Rock the South: Explosions in the Sky

AIM

Italian band AIM. Photo: Sarah Falzon.

 With apologies to the Texan post-rock band for nicking their name for my header, this happens to be the perfect way of describing the Rock the South festival that, as it were, rocked the south last weekend.  I’m talking musical explosions, of course, with some 17 bands coming together on two stages at Zion Reggae Bar, Marsaskala, under two particularly balmy two spring nights.

Don’t let the descriptor attached to the location fool you. The festival, which was organised by Nosweat, Raw Events and Zion, was definitely not limited to reggae. The bands chosen – which included foreign acts AIM and Come headlining – covered a decently diverse mix of subgenres. There was punk courtesy of Dripht, ska with nosnow/noalps, experimental rock with Côme, hiphop with Sempliċiment tat-Triq, electronic/pop with Dolls for Idols and even some Maltese folk on the acoustic stage courtesy of duo Kukkanja among others.

Before getting to the music itself, a word about the location. Given the size of the outside area of the venue, I confess to initial skepticism, particularly given that there were going to be two stages. Sound spill from one area to the other is a sure-fire killjoy. As it was,  I was wrong. With the main stage set up near the entrance and the acoustic stage and a chill out area at the far back, the arrangement worked. Kudos to the organizers.

More kudos are due to the sound people. There were no sound hitches on either day, which is quite a feat considering not only the expected challenges in setting up two stages al fresco, but also the particular acoustics required by the set up.

On to the music. At a festival of this scale it is impossible to review every single band that took part, so I will limit myself to what I – and the crowd – considered highlights. Sempliċiment tat-Triq kicked off the festival on Friday. I’m not exactly well-versed in hip-hop, but I was curious as these guys have been making ripples on this particular scene. For the night, they were accompanied by a live band – a decision that really worked, particularly to draw in those who, like myself, aren’t necessarily familiar with the genre.

The Shh

The Shhh. Photo: Sarah Falzon.

Quite an intense choice for a festival opener from a lyrical point of view, with numbers like Kamra Numru 24  and Pum Pah highlighting social situations that maybe not everyone is familiar with – though this doesn’t make them any less real. From a music point of view Sempliċiment proved a  good choice, launching into festival mode with their trademark fusion of softly melodic  interjections that contrast with the harsher sounds rap.

The Shhh followed, changing the tone completely; the Ian Schranz/Alison Galea duo never fails to charm, probably thanks to the seemingly effortless way that they manage to draw the crowd in. Their vibe is definitely mellow – maybe too much so to properly fit within the identity of this festival, when you consider the tone of the bands that followed. Nonetheless, Galea’s and Schranz’s  distinctive voices blended as beautifully as always  and seemed to strike the right balance before things got somewhat more lively.

I missed out on Three Stops to China’s performance, but got back just in time to catch Dripht. Judging by the energy levels, Three Stops to China must have done a pretty good job and the mosh-pit turned into a beast as soon as the band opened with one of their classics, Rockin’ To Resist. Dripht’s performance was definitely the Friday highlight for me. Their punk sound is delivered with ear-friendly riffs and refrains that the band’s regular followers delight in belting out. Playing their classic crowd pleasers, including Acid Fight, Pacifista and Clash cover I Fought the Law, which the crowd has now come to expect at Dripht gigs. Constantly throwing banter at the crowd, they were evidently having a great time; a feeling that was reflected in the moshpit and that sealed the success of the first day of the festival – if any more signs were needed, that is.

Dripht

Dripht. Photo: Sarah Falzon.

The night closed with Aim, an Italian outfit that was returning to the festival for the second time. Aim describe their sound as “psychedelic rock”. It is very difficult to put a specific label on their genre, in fact, which in a way adds to their allure. Whatever you choose to call their music, they undoubtedly had what it takes to keep the crowd reeled in. Their tracks alternate between the high-octane and the the more mellow, a perfectly balanced act to bring the first night to a close.

The second day dawned with alternative rockers For Strings Inn, who gave a tight performance with tracks like Eyes Stalking, Julie July and Tangerine Rock among others. The band closed off with their newest single, Revolution. Inspired by the spate of ‘revolutions’ that hit the international headlines throughout the past years, this is arguably their strongest offering to date both musically and lyrically and was a fitting end to their slot. Also check out the accompanying video on YouTube.

Dolls for Idols were on next – a slot that unfortunately I had to miss out on as I recharged my batteries far from the madding crowd. From what I’ve experienced in the past at this band’s gigged, they know how to rev up a crowd, and I look forward to their next performance.

No snow/no alps followed, raising the temperature a hundred degrees, if you’ll pardon the cliché. Part ska, part finding its roots in reggae and part pure, loud rock, this band’s music is every festival-goer’s dream. So, ahem, lively was the vibe that this time round I didn’t dare join the main moshpit and had to be happy watching from the sides. This was the first time I saw someone moshing while hanging upside down from the wooden beams on the ceiling. I tried my best to unearth photographic evidence of this, but despite myriad inquiries, no such photo was forthcoming. It’s always a good sign when people are too busy having fun to whip out their mobile phones to take photos.

The band’s gig came to an end with two tracks that made them earn their place as another festival highlight for me. The first was their trademark Cherry Tree, a highly danceable and hummable track that is very strong on the ska element.  The very final track is so brand spanking new that it still lacks a name. Both left the crowd wanting more.

Come

French band Côme. Photo: Sarah Falzon.

And the crowd did get more as soon as French duo Côme showed up. Côme’s music belies the fact that this is a duo – their sound is full, eclectic and layered. Their live performance is a multi-sensory treat, with the use of visuals further enhancing the aural experience. And what an experience it was.  At face value, this is just another drum-and-guitar act, with vocals thrown in. In reality, with tracks like Who Wanna Dance and I Kill You, the result is truly an explosion of sound – hence the inspiration for this review’s header – that in parts almost flirts with post-rock.

The weekend festival came to a close with Cable 35’s album launch. Cable 35 are definitely one of Malta’s most successful exports on the indie rock front. Well, on any front, really. On this occasion, they were also launching their latest album Fungus Rock, so expectations were definitely running high. Incidentally, you can download the new single Rental Sunshine for free from the band’s official website here.

Expectations were not disappointed – unless you count the fact that the usual curfew issues cropped up and the gig was stopped relatively earlier. The band kicked off with a classic from their first full-length album, Cow Head, and just kept on turning the vibe a notch higher with one pumping track after the other… Unfortunately,  the gig was cut short due to the archaic permit regulations  that we find ourselves lumped with in Malta. This, in a non-residential area.

On another note, I missed out on all the bands on the acoustic stage, as fitting everyone in was obviously impossible. But I can’t conclude the review without a second word of praise for whoever was in charge of sound and logistics. With a festival involving so many acts, something always winds up going wrong. In this case, it didn’t. Or if it did, it was sorted out before it reached the audience, and that’s all that matters.

An edited version of this review was published on The Sunday Times.

 

 

 

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