The Lovely Eggs

Focus Wales 2019 Wrexham, Wales, May 16th, 2019

May 30, 2019 Photography by Ian Weston Web Exclusive
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Once upon a time the music industry would focus on three main showcase events; Eurosonic, South By Southwest, and The Great Escape. Over the past decade, the number of showcase festivals has increased dramatically. And while some have since fallen by the wayside, others have grown at a rate where the possibilities for reaching a wider audience are endless.

One of those just happens to be Focus Wales, a non-profit organization partnered with the Welsh government and several other international music exports. It is situated in the North Wales town of Wrexham, a place once dominated by manufacturing industries before becoming decimated by successive Tory governments from the late 1970s onwards. In recent years the town has enjoyed an economic boom, with its blue chip and retail sectors in particular seeing an upward turn.

It also has an infrastructure of venues and spaces that lend itself to an event like Focus Wales such as the main festival hub Ty Pawb. Once an indoor food market, Ty Pawb is now a multi-faceted, multi-floored collection of spaces filled by a creative clientele specializing in everything from artwork and live music to artisan food and drinks vendors. Likewise is Undegun, formerly a Sports Direct but now home to one of the largest live music venues in the town.

Indeed, it's this collection of unorthodox yet wholly suited performance spaces rather than run of the mill venues that adds to Focus Wales' charm and character. Spread over the course of three days in May, the influx of delegates from as far afield as Taiwan, Korea, Canada, and America, as well as keynote speakers ranging from Radio One's Huw Stephens to Eurosonic Noorderslag founder Ruud Berends and many more besides, suggests it's no longer seen as a poor relation by its bigger city rivals.

If anything, this year's South By Southwest highlighted the wider music industry's current focus on the Welsh music scene, with the Focus Wales showcase being one of Austin's busiest events. So while the main buzz is understandably centred around the likes of Friday headliners Boy Azooga and Saturday bill topper Cate Le Bon, whose appearance coincides with the release of her fifth album Reward, it's the homegrown acts on the undercard that fly the Welsh flag with gusto.

Cardiff-based five-piece Red Telephone play a brand of pedal infused garage rock that sits contentedly between the glam-tinged Britpop of Suede or label compatriots Strangelove and The Horrors at their most primal. New single "I'm Always Thinking About You" might just be the song that elevates them beyond their native scene but fear ye not, as they have an armoury full of songs where that came from such as the wiry "Going Nowhere" and ebullient paisley pop of "Kookly Rose."

Staying with Cardiff, Perfect Body have only been together just over a year yet in that time already made a significant impact both in and outside of Wales. Playing a set that veers between ambient space rock and the intricate shoegaze of Just For a Day era Slowdive, it's easy to see why London imprint Sonic Cathedral are putting out the band's next release as part of their much coveted singles club. Soulful four-piece Madi also stand out from the crowd despite technical problems causing a delay in their eagerly anticipated set in the intimate confines of Saith Seren. Madi is essentially the brainchild of Maddie Jones, a mainstay of the Welsh music scene for a number of years who seems to have found her true vocation with this latest project.

Pontypridd trio Chroma are another band whose music resonates with everyone present throughout the three shows they play. The pick of those also takes place in Saith Seren on Saturday evening, which is a perfect time and place for their danceable yet polemic take on punk rock that's equal parts The Gossip, Le Tigre, and Fugazi.

Local outfit Baby Brave deservedly pull big crowds for their two shows. Elements of Britpop (think Sleeper or Echobelly not Oasis) seep into their repertoire, which is no bad thing. While the caustic likes of "Baby Behave" and introspective "Easy Tiger" make us think of Wolf Alice and Sleater Kinney respectively. Even more outlandish are Glove, a duo residing in North Wales who create politically charged, socially aware diatribes that owe as much to post-punk legends The Slits as they do folk poet Kate Tempest or grime artist Little Simz. Playing a Saturday teatime slot might be daunting to some but the two membersStephanie Finegan and SloSilverstrike up an unholy racket that's turned The Parish into a heaving mass of contorted bodies.

Powys collective Islet often find themselves referred as the elder states folk of the Welsh music scene, having put out their first release almost a decade ago. Yet their experimental take on traditional and electronic folk is a joy to behold even if the trio's unconventional performance leaves some of the audience scratching their heads in bewilderment. Audiobooks also manage to confound and surprise with every passing performance, and here in the spacious confines of Undegun is no different. Playing to one of the largest audiences of the weekend, their eclectic hybrid of all things post-punk channelled through a post-rave filter is as dynamic and incendiary as one would expect from an outfit featuring understated Welsh production genius David Wrench.

