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Primavera Sound 2015: The Big Review

The worlds of rock, metal and indie collide in Barcelona

The eclectic Primavera Sound festival has been a permanent fixture on the Spanish circuit since 2001. Here’s how this year’s three-day bash unfolded….

THURSDAY, MAY 28

As the sun beats down on Barcelona’s Parc del Forum, an unyielding concrete jungle of merch tents, overpriced beer stalls and just about the widest selection of music fans you’ll ever likely gather at one festival, Primavera Sound 2015 lurches into life. Hiss Golden Messenger make good on the scarcely-coveted early-afternoon slot at the Ray-Ban stage, their country-tinged rock ’n’ roll and extensive, bluesy jams proving that as an artist, you don’t need a huge crowd to have a good time.

Much-lauded indie-poppers Twerps are up next, and trade heavily on the dream pop of Postcard Records, Real Estate and their contemporaries. In the middle of a sincere but joyful performance, they admit to crowd that this is one of the best sets they’ve ever played. It shows.

The same claims can’t be made by transatlantic noise-pop poster boys Cheatahs, who despite having made a name for themselves by slogging it out in London’s small, divey venues – plus a number of successful global festival appearances – are the first unfortunate casualties of being placed on a stage [adidas Originals] that swallows them whole. The usual bite of their jangling indie pop is whisked away by a gusting sea breeze, the vocals falls flat, and material from what was one of 2014’s most promising debuts [s/t Cheatahs] fails to grip the rapidly depleting crowd.

The Replacements, on the other hand, suffer no such trouble at the jam-packed Primavera stage. Opening their set with a blistering rendition of Takin’ A Ride, they whizz their way through a comprehensive tour of eras and ages, dropping in the joyful Favorite Thing, set highlight I Will Dare and fan favourite Bastards Of Young along the way. Maintaining the raw edge and ramshackle charm that made them one of the best-loved punk bands of the 20th century, they nonetheless deliver a watertight set of well-honed cult classics, esoteric covers, and an uncharacteristically controlled amount of rambling experimentation as the sun sets behind them.

As early evening ticks over into late night, Mikal Cronin takes to the Ray-Ban stage, filling the gaping auditorium with his masterful brand of power pop. The woozy crowd swell and sway to a setlist that draws heavily from new album MCIII, but respond ecstatically to tracks from previous releases MCII [2013] and 2011’s self-titled solo debut.

Across the way at the ATP stage, Spiritualized are embarking on a set of blissed out, prog-infused psychedelia, which they will infuse with interludes of thumping garage rock, back by a full choir and augment with prolonged explorative jams. All in all, it’s just another night for Rugby’s art rockers.

As we head into the early hours of Friday morning, Sunn0))) shake even the most party-ready revellers to sober attention – literally – with their ear-shattering drone rattling through the crowd’s bones and turning their stomachs upside down. Seizing their crown – again, literally – as the kings of drone, Stephen O’Malley, Greg Anderson and his their masked vocalist use cloaks of mirrors and crowns of icy thorns (imagine the Grim Reaper being cast in Game Of Thrones) to draw in the thousands of gathered attendees with a performance as theatrical as it is deathly.

Back at the adidas Originals stage, Electric Wizard deliver the best set they’ve played in years. Deviating from the setlist of their recent UK dates, they pay heavy attention to their earlier material, with 2007’s Witchcult Today taking up a majority of the set (2010’s Black Masses and last year’s Time To Die are largely absent, and the set benefits for it). Dropping in a thundering Dopethrone mid-set sends the (admittedly, mostly already mind-altered) crowd to a higher plane, while set closer Funerapolis sends them home happy – if a little deaf.

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Primavera: May 28, 2015 – The Replacements and Spiritualized Photos: Eric Pamies (TR)/ Burak Cingi/Redferns (S)

**FRIDAY, MAY 29 **Striving to solidify their reputation beyond just “ex-members of Wild Flag”, Ex Hex drop a set of insanely catchy, Cars-esque pop rock, in which they perform 2014’s debut album Rips almost in its entirety. Again suffering from a stage that outstrips the sum of their parts, the threesome isn’t big enough to fill the Pitchfork stage they’re placed on, and the sound falls slightly thin in places.

