Maddeningly, owing to an ‘interesting’ budget airline flight and the difficulties inherent in trying to decipher bus timetables without being able to read Spanish we miss the majority of the first day, entering the festival towards the close of My Bloody Valentine’s set, although ‘assault’ would be the more befitting term. Sure, an MBV performance brings with it a certain array of expectations, a few days of resulting tinnitus perhaps chief amongst them, but this wasn’t the usual garden-variety feedback being piped across the crowd – this was more your Guantanamo Bay brand, replete with people everywhere screaming out confessions in the hope that it would stop. Even as far back as the VIP area – itself something of a military compound – the sheer volume turned your brain to cake. ‘Enjoying’ the set wasn’t even an option: afterwards small groups sat huddled trading stories, trying to rebuild their shattered lives. Apparently the band’s Friday performance in the Auditori – the exact same set, just at a volume that adhered to the Geneva Convention – was outstanding, although that’s unlikely to appease those who endured this one.
Given Richard D James’ predilection for delivering whole live shows comprised of sampled pneumatic drills, it’s with a measure of trepidation that we head to see the Aphex Twin, although our fears are quickly assuaged by a set that’s as close to being straight-up danceable as the guy gets. That’s not to say it was anywhere near conventional, of course, with any compromises in the aural delivery quickly mitigated by visuals that added autopsies and surgery to the usual twisted, nightmarish renderings of Aphex’s own face, which by the end pretty much reflects how we feel. In a good way, you understand.
It’s only upon returning to the festival in daylight that we can fully appreciate just how strange a venue the Parc Del Forum actually is. Entering to the left of a colossal shard of dark-blue rock that doubles as Primavera Sound’s indoor venue, the Auditori, it’s clear we’re not at Glastonbury. Comprised of vast pillars of concrete shorn of any real purpose, it’s difficult to shake the sense that we’re in a set from Halo: some dystopic future state where giant solar panels have succeeded oil and all surrounding landmass has been swallowed by the sea. It’s also one of the only festivals where it’s possible to hear every stage at once from a plastic seat in the food court, providing at any one time a rather intense snapshot of everything going on any given moment, like the split-screen used in 24.
It becomes obvious very quickly that, despite ostensibly being a Spanish festival, much of the attendees wear a distinctly British Nosferatu pallor of skin, eyes masked by shades as they hiss violently at the sun. What with the English signage and a heavily-English lineup we could actually be in England, aside, of course, for the lack of mud.
An early-evening slot means that Bat For Lashes’ usually mist-shrouded nocturne is bathed in sunlight, with only a deer’s head and a burlesque lampshade to provide their usual theatricality. Not that they have any need of mere aesthetics: new album Two Suns provides them with songs strong enough to transcend even the Spanish heat, Natasha Khan’s voice impeccable against the harder, heavier live translations of openers Glass and Sleep Alone, the latter significantly augmented by a pulsing synth-line. For many their performance proves a highlight of the whole weekend, the only negative the sound bleed from The Vivian Girls’ set on the Pitchfork stage which sabotages quieter moments, a stripped-down Priscilla the primary casualty. Recent single Daniel gets the loudest response, although trying to pick out highlights from a set this strong seems churlish.
The first of three appearances at the festival for the band, Black Lips are twenty minutes late to the Rayban tent owing to ‘not being let in to our own show.’ Not that many can hear their excuses: the monumental folly of siting an acoustic venue dead centre within the no-man’s land between the Pitchfork and Rockdelux stages becomes apparent as soon as they attempt a song, their efforts indistinguishable within a mix that’s one part Black Lips, two parts sound check and seven parts Spiritualised, midway through their own set a mere hundred metres away (incidentally, the latter actually sound much better when meshed into other people’s songs than when left to produce their own all-too-anodyne material). The band make a brave but doomed attempt to play through, their frustrations borne out as they scale the Rayban display unit (isn’t sponsorship great?) repeatedly before wisely accepting defeat with a promise to ‘play a proper show tomorrow.’
Art Brut must be one of the only bands to play a major festival where the between-song banter vastly overshadows the actual songs. That’s not to denigrate the band or their material, but when they have a frontman as animated and engaging as Eddie Argos it’s tempting to start viewing the chords, drums and rhythms as mere fluffing, a pleasant if inessential pause between the anecdotes and wry social commentary that precedes each track (‘I genuinely believe that if you have a bad record collection, you should not be allowed to vote’, a contribution to political reform that should be implemented immediately). For a short-lived period, the late Bill Hicks attempted to marry his stand-up routine to a live backing: it failed, but Art Brut seem to have cracked it. They’re an exceptionally entertaining live band, although you’d forgive the other members for maybe feeling a touch superfluous, their frontman’s frank disregard for setlists and habit of restarting songs midway with a taut ‘Ready Art Brut?’ a seeming sign of a band bereft of the collectivism that the term implies.
Over at the ATP area Sunn O))) provide the most alienating hour of the festival, and possibly our lives. Garbed in robes and only half-glimpsed within the swirling mists permeating the stage the duo treat the crowd to a set formed as though from rock, monolithic power chords sustained forever in an unsettling evocation of what purgatory is probably like. Needless to say it’s a divisive experience: around half of the considerable audience stand rapt, their only movement the tremble as the bass courses through them. Those left unenlightened mutter incredulity, some staring out to sea as though to check that we’re not actually beneath it, suffocating slowly to a soundtrack of sit-on lawnmowers.
LA three-piece The Mae Shi are more performance than music, their set a furious rush of noise and kinetics. Band members abandon their instruments at random, apparently superfluous to the process of playing the song: by the end all three members are in the crowd, with just a laptop left holding the fort. It doesn’t screw up once, just as our attention never wavers.
