On Saturday 1st October London’s Indigo 02 arena was the battlefield for a truly epic event. For it was here that twenty-one emerging bands, finalists from across the UK and Spain, went head-to-head in musical combat at the 2011 Surface Festival International Finale. With guitars as their guns and power chords their bullets, there was but one target in their sights: the Surface Festival prize pot, which stood at a life-changing £100,000 worth a prizes and opportunities.
First on the field were funky folksters The Robbie Boyd Band. While some may have been daunted by the prospect of opening a show of such magnitude, this West London crew rose to the challenge, delivering their set with a cool and welcomed ease. Their original, offbeat style offered an effective combination of traditional country beats, Celtic melodies, hypnotic choruses and intimate vocals. Frontman Robbie’s sensitive lyrics and mesmerizing vocals – especially charming in “Oh Alaska” – flowed perfectly with the instrumental pieces, giving major kudos to a line-up that is, stunningly, only around a year old. The Robbie Boyd Band therefore hit the ground running, their cheerful tunes and catchy choruses hooking the crowd and the judges alike, cementing themselves as real contenders early on.
After such a strong opening, the O2 waited expectantly for more. And it came in the form of a unique progressive rock quintet by the name of Dreamers Nightmares. These Birmingham-based rockers kicked off with a very raw and compact sound, but as songs followed and confidence built, the boys decided to take a risk and experiment with some very interesting alternative rhythms. Their influences shone through here; the guitar riffs on one of their songs in particular were notably reminiscent of the Kaiser Chief’s “I Predict a Riot”. They consistently retained their own identity however, and satisfied onlookers with some very meaty grunge rock. One of the unique delights of Dreamers Nightmares came with the spontaneous instrumental breaks on some tracks which demonstrated some hard-core musical structures. It was in these segments that the band (particularly the drummer, who stunned this reviewer with his exceptional beats) got the chance show off some very impressive technical skill. A real treat.
Then the mood of the show changed, and things suddenly took an unexpected turn. It happened when Brighton band Liquid Fuse decided to stop by and tear the place apart. These guys were born to be real rock stars and they proved it from the moment they stepped out on stage. The band hit hard, thrashing out with a simple but highly effective melody, analogous to classic stadium bands like Aerosmith or Guns’N Roses then, seconds later, frontman Joe Wareham exploded into view, blowing the audience back by screaming “You know who I am, baby!!” at the very apex of his remarkably powerful voice. Song after song the quintet offered a portfolio of virtuosity and charisma. The lead guitar nailed it with some beautifully soulful licks, while the vocalist threw himself into his role, uncovering his outrageously flamboyant stage persona. It was clear that stage presence was the forefront of Liquid Fuse’s live show; they retained audience familiarity by playing extracts from AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” in between their scintillating original tracks. As the set hurtled towards its climax, the stage was alive with action. The singer was up, Christ-like on the drummers’ stage box while the other members were on their knees by the edge of the stage, blasting their music out to the crowd for all they were worth. In just 30 minutes, Liquid Fuse taught many a valuable lesson: how to play rock and roll with attitude. The benchmark was set.
The audience was sated, but then the metal arrived in the form of Heaven Asunder and it all kicked off again. The boys from Bristol got things rolling with a frantic and galloping song in which the vocalist displayed his penchant for rich, gravelly screams. At times his harsh, throaty vocals rang similar to the likes of Matt Heafy’s in “Ascendancy”. Some of the songs that followed entered into the areas of black metal, and this is where Heaven Asunder showed their influences. It seemed that the guitar riffs on their third song were an indirect homage to Bullet For My Valentine’s “Scream, Aim, Fire”, while other tracks dove headfirst into thrash metal. Harmonic guitar lines filled the venue and were intersected by fast-paced, frantic shredding, demonstrating that these guys were not afraid of screeching up the dusty end. When it seemed the band did not have anything else to offer, they came up with a catchy melody off the top of their heads that could have slid perfectly into the soundtrack of any Tim Burton film. The finale came with some pretty impressive clean strumming and the vocalist singing his heart out on his knees.
Up next was a five-piece ensemble with a mission to accomplish: The Pargeters had one goal in mind – to get the crowds dancing with their lively, upbeat rock and roll style. The three first songs turned up in the category of a classic style of bands like Jet. They stepped back for a moment and started again with a more acoustic vibe followed by an interesting eclectic sound. It seemed that here was the perfect opportunity to capture the moment, not just musically as the guitarist took out his camera and snapped the rapidly warming crowd. To finish up they returned to the original sound and said good bye with a comfortable but very vivacious tune.
