FESTIVAL REVIEW + PHOTOS: Liverpool Sound City 2023

To clarify for anyone not from the area, there’s a lot of music going on in Liverpool right now, spanning everything from Eurovision in a couple of weeks’ time, to buskers doing drippy piano covers of Joel Corry’s History. In between that (okay, way closer to the former) is Sound City, a festival that wears its history of championing the brand new and the superstars of tomorrow as proudly as it gets. Does the name Ed Sheeran ring a bell? How about Stormzy? Well, before their careers really kicked into gear, you’ll probably have found them in Liverpool, playing in some pub’s basement to about 50 people at Sound City.

This year though, it’s a more pared-back affair. Now the primary base of operations is the Guild of Students, leading to something much smaller and condensed in scale over the weekend compared to the dingy-venue-hopping that one familiar with this this festival might associate it with. There’s still an element of that though, now just for the preliminary New Music Friday. This is where the classic feel of Sound City resides, not just in setup, but in the sprawling, all-genre nature of the acts involved, and how there’s always something really cool to stumble upon. For Goddess Collective, the accolade of ‘Festival’s Most Distinct’ is theirs to take with their Sons Of Kemet-esque jazz wig-outs via sweltering, vibrant melody. The cramped basement of EBGBs honestly feels like a natural environment for it, though for intriguing find this leftfield, that’s meant entirely as a compliment.

Beren Olivia, on the other hand, could absolutely be a smash hitmaker today. She’s got a grand, Halsey-like approach to alt-pop and pop-rock that give these songs some considerable punch, and armed with confident yet easygoing stage presence and a responsive, packed crowd, she probably feels the closest to the nascent superstardom that Sound City breeds. And then there’s Peaness, stripped down and holed up in the local Bundobust for a secret set that’s the embodiment of indie adaptability. It’s guerilla and rogue—there’s no question about that—but there’s an unbelievable charm and novelty factor of seeing fast indie-pop risers (fresh off their onstage appearance with Paramore in Manchester, no less) playing in the middle of an Indian restaurant that speaks for itself. Plus they sound great, as lone guitar shimmers and vocal harmonies turn out immaculately, even when punctuated by dinging service bells.

As for In Waves, there’s no gentleness or minimalism here. They hit a roundabout midpoint between hyper-modern Bring Me The Horizon-isms and shamelessly radio-ready indie à la Catfish And The Bottlemen, a weird blend that doesn’t allow much variety, but the fact it’s already reaching bigger spaces, both in sound and stage presence, is encouraging nonetheless. Hourglvss show off potential for similar, even in a set marred by technical gremlins that can leave it a little piecemeal. At least there are rays of electro-pop light that still beam out—notably the slinky Johnny—and an already-arresting visual component goes a long way for them, even at this early stage. Likewise, Shelf Lives are met with a rather significant delay, but they occupy a musical space that makes it far easier for them to take it in stride. Their mix of punk, hardcore and electronic scalpel-cuts is exactly as thunderous and antisocial as you’d expect, though that’s indelibly the point with the prowling, gnashing Sabrina Di Giulio at the helm. The duo are underground through and through, and they completely own it with every barbed-wire riff and synth clash.

If you want a band looking to blow fairly imminently though, HotWax have got you covered. It’s not a headline set specifically (the whole ‘New Music Friday’ seems to have been built to avoid that kind of hierarchical structure) but the most concentrated hype at the minute seems to based around this trio. Had Royal Blood continued to be as exciting as they were initially pegged, they’d probably have grown into something like what HotWax already are, a hulking, swirling beat comprised of premier cuts of grunge and punk, with still room to go into something more gentle or airy. Their debut EP is out at the end of the month, which should likely show if they’re as accomplished as their live show already indicates, but right now, this feels like the band that everyone will be talking about very soon.

But back to the main event, though the similarities do cross over. Other than the rooms in the Guild of Students being much bigger, there’s still an onus mostly on acts on the rise, looking to get a foothold in the scene where they mightn’t otherwise have had the opportunity yet. Just look at Alex Spencer, a 16-year-old who currently has one song released, but operates in the Jake Bugg / Sam Fender indie-rock singer-songwriter circles that the crowds today would get along with swimmingly. His influences definitely shine through brightly, but he’s certainly good at what he does, and a cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ Mardy Bum cements a know-how for tapping into this specific crowd, if nothing else.

As for Little Planets, they feel like a significantly more buffed and polished unit already. Not only is their glossy, disco-laden pop a more unique prospect on this bill, it’s carried in about as self-assured a way as a band like this gets. Vocalists Tia Williams and Sophie Wilson especially look as though they’re genuinely having the best time ever, each bringing a spark and bubbling excitability that’s hard to look away from. And when the grooves are this potent across the board—and for a band still in relatively infancy with releasing music, at that—Little Planets leave no doubt for how ready to blow they already seem.

