Full Steam Ahead in Llanfyllin

Originally, this summer, I had planned to attend the ill-fated Alt Fest, and whilst I could write entire standalone posts about the events surrounding its demise, and my thoughts and feelings on the situation, many people have already written such articles, and there doesn’t seem to be much more to say on the subject.

What is marvellous is the response from the alternative scene to the disappointment of a cancelled festival. From the ashes of Alt Fest, and with a time frame of less than a fortnight, a handful of smaller events popped up across the country. In Kettering, the original location for the festival, many of the bands due to play the festival managed to reschedule smaller gigs around the town, and so anybody with standing bookings for hotels in the area still had something to do whilst they were there. In London, a similar event took place, with bands playing across the city over the course of the weekend. Then there was The Steampunk Experience. Due to be one of the areas at the festival, the organisers managed to locate a venue, reorganise some of the acts, and build a two stage standalone event at the beautiful Llanfyllin Workhouse, just over the Welsh border. Full Steam Metal Racket was born.

My issue with steampunk, as with many smaller offshoots of the alternative scene, is that it can (and in my experience at some other events, does) get to a point where there are a handful of people taking themselves entirely too seriously, and that tends to spoil it all for the people who simply want to get together and have a good time with other like minded folk. I enjoy a great many facets of steampunk, and I find it fascinating that an entire subculture has arisen from something which does not have music at its centre. Indeed, it’s difficult to even pinpoint what steampunk music is since the bands who either refer to themselves as such, or are pushed beneath the steampunk banner, are so varied as to incorporate styles from punk, cabaret, metal, goth and more – sometimes even all at the same time. But, going back to my original statement, I did have my concerns about the potential atmosphere of a steampunk event. Those concerns were entirely unfounded, I am pleased to report. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful, friendly and pleasant bunch of people to spend a weekend with.

There were some fantastic outfits (made even more impressive by the fact that I was seeing people emerging from tents, at 9am, fully clad in corsets and bustles, whilst I was dragging myself across a field in pyjamas and Converse to fetch espresso from the vendors in the courtyard). But those fabulous outfits came without a single sign of the less-than-fabulous attitude, and the variation of people attending was wonderful. From the aforementioned dressed-to-the-nines folk, to the ‘thrown-together-thrift-shoppers’ (that’d be me, then), to the people who were there purely for a good time, in jeans and a shirt. Everybody fitted in, nobody was sneered at and there was nobody there who I believe would have even considered sneering in the first place.

The event proper was due to take place over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but having already booked the time off work, the four of us decided to pay for an extra night of camping, and arrived late afternoon on the Thursday. Within minutes of our arrival, we had already been made to feel warmly welcome by Dale of BB Blackdog, who showed us to the camping field and gave us a little information about the intended happenings for the day, and the general layout of the Workhouse. So, after pitching our tents, we had a few hours before the bar opened, to relax with a beer or three and enjoy the glorious sunshine and beautiful surroundings. Not long after we arrived, Silver, another member of the organisational team, made a round of the site, introducing herself and again, creating a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere from the outset.

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Thursday evening is a bit of a blur. I think we all got a tad overexcited about being away from work, kids and general responsibility, but I’m very glad that we arrived a day early. It was a great opportunity to learn a few names and faces, and get to know a few people in advance of the main event. I did rather regret the quantity of delicious ale and Jagermeister that I consumed throughout the evening, at around 8am when I awoke to the mother of all hangovers.

However, not to let a small thing like that stand between me and food first thing in the morning, pancakes were cooked for breakfast, a success which I remain rather proud of. Particularly given that I couldn’t find my frying pan or spatula and, assuming I had forgotten both, cooked them in a saucepan, with tongs. An hour later I located the frying pan, directly where I had left it with the rest of the cooking supplies.

The events on Friday didn’t begin until early evening, in order to allow for people arriving throughout the day, and after work, so after a short extra nap, the four of us made our way into the village to explore and pick up a few things from the shop. Llanfyllin is a small but picturesque village, with a handful of shops and pubs, including the best fish and chips I think I have ever had. Highly recommended if you’re ever in the vicinity.

By early evening, my hangover had dissipated enough for me to get myself dressed up a little, two more of our friends had turned up and we had met a few more of our neighbours. I wandered across to the outdoor stage a little earlier than the rest of my group, and caught the last part of Dark Patrick, an engaging experimental act with extremely distinct political leanings, who I rather wish I had managed to see a little more of.

