Focus Wales. Wrexham. 9/10/11 May.

Wrexham shot to fame last year because of it’s football team. As someone with no interest whatsoever in ‘the beautiful game’ this completely passed me by. I do, however, have more than a passing interest in music and it is this that brings me on my first first visit to this rather nice city just over the border into Wales.

Focus Wales is now 14 and has grown into what surely must be one of the very best multi-day, multi-venue festivals on the musical calendar. A three day showcase for new bands, up and coming artists and topped with some well established crowd pullers Focus Wales really does have something for everyone. In fact it’s fair to say that if you can’t find enough music here to fill your afternoons and evenings then you probably have no interest in live music at all. There’s huge support for Welsh acts and indeed for bringing together a diverse range of talent from across the globe. Want to hear some French avant-garde post punk, some lo-fi American grunge, some Ukrainian folk, some industrial techno from Spain, the voices of a choir in a majestic church? You’ll find it here.

There’s around 20 different venues ranging from small back rooms in pubs to the huge Llwyn Isaf, a marquee where the main headliners can be found. And with over 200 acts to choose from it’s a guarantee you’ll find something new to love. I’m a music obsessive. I see hundreds of bands every year yet here at Focus Wales approximately half of the 34 bands I saw were ones I’d never heard of before researching who I might want to see.

Focus Wales also hosts conferences and talks about the music business making it the perfect place to get some serious networking done if you’re in a band, a promoter, an agent, a venue owner or if, like me, you simply take photographs and write reviews because you love doing it. Brilliantly organised, friendly, knowledgeable staff in a city that’s welcoming, has loads of quirky shops, independent eateries and bars and a thriving cultural scene.

And the icing on the cake? All this comes in at just £75 for three days. Thirty four bands seen. That’s £2.21 per band. Some playing this weekend would be well over £20 each in their own headline slot.

We all have different tastes and my love of all things punky/post-punk might be someone else’s nightmare. “Lyrics about global malaise using cold and abrasive dark electronica” will draw me right in. It’ll send others running. So this review naturally swerves towards my own preferences and what I saw was brilliant.

Thursday afternoon in Hope Street Church is a showcase for Ukrainian artists. Akine are the perfect start to the day with their shoegazy indie rock topped with the haunting vocals of singer Nicole.  Over in the rather plush surroundings of the Wynnstay Hotel’s conference room Punchlove are one of the highlights of the weekend with their dense, occasionally grungy, sometimes poppy, experimental sounds. The place is rammed. Some already know about this rather wonderful noise machine. Those that didn’t are quickly won over.

Then it’s a quick dash back to Hope Street for The Silver Lines and their fantastic blend of raw, garage rock n roll that isn’t afraid to tackle topics that will connect with people on many different levels. Add in a vocalist who has the coolness of McCulloch and the confidence and swagger of early Jagger and this is a band you really should catch if you can.

The Fat Boar hosts Generation Feral, aka Izzy Liddamore, who, with just a guitar, piano and some clever looping, belts out tunes raging against, amongst other things, austerity and not being able to show your knees when at school. She’s witty, amusing, angry and serious all at the same time.

Home Counties pull us into the cavernous Llwyn Isaf for the first time and it’s great to see a big crowd appreciate their quirky, angular, infectious beats.

Local heroes The Royston Club draw the biggest crowd of any of the three main festival headliners. I’m reliably informed the place is packed but I stray from what I should be doing in order to see W!ZARD and Piss Kitti. Both prove to be absolute highlights of the weekend. W!ZARD with their explosive stage presence, raw post-punk noise in a venue (Ty Pawb) that possibly has the best sound/lighting engineer(s) of any over the three days. Piss Kitti, back in Hope Street Church, never disappoint with their blend of garage punk. Unable to stand still the whole venue becomes their stage. The place is packed, it’s hot, sweaty, unadulterated rock n roll. I absolutely made the right choice.

To think this is day one and a Thursday it’s hard to think how things can get any better. Especially when even though its gone 10pm we still get to see the hammering, repetitive, joyful, pounding sounscapes of Canadian duo DVTR, a small selection of the wonderful, freaky, mysterious Cosmic Dog Frog, the grimy, distorted punk of Fat Dog in a venue (Penny Black) that’s so full we can only glimpse the band from the back.

Snapped Ankles are unique. No-one else does what they do and they do it brilliantly. Infectious rhythms, foot tapping beats, atmospheric stage theatrics. The Rockin’ Chair’s main area is filled to capacity.

Midnight finally chimes and we move just a few metres to The Rockin’ Chair’s side bar to be sledgehammered into submission by the overwhelming, growling, sonic assault that is SHLUG.

There was more on offer but we climb wearily into a taxi back to our campervan ready to do it all again tomorrow.

Friday starts off at a much more sedate pace than Thursday finished. ‘Meet The Bookers’ is a talk/Q&A session by some of the people who book the bands at some of the biggest festivals. Bearded Theory, Glastonbury and Cambridge Folk to name just three. It’s a fascinating insight into what bookers look for. Followers on social media? No. Number of tickets sold at your last show? Yes. Slickly produced tunes on Spotify? No. Some raw phone-shot footage showing your live stage presence? Yes. It also means we can sit down for an hour.