Passing a number of small-to-tiny crowds on the way to the Heineken stage, any confusion about where the rest of the festival-goers have been hiding evaporates on discovering the huge crowd waiting patiently for Patti Smith to perform Horses in full. Forty years might have passed since the album was first released, but Smith proves that her hold or influence haven’t diminished over the years – if anything, they’ve increased – and is as powerful, commanding and unapologetic as you might expect (a 68-year-old woman introducing her set by screaming “C’mon, motherfuckers!” is as about a direct statement of intent as you’re likely to get). Updating her spoken-word sections to reflect the political tensions of the modern world, she needn’t have bothered – the weight of her original words remains potent enough.

Braving the long walk back to the adidas Originals stage to catch White Hills, they’re already in full swing, shifting between strains of unapologetic, thumping classic rock, garage rock, shoegaze and psychedelia. With hints of Curve, The Jesus And Mary Chain and early Pink Floyd, their sound can be hard to follow and even more difficult to pin down. Their gimmick, though, is their willingness to absorb themselves in rock ’n’ roll cliches (leather trousers, prolonged solos and stage names including Ego Sensation and Quiet Thunder). While these are great fun, they take them into corny territory, LSD or USB proving one laboured drug reference too far.

Way back across the fields, the sun is setting, and Sleater-Kinney take to the Heineken stage to rapturous applause. It’s at this performance that Primavera’s decision to buy into the idea of designated VIP areas to the front of the stage becomes most galling, as a yawning area of empty space separates the band from those who most want to see them. Fortunately, spirits on the wrong side of the barrier remain high, as the three-piece (plus touring fourth member Katie Harkin) embark on a crowd-pleasing set of fan favourites that delves deeper into their back catalogue than their recent UK shows dared. Niggling technical difficulties aside (Carrie’s guitar tech becomes an unwitting fifth member for the night), the sound is superlative, and Dig Me Out’s segue into a blistering Entertain provides a finale that comes about as close to a religious experience as we’ll get this weekend.

On the opposite Primavera stage, Ride deliver a set as euphoric in its own right. Kicking off with the sprawling, 15-minute Leave Them All Behind, they set off on a meandering tour that stops off at each era of their career. Drive Blind and Vapour Trail provide set highlights, with Chelsea Girl rounding the set off in delicate style.

Meanwhile at the adidas Originals stage, Canadian metallers Voivod kick out a set that happily affords them the title of Most Fun At The Festival – at the very least, it’s the most headbanging you’ll see on stage at any point this weekend. Obviously happy to be there, their set includes – among the thrashing, progressive metal – a round of happy birthday for their reluctant guitarist, a few football chants and a poignant, but upbeat, round of applause for Piggy, their late, longstanding guitarist, who lost his battle with colon cancer in 2005.

While Voivod might have been the most fun of the weekend, Polish black metallers Thaw prove to be its unexpected highlight. Playing to a crowd of 50-or-so in the early hours of Saturday morning, the small turnout doesn’t diminish the 6-piece’s punishing power. Mixing black metal with unrelenting drones and experimental noise, kitted out in all black hoods and with a furious sea breeze whipping up behind them, they mesmerise all who have turned out to see them.

Less impressive are Earth, who back at the adidas Originals stage suggest that while they were once a founding influence in experimental stoner rock, the genre is dangerously close to leaving them behind. The sound is thin and the grooves, though satisfyingly heavy, lack the punch they need to hold attention as the morning stretches on.

In contrast, Pallbearer, who take to the stage after Earth’s set, grab the audience around the throat and shake them to life with a mix of furious heavy metal and crunching doom that tears through your ears and soul. They relent only for a second, to thank the crowd for sticking around – despite us being the wrong side of 4am by this point, the set is well attended, the diverse crowd proving that 2014’s Foundations Of Burden has extended their reach beyond just learned metalheads.