Powerful synth rhythms combine with the dark and gloomy sound of the hurdy-gurdy, the sweet crystal clear tone of the bandura and unusual vocals (in Ukrainian, Russian and English) that are sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, and other times chanted. Honest, inspired and experimental to the core, Dark Patrick’s songs explore themes of anti-fascism, feminism, anarchism, social injustice, exploitation, harsh realities & mental phenomena. The duet was formed in Kiev in 2008, since then they have produced 5 albums, performed on big and small stages in U.K, Ukraine and Russia and have carefully honed their own unique style that is hard to compare with anything else at all.

Staggering the acts between the indoor and outdoor stages meant that whilst one played the next could prepare, reducing the waiting time between shows which in turn not only lent a tight, well-managed feel to the proceedings but also meant that the wide variety of sounds and styles did not clash oddly, but rather created a circus or carnival type atmosphere which worked beautifully for the event.

Just as the remainder of my group arrived, the Needle Poppets were starting up inside, and I do confess that these were my absolute favourite act over the weekend, so my apologies if I go on a little long.

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The sound is upbeat, infectious and punky, completed by a stage presence which belies the fact that this is a seated duo, and so even in the state of post-hungover tiredness that I had reached by 9pm, they had my toe tapping in no time at all. With their piano-led cabaret feel and theatrical style, the nod towards the Dresden Dolls is maybe a too-obvious reference and one which perhaps does them an injustice since the quirky melodies, dynamic male vocals and darkly comedic, often risqué lyrical style lends them an edge which is entirely their own.

It’s rare for a band to appeal to me quickly enough to captivate my attention so completely during the first performance I hear, but the Needle Poppets certainly managed to do so. We played the CD for most of the 200 mile drive home on Monday and by the time I parked up I already had several favourites. A band I look forward to seeing again as soon as possible.

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Next up on the outside stage, Skreamer were another stylistic about-turn. With their very metal based sound, they weren’t quite my cup of tea, although a lot of people I spoke to later enjoyed them immensely and that in itself is testament to the huge variety of musical tastes and goes back to what I wrote earlier regarding the relation of music to the steampunk genre. It’s a wonderful thing that bands so diverse can find a place at an event, and go down so well.

Regrettably, around mid-set, my lack of sleep caught up with me, and so I retired to my tent early in order to get a good nights sleep ready for Saturday’s full day event. Happily, the campsite at the Workhouse is a very short walk from the venue, and so even tucked up in bed I was able to hear the last few songs of the set drifting softly through the night.

Saturday, I woke up feeling glorious, much to the dismay of everybody else. The events for the day were due to begin around midday, and so we took advantage of the courtyard vendors selling excellent espresso and breakfast (including, I’m told, a rather decent vegetarian selection).

It should be noted at this point that my attention span is appalling at the best of times, and so I tend to miss a lot of the actual bands at events in favour of nattering to people. Thus, I caught a little of the fashion show and talk by Helene of Alskaer Clothing early in the afternoon, before wandering back to the tents for some afternoon beers and campsite chat. 3pm saw us drift back to the stage to catch Brighton band The Dark Design, who put on a marvellous set with plenty of audience participation. With a chaotically jaunty, whimsical sound led by sultry-scowling vocals and a distinctly piratical feel to the entire show, The Dark Design were the ideal act to shake off any afternoon slump and lead the crowd into early evening. A happy coincidence had Tictoria the Clockwork Girl arrive just in time for an impromptu and rather fitting performance to the song The Problem With a Clockwork Heart.

Now, this is around the time that I discovered the sale of Old Tom beer at the bar, and so again, my attention diverted more towards chatting to people than it did to actually watching the acts, so I’ll take this opportunity to mention the selection of beers available over the course of the weekend. The bar, I found, was priced extremely well. Nothing over £3, and most draught beers and spirits with mixer were £2 – £2.50. There were at least three hand pulled ales available over the course of the festival, all Stonehouse, and all delicious. My favourite was a hoppy golden which, regrettably, was also the first to go (although I suspect I consumed rather more than my fair share of that barrel on Thursday evening). The bottled Old Tom came in at £3, with the selection of the classic (and slightly lethal at 8.5%) version, and the lower strength 6% chocolate and ginger versions. For the cider drinkers, they had an absolutely delicious 7.5% honey cider, which whilst I didn’t buy myself, I did have a taste of.

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Again, we returned briefly to the campsite shortly after The Dark Design, to freshen up and change into evening attire, so I only caught the drifting notes of the bands inbetween across the field. We returned in time for BB Blackdog who, as one of the flagship acts of the weekend and led by one of the event organisers, were not to be missed.