But they can’t all be winners though, unfortunately. It’s the pitfall in a bill comprised of predominantly new bands—you’re gonna get the ones that just haven’t clicked into place yet. The Clause have all the out-the-box indie swagger you’d expect, but they don’t really do much of their own with it to feel more developed. Conversely, Malady’s post-punk / trip-hop miasma is a cool concept, and interesting enough to get you through the door, but the general silhouette cast could do more work to keep you there. This is their first show as a three-piece sans drummer, to be fair, so maybe you could blame an inopportune adjustment period, but it’s still hard to excuse when something that should be way more arresting…isn’t.

The Skinner Brothers have no such issue, even though every prior indication would suggest they should. They’ve not exactly made many industry friends thanks to some of outcries from Gallagher-gobbed frontman Zac Skinner, though that’s clearly no sort of deterrent when they’ve amassed easily the biggest crowd of the day so far, and inspire the most energy too. Skinner’s already deep in the pit partway through the first song, a far cry from the straight-laced indie performers mostly buffering them on either side of this bill. Clearly the omnipresent pretensions to rockstar posturing are laid on thick, but maybe something does come from them in the end. After all, they get light years closer to their own perceived profile of danger than their recorded work does (in no small part thanks to their videographer-cum-hype-man). And while that’s clearly placed in front of musical dexterity, they conjure of a garage-rock wall of sound that fits their own brash, unkempt nature. It’s nothing revolutionary or anything, but a bit of evidence that The Skinner Brothers have more to offer beyond ineffectual grandstanding is still something.

Courting, meanwhile, have steadily been growing into something much more well-rounded for a while now. A big hometown show like this is the ideal space to show it off, as they’ve now fully graduated a tired post-punk strain into fully-fledged big-room rock anthems, completely with an impressively kinetic performance to boot. There’s definitely an impressive scale and volume to it all, but more so is how Courting have come into their own as a live unit. They stand onstage with giant presence now, where all the boisterousness and loudness and riff-heaviness feels like so much more of a natural fit. Topped off with an interpolation of Icona Pop’s I Love It—seemingly for no reason other than to break post-punk’s occasional fun-allergic stigma—this is a proper maturation and acceleration in every sense.

If you want fun though, Deco are coming extremely close to monopolising it today. Though let’s not get it confused—they can absolutely pull it off. From the vocal leads to the neon splashes of drums and keys to the actual saxophone, it’s the best kind of ‘80s pop impression that only picks up more steam as it goes. It starts strong too, but as they dole out the slickest grooves currently on the alt-pop market, they only seem to get tighter, until it culminates in the riotous singalong of Rain which handily clinches the day’s biggest moment of concentrated joy. Even their synthwave cover of The Verve’s Bittersweet Misery sheds some of the ponderousness of its recorded counterpart, as another glistening piece of Deco’s technicolour showstopper. Special mention does need to go to Lucy Kendall on synth and sax as the backbone of what makes this all so wonderful, but in truth, Deco are the kind of unflappably tight unit that always soars in pop music. Truly excellent.

From here on, Saturday is dominated by the gauntlet of indie acts that clearly have the most magnetic pull. The main trait among them is a general affability; just look at The Royston Club, for whom ingenuity is in short supply, but warm, jaunty exuberance can do a lot in their favour, especially to win over a crowd. It’s largely the same for The K’s, though key elevators for them come in more noticeably buoyant charisma from frontman Jamie Boyle, and a sound that’s more upbeat and driving overall. They feel more in the gestation period of something big than properly being there yet, though there’s no denying that Sarajevo comes brimming with built-in indie hit energy, and an acoustic snippet of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun nails down their much-appreciated levity.

A lot of it does feel tailored to drawing in a slightly older crowd, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed throughout the day. Maybe it’s the view of this kind of indie being ‘real’ music that’ll pull in the generation above, but it’s certainly different demographically than one might expect. There’s also the case of an artist like Dylan John Thomas, whose roots clearly span a more historically wide breadth, but also acts as a generationally agnostic touchstone that’s borderline guaranteed to go down well here. In his arsenal, there’s the polish and brevity of modern indie-pop; the homespun, mature-beyond-his-years affectations of indie singer-songwriters; and even a stomp-along skiffle element for easily working up a crowd. It comes together remarkably well, too; the set breezes by in just 20 minutes, but that’s evident of Thomas’ playfulness compared to your usual po-faced indie-folk troubadour. The skiffle snippet of the Arctic Monkeys’ Do I Wanna Know? and a cover of Ring Of Fire feel like those big, all-encompassing moments, buoyed by Thomas’ distinct figure and vocal tone that makes him quite an interesting find, especially among his scene. There’s definitely something here; that much couldn’t feel more evident.