One of the day’s key draws, Jarvis Cocker’s performance carries a weight of expectation that his solo material can’t really live up to. He remains as charismatic a frontman as ever, but with the exception of excellent closer Leftovers the songs lack the charm to make them much more than intermissions between Cocker’s infinitely more entertaining crowd addresses.
Towards the end of their set there are at least sixteen members of the Dan Deacon Ensemble upon the Pitchfork stage. Surely there must be more cost-effective ways of making that much noise: certainly it’s a formidable, even exhausting barrage, but when they seem to be having more fun than the audience it’s hinting at a slight problem.
We only make it to Shellac for one track, but it’s still the single best part of the whole weekend – a colossal End Of Radio shattering all expectations as to what a song should do, Steve Albini’s disjoined narrative building to howls of rage as drumbeats ebb and flow with liquid pace. ‘Is it really broadcasting if there’s no-one there to receive?’ growls Albini to an assembled mass dancing awkwardly, impulsively, irrepressibly: who’d have thought three chords cycled repeatedly could be so compelling?
In spite of the negativity that initially surrounded Bloc Party’s Friday night headline slot, they quickly show themselves to have been a remarkably sage billing, their jagged riffs and urban themes the perfect fit for the jutting concrete angles of the Parc Del Forum. This being a festival show there’s little let-up in a set that takes in all three of their albums, although the biggest response is predictably reserved for Helicopter and Banquet, the latter charged with an urgency to silence any critic.
Texan four-piece Shearwater provide an early Saturday high-point, their varied instrumentation taking in double bass, trumpets and glockenspiels to provide backing to Jonathan Meiburg’s eerie, near-orchestral vocals: on record they can seem a touch overblown, even contrived, but live they strike an altogether more invigorating note.
Largely in a bid to convince ourselves of how cultured we are, we clutch our reserved tickets (a ‘brilliant’ feature of Primavera Sound being the additional tickets required for the highest-profile indoor shows…) and head to see Michael Nyman. Here playing with an eleven-piece orchestra the veteran composer runs through a performance of intricate if slightly soporific classical pieces, his deft piano work commingling with sweeping strings and brass to form a fine counterpoint to the weekend’s more raucous extremes. It’s inspiring stuff, although the cocooning darkness isn’t the best environment for the already sleep-deprived, as the drool lining my headrest attests.
Everyone in the festival seems to have turned out to see Neil Young, although that might be as much down to the scheduling as conscious decision: every other stage – bar Oneida at the Ray-Ban Vice stage – has closed down for his set. To be fair such deference is deserved: Neil Young’s influence upon music is hard to overstate, as he demonstrates here with a set testifying as to just how strong that back-catalogue is. He might be nearing retirement age but his songs aren’t showing any sign of wear, a striking The Needle And The Damage Done and a rousing Rocking In The Free World more than standing up to anything else played out at Primavera. When Young closes with a cover of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life it’s a pertinent reminder that, even surrounded as we are by the cutting-edge of new music, the old-guard are yet to be replaced.
It’s easy to dismiss Liars on first listen: twice passing their performance they sounded little more than landfill-ATP fodder, all predictable chord-progressions and uninspiring vocals. And then suddenly they got interesting, ever-building layers of percussion taking centre-ground over vocals stripped back to mere barks, a punctuation for the seismic drums and ragged loops of guitar – either that or we just got more drunk.
Back at the Rockdelux stage Deerhunter make the mistake of peaking too early, a perfect rendition of album highlight Nothing Ever Happened – a masterclass in how to infuse shoegaze ponderings with barbed, danceable rhythms – succeeded by a slow exodus away to the Estrella Damm stage to await the evening’s key draw.
If T-Shirt slogans constituted votes then Sonic Youth would rule the Parc Del Forum by a landslide, the shuffling, undead gait of their acolytes omnipresent until just a few minutes before one am, when, as though responding to siren song, they converge as one before the main stage. Ninety minutes later they shuffle away again, and it’s difficult to tell whether the anticipation outweighed the performance itself. For those on the outside the set seems impressive enough, some admirable musicianship piquing our attention at key points, but as the band don’t so much burn out as fade away on closer Expressway To Yr Skull the overwhelming sense is one of unfulfilment, the last peals of feedback drifting out to sea in search of our interest which headed that way sometime before.
There’s no such problems for New Yorkers Gang Gang Dance, their music a largely wordless squall of near-primal energy and rhythm, drums layered like stickle bricks as singer Liz Bougatsos vies with a stage-invading audience member for sheer presence. She wins, of course, as she would on any stage, anywhere: it’s difficult to conceive of there being many bands more entertaining.
Simian Mobile Disco emerge to a stage shrouded in smoke and the air rent with the bass from the Pitchfork stage, a goading note that the pair are quick to respond to, chasing a plaintive, yearning vocal loop with a barrage of beats more artillery than sound. Returning to the vocal loop the Pitchfork stage seems to have gotten louder still: Simian Mobile Disco’s retort swiftly follows suit, bodies flying in its wake. We, of course, are right in the middle, cowering in that no-man’s land near to Black Lips’ earlier defeat: after ten minutes we’re hunting for something white to wave and running for the Metro.
A final glimpse back from the entrance sees the night lit up like war, the bass from every stage meshing into a single terrifying growl – essentially the sound of the festival itself, its raw eclecticism a formidable broadside against the tired complacency of our bloated English festivals with their tired lineups yawning into their early curfews and leaking tents.