Words by Alex Pattinson
To be invited to the climax of an event I’ve been following since April was possibly the biggest excitement in my life this year. Having seen seven of the acts already from the Southern showcase, I knew what to expect from them. However, I was now dealing with another host of acts from the North, Midlands, West country, Scotland, Wales and of course, Spain where Surface Festival is also a massive event for new music.
To say that the day was full of talent is certainly an understatement and with such a diverse line-up, the judges had their work cut out, in order to select the winner of a mass of prizes including guitar strings, drumsticks, photo shoots, recording sessions, tour dates and festival slots and marketing and distribution of a single, as well as other stuff that would ensure an amazing start to a music career. With 28 bands to get through, I felt it only right that I take it one step at a time.
Pop rock is a pretty broad term but there were a few bands that it best describes. Show-openers Dutch Cousin from Birmingham were one of them. Female fronted with atmospheric vocals, their tracks had a slight Caribbean slant and set the bar for the rest of the show. West country kids White Collar Boxing began as an edgier One Direction and ended as a band who are certainly unpolished but who have bags of creativity. Their closing stunt of the whole band drumming at the front of the stage made an impact on the entire room and that’s something that big rock stars have to be able to do.
Barcelona band Crows played melodic tones mixed with metallic guitars and classic Latino passion saw them sail through their pop rock set. Forerunner were another pop rock band, who completely wowed me. With insane guitar solos and plenty of synth-fuelled energy, they were one act who made me stop typing. Mesmerized by their creative and atmospheric makeshift plastic drums and Muse-esque vocals, they gave a very strong performance. Towards the end, the guitarist seemed overcome with passion as he laid the guitar flat on the stage and strummed fiercely.
Indie music is fast becoming an incredibly over-saturated market and stylish teens everywhere are trying their hardest to create some themselves. The first indie act of the night were Jungle Doctors from Teddington, who you have to be a certain kind of cool to get. Fresh-faced and very trendy, these boys play Kooks-esque rock with a relaxed Californian vibe. They were followed by Whitespace, an Oxford trio who also gave us an indie treat with a Brit-rock twist. Plenty of support from the crowd saw them perform their pop-punk vocals and upbeat catchy choruses perfectly and they left the stage knowing they’d done a good job.
Indie and pop-punk also made appearances in the performance of Except For Access, who churned out some catchy choruses and a slight Bon Jovi slant. Like a few other bands in the competition, they have the potential to rock a festival crowd, which is something that not many big stars are able to do. Rounding off the indie fusion were Black Islands all the way from Barcelona with vocals to rival Brandon Flowers and an all-round convincing American sound. With suspense-filled drums and soulful guitar solos, they showed London how they do classic indie in Spain.
Alternative band were in their element at Surface and in turn, there were plenty of them. Kicking off the trend were A41 from Ellesmere Port, who cleverly stated that they share their name with the road that runs from Merseyside to London and how honoured they were to have travelled it today. A dramatic opening with air raid sirens and gradual entrances from the band members gave us a bit more of a visual show than some other performers and the expectations were high from then on. With catchy songs and an awesome rock ballad in Sons & Daughters before taking a bow meant that A41 were one of my early favourites.
Northerners Escape Artist continued the alternative thread with Brit-pop vocals and stadium filling potential, as did Jasper in the Company of Others, who added a folk twist and as a result achieved a laid-back style (complete with a barefoot bassist!). They were followed by We Could Be Astronauts, whose frontman arrived in flares and waistcoat with massive hair. With bags of passion and energy, the York band emanated an Aerosmith sound, which resulted in quite a theatrical performance.
Talking of theatre, The Onironauts were also a delight. Claiming to be from the Moon and occasionally lapsing into a bizarre moon dialect, these four Europeans came with their own painted stage decorations and an astronaut with bubble machines. Of course, despite the gimmicks, their mix of jazz/folk/rock and drum n bass went down a treat.
Alternative bands kept coming in the form of Ever The Optimist, who ended with an impressive cover of Alex Clare’s Too Close and Seville band Credit Crunch whose frontwoman proved to be a vocal powerhouse. Glaswegians Black Velvet and All She Knows both put on great shows. The former were packed full of guitar instrumentals and passionate delivery while the latter championed the keytar and encouraged the audience to join them. Penultimate band The Concept also played some emotional, atmospheric rock to singing guitars and catchy melodies.
Amping things up a notch were metalheads Semitt Falls, Syren City and Tussk, who all went for the screams and growls. Stockport’s Semitt Falls mixed it up a bit by combining rap with metal, making for an interesting eclectic sound. Syren City brought their A7X sounding metal from Bristol along with fast guitars and Tussk made full use of the stage space, while providing complex and impressive riffs. Metal was a little thin on the ground but all three of them played incredibly well. Of course, this was the final and no one was going to be terrible.
Adding something a little different into the mix were Jam With RoBina, the only Welsh band in the competition. Their acoustic folk-rock and friendly attitude lent them a sunny vibe that carried them through their upbeat performance. Keeping up the quirky were The BeauBowBelles, who I’d seen in the semi final and regional. They performed their classical/jazz hits (also adding a bit of country to the set) to an audience who were thoroughly entertained by their expert storytelling.
Folk met trance with Devon band Audio Razor, who merged Caribbean flavours à la Jason Mraz with Faithless hooks. Upping the weird factor were D.Donnier and his Bones from Seville, who gave us an incredibly camp, flamboyant show. After tossing personalised condoms into the crowd (yes really), the band launched into funky riffs accompanied by the traditional Spanish maracas.
Tension built at the end of the night as the results were being counted. Eventually, it was announced that in third place came Londoners Jerome and the Soulnotes, who gave us not just a set but a whole show. Complete with dancers, who I’m not sure were necessary but it was an entire production with Jerome’s soul leading the way. His voice is a modern version of that of the Motown legends and it’s backed by a sax and synth, giving it a myriad of flavours. Worthy third place!
Second prize went to indie band Dorey the Wise from Hastings. Their sunny tracks are all real crowd-pleasers and their cheerful disposition is so infectious. Catchy tracks such as True True (or Choo Choo) simply light up the arena and although they are an indie band, they’ve got a lot more pop to their sound than most indie bands and it’s awesome that they were credited for their originality.
So much suspense was created before the winner was announced and when it was revealed to be rappers Lee Willz and Trademark, the cannons fired out confetti and the bewildered, speechless winners ran onto the stage. They gave a high-energy and polished performance with a mixture of slow hip hop and reggae-infused urban tracks, all backed by a rock band. There’s no denying that they tick all the boxes for diversity and originality and I can only assume that’s what won it for them.
The judges on the day were Oxjam, Kerrang and Universal Music.