But with the swirls of hype that really haven’t dissipated for much of the day, The Reytons are the ones to pull it to the next level. It feels appropriate that that’s the case, as an indie band (in the correct definition of the term) with a recent Number One album; that’s not nothing, and the band themselves are clearly still riding that high. With plumes of CO2 and a grander onstage production, they give the impression of looking to break free of the indie doldrums into something more concretely huge. They could probably get there too, as a bigger, sharper sound would indicate, with an impressively deep catalogue to match. Even if these songs aren’t at the height of indie ubiquity yet, you wouldn’t be able to tell just going from the reaction they elicit, the sort of euphoria and rabble-rousing that suggests much more to come. Whereas The Reytons could easily, at a glance, be pigeonholed in chasing the Arctic Monkeys’ tail—which seems to be the agreed-upon benchmark for a lot of today’s performers—they aren’t hamstrung by that. When you consider the breadth of Yorkshire indie bands stymied under those exact circumstances, to the see The Reytons able to escape that is noteworthy. Of today’s cavalcade of indie, it feels the most right to have them topping it all; you wouldn’t bet against them being the ones to go the full distance.

On to Sunday, where Vesper provides an immediate palette-cleanser after the onslaught of indie the day prior. It couldn’t be more different in fact, in a lilting concoction of soul, blues and smatterings of country lifted by Vesper herself as such an overtly glamourous presence. It’s old-school glamour too, as she’s a captivating focal point in her twinkling aqua dress, as the lushness of her backing band washes over her. Her vocal mix is immaculate too, though a bit more texture or meat wouldn’t have gone amiss; between a performance that struggles to conflate its competence with personality, and a set padded with two covers (one of Arlo Parks, the other of Olivia Dean), it’s a little bit too X Factor at times. Still, it’s pleasant enough to where it’s hard to complain too vehemently about; Vesper as a new talent still shows off some threads definitely worth following.

Then there’s The Covasettes, thrusting things back to Sound City’s indie fundamentals, albeit in a way that’s on a slightly different tack. This is more indie-pop overall, in lighter tones and more spry, immediate melodies, and a frontman in Matt Hewlett whose beaming adulation of everything going on around him is honestly quite infectious. It’s a lot of fun overall, and the embrace of that sees The Covasettes swiftly dodge the already-swollen mass of indie doing the rounds, and stick the landing a significant bit more readily.

But if you want a band on today that really feels as though they’re gearing up for something titanic, Picture Parlour is it. And when you consider how the lack of any released music up to now makes their inclusion on the main lineup feel kind of conspicuous (just look at the current discourse around The Last Dinner Party), that arguably shouldn’t be the case. But results speak for themselves, at the end of the day. With a thick blues-rock bass that’s (thankfully) more Zeppelin than The Black Keys, and a debonair visual style that’s always a pleasure to have, they wear an ambition of golden-age rockstar firebrands rather prominently, and extremely well. Katherine Parlour already feels like a bona fide superstar, with a uniquely scratched-up vocal style and way with lyricism that keeps the swirling, free-rolling nature of it all going, particularly anchored in Sian Lynch’s bass. They give off the impression of being well aware that they’re the coolest band around today, and when that translates to something being released, no doubt everyone else will be too.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum though, the unassuming visual mismatch of Opus Kink is still pretty eye-catching, but from the off, they aren’t a band who seem too preoccupied with the style aspect of their work. Though if post-punk has taught us anything, it’s that a band made up of the biggest dorks you’ve ever seen will make the most thrilling music, and bloody hell, is that true here. If anything, it’s a perfect match for dance-punk that revels in its own discord, shredded by squealing jazz saxophones and trumpets while the bass and guitar and synths clash, and Angus Rogers’ sonorous voice tries to mediate among it all. It’s a marvel of a soundscape they create, heightened to the point of near-combustion as every one of the six members is clearly going for broke however possible. The music definitely stands out—in a post-punk scene currently creaking under its own mass, Opus Kink are absolutely doing something worth investing in—but they shine most as a live unit. And with an ever-unravelling bank of tricks in their arsenal to keep themselves rocketing along (Chekov’s trombone sits at the stage’s side, only to be picked up in the very last moments), Opus Kink already have the tools to become something borderline elemental.

But just like yesterday, they can’t all be winners. The Goa Express might suffer somewhat from general indie burnout this weekend has spurred on, but the roteness of ‘90s indie and Britpop is basically baked-in, no matter how accurately that captures the wholesale spirit. Proficiency and source-accuracy doesn’t immediately equate Oasis-esque maximalism; it certainly doesn’t make them thrilling to watch either. Skinny Living are similarly hit in that department, though the barren stage and the fact that singer Ryan Johnston stresses they’ve been touring acoustically without a band implies it’s probably more self-inflicted. The indie-soul thing is nice, and Johnston has the husky tone to deliver it, but corralled into a very narrow lane with a setup that boils down to three guys awkwardly shuffling stationarily on a big, empty stage, the impression left isn’t the strongest.

