Wednesday 16 May 2018

Festival Review - Smoke Over Warsaw III: Cosmic Cruise

I’ll begin with a little history - or at least try and provide a little bit of context… I've been listening to heavy hard rock and underground metal since I was 14 years old (well there was that phase when I was 9 or 10 when I listened to Ugly Kid Joe and Guns N Roses, but I try to bury that in the dark places and file it under general childhood trauma). What I mean more specifically is this whole Stoner/Sludge/Doom thing as it's often referred to - I’ve always hated the label(s) personally.

It wasn't until I ended up living and working in Warsaw, Poland that I got into the DIY underground music scene. It didn't exist when I was in my early 20’s - very little existed at all when it came to the music I have populated my days with for over 20 years; anyway... Warsaw - Poland; not a place that I had expected to have my musical passions revitalised.

So how did this come about? And why am I mentioning it - well please bare with me… Back in 2013, a friend of mine had also recently moved to Warsaw to begin working at the same company as me. Our birthdays are within a few weeks of each other, and we share similar tastes in music. We were looking for something to do - a way of celebrating. He'd uncovered a “Stoner” show that was due to take place in Warsaw - I think it was a Sunday; a three or four-band bill at a place unknown to us called “Klub Fono”.

The headliner for this show was a then little-known band called "Stoned Jesus", we'd chuckled at the idea of this - Poland is still a somewhat religious country - we thought the name was funny. And we had absolutely no clue what it was going to be like; but figured screw it - better than sitting about doing nothing in the Warsaw heat.

We awkwardly navigated our way to a dilapidated venue in the middle of nowhere. I don't mean this in the traditional countryside sense - of nowhere - imagine the same concept but surrounded by what seems to be miles of upon miles of nondescript tower blocks, warehouse buildings - a concrete jungle with windows as far as the eye could see.

We attended the show - watched the bill along with around 50 or so other people. I do remember Stoned Jesus being excellent that night, but it didn’t come with any prediction of what was going to happen to that band... During one of the changeovers, I wandered outside for a smoke - and struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be the promoter for the show, he spoke in exceptional English (a rarity for myself having lived in Poland for 6 months or so at that point) and we started talking underground bands - he introduced me to his Facebook page - "I did it - One man booking agency". Having enjoyed the show immensely - I liked his page, and Robert added me on Facebook - social media? Is it all bad?

During my time in Warsaw, I got to know Robert - and he’d hit me up when he was putting events on. Roberts the man behind "I did it”. He introduced me to loads of great bands, and a small group of “ex-pats” from our office started attending the shows he was putting on around Warsaw. 

In retrospect, I felt very lucky, I got to catch a lot of bands that are now rather well known long before they exploded, the likes of Mars Red Sky, Sunnata, Weedpecker, and 1000Mods - the last time I’d seen Robert before returning to the United Kingdom - he'd just put on a double headliner "Stoned Jesus/1000Mods" a show that took place at “Klub Hydrozagadka”, that I obviously was compelled to attend - at that point it was the largest show he had put on, especially considering the growth that “Stoned Jesus” had garnered over the subsequent years - each show had consistently brought more and more people to the various venues; each show was always better than the last. A relief from the daily grind that I genuinely missed this when I returned to the UK.

So lets fast forwards to today - Approximately 3 years later and Robert was going to put on his largest show to date (in terms of number of bands, and I'd started making music again, I kinda stumbled into music promotion - I don't consider myself a promoter, but the UK music scene is literally littered with people like myself, putting on shows for the love of music. 

Just like Robert all those years back). I was in the process of putting together the line-up for my second all-dayer. I was looking for that special headliner and having continued to follow Robert’s band (Sunnata) rise in the underground consciousness. I’d enjoyed Climb the colossus and thought it was a cool record, but Zorya had blown me away (it was far closer to the band I'd witnessed live at the release party for the first record).

Whilst booking Sunnata to headline Gizzardfest #2, he invited me over to his "biggest show yet"... I took him up on his offer, flights to Poland are cheap, and I wagered it'd cost around the same as attending a show in London, or Manchester - perhaps a little more, but nowhere the same as DesertFest or Roadburn; and I knew I'd catch stuff I'd never heard or been exposed to in any ways shape or form. Much as when I initially Witnessed "Stoned Jesus" playing to a small crowd.

