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Field Report: Wide Awake Festival 2024

Young Fathers. Eartheater. Hannah Diamond. Squid. Fat Dog. Byrne's Night. Ben UFO.

king gizzard and the lizard wizard wide awake south london music festival stage

PC Music, the pioneering label of which Hannah Diamond is a founding member, has always embodied the nightmarish realisation of promises made to a generation raised on the idea that “forever” was an option. This generation witnessed the advent of the internet and social media in our childhood homes and heard pop songs that echoed the euphoria of the 90s’ ecstasy boom. Yet, our own ecstasy boom never materialised, our musical epiphanies instead mediated through pre-roll ads on YouTube and weaponised by a culture that exists only abstractly.  Diamond’s music, more so than anyone on the PC Music roster, is pinned to the notion of “forever”, forging a yearning for the unattainable or intangible into bubblegum-flecked pop anthems. In the narrow confines of pop, duration becomes a conceptual space where the personal is continuously performed until the end; pop music demands an investment in each fleeting moment and is a big part of why Diamond and co.’s retro-futurist experiments are so culturally heretical.

Blurring the line between reality and performance, Diamond gave us a more grounded and less airbrushed set than what I'm used to, suiting Wide Awake Festival's distinct, but idiosyncratic identity. The super-shiny sound of this early, manic hyperpop wass layered with saturated, ultra-cute femininity and suddenly the world melted into a symphony of purple: sound vibrating in hues of violet, indigo, and lavender, appearing as glimpses of an unseen order (or conspiracy) as if the universe itself were whispering secrets through every breath, every beat, every amethyst burst, ripe and cute, searing a path back to the primordial lava lake from which we first emerged, where I find Eartheater, her voice suspended in air, following rhythm and inflection rather than logic, conceiving the expression of [ego-] death and resurrection, round and round, and mapping the New York post-club utopia comparison to whatever post-punk crust has been cut off over here in South London.

There was a time that Fat Dog, the virulent harum-scarum South London noise group, irresponsibly threw their feral sampled sounds around venues like Peckham Audio (with just the right amount of problematic attitude on stage to be a very interesting post-punk band), now post an ascent that has them playing large stages sounding more and more like the ska-scented tincture of Suggs and Madness. This was followed by Squid, the skittish, ambitiously palatable prog-punk-band, who unstitched a set woven from disparate threads, free-falling into abstract new structures (intros and outros, fuck the middle, which feels in its own way modern and revolutionary), with bouncy melodies that seem to spring from a fervent crease of defiant, breathless noise to exultation rolling just out of reach, like the condensation of catharsis — see-sawing between the mundane and life-changing, finding that cynicism has pop-corned into an anachronistic reverence that seems to exist in the same way I as a child consecrated my sea monkeys and cried when they died, arguing with my father that they did indeed have a soul (just add water!) — to distinguish what parts of the set most resembled any tracks from their first two albums, you would have needed to excavate it from within the overwhelm. Granted, this was when my mescaline really kicked in.

The best way I can describe mescaline is that it feels like you're constantly looking at two strangers making out for just a little bit too long. It's intrusive, compulsive, unrepentant, and as I watched the world dancing (eyes closed with tongues licking at crumbly air searching for soft throats) through my dark shades, I felt the rupturous helix of music as Ben UFO seemed to pull sound from within me and reshape it before feeding it back to us. How can you not move when the sound being played is your own jagged, thrumming palpitations? When your blood is pumping at the same BPM as the sound-system and you're sweating at even faster R(ivulets)PM, how can you not sway and swoon and shake and shiver--

"Are we sure they know what they're doing?" my friend asked me. No, I'm not. I could give him no reassurance, as Young Fathers, made up of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and G. Hastings, shred through the epitome of hard, new wave, industrial, concrete Glasgow electronic sound blended, at their will, with soul, hip-hop, rock, noise, pop, and rap and referencing the sounds of Ethiopia and Ghana. It was ten things all at once, all of the time — yet always stopped short of becoming too brittle to break. Like much of what I saw at Wide Awake, it always felt only moments away from completely falling apart. It's hard to describe a group which are doing so much simultaneously, self-generating an identity and purposefully remaining enigmatic in doing so. Language is a lie, but it is important, and it is my job, so I must try to translate it with what semblance of synapses are still firing. Their sound and their performance are ferocious, and suspenseful (think of an elastic band always threatening to snap back at you) spinning a Catherine Wheel of concentric music (I could count the heavens, there were seven), spun by a propulsive energy that dared to offend, to spill over, to become too much.

Scottland's other great act, David Byrne, ascribed as “Scotland’s second greatest poet”, was plastered in full technicolour by the greatest cover band in the world. Founded by Dancing Barefoot's Maddy O’Keefe and Lola Stephen, this special edition of Byrne's Night, hosted by Ash Kenzai (true to name, huffing a bottle of Rush on stage), opened with a thundering bagpipe solo and Scottish poem and featured an endlessly rotating set of musicians — a sugary selection of instrumentalists from bands such as Black Country, New Road and Squid, syrupy, wyrd-folk quartet The New Eves, and London's absurdist post-punk jesters Human Resources, as well as guest singers such as sexy noise-renaissance frontman Cole Haden of Model/Actriz who performed while both voguing and smoking, club provocateurs Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul grinding on the standing lamp, and the unabated thrash of Alli Logout from Special Interest, among others — who squirmed about in oversized suits ejecting all of the monotonic manic drama and panting heat-stroked gestures that David Byrne himself feverishly seared into our collective memories in Stop Making Sense.

Talking Head’s music has always been described as “timeless”, sonically situated in the future-already-here and the past-still-around, both somehow still progressive even while drenched in nostalgia’s diaphora (as a case in point, David Byrne's "Heaven" envisions a world where you can endlessly smoke eternal cigarettes, kiss infinitely, and listen to your favourite music on repeat). Even scratching at the funky, addictive, paranoid rhythms of Byrne and Talking Heads is bound to wind up being as narcotised and euphoric as a night of live music can be, and one that, keeping on theme, counteracts an audience increasingly obsessed with the false promise of forever. 


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