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Forwards Festival 2023 Review: A Step ‘Forwards’ Into The Future Of Reality Shattering Music

With the sun shining people took to the infamous Clifton Downs to immerse themselves within a line-up representing the high quality, diverse and heritage music acts, alongside emerging artists from Bristol and beyond.

TLK started the day with a dark ambience fit for an A24 Midsommar performance with harmonious strings and ambient pads.

TLK, performing at Forwards Festival 2023. Credit: Isabella Spicer

Following Yasmin Lacey and showcasing the range of contemporary curation, Bristol artist Katy J Pearson took to the stage with a Miley Cyrus, country, indie pop, soft rock ensemble, with sweet harmonies embellished by male vocals intertwined throughout. Her music evoked a Lana del Ray melancholia with a pinch of hope type of feeling (resonating strongly in our current world of existential doom and gloom), lyrics world building through poetry as the soft vocals conveyed a Kate bush type glow and country twist. It felt pretty obvious throughout the set that Katy J Pearson is an artist more inwardly musically focused, with little crowd interaction as they let their music speak worlds of wonders. If you’re not shy of a ‘sad boy hour’ with the likes of Radiohead, Laura marling, Spiritualized, and of course Miley Cyrus, check out Katy’s debut album Return.

Scaler, performing at Forwards Festival 2023. Credit: Isabella Spicer

Breaking onto the stage next was Scaler (formerly Scalping); a band I, (wrongly), have not paid enough attention to. Playing their first performance) to a large festival size audience, (in their hometown of Bristol no less!) they did not disappoint, rather leaving the crowd screeching for more. They are a forward-thinking band, bridging the gap between live guitar instrumentation and electronic music. Their new single LOAM has been produced by none other than Mr. Daniel Avery, and if that already isn’t enough reason to stream their music then read on. Scaler are a band of music-heads, exuding from their sense of style, on stage energy and crowd interaction providing the result of a band oozing with a Black Midi meets Caribou electronic fusion (what more could you ask for?!). They provided a powerful mix of modular synth rock combined with the use of guitar pedals, seamlessly blending the acoustical guitar sounds and electronics fused with facial orb, melting graphics created live. The use of visuals in combination with audio provided Scaler with a sharpness like the edge of a Scalpel, emphasising their storytelling. Scaler maintained the impression of an electronic DJ set, with the ability to get the crowd moving and grooving with their dark existential guitar techno rock. Although far from armchair rock, a fair few armchair techno fans remained dotted about the crowd, eagerly awaiting Aphex Twin’s set. For much of their performance, Scalpel shied away from the mic, but retributed for it with their skilful musicianship and use of vocal samples dotted throughout, with several vocoder uses reminding me of daft punk or a dark Tron Legacy. The use of these samples allowed a point of communication for the listener amidst the electronic hurricane of generated and played sounds. If the sound of Scaler interests you, they will be gracing the stage of Strange Brew in Bristol with a DJ set by Daniel Avery on the 8th of December!

Prior to being blessed by the gracious explicit sounds of Aphex Twin, we watched Amyl and the Sniffers, a hair flipping Australian pussy riot band; a band I had never heard of, but one of which many of my friends had been eager to see. The musicianship was great, and I can’t fault them on that at all, as well as their great crowd interaction. In saying that, however, they are a band I’d see live, but could never listen to and it felt like decorated emptiness to me. Personally, music is important to help share stories, experiences, and bring people together. Amyl and the sniffers did bring together a rioting crowd of (what seemed to be, mainly) men, but is that what they really aimed for as a pussy forward band? It seemed quite counter-intuitive and even felt like white marketed feminism to a degree. It must be said, however, it may have only seemed surface level to me because I’m viewing it from the position of a queer identifying coloured person, and simply relate to the band less. It should be further said that in my opinion it is quite progressive for the Australia music scene. I still appreciate the fact that they are using their platform to support current feminist issues, so I’m not (in a sense) slandering the band deeply but grazing them with questions. Alternatively, it’s not that I think punk music is empty and is simply a bunch of screaming, on the contrary I believe it is a powerful genre of music capable of expressing a groups anger across a range of current political injustices and will continue to do so.

Amyl and the Sniffers performing at Forwards Festival 2023. Credit: Isabella Spicer          

Now, finally to discuss the star act, the eagerly awaited Aphex Twin; an act that had been (literally) looming over the east stage acts throughout the day. The crowd flooded towards the stage like moths to a light, with screams and cheers of excitement prior to the prodigy even taking to the stage. Having seen Aphex at Field Day Festival two weeks prior, I was brimming with excitement and questioned whether he would grace the Bristol crowd with the same set (it’s fair to say I would not have been disappointed if this was the case). However, I was pleasantly surprised, for once he started, I knew I was in for a whole new roller coaster ride which was to leave me satisfyingly filled with thrills of danger and less brain cells than I had to begin with (but also a greater appreciation for music). Aphex Twin’s 2023 Forwards Bristol set was an ode to Bristol’s cultural music heritage, bringing 140 dub and jungle to the stage with the classic Aphex twist. Fair to say, the experience was less of a dance and more of a philosophy lecture, but that did not stop the crowd from losing all their inhibitions on the field and leaving all preconceptions of dance music behind, as we were taken forward through the night. Aphex Twin’s is a pioneer in the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) community, like a sorcerer who has honed his skills through decades of elixir mixing. He is a master of mind games. willingly making you search for the beat, creating this mind puzzle of rhythms and polyphonic harmonies of drums across the set, like a conductor of mystical singing drums with the most powerful kick to grace mankind. He makes you question the very notion of dance music, giving you the ability to peel away the layers of the music as you listen and dance. The spectator is given a choice of which rich rhythm to move too, while still being harmonious to various other hidden layers which reveal themselves to you the deeper you fall into his trap. It’s as if you were trying to see someone through distant fog which gets clear the longer you dance, like a distant memory journeying to your frontal lobe through thousands of synapses and electric fields. 

Not only is Aphex Twin a master in sounds, but the combination of live generated visuals is the cherry on top. He displayed a culmination of historic British pop culture icons imprinted on photonegative images of his evil gleaming face, almost as if he were trying to brain wash the crowd with these flashing images including the likes of; King Charles, Boris Johnson, Dua Lipa, Clockwork orange. Our pour souls had the subliminal message that he was the mastermind behind this ludicrous wizardry drilled into us (with the soulful power of a siren no less!).

Visuals as part of Aphex Twin’s performance at Forwards Festival 2023. Credit: Isabella Spicer

There really is no other like Aphex Twin, with his masterful ability to make crunchy drums sounds so crisp and clean, singing in harmony across the barren field with the crowd’s feet beating around. Combined with his visual mastery, the Techno artist demonstrated himself as a master of scrambling people’s brains and reducing them to a shear crumb of existence: leaving a unifying appreciation for the power of music. 

Overall, Forwards succeeded in showcasing the eclectic range of Bristol’s music scene, going above and beyond with access to talk panels covering a range of current issues including polyamory, sex talks, caring in Bristol and Black excellence. Forwards Festival also showcased a selection of arts ranging from photography to a large-scale Mycelium installation. If you are interested in listening to any of the previous talks, 2022 talks are still available on podcasts for listening, and the 2023 panels will soon be uploaded as well so you don’t have to miss out, whether you weren’t there or were spending the forwards weekend dancing your socks off. A Forward thinking and breathing music festival which shouldn’t be missed in 2024!

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