South Wales group Reconcile were the next act hoping to wow the audience and impress the judges. When the show’s presenter was introducing each band member, singer Dean Yhnell took the opportunity to show off his beat-boxing skills as a refreshing teaser of things to come. Reconcile is the kind of band not to be taken for granted; they deliver a more spectacular and fresher sound than one expects when seeing them appearing on stage. The five-piece hip hop/metal band brought a collection of songs with an unbelievable feel and energy. A rap metal masterpiece with an outstanding slap bass line began their set. This delightfully unique opener threw in some good old-fashioned screaming at the end that got the crowd back up on their feet. As the songs went by, the band matured like a good wine, offering an even more polished sound with impressive rap dialogues between the two singers, groovy guitar parts, funky bass beats and a terrific drummer with an excellent sense of time and pocket. Even though they have only been together for about three years, it seems Reconcile are an old hand at performing for big crowds. Very well received.
Then, seemingly straight off the London streets just outside, came Kickstarter. From the off this four-piece offered a thunderous spectacle combining nu-metal and electro rap, all wrapped up with aggressive lyrics and a clear message against violence, racism and social inequality. One of the things that defined Kickstarter was that they enjoyed every single second on stage and connected with the audience by doing so. Even though at times their delivery was less than perfect, their lack of technical solidarity was more than made up for by their raw energy and thriving passion. The highlight of their performance was seeing the guitarist messing around with his wah wah and vocalist Laurence Ayeni, a self-confessed audience junkie, coming down to sing with the crowd.
With seven bands down, it was time for the first international act of the night to take centre stage. Born, raised and formed in Barcelona, Rossvelvet covered all the bases, a fusion between jazz, blues, funk, 80s Spanish pop and any other musical extravaganzas. The band shamelessly embraced their Latin heritage with tracks such as “La hormiga Valentina” or “Todas las Flores”, where vocalist Olga Boronat crossed the border from chilling to emotional with her skillful operatic tones. Their next notable track, “Please”, was their only English language song and a brilliant piece of art with a breathtaking sax solo. The last song came up and these simmering Catalans demonstrated their unique amalgam-styled signature, leaving the audience with trails of their inimitable Latin fever.
Stoke-on-Trent band Obey landed at the O2 like a musical hurricane, their hard rock repertoire cooked with Wyldeske galloping guitar riffs and soaked with pure motorcycle 80s thrash metal beer drops. The show started with a pre-recorded classical tune, but soon the trio unloaded their secret weapon and the mini-stadium started to tremble with Steve’s guitar pinch harmonics. His rough but penetrating voice sailed across the audience, accompanied by furious beats from bassist Swampi, who wowed the crowd with his stage presence, going from one side of the stage to the other and defiantly pointing at the audience, all to the beat of Matt’s wicked drums. The climax came with “Bad Days Blues”, a Black Velvet-alike melody in the verses with a crazy-as-fuck chorus rhythm. Obey closed their memorable performance with a powerful old-school speed metal track.
The 10th band to go live was The Tender Machine, taking the audience back to the eighties to rediscover an evocative set of powerful ballads and spirited eclectic themes. The opening track saw front woman Poppy Roberts taking the audience on a dazzling journey with her sweet, reverberated voice that was accompanied by a discreet group of highly talented musicians. Lead guitar Sam Toro was the one to shine on his own with his passionate soloing technique. After a pair of songs the singer left the guitar aside to focus on the vocals and it was here that keyboardist Adam Payne offered up his musical skills. Even thought he was not superb, his breaks between songs allowed the singer to reveal her inner personality: “If you want us, really want us, you will recall this ridiculous hair”. The band knew what it was what the people in front of them wanted, so they retained their masterpiece to the end of the concert. The O2 saw the Manchester piece twisting into an even more experimental flavour, a megaphone-amplified voice and beautifully mystique sounds.
Next it was the turn of The Jays to deliver their well-crafted mild-rock combo. The alternative rock trio kicked off with a 3 Doors Down-alike powerful rock track, a solid choice for an opener. Following that, they brought an arsenal of radio-type gems. Their ‘soft verse, strong chorus’ formula was a definite crowd-pleaser, delightfully topped off by singer Daniel Broadhurst’s hauntingly impassioned and soothing baritone vocals. After that it came the time to dust off that old guitar, flick off the lights and perform an intimate, subtle and heartfelt ballad to a now devoted audience who clapped gleefully along to the music. Last song entitled “You too” offered a taste of a different direction, with a hooking delayed guitar effect, but concluded in the band’s popular and familiar style.