Having also seen 1000Mods previously, and that they would be playing gave me one band I’d have confidence in that I knew I was going to dig. They'd been amazed by the Polish response the first time I'd seen them in Warsaw; so surely this was going to be something else...

As I organise my flights Smoke Over Warsaw III’s line-up is teased and expanded, I didn't know any of the other bands - complete ignorance - my preferred way to go into any music event. I’m a firm believer that live is the only way to experience a bands music for the first time. It’s a tasty looking line-up; Dogzilla, Sons of Nibiru, Diuna, Wedge, Kamni, Octopussy, Mother Engine, and 1000Mods.

So on Friday 13th April, 2018 - I catch a flight to Warsaw from my local airport, land in Warsaw, catch a taxi, check into my hotel, and head over the river to Praga (the region of Warsaw where the show was to take place) and wander to the venue; a journey very much facilitated by Google maps.

I've been telling myself for weeks at this point to just approach it like any other small show I'd attended over the years - don't expect too much… I shamble up outside “Klub Hydrozagadka” & “Chmury” the two venues where the show will take place, conveniently they’re next to each other. I find Robert stood outside - he’s looking slightly stressed - 1000mods are already 2 hours late, and Mother Engine hasn't turned up yet - the show is supposed to kick off soon...

Was I early? I'd been awake a long time by this point. Things were pretty quiet so I grabbed a beer and chatted with Robert and his crew for a while. About 30 minutes or so later, the 1000Mods crew arrived, they load in quick and professional and get to business sound checking. Followed shortly afterwards by Mother Engine arriving and going through the same load in motions. Everything's coming together; I've seen far larger bands turn up much later with far more equipment, and things still run smooth as hell.

While I’m stood about waiting, people are beginning to turn up - I catch Robert and Dani from 1000Mods having a little chat. Robert introduces me, and Dani instantly remembers my face from three years previous - blowing my mind in the process. I do the usual pleading for those guys to come to the U.K and grace us with a full tour, expressing that there’s a lot of love for their music. He’s humbled and expresses a desire to do so, but as with anything it’s got to work for them.

Dogzilla kicks off the event in an appreciated heavyweight doom style, as a literal horde of people begins to descend on the two venues'. A good well attended U.K. Underground show will draw a couple hundred people - Smoke over Warsaw III has completely sold out, 520 people - nearly double the audience of the last show I'd attended in Warsaw. I manage to squeeze into “Chmury” and check out Dogzilla's growling guitar tones, the sound is crystal clear; absolutely pure in its clarity. I instantly recognise that there’s not an earplug in sight, it's loud but not painfully so.

I'm here with the knowledge that I'll not likely be able to catch many of the bands on this smaller stage, it’s completely rammed already - but I was impressed with the small venue, it's on par with any of the 100 - 150 cap venues I've seen in the UK, but the quality of the sound is something else - I cannot stress that enough. 

Octopussy - Photo Taken By Zielińska Agata

I move over to the larger venue Klub Hydrozagadka in preparation to check out Octopussy, I've no clue what to expect - but I was definitely not disappointed! A hazy hard-rocking blues sound oozes out of the speakers - with rough and smooth harmonize vocals adorning the PA. It's good music and again the sound is great an absolutely solid performance. Whilst not my favourite genre - it's clear that they’re a talented bunch, and it's accessible to pretty much anyone who loves bluesy rock riffs, glorious in its smooth overdriven amp tones, and melodic vocals.

I’m now faced with a minor dilemma - get a good spot for Mother Engine, or duck out and check the smaller stage? I opt to try and secure a good spot.

I'd spent a good 30 minutes chatting with Chris and Christian from Mother Engine - the usual band geek stuff, talking gear, scenes and bands we dig; they'd sold me on their band, and their attitude - bare in mind I knew nothing about these German fellas from Plauen, and our conversation had ended up being struck up on the grounds of their lighting engineer needing a light for his cigarette and a sweet scent that couldn't be mistaken as anything but high quality weed being smoked by the bass player, Christian.

