Review: Station 18 Festival, Swansea

When you see an advert for a new festival, run over three days in an intimate indoor venue, with 20 bands for a grand total of thirty quid, it is pretty much impossible to stop yourself from pressing that “buy” button. Some guys called “Midnight Tornado” were apparently responsible for relieving me of my money. So it came to pass that on a bank holiday Friday we loaded up our little motorhome and headed off to Swansea, leaving plenty of time to find a quiet place to park ourselves and have a look around the city (despite coming from Cardiff, a city I have never actually been to!).

Well, that was the plan.

The reality was a five-hour slog around a closed motorway and several long queues that meant we found ourselves arriving perilously close to opening time. Our luck changed from that point though as we found a gorgeous parking space in a free car park right on the beach and made our way to the venue – Hangar 18 – arriving just in time for a first pint from the VERY reasonably priced bar and to get the cameras strapped on.

If you are planning a party, the first name on the invite list really has to be Beth Blade and The Beautiful Disasters. Flanked by two animated, hair-flinging “Disasters”, there was barely a pause for breath as Beth grabbed the audience by the short and curlies. The songs are pure rock and roll with “I Ain’t Got Nothing (If I Ain’t Got Rock and Roll)” being a real singalong crowd pleaser and set closer “Jack and Coke” leaving a room full of shit-eating grins. A new album is out soon – can’t flipping wait! What a way to start a weekend and it is barely tea time!

Pearler

One of many new to me bands next in Pearler (local bands making up a large proportion of the acts appearing show just how strong the music scene is in Wales). Very much out for a good time (look up the band’s name in a dictionary of Aussie slang – it isn’t anywhere near as rude as I thought it might be as I hid my browsing history just in case), singer Wendell Kingpin led them through a set of high energy, riff-based rock that refused to let the ever-growing audience rest for a second. “Desert Slut” highlights the sound and energy and the band’s website showcases their fun attitude to life with the bios of Wendell, Eve, Gwary, and Freaky being laugh-out-loud funny.

REvival Black

At Steelhouse Festival last year I found a band with a singer that I thought had one of the best voices on the scene so I was really excited to see them on the bill. Now, sometimes you are present when you see a band that has the potential to be the next big thing. Recently that has applied to Florence Black and Scarlet Rebels. Well, add to that list Revival Black because their performance at Station 18 was INSANE! The band just oozes class and ability and in vocalist Dan Byrne they have that something extra that it takes to climb that ladder. They open with “Believe” a driving rocker that goes off the scale when the chorus hits. Holy F*** what a note! I look back from the photo pit and the place is alive with movement. The lighting and sound have both been pretty fantastic so far and the team has added even more to level up further. It’s hard to describe the experience to those who haven’t been there. Those times when the crowd reaction spurs on the band, which results in the crowd amping it up even more in a glorious feedback mechanism. It isn’t just Dan though. Every single musician on that stage contributes to a bluesy, almost soulful sound that just works on your ears and goes straight to your feet. “Midnight Oil” is deliciously slinky and sleazy and set closer “Wide Awake” ensures they leave the stage to an extended ovation.

Hollowstar

The job of following that as headliner went to one of my personal favourite bands on the scene Hollowstar. When I first saw the band perform, singer Joe Bonson made much of how the band and music had given him something to use to battle his mental health demons. He was a quiet, introverted stage figure with most of the visuals coming from guitarist Phil Haines. Now, he exudes a far more relaxed attitude and the band has the most delightful, fun camaraderie on stage. Now part of that chill may have been due to the fact that he described pretty early on how he was currently dealing with an abscess in his mouth and ignoring the instructions for how much codeine to take before drinking several beers during the set, or it may have been his newfound role of publican having bought his own boozer “In the Shire”.