The next act to perform was the five-piece ensemble The Sharp Darts. Coming from the Birmingham suburbs and Australia, Jamie O’Neil and his troop captivated with their catchy Brit-pop anthems and the frontman’s delightful and shameless stage presence – “You know what to do!!”, he remarked at the start of the show. The Brummies projected a sense of reverence for 60s, 70s and 90s British working class music with clear influences from bands like Oasis, The Stone Roses and The Beatles. While each band member undoubtedly held their own, the real shining star was O’Neil, with his Gallagher-esque lazy, arrogant attitude, hands-behind-the-back pose and infectious voice. The best bits undoubtedly were “Down in Flames”, O’Neil’s melancholic voice in “Time Again” and fans dancing while holding their shoes in their hands and sporting “Shoes Off” banners, making reference to the band’s debut EP title.
It was all sex and spandex next, with Liverpool all-female band The Union Dolls. The quartet appeared on stage squeezed into leather pants and some other 80s glam fashion items with a unique mission: to celebrate garage punk rock. However their intentions remained just that, good intentions. The girls, who draw inspiration from The Ramones or The Runaways, offered a collection of uncomplicated, but persuasive guitar lines encased with spicy lyrics and remarkable drum beats. With their interesting style, it would not surprise if they turned up in the next Tarantino film. It was clear from the start, however, that drummer Emily Haywood’s performance with her unique groove, talent and feel was going to be the highlight of the set. The girls claimed the last song was going to be all “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”, but unfortunately left most wondering where they’d left the rock’n’roll. The Union Dolls hadn’t lost all however, with Haywood’s unbelievable drumming skills saving the others’ skin and delivering a finale that could have been a lost worse.
Then something truly remarkable happened in the O2 arena. That something was Merseyside singer/songwriter Laura Oakes, who left the audience speechless with her performance, bending the bounds of country pop-rock. Laura who was accompanied by a set of very talented musicians who got down to rootsy country rock with songs such as “Therapy”, letting flow her sweet and passionate voice and her hearty acoustic guitar lines. But it was ballads like “Let Go” that captured the best of Laura’s singing – a charismatic and heartfelt voice, akin to such A-list artists as Sheryl Crow. As a farewell, the band played another song with an impressive keyboard sound; the perfect theme to conclude a charming performance by a very gifted singer who claims she started out at the tender age of just 14. Following Laura Oakes, it was the turn of the night’s second Folk Band: Indigo Earth.
It seemed nerves betrayed Indigo Earth band members in the first few seconds of their concert but, before the jitters became too noticeable, everything got back in track. The band were a lot of fun to watch – it was very entertaining watching bassist Matt Facy trying his skills at the cymbals – and the plucky Londoners delighted the audience, sharing their expertise on bucolic acoustic sounds and intimate lyricism. It was “Wise Man” that worked as a fine point on their artistry. A strong message wrapped around the perfect combination of captivating vocals from singers Amy Wilson and Ben Nash. During the whole gig, but particularly with the last song, Indigo Earth proved that, although they vary their style from contemporary country to Celtic rock, they always remained true to their musical roots.
Half past Six had rolled around, and the evening was ushered in by an act that was very much for the ladies. Already Gone took the stage, and with it, a few girls’ hearts. This Stoke-on-Trent band put into practice that old saying “veni, vici, vidi” by selling a very commercial but implacable and crushing southern rock and roll combo. It is inevitable to compare Already Gone with Bon Jovi, not only by their looks, but singer Luke Maskery and lead guitarist Dan Nutt form an explosive musical union that would make the New Jersey boys jealous. However, Already Gone was not just another radio sensation. They had more to offer: well structured songs, catchy lyrics, two astonishing guitar players, a dexterous drummer, a bassist who measured up to his band mates, and a LOT of charisma. Maskery knows he has a lot of potential to attract a female audience and uses it to the maximum – sending out the kisses and winking at the delighted girls. Throughout the whole gig they demonstrated that they play at another level and, considering they have been together for just a couple of years, they were indeed Already Gone.
The next band had their work cut out; admittedly it was hard to focus after the scintillating wiles of the previous act, but Spanish group Random Feelings put themselves on a par with their competitors by virtue of a very energetic and twisting opener. The Barcelona quintet quoted ‘Yankee hardcore punk’ as their musical references and, in fact, songs like “Unknown Future” or “Atlantis” were like a look back at the hits that catapulted bands like Green Day or Incubus. However Hector and his gang demonstrated that they know their exceptional show in and out; it was a musical jewel that will surely always stick in one’s mind. Other songs saw drummer Bernat spewing out his drumming skills like a volcano, making allusions to Travis Barker or The Foo Fighter’s Taylor Hawkins, and acrobatic Hector doing some screaming while lying on the floor, reaching the audience or running around using the microphone cord as a whip. Despite the fact that their music generally belonged to a different genre, it was curious to see how some of the songs recalled The Pink Elephant’s repertoire. They came to a close with a final track full of uncontrolled anger and insanity-soaked musical mayhem.
