The thirteenth annual Sounds From the Other City festival took place on 7 May, once again radiating outwards across Salford from the complex around Islington Mill. This area has continued to develop as an epicentre for the more experimental side of Manchester’s independent scene in the twelve months since the festival’s last installment, with satellite venues Caustic Coastal and Idle Chatter supplementing the ongoing efforts of Fat Out in the Mill itself. Given this fact, this year’s program had a noticeable paucity of the sorts of acts that occuped the Mill’s main space under Cafe Oto’s banner in 2016: this may have something to do with the fact that Fat Out’s own Fat Out Fest, featuring the likes of Sam Weaver and Cheetham & Webster, had taken place just two weeks earlier.
Regardless, there were still some far-out sounds to be heard, and among the best of them were served up early in the day by London-based vocalist and tape loop-wrangler R Elizabeth, aka Rachael Finney, on Comfortable on a Tightrope’s stage at the United Reformed Church. During her performance, Finney was surrounded by dangling tape reels strung from helium balloons, which bobbed around her head like familars; the sonic pallette of these loops was spatious and psychedelic, which was initially ill-served by the low-ceilinged venue’s acoustics, but the addition of Finney’s voice to the mix cut through the thicket of sound quite effectively. The set closed with a piece based around a looped sample from The Carpenters’ Easy Listening classic “Close To You”, which pleasingly summed up Finney’s whole approach: as an experimental act, R Elizabeth is able to occupy poppy spaces without necessarily seeking to deconstruct them; her treatment of this song lent it a hanting, foggy, phantasmagoric qualtiy, but one still loaded with sentiment.
White Death, a duo comprising Human Heads’ Hannah Ellul and erstwhile Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides member Kelly Jayne Jones, were one of the few acts on the day flying the flag for the Manchester/Salford experimental scene. Performing in the Mill’s Engine Room as part of Sacred Tapes’ short but sweet three-act program, Ellul and Jones offered a very different set from their performance at Idle Chatter last summer, with aggressive crackly synth tones reminiscent of an old dubstep intro and low-end provided by Jones’ flute. This year’s fine weather meant that the Engine Room venue performed better from a visual standpoint than it had in 2016, when rain forced the likes of Aliyah Hussain to push her equipment back from the first-floor balcony and out of sight of the audience in the courtyard below. By contrast, this staging was quite dramatic, with the two musicians up on high and the white sky visible through an opening on the other side of the room.
Idle Chatter’s former HQ played host to Now Wave’s stage this year, and one of their biggest crowds of the day assembled for London-based all-female four-piece Goat Girl, who played well-executed grungey fuzz rock with bright lead guitar lines and enjoyably slackery vocals, but who were ill-served by some truly incongruous big-screen visuals. Another big draw from somewhere along the indie spectrum was Joanne Robertson, who first came to this reviewer’s attention through her collaborations with Dean Blunt. Robertson’s set at the United Reformed Church was hamstrung by some technical issues with the PA but when she hit her stride it became clear that there’s a glorious gaseous quality to her vocals that really sets her apart from her peers. Backed by just an acoustic guitar, Robertson’s songs tended to drift along, venturing out on long droney excursions but always eventually returning to some melodic sweet spot. There’s a lot of tension and satisfaction in this. Before Robertson took to the stage, Manchester’s Cult Party played sleepy lo-fi folk led by male lead vocals in the low, low register of a Rob St. John; their stripped back take on “Row Row Row Your Boat” made good use of a bowed saw and was sparse and intimate enough that when a nearby audience-member started humming a harmony over the top it felt like there was enough room to accommodate it.
One of the marquee shows at this year’s festival, Laura Cannell’s collaboration with Ex Easter Island Head and the BBC Philharmonic Ensemble in the luxe surrounds of Salford Cathedral, was also maybe the biggest artistic misfire of the day. Cannell’s fiddle-playing, shown off to great effect at last year’s festival, is characterised by a rough, intense physicality gained through the use of an “overbow” (that is, the bow is loosened and placed over and round the bridge of the fiddle). When backed by the contributions of two members of Ex Easter Island Head, who layed their electric guitars on tables and play them with soft mallets, her playing was drained of its edge and the whole picture congealed into something reminiscent of the soundtrack to a presitge TV detective drama. The set only really picked up when Cannell’s playing was foregrounded in the mix. When she switched from fiddle to multi-wind pipe towards the end of the performance, the complexity of her expression provided a breath of fresh air from the middling post-rock tones of the rest of the set. There are doubtless a number of very good reasons why Cannell would want to seek out avenues through which to harness the lyric voice of her instruments to more collaborative forms of music-making, but it’s precisely her voice that emerges as by far the strongest component of this collaboration; the rest is polite, tasteful, but lacking in real interest.
At the end of the day, before Swing Ting and Optimo’s J.G. Wilkes stepped up to take things into the early hours at the Mill and The Old Pint Pot respectivey, there was time for one final visit to the United Reformed Church to catch a full-band set from Salford mainstays Irma Vep. It was a great set; this band are as well-liked as they are with good reason, and sometimes on long days like this it’s worthwhile seeking out a space to appreciate the things you already have.