St Mary’s Creative Space squats atop a hill, tucked away behind the Military Museum like that weird cousin at your family reunion. It is here that Restless Bear launches on its first all-day festival, and it’s a truly fitting place to have it. Over the past year or so a fledgeling music scene has been growing in Chester and it seems symbolic that it kicks off in old Cestrian architecture, the new being born in the skeleton of the old. Inside the old church unnerving, anarchic music bounces off the stonework to create fantastic acoustics, only compounded by top-notch sound engineering. But the day is yet to begin and let’s see how it goes…
A last-minute announcement, post-rock outfit A Burial At Sea kick the day off with an almighty bang. Having watched their growth from their debut gig, their EP launch and now the first stop on their European tour, I’ve witnessed them go from strength to strength. Each time I see them play another element is added to their repertoire, be it brass instruments or vocals. They’ve matured at an explosive rate. There are hints of 65daysofstatic in their electro-noise-rock breakdowns, showing a marked maturing of their sound. Their track ‘Lest We Remember’ ends in a crescendo that leaves the audience filled with adrenaline and the feeling that I just witnessed something almost sacred.
Female duo (Slosilver and Stephanie Finnegan) Glove leap onto the stage with animalistic fury, daubed in war paint like a pair of warrior women from Celtic times. Their primal energy comes from a tom tom drum and a bass/guitar, joined with raw harmonising vocals caught somewhere between singing and roaring. They flit between genres, spoken word to rap to punk rock to some dark space in between. Slosilver practically spits venom with lyrics crammed with manic imagery, political fury barely contained within two bodies. They completely break down the barriers between audience and performer, jumping into the crowd with the drum and running around the main hall like mad children, as part of the experience as the rest of us were. “If you’re sat on the stalls you’re still a part of this, fam,” says Slosilver between songs, which sums it up perfectly.
Power duos performing in Chester are becoming more frequent, with local boys Deh-Yey up next. Between complex drum beats (Tom Maude), fuzzy guitar riffs and powerful vocals (Cash Burns) they hurl track after track to an audience that can’t seem to get enough. Their reinvention of ‘Tainted Love’ has the crowd bouncing like crazy, combining the catchiness of the original with heavy breakdowns to create a filthier, edgier version. Tunes are pockmarked with fat, sludgy breakdowns that makes Deh-Yey sound more like the current Bristol scene, not Chester. The tempo lurches from fast, punky mosh-beats to slower, more melodic segments that lend each tune a layer of depth that you’d expect from a larger outfit. The fact that only two fellas are producing this level of sound is impressive stuff. It goes to show the talent we have here.
Fashionably late, Manc trio Mold set up and get stuck without preamble. And by God, they make up for it. Multiple vocals are laid upon scratchy guitars with unrelenting drums to create an unholy discordant sound that feels like you’re part of a demented marionette show. The repetition of the Germanic-sounding melody in ‘Puppetmaster’, coupled with blue and red lights flickering on their lipstick-painted faces makes the whole act even more surreal. Kudos to the lighting engineers, they do an amazing job.
“We’re Eyesore and the Jinx, and we’re from West Darby,” starts the lead singer “Though you’ve probably never heard of us.” Ambassadors from Scouse label Eggy Records, they work the audience in between songs with classic Mersey wit. Jangly, angular riffs are led by a meaty bass, all held together with tight drums and angry vocals that are reminiscent of Cage The Elephant. Their tone is lighter than some of the other bands playing today, opting for wah pedals over distortion, which lends a mischievous quality to their playing. It feels like you’re running away from an angry neighbour’s house after you smashed their window with a football. Their new track ‘Pleasure Time’ is notedly stompier than their other tunes, led by the drums and a cheeky cowbell (who doesn’t love a cheeky cowbell?).
Five-piece Yammerer are on the stage next, and they bring the fire. Guitars couple with reverb’ed vocals to create a rich texture that contrasts with the heavier aspects to their sound. Healthy dollops of feedback on top make it all sound even more chaotic. It’s bizarrely atmospheric. Their frenetic playing screams punk, but it’s mashed with psychadelia and other genres to create brash, unapologetic post-punk. Their energy on stage is infectious, and the crowd dance under yellow lights as the lead singer (Jason) wraps the mic stand around his torso as if wrestling with a man-eating snake.
Last but by no means least, Chupa Cabra show us how garage rock should be done. Tight but sounding rough at the same time takes some skill, and between the lightning-fast basslines of Nathan, Tayt beating the shit out of the drums and Hayden’s discordant vocals and guitar they pull it off with aplomb. It shows in the opening bars of ‘Violent Urges’, with crashes of sound held in check with a kung-fu-tight grip. Versatility is displayed alongside ferocity, as ‘Venice and Mars’ starts with a playful bassline before ramping it up with riffs and a chorus you can’t help but move to. It’s as virulent as a lice infestation. They exude pure destructive force, which translates into the setup. The mic stand is knocked over and before anyone can react Hayden falls to the floor, rolling around and screaming into it like a man possessed. And possessed is what the audience is, dancing to the music with carnal glee.
What a day it’s been. Each band have been absolutely amazing; a showcase of what the North West has to offer, bolstered by incredible sound and lighting engineering. It’s an age-old adage that people hate their hometowns, but the Chester now is not the Chester I grew up in. I would have never dreamed of seeing an event like this in Chester five years ago. Change is in the air, and people like the ones at Restless Bear are making it happen. But this isn’t going to happen all by itself. Underground music has always subsisted on the people that come to watch. Tonight has been a huge step forward culturally, but in order for it to flourish it needs continued support. Chester’s a hub for towns all around, as far out as North Wales. It’s got the potential for a scene to really grow here. This isn’t naïve optimism, it’s within the realms of possibility. It’s up to you, reader, whether this happens… or not.