Next up was Oldham ensemble The Crabs, an interesting and experienced ensemble that has been frequenting the live music scene for more than two decades. Lights went off and it seemed the band’s main goal was to invite the audience to embark on a magic ride of pure 60s rock and roll, no special effects or make up added. The Crabs lightened up with hits like “It’s Cold”, paying tribute to their British musical ancestors with the use of clean chords, danceable melodies, contagious lyrics and some inspired solos.
We all know that good music can take any form, but there is something particularly rewarding about delivering it in its own primitive state because, as singer Mark Pattinson confessed, “This is what music is all about”. He also thanked the festival for giving the opportunity for emerging bands to make their dreams a reality. The highlight undoubtedly was “I am Free”, a musical masterpiece that reminisces to “All I Want is You” by U2 and that could easily be included as an ending song on any of the albums from the Irish band. Nineteen bands in and the Surface Finale was going from strength to strength, so three years playing together and a debut album released last year were the perfect excuse to take Brought Into Being to the main stage. The set’s opening theme probably labeled the boys from Yeovil, Somerset, as being one of these predictable pop bands specialising in hooking rock tunes aimed at adolescents, but as their show proceeded, Joe Hardy and his squadron proved yet again that one should never judge a book by its cover; or a band by their looks. One moment they were kicking out a frenzied rhythm to dance to then, suddenly, keyboardist Dan Bramley succumbed to his unique experimental sounds. Meanwhile, the guitarist demonstrated a delicious Hendrixian lick, as the bassist effortlessly hypnotized the audience with his funky slapping. “Chain Reaction” showed them at their best – original songwriting and even more original playing - and Hardy’s sharp scream was the best way to said goodbye.
So, by twist of fate, it stood to Welsh-based group Blackwaters to appear as the penultimate act of the Surface Festival Finale 2011, and they did not disappoint. The quintet cooked an explosive scrambling of killer progressive metal seasoned with a heartfelt classic rock riff-o-rama and colourful soloing. As they played on, the audience started to connect with the five beasts they had in front of them, so the Blackwaters rewarded their loyalty with “Yesterday’s Fight”, which saw the frontman Paul Walsh, patriotic to the core, running all over the place proudly flying the Welsh flag. They drove a short journey to the early 90s to end up with some impeccable grunge, but before they left the band showed their gratitude, with groover Dan Davies joyfully throwing his drumsticks into the audience.
And so came the final battle. The culmination of so many hours, so much work, so much passion, hope and fear. The Surface Festival Showcase was at an end. All that remained were one band from Caerphilly, the intriguingly-named Stag Firm Collapse. No one quite knew what to expect, but the final band of Surface Festival Finale 2011 issued a solid finish to a fantastic show. The boys gave it their all, trying very hard to set the place on fire with their incendiary live show. There were indeed some superb musical moments, including thrilling guitars and an A-list drummer, with a very versatile frontman who danced, jumped and owned the stage with his every move. “The Switch” or “Dark Guitars” covered the band’s unique style travelling from funky bass lines to some rapping and juicy nu-metal. And then came the final song of the night, the highly appropriately titled “Bye Bye”. This was the highlight, and saw the rockers achieve their greatest splendor, closing an incredible finale on a rapturous high.
And with that, it was done. All the bands could do now was to wait, hope, and pray that they had done enough.
The show was over and it was decision time. The judge’s panel, which included Alex Baker from Kerrang Radio, Darren from Audio Rokit and headed by Jon Brookes from The Charlatans, were out to decide who was going to be this year’s winning act, while on the main stage special guest band Strangle Kojak was closing the musical evening with some ripping tunes that had everyone up in arms, dancing the night away.
A tense forty-five minutes went by as the judges deliberated. Then, after what must have felt like an eternity, the verdict was in and the winners were announced:
The Metal lords ended up in first place with a total of 66 points, followed excruciatingly closely by The Pargeters with 65. Welsh band Stag Firm Collapse got 64, meaning the top three bands were just three points apart, the closest finish ever seen in a Surface Festival Finale.
A nail-biting end, then, to a phenomenal journey. Not just for the victors either, but for every band that took part. While some were winners and some losers, it was clear that every band fought tooth and nail to earn their place in the Finale, and gave everything they had for a shot at the big prize. What a truly epic day.
Until next year…