They informed me they played in Mother Engine, they were super nice guys, we spent some time talking instruments, at this point they explained that their hometown - Plauen is famous for its history as a luthier town - making instruments for generations. They have an insistence upon using their own backline - even the custom drum kit that's been built. Chris the guitarist plays a custom built guitar - it all sounds very cool to me as I mention my own tiny band and my love for D*A*M fuzz pedals.
Mother Engine - Photo Taken by Bartosz Kaszewski

I was enthralled by the fact that they really seemed to grasp tone and frequency - and they didn't have this whole "elite" everything must be valve amps mentality. These guys do have some nice equipment and run me over their history of playing together since kids, hashing out punk songs. So knowing that I'd potentially miss an ace smaller band I forwent it and threw myself to the front to check out their show.

I'll have to ask ‘Sons of Nibiru’ to forgive me, but there seemed to be some stage clashing, the kind of thing that happens from time to time at shows like this; I’ve no doubt the room was packed out for them.

It's at this point that it hits me - the crowd is a solid 50/50 split, neither gender appeared over represented and more than anything this didn't appear to be by design simply that as many women dig this music in Poland as dudes - I'm not mentioning this to wade into any gender politics codswallop; just a rare observation, especially considering the crowd reactions in Poland. Which I'll get to...

I place myself square and centre in front of the stage, observing them set up. The first thing that strikes me is - they have a small rig of lights and a lighting engineer. The stage is slowly being filled with a haze as they line check, each instrument - the drum kit with maple shells, covered in a beautiful walnut top if memory serves correctly, honestly sounds truly bombastic, custom equipment has its perks - he removes the felt from his cymbals - we're going to be floppy and extra resonant in the tings and dangs department it seems - interesting - the bass tone seems spot on - we'd spent some time discussing the importance of mids to bass tones when playing live. Sounds good overdriven, and clean. The guitar rings out with a massive amount clarity - it's tonally immaculate - much a result of the band and a decent sound engineer it's clean, hum-free - loud but not painfully so, whilst the sub still kicks you in the chest which is much appreciated.

They quickly set about what is going to be a three-song set - heh, a 45 minute - 3 song set, this is either going to be highly pretentious or unquestionably mind-blowing. They start neatly with a wonderful build-up finally breaking into some massive grooves and crazy timing changes that organically morph from one into the other - I'm immediately struck by how tight this four-piece is (bass/drums/guitar/lights) that's right - the music may very well be a three-piece affair, but there's an extra sparkle to the show thanks to their lighting engineer, they're all wonderfully tight. I'm not sure if they're playing to a click or not - I don't get the feeling they are, there's an organic feeling to everything they're doing - and if it's to a click it's the first time I've seen such a thing in the underground sounding so natural. I don't think they are though, which makes it all the better for me.

I'm entirely captivated by Mother Engine's set - they partially remind me of how I'd expect the Ozric Tentacles to sound if they'd never used synths and gone with pure guitar tones - it's a good trippy musical journey, the occasional solo enters the affair but never stays too long or falls into an egocentric twiddle fest. This is a 20 minute or so track and it feels like 5, I've seen bands do more egotistical fret molestation in their supposed 6/7 minute "epics" than these guys are doing in their epically arranged progressions, where everything really is there to make sense of the tonal progression.

Mother Engine have talked a particular talk, walked a walk, and all of it's been done without ego. These dudes just really dig playing and it shows. It shows on the faces of the band, and the crowd.

As they bring their set to a close they promise a faster shorter older song (Brett Hart) - the crowd laughs not believing they've only played 2 tracks. The track is indeed more upbeat and the lovely Polish energy of receptiveness begins to build - Polish crowds being the smiling energetic affairs they are, I'm shoved face first into some poor lass’s face where we butt heads - she just smiles accepting my apology, meanwhile the frantic dance is entirely just. Mother Engine rips raucously to a close, and are met with a thunderous applause and triumphant well earned cheers. I stand humbled and impressed by the best live show I've seen by a band in a long long time. Seems I should have paid a little more attention to what's been going off in Germany. 