Hoillowstar

The set is a cracker with Hollowstar favourites mixed with covers (“Simple Man” is particularly effective and the segue from “500 Miles” to “Wishing Well” is smooth as silk, but still no heavy metal version of the Teletubbies theme tune promised at Cornwall Rocks). The two homegrown songs that close out the set “Good Man Gone”, (tonight without the extended intro but poignantly I saw Phil Haines look to his father on high as he stepped forward for the solo) and ”All I Gotta Say” (where Bonson wryly replied, “Actually that was pretty good” to the crowds very first and VERY loud response to being asked to sing back “Bye Bye Baby Goodbye” stood out for me as showing just what a classy act Hollowstar are.

At most festivals that would be the time for us to all head home to bed but not Station 18 as we were cordially invited to a raucous after-party at Crowley’s Rock Bar just a few minutes away, where more good, cheap beer was on tap and a further dose of music courtesy of Webb kept the ears ringing.

Finally, we made our way back on a balmy April night to our little haven by the beach to restore our energy for the upcoming two days.

After a relatively good night (other than a local deciding the space next to us was a good spot to conduct what we will call his “business” in the early hours) Saturday dawned warm and sunny and it felt more like Los Angeles than Swansea as we walked along the beach to eat breakfast whilst watching cyclists and roller skaters parade past.

We popped by to look at the new Arena and had a great time persuading a number of adventurous old folk to try the various playground attractions on the grounds, before wandering into town where we found ourselves surrounded by the VERY bright and colourful Swansea Pride celebrations, as first, we saw the parade go in one direction, then encountered it going in another, then found it was actually encamped between town and our camp spot. It was great fun, and an upbeat way to start a day, enjoying the sheer joy of those taking the opportunity to celebrate their diversity.

Eventually, it was time to head back to Hangar 18 for day two. On paper, this was the most varied and possibly the slightly weaker day of the three, not helped by the original headliner pulling out late in the day. It was also the day when I had no prior knowledge of more of the bands so I opened my mind and waited to see what I found.

Gallows Circus

First up were Gallows Circus and both myself and the missus enjoyed them immensely. I would best describe them as Southern Blues but whatever label you might wish to pin, they were a very tight outfit that outplayed their position on the bill by some margin. Delicious vocals and plenty of stage presence to keep the attention, coupled with great songwriting definitely worked for me and I will be keeping an eye out for them in future. Following on were Electric Black and whilst they were equally enjoyable musically, with another bluesy rock feel, they were even more animated and energetic on stage. From opener “Come on Over” to set closer “Not Afraid to Die” they grabbed my attention and it didn’t wander for a second.

50 Year Storm

Between sets, the schedule featured three ten-minute acts by the Metal Maidens. I will be honest and say that whilst some of the routines were high energy and well-choreographed, they would have benefitted from a rousing introduction from a compere, a lot more crowd involvement, and maybe a way of performing whilst the stage was set for the next band instead of adding time to the changeovers. After the first of those acts, 50 Year Storm took to the stage for a complete change of, well, just about everything really! A three-piece featuring a keyboard-playing singer, a luminous jumper-wearing guitarist, and a colourful female drummer, their music was atmospheric and complex. I found myself conflicted during their set. For me it was music for the outdoors of their home turf, washing over you whilst you sit on the sand, rather than an indoor festival. However, the last two songs, “The Fanlight” and “Grace” ramped up the energy levels massively and were definitely the highlight of their set for me.

Twister

Back to Wales and the hills of Caerphilly next for Cancel the Transmission. One of the lighter sounds of the weekend but infectious and massively enjoyable nonetheless. Yet another of the bands that have evaded me on our respective travels and perfect for the timeslot they were in where I was looking for enjoyable and catchy rather than heavy or complex. Twister were up next and had a very low-key entrance to the stage which meant that you barely noticed they had started. No, hang on, that wasn’t right! Actually, they started with bassist Ryan Lee and guitarist Jake Grimes hitting the heck out of two timpani drums before singer Stevie “Twister” Stoker exploded onto the stage in a blur of backcombed blonde locks. For me, this was the band that really raised the energy levels of the earlier part of the day with a mid-Atlantic, mature sound and some great songs. In fact, I realised when editing photos that I took less of Twister than any other band because I spent a lot of the allotted three songs just enjoying the music!

