Stony beaches, incessant drizzle and ruthless seagulls. Bleeding feet and hearing damage. Queues that stretch eternal, the insides of venues mere myth. It’s time again for the UK music industry’s annual gaze into the runes, striving to find the next big thing amongst 450 of the world’s brightest new acts.
And, honestly, the programme’s daunting: 72 pages of capsule introductions such as ‘Four-piece alt-rock group based in London named after the god of unrequited love’ and ‘Brighton’s Yonaka are ready to make waves in 2016’ alongside a schedule that looks like the classic 80s video game Breakout. At one point we saw a young women in tears because she couldn’t work out where to go next, and it’s easy to empathise – The Great Escape is legendary for unearthing artists that go stratospheric not long after, with Bon Iver and Adele both having played tiny shows to adoring crowds, and the Fear Of Missing Out can be crippling.
Much better then to ignore the programme (and our editor…) in favour of just rambling through. Sure, it’s a risky approach when there’s this many ersatz Royal Bloods lurking, all overdrive and empty swagger, but it also means you stumble upon Northeast Party House twice. Sounding like LCD Soundsystem when Daft Punk were playing at their house meshed with extrovert Blur the Australian six-piece weld massive melodies to even bigger rhythms, all insistent drums and driving synths and compelling, mathy riffs – like Bloc Party when they were still good. Nottingham’s Eyre Llew aren’t bad either, although the only sound louder that their howls of caustic reverb is the mutterings of a crowd debating which Sigur Ros track they’ll reference next, whilst Idles are unrelentingly intense, post-punk snarl and savage wit. “This song’s about the NHS,” growls frontman Joe Talbot ahead of a torrent of guttural screams and slicing riffs, the chandeliers and grand fittings of the Paganini Ballroom shivering in response.
With tinnitus louder than the passing cars we stagger to St. George’s Church, the pews and candlelight an amniotic lull amid the breakneck clamour of the wider festival. Australia’s Ry X is gorgeous too, his pared-back folk and yearning falsetto echoing Patrick Watson and Bon Iver, beautiful and intimate and only slightly offset by the cans being cracked open by the bar at the back and the fire alarm that goes off in the encore.
A fire alarm would have been welcome during Chastity Belt’s set, mind, and a heck of a lot more memorable than whatever they were doing onstage. There’s no forgetting Finland’s Elifantree though: ‘Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin and David Lynch,’ says the blurb, and for once it’s barely hyperbolic. With saxophone, synths, shrieking Bjork-esque vocals and the best drummer of the weekend the trio move from dreamscape to fever sweats within the same bar, enigmatic and unnerving and wonderfully unpredictable.
More straightforward but equally bracing are the Swedish-American FEWS, riding a wave of album hype that sees the line outside the tiny Hope and Ruin receding into mist and a guestlist that ensured that it stayed that way. A tight bind of Interpol coil and Savages brood their stage presence borders on sociopathic, the volume swelling dangerously during eight-minute closer ‘Ill’ whilst vocalist Frederick Rundqvist rocks back and forth into the light – it’s a thrillingly airless assault.
But best of all are Canada’s Doomsquad, playing to a pitch-black room under blood-red lights, their drums fearsome and portentous like the intersect between an illegal rave and a pagan ritual. Half-heard vocals loom from the darkness chased by thick layers of bass and horror-movie stabs, chiming guitars and spectacularly incongruous flute, jarring and hypnotic and ruthlessly, terrifyingly kinetic. It’s exhausting stuff but invigorating with it, much like The Great Escape generally, and as Jagwar Ma close the 2016 edition with their beats compelling our bodies to bouncing even if our feet can’t take it anymore it’s obvious that the runes have come up good this year – the next wave of music looks pretty damned exciting.