Unfortunately for Finn Foxell, he gets caught up in some similar knots, though to his credit, they aren’t the easiest to avoid for him specifically. Hip-hop isn’t exactly bustling with representation on this bill, and having him close out his stage really puts into context how sparse and spotty his crowd is. The disparity in tone can definitely be felt, but to his credit, Foxell takes it in stride well enough. He’s saved by how strong of a technical rapper he is, and how a strong selection of production cues and styles keeps it all moving a decent clip, especially when leaning into more punkish energy like on new single Tyson. Rianne Downey, meanwhile, has no such issues. Any expected trends of bare stage setups and no-frills performances immediately feel dashed, even just from Downey herself. She certainly looks the part of a classic country starlet, balanced out with an indie-rock edge and pop spirit that gives a song like Dancing In The Rain buckets of energy and movement. Coupled with a phenomenal voice reaching out to every corner of the room, the all-purpose singer-songwriter persona is embraced ridiculously well.

In truth though, all of what’s come before might as well just be a prelude to James Marriott. For some, anyway. After all, he’s come into music with a pre-built fanbase from his YouTube and streaming fare, and the drastic influx of energy and screams feels like the day’s big turning point. The room isn’t quite as packed as you’d imagine, but down the front, the swell is palpable, and unsurprisingly so for an artist whose pop-rock impulses are as strong as Marriott’s. He pulls from a generation of indie—indie-pop in particular—that trafficked in more colour and vibrancy, shown in a very earnest, exuberant collection of melodies firmly lodged in the 2000s’ halcyon days. And that’s honestly enough, as the fallback for Marriott not having an extensive vocal range, but knowing exactly how to tap into big-hearted appeal for a song like The Other Side. As the first in his debut run of festival shows this summer, it’s not hard to see where some of the gears will inevitably be greased and realigned moving forward, but the foundations are strong all the same. Even just tonally, Marriott and his band are doing a lot well in this space.

With all of that in mind then, you’d think Olivia Dean would be at somewhat of a disadvantaged, sandwiched between an unceasingly-hyped headliner and a clear fan favourite. But no, she gets just as fervent a reaction, perhaps even more so when it’s more evenly spread among a crowd who clearly know how much of a big deal Dean is positioned to be. She totally deserves that too, with the live soul instrumentation that sounds beautifully rich and lush, especially in the bass and ripples of synths, and while the softness and silk of her voice isn’t done any favours by this mix, she still makes a hell of an impression on that front. It’s the sort of languid, gorgeous performance that’s so easy to enjoy, even translating to upbeat percussion rattles for a cover of Kelis’ Millionaire. With all the live warmth and trickling-out energy, you could easily slot Dean in the same live bracket as Joy Crookes or Lianne La Havas—that is to say, rarely reinventing soul’s wheel, but heaps of fun to watch it simmer and peel out.

And so with that, we come to Sound City’s final act, the headliner for whom the rest of 2023 could see her outgrow venues and metro-festivals like this entirely. With a new album on the horizon and a Wembley headline show in November, Maisie Peters could be propelled into new echelons of pop stardom before the year is up, and as a prelude / warm-up to get into that position, the following can be said with all certainty in the world—it’s a certainty. Peters herself gets it most of the way there, as a boundless, bottomless source of exuberance who already casts a superstar’s profile. She’s clearly aching to get this into arenas and play around with the extra space, but even with the more conservative production than what’ll inevitably come in a few months time, it’s all unfailingly grand and bombastic.

Of course, the songs themselves aren’t slouching in that department. It’s great to see Peters leaning into the ‘80s synthpop and new wave sounds that are so well developed; opening with Body Better, there’s immediately a colour and shimmer that makes this sound so special, and even if Peters’ own acoustic contributions are only for a small extra layer of texture, it all helps. It all contributes to the spaciousness and freedom, aided immensely by the live guitar and drums. Add in the flourishes of keytar on Psycho and more defined pop-rock tilts on Cate’s Brother, and as a pop package, it’s hard to top. There’s clearly an understanding of how this style works to be brought to a live stage, as John Hughes Movie drifts along on fantastic new wave instincts, and Villain plays into a notably fantastic rumble in its rhythm section. As a live experience, it’s just evidently excellent, sparkling and rushing and giving every component its due moment to shine. And when it’s led by someone like Peters, who embodies ‘superstar-in-the-making’ more than basically anyone else currently working, the rest of this year is going to be something special on this front. Sound City does breed superstars, after all.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Photos by Faye Roberts (Instagram)

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