A review of the Friday and Saturday performances from this year’s Rock the South. With many thanks for the cover photo of RAS & other photos that were used on the Sunday Times of Malta to Sarah Falzon.
Now in its fourth edition, Rock the South festival – bringing together a substantial amount of Malta’s top names from the indie and underground music scene across genres, together with some foreign names – enjoyed its biggest and busiest year so far this past weekend.
For the first time, the festival was held over four days instead of the customary three, kicking off on Thursday and going strong until Sunday night. Once again, the festival was held at Zion Reggae Bar in Marsaskala, which has established itself as the go-to place in this part of Malta for these kind of events. From an organisational perspective, the festival – organised by No Sweat Productions – has matured considerably and not only in terms of being longer and more diverse.
I found the setup this year to be significantly more effective and convenient. There were two stages, Orange and Blue; bands alternated between one and the other, so that there were never two bands playing at the same time and those who wished to could actually follow every gig. The Blue stage this year was located at the very back of the grounds, which meant that sound checks did not even interfere with the ongoing gigs.
Another innovation was the introduction of the Silent Disco area, organised by Hedon Crew, with DJs performing in a small tent that was located away from the main stages. Why ‘silent’? The concept, where everyone listens to the music on wireless headphones, is a simple but effective one that has gained significant popularity in cities like London.
I believe that this is the first time it took place in Malta and I loved being able to remove my headphones and actually talk to others whenever I felt like, instead of having to shout over the decibels like at a normal club. I have to say, though, that I didn’t appreciate the amount of selfish souls who insisted on sneaking a smoke inside the limited space of the tent – though technically an outside area, let’s just say that it was not the height of etiquette.
My first day at the festival was Friday, when the Blue stage was mostly focused on bands singing in Maltese. Our first language is really gaining ground on the alternative music front and any initiative that encourages this development is definitely to be applauded. I missed Mistura, but Sempliċiment tat-Triq received as enthusiastic a feeback as they had enjoyed during last year’s festival, with the audience – many of whom were not necessarily well-versed in hiphop) lapping it up loudly.
The next band I caught was Brodu, whose album Ħabullabullojb was one of this year’s revelations. Played live, their tracks lose none of their poignancy, on the contrary, there is a certain added pathos, occasionally lightened by well-timed banter from the band. I was also struck by the fact that so many audience members were mouthing the words to every track, despite the album being a relatively new release and despite the perceived language barrier.
China were on right after on the Orange stage, whose sound has developed beautifully from the early days of almost punk-derived energy into a super-dreamy, electronic pop that took the audience on a wave of multi-layered soundscapes. Their set for Rock the South was on the more mellow end of the spectrum, which went down perfectly with the vibe right after Brodu.
Bass Culture then took over the Orange stage with a set that alternated between thumping bass and more melodic dub, which went down very well and kept everyone’s dancing shoes firmly on. On the other side of the venue, Silent Disco closed off the night with Electro-Swing Malta versus Chris Radium in a concurrent ‘face off’ on different channels. The former played a mix of modern swing tunes, as their name suggests, while the latter was spinning a set of funk and rock’n’roll tunes that had everyone grooving. Part of the fun was trying to figure out which set other people were dancing too – everytime someone next to me mouthed the words to my jam it was an added bonus.
Saturday brought with it more goodness. I arrived in time for Bark Bark Disco on the Orange Stage – the band that is the epitome of lo-fi in Malta put on their ‘festival’ vibe with an energetic set that saw Yasmin Kuymizakis (aka Yews) join in towards the end. A seamless performance that had the audience singing along to favourites like Song for Lovers.
Areola Treat, always edgy, gave a very tight performance with vocalist Lisa Grimaud in top form complemented by some serious guitar and drum work, once again justifying their position as one of the top post-punk bands in Malta.
The energy dial turned up a notch or two higher with For Strings Inn right after; this quartet’s brand of alternative rock is particularly addictive, with the focus being not only on musicianship (though that in itself is pretty impressive) but also on fun, with the crowd really letting it rip on the dancefloor.
A return gig by Friday PM followed – this was definitely a highlight for many old-timers who remember the alternative scene from years ago. The band hasn’t gigged for about 15 years, if I am not mistaken, but it still holds the respect of many and for good reason. For this one-off reunion, it was made up of three ‘originals’ – Tonio Pace on vocals and guitar, Trevor Kissaun on guitars and Mark Mifsud on bass – and Brandel Scicluna on drums. Their set was like a trip back in time, a good one that brought to mind the rawness and honesty of the first-generation Maltese alternative music scene. These guys definitely still have it and the inclusion of the younger Scicluna on the lineup worked extremely well, with many clamouring for more Friday PM gigs in this present reincarnation.
Finally, Italian band AIM closed off the live bands for the evening with a set that combined raw rock with Italian showmanship in a set that had the audience moshing enthusiastically, even as band members left the stage to join their fans in the pit. No new name to this festival, AIM this year presented a set from their new album Finalmente a Casa in a bass-heavy, high-octane performance that hit just the right notes for a Saturday night finale.
After-hours continued with a set by newcomers on the electronic scene Crux and DJs I.YOU versus Fre and Chris Radium at Silent Disco. The latter duo pushed up the nostalgia factor with punk and post-punk hits that kept the dancefloor buzzing not-so-silently, despite the headphones.