There’s a level of smugness and one-upmanship that comes with Irish music fans’ annual pilgrimages to foreign festivals. Most of us are guilty of the gloating Facebook status updates and links to obscure headliners, the revelation that there’s no need to pack wellies, and the wristband that stays on for days after the flight home, a perfect complement to the new farmer tan.
Over the past decade, Barcelona’s Primavera Sound has fulfilled this wanderlust — but it has also consistently scored high on the cultural capital checklist. The weekender snares a considerable portion of international festival heads, ready to gorge on one of Europe’s most diverse and oh so tasteful bills, with 2013’s edition featuring everything from modern composition to avant-garde noise, indie heritage acts, gangsta rap, blunt-force trauma metal, pagan Afrobeat and plenty of other made-up pseudo-genres. This year is the festival’s first ever sell-out, even with an increased capacity of 50,000 over the three nights – double the attendance in 2012.
Pre-festival forecasts of torrential rain don’t come to pass, but the solar panel has a hard job over the three days trying to wring some UV energy from the considerable cloud cover. It’s blustery too – and we’re greeted early on Thursday with the sight of J Mascis’s long grey locks flapping in the wind as Dinosaur Jr belt out their 90s grunge comfort blankets of ‘Out There’ and ‘Start Choppin’’ on the Primavera Stage. The trio (with a substitute in for drummer Murph) are the first nostalgia draw of many, overlapping with Tame Impala’s own recent take on retro psychedelic rock on the Heineken Stage at the other end of the site. Mascis is fairly static, wreaking all manner of feedback as he faces the wall of Marshalls in between his drawling verses. We get a touch of déjà vu as they play the Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’ – a hark back to Robert Smith and co.’s marathon set on the same stage last year. A dirgy ‘Sludgefeast’ crashes out in a strobe-lit fit before Damien from Fucked Up bounds on to front a manic ‘Chunks’ by cult 80s hardcore nuts Last Rights, streamlining the feedback and meandering solos into a two-minute, two-chord riff finale.
Dinosaur Jr’s 80s and 90s alternative peer Bob Mould is a kilometer or so away on the ATP Stage, which has morphed from a secluded green space nook surrounded by trees and sloping hills, into a wide open space four times the size, in the shadow of a ferris wheel and burger stalls. Initial fears about sound are unfounded though, as Mould beefs up his poppy Sugar anthems like If ‘I Can’t Change Your Mind’ and ‘Changes’, giving them as much teeth as the more revered Hüsker Dü tracks. The so-called ‘grandaddy of alternative rock’ is more laidback bald uncle these days in his trademark short sleeved check shirt, but he’s still rocking as hard as many of the youngsters on the bill, who owe him a debt of gratitude.
There’s further harking back to the past, as the Postal Service mark the 10-year anniversary of their only album Give Up with another live reunion show at the adjacent Heineken Stage, but the wistful electronics wafting across can’t veer us from our beeline to Killer Mike on the Pitchfork Stage, especially as there’s a real lack of hip-hop at Primavera this year.
The beefy Atlanta rapper and EL-P collaborator is all bluster between bang-on verses – apologising for missing his 2012 show at the Primavera, when EL-P cancelled, along with Björk, Death Grips, Melvins, Sleep, and a few other heavy-hitters. He goes heavy on last year’s clanging EL-P-produced album R.A.P. Music, opening with a 1-2-3 crunch of ‘Big Beast’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘Go’, before he starts the first of his political rants, introducing ‘Reagan’ – his middle finger to the US administration. He’s been called “the Noam Chomsky of the strip club”, and he’s happy to mix political diatribes with hands in the air hip-hop signifiers, and there’s a special mention to his wife in the crowd, with her “ginger hair and big ass”. His call to “burn this motherfucker down” during ‘R.A.P. Music’ gets the first mass pogo of the festival.
The pogo energy is mainlined back to the ATP Stage as sonic Semtex, as Death Grips take to the stage under midnight-blue light as Stefan ‘MC Ride’ Burnet writhes, contorts and flaps his arms like a demented Ray Harryhausen winged monster. They’re missing drummer Zach Hill but producer Flatlander has it covered – two out of three are bad as fuck. ‘Lost Boys’ is sliced in two by ‘Guillotine’, and Death Grips’ frightening live reputation is sealed immediately in a brown note sub-bass line. By some miracle of sound engineering, the Sacramento duo’s sledgehammer kick drums and bass drills sound like they’re bouncing off sweaty club walls, cocooning the ATP Stage in a blast of the old ultraviolence. The vicious crack den dub of ‘Come Up and Get Me’ oozes into the electro stomp of ‘I’ve Seen Footage’, and ‘Hacker’’s frantic industrial EBM kicks us all into next week.
Brainboxes rearranged, we hang on at ATP to catch an epic set from Fuck Buttons – who are still largely trading on their 2010 album, Tarot Sport, with ‘Surf Solar’ and ‘Olympians’ still sounding like full movie soundtracks channeled into each of their 10 minutes. The duo have further honed their earlier clattery distortion into a state of euphoric relentless build-ups, as always facing each other across a table, looking like they’re engaged in a game of pinball doubles, with a huge silver ball spinning behind them. They drop new track ‘The Red Wing’, their first in four years, and its kaleidoscopic breaks latch on to ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ as the fractal backdrop seal the deal.
Running on about five per cent energy at 4.30am, we try to juggle Animal Collective at the Primavera Stage and local boy John Talabot on the Ray-Ban Stage, but the former’s noodling and psychedelic dead-ends still leave us cold after a few live outings, even with the admittedly awesome rainbow mouth stage design for their Centipede Hz album tour. House don Talabot eluded us the previous night, with hundreds of festivalgoers queuing in vain outside the local Apolo club for a preview live set that was full up in no time. The Ray-Ban amphitheater is packed on all sides for the man who’s earned the lion’s share of goodwill in dance music in the past 12 months, largely for his across-the-board top 10 critics’ choice album Fin. He played his first ever live show to thousands on the same stage last year, and closes the first night of 2013 as a local hero, but suitably Death-Gripped, we leave before the end with jelly legs.
Read Conor’s thoughts on day two tomorrow (6th June).