The melodic vocals lean at times towards the ethereal, and at others dive and peak into an almost hypnotic sound which, combined with the jazz-influenced drum and bass, lulls the viewer into a state of relaxed consciousness. I envision this band becoming a very regular part of my listening habits.

Shortly afterwards, we drifted back indoors to see the Wattingers, and as a stylistic leap from the previous act, they did not disappoint.  Describing themselves as ‘slaughterhouse steampunk blues’, as bizarre as that might sound, it actually perfectly describes them in a way which you’d have to watch and hear them to fully understand. Combining a country/folky sound with a distinctly theatrical, old school horror movie tone, they put on a mesmerising, energetic and mildly disturbing performance which had the crowd engaged and moving throughout. Certainly a complete show and a genre unto themselves.

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Onwards and outside again to Frenchy and the Punk, a duo whose music I was slightly more familiar with, and looking forward to seeing play live. Again, a theatrical and visually entertaining performance enhanced an eclectic sound and energetic lyrical style. Frenchy, the charismatic vocalist, leads the stage with a healthy mix of music and chat. The sound is closely dark-cabaret, with elements of older gothic, punk and some folk influences thrown in for good measure.

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They played a hugely entertaining set, with a notable instance of audience can-can dancing, and I were an absolutely fantastic choice for the outdoor stage in particular. Another example of a two-piece exhibiting a stage presence which makes them seem like a much larger group.

Apologies the the acts that followed, but I believe the remainder of my Saturday night was spent chatting away in the bar and courtyards, so I completely failed to see anything further prior to our retirement to camp in order to cook hotdogs by torchlight.

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And so, on to the Sunday.

A lot of people were leaving throughout the day, on account of either lengthy travel, imminent work, or indeed both, so the day had both a relaxed feel, and a touch of melancholy about it, to begin with. This changed in short course by early afternoon, with the drinking of absinthe, the distribution of googly eyes and everybody intermingling a little more, creating a kind of ‘last hurrah’ feel to the occasion.

Photo credit Tracy Austin

Photo credit Tracy Austin

There was allegedly to be tea duelling, although if it took place I managed to miss it all completely, and the first act of the day I saw was the wonderful Copperfield Ensemble Project. Actually, I’ll be honest and say that I was engaged in the drinking of absinthe at the precise moment they were playing, so whilst I missed the beginning, the melodies drifting out from within the building were sufficiently intriguing to coax me back indoors for investigation.

As visually appealing as they are musically, the band describe themselves thus:

The Copperfield Ensemble Project is an imagining of Victorian music played today: a cross between Chamber Music and Music Hall, this is Classical music to sing along to. Every song and live show is an experimental journey, the experiment continues.

On account of the smaller crowd for the day, and the threatening clouds overhead, all the Sunday acts took place on the indoor stage, which I think was a good choice and lent a further cosy air to the final day.

Daniel Malheur led the event towards its official end with his fantastic ‘monoklepop’ performance, and paving the way for the final act of the event, the man behind Steampunkfunk Bizarre and event compere, Montague Jacques Fromage.

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And so, the event came to a close, with the news that not only had over £450 been raised for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, but that the event would be going ahead for round two in 2015.

As a few more people had to leave in order to make it home for work, the handful of us remaining retired in to the venue, where the wonderful Danielle Miller kept us entertained with an acappella performance whilst we drank what remained of the bar.

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The perfect ending to an absolutely fantastic weekend.

Huge thanks and congratulations to everybody involved in putting the event in place, and to everyone there for making it what it was. Apologies to the acts I completely missed, and to those I saw only briefly so haven’t quite done justice to, and further apologies for any inaccuracies in my memory.

Here’s to next year!

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7 Comments

  1. Great write-up of a wonderful event – and thanks for the mention too! XXX

    Reply
  2. Fantastic write-up and we thank you! – Organising the event was fun and at times stress filled, but looking back we can see we did a good thing 🙂

    Keep your eyes on the website over the next couple of weeks as we start drip feeding information about Full Steam Metal Racket 2015!

    Reply
  3. Silver Johnson

     /  August 23, 2014

    thank you for the write up and your kind words towards all involved, we hope to see you next year at the events we put on at the Workhouse keep an eye on the Full Steam Metal Jacket facebook page for information on those as we always have a couple of events there throughout the year and we would love to see you there.

    Reply

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