The sun's been shining and many are watching events unfold in sizzling Brazil. But there's been a wintry wave of music brooding over London's Southbank Centre. This year's Meltdown Festival has been dark and nasty, marked by gloopy electronica and uncompromising vocal performances. Perhaps not fitting for this time for year, but it's certainly proved a refreshing festival.
DJs have simmered with shadowy menace and big names stubbornly refused to play their hits. Experimentation has been encouraged and though the results have often been mixed, the festival’s curator James Lavelle has largely been vindicated. Tasked with bringing an edgy programme of modern music into the classical concert halls along the Southbank, the maverick producer can now relax, knowing he has been just as awkward and leftfield as organisers in previous years such as Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Patti Smith and Morrissey.
One of the artists invited by Lavelle to unleash their difficult new material was nineties icon Neneh Cherry. Eschewing all but one of her old pop hits, Cherry spent most of the gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall swathed in shadow, skipping like a boxer as she shaped a therapist’s notebook's worth of negative emotion into a savage, screeching set backed by the stabbing drums and synths of RocketNumberNine, aka Tom and Ben Page, two tireless brothers from darkest East London.
Cherry, looking trim and athletic at 50, began by announcing she’d seen a mouse backstage, though she soon dispelled the notion that she was upset by the rodent. “This next song is called Bullshit and is dedicated to the mouse – for surviving and avoiding all the little traps everywhere. No bullshit mouse.” Never safe, never tame, the new tunes sounded like an explosion in a cutlery factory and had her moshing away in silhouette until finally she gave the audience one tune they knew: a stripped-down re-imaging of her 1988 song Buffalo Stance. Cue rapturous dancing in the aisles, at last.
On Saturday night, the drum and bass pioneer Goldie went the other way entirely with the seemingly-insane notion of having the Heritage Orchestra perform live his 1995 album Timeless. Arranged on the stage in the Festival Hall to look like the bridge of the Death Star, the ranks of strings, horns and singers floated their way through the album’s spaced-out atmospherics while a massive percussion section and two sweat-soaked drummers recreated Goldie’s impossibly-complex unstinting breakbeats. It was a bravura performance, especially from the conductor Jules Buckley, with Goldie himself prowling around in the audience making sure everyone was just as energised by the unlikely musical pyrotechnics as he was.
Another show-stopping slice of brutal black magic came courtesy of Denmark’s Trentemoller who also refused to turn the lights on for most of his show. Dressed in skinny jeans and the wide-brimmed hat of a plague doctor, the rising electronic maestro combined beats big enough to sink a battleship, with icebergs of fuzzy guitars over which he let loose lilting vocals and unexpectedly delicate melodies. Marie Fisker’s rendition of Candy Tongue was among the highlights though the crowd also lost their bananas when they caught a whiff of The Cure’s Lullaby stirred into the mix. Meanwhile, behind the band, one of the more fun stage sets slowly came to life – alien egg pods twirling in the smoke (we think).
Not all the doomy electronica worked. Almost half the DJ sets that popped up around the Southbank over the festival’s ten day running time proved to be music to check your email by. The biggest disappointment came with the final session: Detroit’s veteran scratch-meister and techno specialist, Jeff Mills. Calling his show The Trip, this felt like full-on brainwashing with high-pitched bleeps, creeps and sweeps synchronised to projections of astronauts praying for mercy amid endless screen-saver style graphics. Every time Mills neared something approximating a beat, the crowd jumped to their feet in anticipation of a dance only to skulk down again a few seconds later as the beat disappeared back into the sonic miasma. It might well have been the sound of the subconscious: but not in a good way.
A couple of new bands proved more adept at creating an experience you’d want to be part of. Carnet de Voyage sculpted a clever 3-D visual show in collaboration with UAU Studio and film director Mike Figgis. It included twirling images of spaceships that perfectly complemented their anti-gravity classical-electro. Too short a set to fully get lost in, we’ll be looking out for the band’s Mimi Xu and Rosey Chan in future. Then over in the newly-opened production arch, deep in the depths of the Festival Hall, the young band Glass Animals erected a jungle for their debut big gig. The Oxford quartet’s fun and slightly swotty pop rock has been tipped as the next big thing; they recently signed with super-producer Paul Epworth (the man behind Florence + The Machine and Adele).
Ironically, the best show of the entire festival was the one that refused to dally with the darkness and instead brought the sunshine flooding inside. ESG is a punk-funk outfit from the South Bronx, a cornerstone of hip hop culture in the 1980s and duly sampled by everyone from the Beastie Boys to TLC. The unassuming band members shuffled onstage without much ceremony, almost like five American tourists who’d walked through the wrong door. But when they picked up their maracas and the bass started to throb, the remaining Scroggins sisters and their band let loose an irresistible stream of minimal groove — including classics The Beat and Dance — that got the best reception from the crowd we witnessed across the whole festival.
James Lavelle can be proud of making Meltdown freeze up this year, bringing a distinctive flavour all of his own. But he couldn’t lock out the summer entirely and it was the moments of light that made the sepulchral doom-mongering feel more profound and resonant.