays out like a scientist’s rave tunes. The problem is, while there is much to laud and enjoy about the music that eschews from their smorgasbord of on-stage gear – synths, computers, guitars and effects pedals litter the stage – there is a lack of clarity and identity to them at times. Looking around the room, the sci-fi boogies going down tell you that this band is definitely well received and enjoyed by those wanting to move, dance and unwind after a long day of intense, concentration demanding music, but as they dart from one sound and style to another seemingly randomly, it can also be hard to get truly sucked into what they do.