Take a trip over the border to Chester and there's something just as vibrant happening there as well. Experimental indie poppers Campfire Social may have existed in various guises over the years, but they're definitely onto a winner right now if the band's buoyant after hours set at The Parish is anything to go by. Centered around the vocal harmonies of husband and wife duo Thomas and Carrie Hyndman, they're an evocative fusion of dreamy folk and luscious melodies straight out the Americana songbook.

Nevertheless, while the focus might be on Welsh acts, Focus Wales is a truly international affair, which provides a platform for some remarkable performances from artists around the globe. Canadian dream pop outfit Tallies might be making their first excursion to the UK, but anticipation levels have already reached fever pitch prior to the band's arrival thanks in no small part to an excellent self-titled debut long player on Kanine that's sure to feature in many end of year "Best Of" lists come December. Musically reminiscent of The Sundays and Cocteau Twins among others, both of their shows feel like events in their own right. Particularly Friday's performance in the Memorial Hall, which finds the venue packed to the rafters.

Swedish indie pop sextet Agent Blå are also making their first visit to the UK and signed to the Kanine label too. What's more, they're a minor revelation. Playing the Westside festival showcase in Ty Pawb on the first day of the festival, the Gothenburg collective perform a no nonsense show that's insatiable from beginning to end. Playing a set featuring seven songs that combines the best material from 2017's self-titled debut and this year's follow-up Morning Thoughts, their music bears a passing resemblance to The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart, Camera Obscura, The Concretes, and Lazy Records era My Bloody Valentine. While this might be the first time we've both crossed paths, one suspects it won't be the last. 

Agent Blå

German techno is also high on the agenda in the shape of BAHR, whose high-octane bursts of electronica scattered with elements of drum and bass keeps the dancefloor busy until the early hours. Prior to that, New Orleans musician-cum-producer AF The Naysayer's dark forays into electronics and beats recalls the early days of Warp Records coupled with the futuristic vision of Floating Points or Flying Lotus.

Latvian artist Elizabete Balčus confounds and bewilders throughout her 40 minute set which combines performance art with an array of experimental sounds encompassing everything from traditional folk to banging techno. Comparisons to Björk and The Knife aren't too wide of the mark, while the visual element of her show is an unforgettable experience in itself that's been wowing audiences around the globe for a while now.

Mart Avi has often been described as the Estonian Scott Walker, and while that can only be seen as a compliment, he's an entirely unique entity in his own right. Again combining striking visuals with a vocal range that veers between semi-operatic falsetto and half-spoken drawl, he's an undisputed highlight of Saturday night's hectic schedule.

Back in the UK, Manchester four-piece Working Men's Club channel the spirit of post-punk through a Hacienda Club-inspired filter that makes songs like "Bad Blood" and "Teeth" bubble and fizz with exuberance galore. Singer Syd Minsky-Sargeant is a livewire whose forays into the audience veer between playful and fearsome whilst cutting a striking presence throughout. Recently signed to Heavenly Recordings, they might be relatively new kids on the block at the minute, but make no mistake they'll be household names by this time next year.

Hull's Life deliver a similar bout of late night thrills the previous evening, playing a set of angry post-punk anthems in waiting. While over in the more tranquil confines of the Royal Oak, Bristol's Emily Magpie fuses trip hop beats with intricate folk that wouldn't sound out of place on a bigger stage in the great outdoors this summer.

Life

Experimental psychedelic four-piece Penelope Isles might be based in Brighton at the moment, but there's no denying the influence of being born and bred on the Isle of Man. Particularly on the likes of "Cut Your Hair" and "Gnarbone," which twist and turn through several genres before eclipsing into something otherworldly that makes the July arrival of forthcoming debut Until the Tide Creeps In a very mouth watering prospect.

Penelope Isles

The DIY attitude of Thursday night's headliners The Lovely Eggs encapsulates the spirit of Focus Wales and it's status as one of the few bastions of independence on the UK festival circuit. With next year's tenth anniversary edition promising to be even bigger and better its predecessors, May 2020 really can't come round soon enough!

www.focuswales.com

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