Dyatlov, from Spain, are that “cold and abrasive dark electronica” mentioned earlier. They live up to this description perfectly. It’s an infectious drone full of synths, dangerous beats and the perfect soundtrack for a walk round a desolate industrial landscape. Its just as good in the dim, sweaty confines of a Wrexham venue on a sunny afternoon.

A very nice 90 minutes was then spent in the sunshine outside a pub with friends in one of the bands playing tomorrow before heading back to Ty Pawb for Canada’s Fold Paper who with their version of modern day post punk full of scratchy guitar sounds, stop start rythms and lyrics not dissimilar to bands such as LIFE or The Lounge Society turn out to be a favourite of the weekend. So much so I saw them twice. So good in fact that I’m then faced with a 4 minute dash across town to Llwyn Isaf to watch, listen and sway this aching body to the addictive beats, slicing guitars and none stop energy of CHROMA. Staying in Llwyn Isaf The Bug Club, a band I’ve been wanting to see for years, do not disappoint. Quirky, witty, sarcastic outlooks on everyday life by a band who seem genuinely happy to be here doing what they do. Great to see them in a small venue later on watching other bands. The Mysterines, main stage headliners, show how far they’ve come in just a few years. They’re a well oiled machine with every sound produced coming together perfectly to form the whole. Slick guitars and the vocals of Lisa Metcalf giving songs full of atmosphere. There’s a mix up with pit access for photographs but a particularly kind stage manager allows two of us in for one song. Unfortunately we can’t stay for the whole set as the irresistible 70’s glam influenced rock n roll of Cardiff’s The Family Battenburg cannot be missed. Clearly others have the same idea as Hope Street Church is unlikely to have squeezed anyone else in once the band had started.

Time for a quick drink before another dash back to The Rockin’ Chair for another Cardiff outfit Red Telephone. They do what they do brilliantly but their sleek, layered indie rock is a little too late 80’s new wave for me. But, they’re listenable to, it gives me time to relax a little at the back, I’m clearly in the minority as there’s loads here to see them and once again it’s just a few steps to the side to see the final band for our Friday and my second time witnessing the powerhouse that is Canadian duo DVTR. The sheer energy and sounds that just two people can produce really does have to be witnessed to be believed.

Saturday and the weather is still glorious, the atmosphere on the streets still infectious, the drinks still flowing but thankfully it’s a less manic start with The Honest Poet Society in Old No.7. Powerful lyrics over chilled out soulful beats.

Then it’s four on the bounce (with a small interlude) in what must be the hottest venue of the festival. The Parish looks like it’s one of the cosiest pubs around when it’s not hosting Focus Wales but today when it’s 23C outside temperatures soar inside, especially when it’s shoulder to shoulder for Nottingham’s Bored Marsh whose fast developing reputation in their home-town has obviously reached the ears of those in Wrexham today.

Liminal Project are superb. Imagine, if you can, gothic guitar sounds, deep, dominant, catchy bass riffs, ethereal soundscapes and wonderful, dreamy vocals and you won’t be far off. A sort of marriage between Boy Harsher and Xmal Deutschland.

Manchester’s The Red Stains blow the place apart with their incendiary, chaotic gritty punk rock shouting about everyday life challenges – mental health, being queer and consumerism. It’s addictive, infectious and really quite mesmerising and within seconds the whole place is hooked in. They even include a blistering version of The Fall’s Totally Wired.

Saturday evening isn’t letting up. Galway based Shark School, rapidly making a name for themselves in Ireland with their garage punk, prove beyond any doubt that fantastic tunes are being produced by youngsters and that the future of alternative music is in safe hands.

Back in Parish we catch the last few songs of another great Punchlove set and then it’s time for the band I’ve been most wanting to see this weekend. LIINES don’t disappoint and power through a blistering set. Zoe’s vocals packed with feelings, Leila’s incredibly powerful drumming and Simon ‘Ding’ Archer’s bass just rumbles through the venue. It’s so good to see them again. Older songs still as forceful as they were when first released and the promise of new material gives those here something to really look forward to.

Spiritualized close the main arena with their huge layered sounds that build and build in intensity. For fans a Spiritualized show is almost a religious experience – the lights, the sounds, the dry ice. Those here tonight out of curiosity because they’ve got a weekend wristband will have left with a new appreciation of what really can be done with music.

Unfortunately Chalk are late starting in Penny Black so after just a couple of songs we head upstairs to Room 1 for the final ‘must see’ band. Benefits are loud, angry and absolutely brutal in their raging against the state we’re in as a country. Drum beats that shake the venue to it’s very foundations and vocals that yell and spit venom. It’s not an easy listen and nor should it be. This is music to make you feel the passion and anger, to know that it’s real and to encourage you to understand that things are not right and that we really should be doing something about it.

A brilliant end to three days of fantastic bands.

Focus Wales – So much on offer for anyone who appreciates live music. A festival to discover more ‘new favourite bands’ regardless of your preferred genre. A festival whose main aim is the promotion of emerging artists from Wales and beyond, to give them a stage and an audience. A real showcase of the talent that’s out there. A brilliant three days amongst like-minded people.


Steve White

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