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Primavera: May 29, 2015 – Patti Smith, Ride and Sleater-Kinney Photos: Eric Pamies

**SATURDAY, MAY 30 **After last night’s heavy metal explosion, DIIV’s jangling indie pop is a mercifully gentle introduction to the festival’s final day. The band deliver tight, poppy shoegaze, with a set that includes plenty of new material and easily fills the same Pitchfork stage that proved too much for a number of their cohorts. Unfortunately, there’s barely any stage presence to speak of – part of their inward-gazing charm, perhaps – but this doesn’t stop them pulling an impressively large crowd for what is a relatively early slot.

Meanwhile, festival mainstays Fucked Up attempt to master the decidedly more cavernous ATP stage. Surrounded by ever-present hype, and with a reach that has started to outstretch their grasp, they struggle to engage the considerable crowd. The band manage to be energetic but lacklustre simultaneously, while the sound isn’t amazing but it is okay – unfortunately that’s also a fair summation of their set as a whole.

Another band benefitting from a generous stint in the hype machine is Sleaford Mods, a fact underlined by the presence of the swelling crowd attempting to squeeze into earshot when they appear on the adidas Originals stage. After taking a few songs to find their feet, they whip the attended masses into a frenzy, spitting lyrics (“No you fuck off, I’ve got a Brit Award”) into the crowd, while the usually tinny backing track tonight looms ominously large. One of the only bands of the festival to be persuaded into an unplanned encore, later on in the evening Steve Albini would later go on to name them the greatest band in history. Plaudits don’t come greater than that.

Germany’s post-industrial mob Einstürzende Neubauten throb, clatter and build their way through an ever-strengthening wall of noise. Visual artists as much as they are musical ones, their stage show rains sparks from the back of the set, while bandleader Blixa Bargeld takes us through a challenging set that merges light and shade, taking plaintive, soft vocals seamlessly into piercing, screeched wails backed by thundering percussion.

After Neubaten depart, Babes In Toyland head to the boards to launch into a highly-anticipated reunion set. Unfortunately, unlike the many recently reformed ‘90s heritage acts to whom they will be compared, they’re out of practice and obviously daunted at the prospect of being back on stage. Plagued by technical troubles (when Kat Bjelland breaks two strings while tuning up, they have no spare guitar waiting – instead, drummer Lori Barbero hosts an awkward Q&A while Bjelland restrings), their performance is disappointing and shambolic, as they struggle to hold their bluesy grunge together.

Things pick up with Earthless, over on the adidas Originals stage, as their blissed-out, rumbling jams show influence from Pink Floyd to Kyuss – though as they finish with a Hendrix cover, their main influence is exposed – and provide possibly the most impressive show of musicianship the festival has seen.

As anyone who has ventured to Primavera before will have come to expect, Shellac make an obligatory appearance on the adidas Originals stage, Steve Albini just as cantankerous and jaded as the crowd want him to be. Having allegedly played every festival in Primavera’s 15-year run, you can forgive them for being a little over-comfortable in their surroundings. Despite this, they burn through a solid set of spat out, bitter hits, Dude Incredible and Watch Song providing a fittingly misanthropic finale.

It’s 3:40am, the revellers who have stuck it out this long are mostly all losing their shit to a DJ hammering out beats on a neighbouring stage, so it’s fair to say that the odds are stacked against Single Mothers from the start. They try, and fail, to rally themselves for a crowd of barely any parts, on a Pitchfork stage that proves too large for even the usually white-hot band. After a few tracks from 2014’s full-length Negative Qualities fail to rouse a response, the set reaches an abrupt end as they give up and cut their set short. It’s a disappointing end to a rich and varied festival, but it does come with one positive – after three nights of a challenging but fantastically satisfying musical schedule reaching well into the early hours, it’s finally time for bed.

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Primavera: May 30, 2015 – Einstürzende Neubauten, Babes In Toyland and DIIV Photos: Dani Canto

Briony Edwards

Briony is the Editor in Chief of Louder and is in charge of sorting out who and what you see covered on the site. She started working with Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazines back in 2015 and has been writing about music and entertainment in many guises since 2009. She is a big fan of cats, Husker Du and pizza.