Haxan

So far all had gone swimmingly but unfortunately, Häxan found themselves beset by technical gremlins as Harriet’s bass resolutely refused to play. Following the Thundermother debacle, it was looking as if the rock gods had it in for them, but with a beam of delight Harriet sent bass notes out across Swansea Bay as the gremlins were banished and the trio ripped into a superb set that went down a storm. Visual to watch (especially the aforementioned Harriet) with some cracking tunes and a bit of repartee with the crowd (“Gravedigger” rather wonderfully introduced by Sam) they were definitely a big hit. It has been fascinating following Ethyrfield’s progress since their Livewire days and they really are pretty close to being the finished article now. Genuinely superb musicians playing some incredibly complex and atmospheric music that leaves you slack-jawed in appreciation. The upcoming tour with Von Hertzen Brothers will surely allow them to develop and mature even further and you no longer feel the need to comment on their age as now they are far more than just youngsters playing above their years. However, I do think that they were maybe promoted a little higher in the bill than they may have been as their music was more quietly contemplated by the crowd than raising energy levels ready for the headliner.

Chez Kane

Relatively close to the festival taking place, the original Saturday headliners pulled out which left the Station 18 team with a huge problem. Or so it seemed. In a stroke of genius, they managed to persuade rising star Chez Kane to step in for her first chance to play material from her debut solo album onstage in her hometown. With a voice reminiscent of Ann Wilson and surrounding herself with a VERY talented group of musicians Chez showed just why she is such a talking point in the industry at the moment. It turned out afterward that she had been battling a throat problem but you would never have known as her range and power were mightily impressive. The setlist was pretty much that first album, but a cheeky cover of a Mr. Big song I love (“Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy”) and the last track, the ridiculously radio-friendly “Rocket on the Radio” meant that the day finished on an absolute high.

On the face of it, Saturday had initially been perceived to be the collectively weakest lineup of the three days, but if that was the weakest then what on earth would Sunday bring?!

A much quieter night by the beach (Swansea drug dealers not working Sunday mornings?) and a much less incident-packed morning meant that energy levels had recovered nicely when we returned for the third and final day.

Another big shout out at this point for the venue, which was absolutely perfect for the three days of music, from the lovely lady with the gorgeous accent that checked tickets, to the skilled sound and light guys, and the friendly bar staff (especially the tall guy with the curly hair whose name I never got but who was utterly hilarious).

Kinstrife

It was a good job we had built our energy reserves up because North Wales trio Mad Haven absolutely ripped into their set as only youngsters can and dragged the more than slightly older audience along in their wake. Almost every shot I have of these guys seems to be a blur of flung hair and action, and I absolutely loved their set (as did the other half who had moved from the back to the barrier by the time I had finished shooting). Another change to the original running order next as Kinstrife stepped into the breach. Their set started with singer Mike Hoskins receiving a birthday cake from the organisers at which point the crowd joined in the singing of “Happy Birthday”. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Kinstrife but was soon blown away by Mike’s voice. It seems that everyone fronting a rock band wants to scream the highest note possible but this is a voice that is full of timbre and the most delicious growl. Really different and incredibly enjoyable, particularly the last song “Make Me” which had bass player Dave rocking in the pit in front of the stage and a chorus that seemed to grow in power with each repetition. Gotta be honest – bloody loved their set!