Diuna - Photo Taken By Marcin Piwnik

I dip into the smaller venue to check out what’s happening before 1000mods hit the stage. I find myself greeted by Diuna playing a stoner cover of "Bite it you scum" by GG Allin, much appreciated by my ears, sadly they're closing out their set. The room’s packed and vibrant with energy.

By this time I've sampled a fair amount of the Polish IPA's on offer - each one pleasant, but I'm ready for the headliner - 1000Mods.

Here is a band that probably needs little introduction, but if you've not heard them before they're a wee stoner rock setup from Greece, there's a strong Kyuss influence to their music, but it's positively attained in an authentic manner, opposed to sounding like some kinda cover band gone square.

I stand more towards the back of the crowd, next to the sound desk - I know what's going to happen down at the front, I remember from the last time I saw them. I'm in no state to be holding people in the air, and expending such energy, running on fumes as I was - I'd likely be a danger to people, so I opt for this spot next to the sound booth and enjoy the experience.

They explode into rampant gaudy tones setting the place on fire with a wave after wave of energy, even back here the grooves are driving the women to dance raunchily - whilst boyfriends nod heads stoically. Hundreds of people come alive to the rhythm and beat that is unmistakably 1000mods.

1000mods - Photo Taken By Zielińska Agata

Much as the weather outside - a Warsaw tradition is that it always rains when 1000Mods play, and low and behold the weather broke into a thunderous storm to coincide with their performance. Inside the crowd is responding with an entirely euphoric release of energy and receptiveness so much so Dani feels the need to ask people to calm down so nobody gets hurt - I've not seen this kind of response to a band in a long time, and it's reassuring.

I was certainly enjoying the set, but shamelessly I was also waiting for Low to be played, even commenting to the guy next to me, his name escapes me but I remember he was a member of the band Red Scalp, that I was anticipating them playing Low - when they finally announce it - they're self aware that it's a fan favourite but from my visually obscured position, I'm only hearing them build up into the opening... a sort of strange teaser jam they seem to have cooked up, when Dani starts telling everyone they're having a few technical problems, this just adds to the tension they've already built with the impromptu jam, by the time they finally hit the first breaking riff the tension is beyond breaking point and 400+ people receipt in unison and glee to this final break - mirrored by the weather - a true climax of smiles, wildness and energy. Bodies surf the crowd, wave after wave and as the set comes to a close I'm satisfied.

I stumble outside into a thunderstorm...

Over at the smaller stage, the party is still raging, with Wedge playing a stellar set, and pumping the crowd in the small space to a fever pitch, they're massive grooves are a welcome change that is exceedingly well-paced after the desert vibes of 1000mods. With loud organs and crazy guitar tones I continue to watch the set until the bass player just walks off stage - I'm not sure if he's broken a string, got bored, or what but the rest of the band seem to carry on through what I thought was a build down to a close, I'm far too inebriated to coherently assess the situation, so having come to see what I came to see I head back to the hotel, bidding farewell to Robert and staff as they load out 1000mods.

Wedge - Photo Taken By Marcin Piwnik

Taxi booked, and sleep...

I'm reminded of why the Warsaw scene had such an impact on me in the first place through both venues and all the bands, the tonal quality was excellent - and required no earplugs; which made me contemplate a few things about the United Kingdom underground music scene - I've seen good and I've seen terrible, and I've played good and bad shows with excellent and terrible sound engineers - and perhaps those are stories for another time, but if there's one thing I've learnt from revisiting the Polish music scene; Maybe we don't need to be so loud.

If you’re looking for a weekend adventure, but don’t have the cash to attend the larger festivals in Europe or the UK, I can highly recommend anything that “I did it: One man booking agency”, is putting on in Warsaw. The sound quality really is world class, the acts have always been top tier, the crowds are super friendly and the bands have often usually never graced the UK. Flights, hotel, food and drink came in at around 300 quid for the entire weekend; and I was being frivolous in my spending, I could have shaved a hundred off it had I wish to cheapen the event for myself. All I know is that Robert hinted at something larger next year… And I’ve every intention of revisiting.

Words by Chris Hardwick

Thanks to Chris for this epic review. Chris is the Guitarist/Vocalist from Spaztik Munkey.