Handmade Festival, run by a team including Maybeshewill’s own John Helps, has been a three-year quest of unearthing the best of underground music talent. Whilst still providing the pull of bigger acts such as We Are Scientists and Deaf Havana, the weight of the smaller acts such as Cleft, Alpha Male Tea Party, USA Nails and Axes alone were enough for many to book their tickets right away.
The venue itself was hosted at Leicester University’s Student Union, a ten-minute walk from the train station. Although there were some communication issues regarding directions to the festival, and a ban on bringing food into the venue (without prior warning) was incredibly impractical, the setup itself was cosy and had a nice atmosphere. I was also gifted a free programme with stage times and a map on entry, allowing me to organise my time with ease.
Regarding layout, the stages were all huddled together, which made it easy to traverse without sprinting, but also unfortunately meant that there was considerable sound leakage. This wasn’t too much of a problem with the heavier bands, but with quieter acts such as Her Name Is Calla, you could hear the bass of other bands driving its way through the walls.
Without further ado, here are the best acts I witnessed at Leicester’s Handmade Festival.
Her Name is Calla
Her Name is Calla, an art-rock act from Leicester, were the first act I saw to grace the O2 Academy stage. Aptly fitting the room’s woody textures and cathedral-like reverberance, the five-piece performed a full hour-and-a-half performance of their acclaimed 2010 record The Quiet Lamb. Miserable, emotional and gloriously apocalyptic, their mix of bold harmonies and rock aggression, with baroque softness made Handmade begin akin to a George Orwell novel: beautifully dystopian and moody. Despite some technical issues (such as a fitting video that kept splashing the words “playback error”), and some awkward shifting of instruments, Calla’s set was as spell-binding as their music, delivering a deeply moving set that remained engaging till the end.
If you’re a gamer, the constant anticipation surrounding Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky was simply extraordinary, only heightening when post-rock pioneers 65daysofstatic were announced as the soundtrack crafters. As a gamer myself, witnessing the band perform songs from No Man’s Sky within their set was a seriously exciting experience. As the members were silhouettes, and strong hues of blue and black permeated the room’s interior, the four-piece’s expertise of electronically-driven textural climaxes and soundscapes made the Sheffield gang one of the easy highlights of the festival. Playing new tracks such as ‘Prism’, and fan favourite ‘We Drove Through Ghosts To Get Here’, their one-hour spot on the mainstage was superb – minus an anti-climactic finish – and a true example of how live performances should be done.
You couldn’t take a break from music on Saturday. Away from the stages, acoustic acts were playing the communal ‘Union Square’ near enough all day, both a blessing and a burden; some acts were nice, whilst others were slightly too eccentric. The louder musical-comedy acts also caused problems when going to sit in at the Handmade Cinema , situated just to the side of Union Square’, as when taking a break, all you could hear were screams of the enthusiastic comedy acts playing in the main room.
As for the bands, Saturday was definitely the meat in the sandwich of the three day weekend with a diverse range of acts performing to crowds of mixed ages. First off, we begin with Cleft.
In a completely different beginning to what kicked off Friday, math-rock favourites Cleft started my day by laying claim to the “massive” main stage. The self-defined ‘turbo-prog’ duo’s performance were in ‘phasers set to kill’ mode: kicking off with new track ‘Frankenstein’ [check our album review here], the wacky, Manchester-based boys hit huge riff after gurning face, as pedals were engaged and faces were pulled. Pulling in a spectacularly large crowd, Dan Beesley and John Simm were two peas in a very sweaty pod, playing a main course of progressive rock infested tunes without any of the unnecessary sides. Ending with “Hostage”, the last track from their debut full-length BOSH!, Cleft’s first and last Leicester show  was a brief but passionately wonderful visit.
Despite the London-based quintet bearing a sound somewhat similar to that of Sheffield grunge favourites Drenge, Crows’ post-punk and brutish energy still led them into a class of their own. As frontman James Cox threw himself over the barriers, shouting with empty stares and a clearly Misfits-inspired spur, Crows surprised, entertained and moved those in the auditorium.