Black Lakes

That may be why the transition from a raw, soulful vocal-led style to the metal assault of Black Lakes caught me a little off guard and took a bit of getting used to. First of all, there was the challenge of taking photos of a stage full of no less than three guitarists, a bass player, a very mobile singer, and a drummer on such a small stage. Then there was the absolute wall of sound – hard but very melodic – that they battered the appreciative audience with. As the set went on I found myself catching up and thoroughly enjoying their much heavier offering, a task made easier as due to the late arrival of the next band they extended their set on the fly to include three more songs than the six originally planned (“Ghosts”, Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer” and “Dissident”). Talking to friends that love the heavier side of the spectrum the unanimous view was that Black Lakes were the real deal. Kreek finally arrived in Swansea and hit the ground running with a great, bluesy sound. Led by ex-Bigfoot (another band I managed to miss but are talked about very highly) singer Anthony Ellis they kept the tempo up for their entire set with an incredibly energetic performance.

SKAM

So, you have been at a festival for over 48 hours and energy levels are flagging. What do you need? You need SKAM! Kicking off the second half of the day they absolutely ripped Hangar 18 to shreds. There must be a science to music that I haven’t deciphered yet. A little while back I saw SKAM utterly destroy Livewire with a set that left trails of fire across the stage. Then I saw them at Nozfest and somehow that energy just didn’t happen for some reason. Today though they were utterly on fire and the crowd reacted back. You could literally feel the synergy between band and crowd as Steve Hill ripped out solo after solo and Matt Gilmore covered more stage inches than most bands added together, all the while pulling those incredible expressions. Finishing off with Hill disappearing into the crowd for an extended solo and a huge reaction from the audience.

Piston

The final three bands have been touring together and in most venues would have been worth the entry money alone. First of the triumvirate were South of Salem from Bournemouth. Every performance on the tour must have been a bit of a wake-up call to the other two bands, making sure they were at their best every night! Melodic but heavy with a great image and some extremely catchy songs I really enjoyed their set. The energy SKAM left behind was added to and it was clear that their set was incredibly well-received. “Pretty Little Nightmare” and the catchy “Cold day in Hell” closed out their set and showed that they are a name to watch because, like a couple of other bands over the weekend, their potential right now is huge. Penultimate act to take the stage were Piston and they lived up to everything I had heard about them. Sleazy and slow, bluesy music of the finest order, with a frontman who holds the attention and has a raw voice filled with emotion backed by some pretty fine musicianship. Opening with “Rainmaker” and a sublime guitar solo followed by a massive leap from the riser by Rob, the set rocked along at a terrific pace. The balance between Rob’s voice and the guitars of Jack Edwards and Luke Allatt kept the set constantly interesting and engaging, and by the time they finished on a raucous cover of “Proud Mary” the temperature in the room was dangerously close to boiling point.

The Treatment

Finally, after 19 bands, playing their 17th straight set on an 18-night tour, it was time for the headliner The Treatment. Clearly, after so many nights they would be tired, going through the motions, and keen to get away for some much-needed sleep. Not on your f*(^ing life! Vocalist Tom Rampton did not let the crowd rest for a single second. Constantly cajoling movement and singing as guitarists Tagore and Tao Grey rampaged around the stage in a perfectly choreographed ballet of licks, riffs, and hair. Further back drummer Dhani Mansworth and bassist Andy Milburn were content to stay in the shadows and provide a rock-steady foundation for the three upfront.

The Treatment

It isn’t a complex musical formula. Simple rock and roll isn’t meant to be. It is just escapist fun where you cannot resist the lure of the rhythm and the spectacle that is thrown in your face. At one point I realised that I had guitarist Tagore Grey behind me, and as a space cleared around him, he was lifted onto willing shoulders and held high, then as he got back to earth, Rampton ordered the crowd to their knees and as one, crowd and guitarist leapt into the air on cue. An utterly brilliant performance to round off a superb weekend of music.

Band of the weekend? Well for me it has to be Revival Black. It is their music that has been on in the car ever since I got home and I can’t wait to see if they realise their undoubted potential. That shouldn’t detract from anyone else that got on that stage though as I found a whole load of new music and thoroughly enjoyed every note sung and played.

Early bird tickets for next year sold out almost instantly and I cannot wait for next year to see what the team pull out, as early announcements look pretty spectacular. More information on Station 18 Festival, here.

Review and images – Rob Wilkins 

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