The Great Escape 2018: The Review

We dig deep this year to find The Great Escape's most exciting new up-and-coming offerings and enjoy a wonderful cross-section of Scottish bands along the way

Review by Claire Francis | 25 Jun 2018

Brighton’s annual The Great Escape festival bills itself as ‘the festival for new music.’ Every year in May the event brings together a huge array of local and international acts; this year the festival is showcasing more than 450 artists in over 30 intimate venues across the city. Not just a regular punter's festival, The Great Escape also features a convention programme of panel discussions, debates, keynote speeches and networking opportunities. Like Brighton’s own hungry seagulls, music industry professionals flock to the seaside town, looking to dive in and snap up the bands earmarked as the ‘next big thing.’

If the curation of this year’s TGE is anything to go by, the current talent pool feels watered down, divided into and dominated by straight-white-men-with-guitars indie rock and whimsical, dreamy girl pop. Think various iterations of the same worn out genre tropes; considering the sheer volume of acts assembled this homogeneity seems counterintuitive to what TGE is all about. Despite this, there are still diamonds in the rough at this year’s event – you just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

Team Picture get us off to a promising start at the Beach House stage early Thursday afternoon, decked out as a marching band but sounding more like the charming illegitimate child of LCD Soundsystem and a John Hughes film soundtrack. On Friday afternoon, Horatio’s on Brighton Pier is under the spell of London duo Audiobooks. Evangeline Ling and David Wrench are the ultimate odd couple, but his grey-haired synth wizardry paired with Ling’s endearing quirkiness makes for some of the funniest, sharpest and danceable synth-pop we’ve heard in a long time.

Pushing the idiosyncratic envelope even further, on Saturday Gentle Stranger deliver what is surely the most bafflingly brilliant performance of the weekend. They keep a low-key profile on social media and describe the style of their music as 'post-clown.' The decadent Georgian decor of The Paganini Ballroom is a fittingly surreal setting to watch the theatre that is Gentle Stranger, which begins with fifteen uninterrupted minutes of oom-pah music, and then takes a bewildered but receptive audience through a journey of bizarre costumes, synth noise, strobing lights, canned laughter and one band member ceremoniously circling the crowd while playing the accordion. Yes, on paper it sounds shite, but Gentle Stranger's art-school style agitating comes together as a surprisingly euphonious live show.

We also stumble across Rina Sawayama who is in the midst of delighting a packed Wagner Hall on Friday evening. The Japanese-born, London-based singer-songwriter blasts out futuristic J-pop-but-not tracks to meticulously choreographed dance moves (there are even backing dancers). While not exactly our bag, in a broadly unvarying line-up Sawayama is an unexpected, and welcome, curveball. Australian rockers Amyl & the Sniffers also deserve to be singled out for their high-octane garage punk performance, as do the street-punk Dutch group Charlie & The Lesbians (who note during their Friday afternoon that, as they're missing one member, they're currently "one lesbian down").

Scotland is well represented at The Great Escape this year thanks to the likes of LUCIA, Declan Welsh & The Decadent West and The Spook School; the latter in particular put on a stomper of a show in the musty, sweaty basement of Sticky Mike's Frog Bar on Saturday night. The four-piece from Edinburgh win over the Brighton crowd with their affirmative 'queer-pop' – Still Alive, with its 'Fuck you, I'm still alive' chorus has the audience singing along in anthemic fashion.

However, no-one can outdo the euphoric Euro-disco vibes of Free Love (formerly known as Happy Meals) – theirs is surely one of the most engaging sets of the weekend. As though rising to the challenge of performing their sultry synthpop in the broad daylight of 1.30pm (and inside a church to boot), Glasgow duo Suzie Rodden and Lewis Cook go into overdrive, throwing everything they have into their performance. As Cook hammers out groove upon groove, Rodden takes her French vocals and prowls the venue, contorting herself atop the bar, dancing with crowd members and climbing a perilously-balanced amp.

Looking beyond the prescribed Great Escape parameters also proves duly rewarding. The ‘Alt Escape’ has become The Great Escape’s official fringe show, showcasing bands and artists not on the main line-up. In addition, Brighton basically becomes a mecca for UK bands during the weekend, with many smaller venues putting on free shows over the three days to make the most of the influx. We catch strong performances from Vulgarians, as well as Glasgow-based bands Kaputt and Sweaty Palms, and though they feature on the official festival line-up, Hotel Lux and The Orielles also put on great (and free) late-night shows. It’s a shame that this year’s showcase of new music is constrained by sameness; looking outside the box yields some of the most original rewards. Let’s hope the industry taste-makers recognise this for next year, too.