Axes are in a genre of their own. Sure, they bear the bones of a lot of modern math-rock’s ways; ridiculous song names, massive riffs, and an abundance of technical wizardry. But what sets Axes apart from the competition is just how atypical their song-writing is; their attention to dynamical and rhythmical interplay is bar-none. With highlights that included the multi-faceted ‘Fleetwood Math’, and the oddly catchy (for this genre) ‘Junior’, guitars tapped, drums rolled and bass was shredded as the four-piece smashed through their allotted time. The set included a surprise homage to the late Prince, as purple lights illuminated the smaller Scholars’ Bar stage, and they mashed ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ into their own track ‘Real Talk’. Even some unwarranted feedback and glitching noises gave character to an already baffling set.
1. I was watching the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’m Still Here at the time, and it was almost unwatchable with how loud the act at Union Square was. The cinema was a nice get away from the musical acts when this wasn’t happening, however.
2. Dates for Cleft’s farewell tour via Facebook
The day I was most anticipating, Sunday was a day of left-field rock. Oddly, it had the smallest audiences. Unlike Saturday, where the transition from main stage performance to enigmatic acoustic act was jarring and discomforting, Union Square was a much nicer place to visit, with spoken word, poetry and comedy acts gracing the common area, as well as a hilariously painful attempt of some guy juggling. But first up was Bear Makes Ninja.
Bear Makes Ninja
Three-piece Bear Makes Ninja from Sleaford came with welcoming arms to a Sunday of big riffs and math-rock. Performing plenty of new tracks from their latest release Shenanagrams, the trio implemented metre changes in a sophisticated and catchy manner, with plenty of bold harmonies and group vocals. Highlights included tracks “12345” and “Three Little Snakes”, which showed the band’s all defining chemistry, as they moved from catchy sweetness to fuzzy angst.
Alpha Male Tea Party
Alpha Male Tea Party’s Droids is one of modern math’s greatest records. The album itself is filled to the brim with gushing riffs, rhythmic dislocation and mosh-like tendencies. It’s a masterclass of instrumental energy, giving no due care to the obstacles in its way. So it’s no wonder that since their 2014 full-length, the band have been perpetuating the math-rock scene like no other. And having seen the trio back at ArcTanGent last year, to see them on a much smaller stage was a much more intimate and personal experience. Drilling new songs from their upcoming EP, as well as older tracks “You Eat Houmus, Of Course You Listen To Genesis” and “Athlete’s Face”, the hungover Liverpudlians were an absolute tour-de-force. Despite drummer Greg Chapman having “consumed his bodyweight in gin last night” and telling guitarist Tom Peters onstage to “kill himself”, the band’s punkish attitude was as hilarious as it was engaging. And although the band were themselves weathered, they delivered a set that was tight and sophisticated, as well as being incontrovertibly heavy.
More post-rock came in the form of Waking Aida, a four-piece from Southampton. They were an instant charm, delivering all of genre’s greatest assets: sweeping crescendos, strong bass leads, thick textured guitars and sophisticated soundscapes made me an instant fan, as they confidently delivered their traversing and cavernous tracks.
Three Trapped Tigers
The mathy electro act delivered themselves confidently on a blue-tinted stage, pounding synth-driven tightness with mathematical syncopation for a solid forty-five minutes. Drummer Adam Betts was particularly on-form, delivering his beats with stylish gusto. The other members sharply aligned themselves together, with Tom Rogerson’s keyboard work and Matt Calvert’s guitar assistance bobbing heads and moving bodies. For me, this was the last act of the festival, and the perfect act to end it on. Electronic beats and dashes of computer sounds were inherently missing from Handmade Festival’s line-up since 65dos’ set on Friday, so it was a nice change that Handmade’s final call was less guitar and more synth. And as Three Trapped Tigers’ set climaxed in a digitalised crescendo of perfect harmony, the trio left rapturous applause and delight to the evening’s end.
All-in-all, the drawbacks of Leicester’s Handmade Festival were few. Despite minor grievances such as no food and drink being allowed into the SU, and sound bleeding from other stages, the quality of the acts made up for it. The abundance of left-field rock music more than counterbalanced the mainstream acts that hit the main stages. The comedians and stand-up poets on the Sunday made for a nice change of tone, whilst the food – expensive as it was – was of a good standard. It may not have been the friendliest of festival crowd (there wasn’t much conversation between strangers), but it was indeed one of high quality music. Same time next year?