With the idea of presenting our favourite memories of Primavera Sound, we’ve opted to choose our top five highlights instead of recounting the entire festival. There was so much good music throughout the festival and, of course, a couple duds (which we won’t go into here cuz we’re nice and positive folks) — but at the end of the day these were our favourite moments, in ascending order:
5. Einstürzende Neubauten
This year’s Primavera was heavy on the veteran musicians, and these Germans were not shy about asserting their position as industrial trailblazers. With their signature dark moodiness underlying an array of plastic and metallic noise, it was clear that these sound sculptors have maintained their intensity after 30+ years in the game. Blixa Bargeld let loose his trademark high-pitched, unearthly scream at several points throughout the set, effectively punctuating the deeply mechanized soundscape with a tone that is at once human and alien in pitch and timbre. Playing a mix of old and new material, they maintained an unspoken dedication to their factory roots: metal rods cascaded from suspended holds, plastic pipes subbed in for drums as alternative percussion instruments, and rotating metal spoked hummed together in a jarring yet beautiful cacophony. At one point the bassist’s face split into a wide smile, and even his teeth flashed with glittering metal under the stage lights. Right down to the end of their set, when each member lined up abreast at the front of the stage and took a deep bow, it was clear that the legendary experimentalists are still deep in their element.
While Swans and Einsterzende Neubaten have some obvious aesthetic similarities, the setting for their two shows couldn’t have been more different: unlike the majority of Primavera’s outdoor stages, Swans played in a large seated auditorium, complete with stunning acoustics and tiny lights suspended high up in an otherwise black room like stars. Their set began in typical Swans fashion with the imposing multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris conjuring waves of shimmering percussion while Gira and co. took the stage, picking up their instruments one by one and adding to the growing swell of noise that quickly enveloped the room. Swans are masters of texture, slowly building layers into tapestry of pounding intensity only to be reigned back to moments of restrained minimalism. At the beckoning of the band, crowd members left their seats and gathered tightly near the foot of the stage; others perched atop the chairs and craned their necks for a better view. I sunk deep into my auditorium seat and closed my eyes, letting the powerful waves of sound fold over themselves again and again in my ears.
These women are not to be reckoned with. The Olympia, WA trio proved decisively that they are as powerful as ever, with fierce on-stage vitriol backed firmly up by tight compositions and rock solid execution. Janet Weiss, a powerhouse drummer in her own right, proved a solid anchor for the duelling guitars and intertwining vocals of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Sleater-Kinney destroy the imagined line between femininity and aggression: they thrash and kick in party dresses and wield their voices as a rally cry in three-part harmony. Classic jams like “All Hands on the Bad One” made the audience lose its shit, and somewhere deep inside my 15-year-old self was going wild with rebellious joy. However, Sleater-Kinney don’t trap themselves in the realm of riot grrrl history — they assertively proved their a dynamic band whose sound and live show has survived the test of time. Looking at the crowd around me, it was clear that Sleater-Kinney is much more than a nostalgia trip.
Okay, full disclosure: these guys are buddies, and they’ve all been involved at CKUT in one role or another within the past couple years. Aside from the tremendous feeling of seeing deserving pals on a giant festival stage, the Montréal quartet blazed through one hell of a performance. Tracks from their More Than Any Other Day LP made up the bulk of the set, with a couple newer songs making their way in as well. The newer material displayed an urgent speed and complexity, building on the dense agitation of their earlier work but drawing on a clearer post-punk influence. It’s fast and it’s loud, technical and frenetic and backed up by a whole lot of energy from each member of the quartet. They kicked off their set with the road-tested anthem “The Weather Song,” and the crowd was won over from the outset. Ought is not a flashy band, and they pull no punches, but their strength lies instead in their conviction and impressive musicianship. While the natural acoustics of the stage led to some minor sound quirks — some acoustic elements having a slight natural echo from the opposing sea wall — it’s a minor complaint to lodge while seeing bands play on a harbour side stage overlooking the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea. Ought is really hitting its stride with an elusive balance of punk enthusiasm and technical precision, demonstrated especially with the new material, and one can only look forward to hearing how their tightly-wound aesthetic will continue to evolve.
1. Patti Smith Band
What can be said about legends? Like many of this year’s Primavera acts, Patti Smith ranks high on the veteran scale, but her socially-charged performance seemed to capture the audience more than anything else I saw all weekend. It was the kickoff show for this incarnation of her band and the first gig of their Horses tour, and the energy was high. Smith proved to be as fierce and raspy as ever, with a weathered voice that has only gotten stronger with age. Backed by a tight ensemble, Smith veered seamlessly between spoken word and song. During an extended version of “Land: Horses, Land of A Thousand Dances,” Smith meandered through the narrative, guiding listeners along until the song reached a fever pitch of politically-charged discontent. The issues that Smith addressed throughout the ‘70s are still relevant today, as demonstrated by the crowd’s fiery response to Smith’s call-to-action lyrics. Brandishing an electric guitar in the air she yelled, “This is the only weapon you’ll ever need.” Forty years into her artistic career, that sentiment she’s championed all along still rings true. And that poor electric guitar had its strings pulled off and broken, one by one, as Smith drew shouts of support from the crowd and fixed her steely gaze at the sky above.