Down in a shady corner of the Parc Del Forum, underneath the harsh angles of a giant solar panel, the bloody, punk soul of Primavera 2016 is lurking. It’s there in the shape of Royal Headache and Sheer Mag who, like Merchandise, Milk Music and Parquet Courts before them, represent killer bookings, with personalities as fierce and captivating as their songs. Bands like these operate on the fringes, moving (or not) at their own pace while record labels give chase behind waiting for something to happen. Like last year’s joint US tour, the latest stop on their ragged journeys brings them together on the same line-up. Here’s what happened.
Royal Headache’s singer is called Shogun. His hair is patchy and he’s wearing a polo shirt that’s long since lost its shape. He looks like he’d be more at home puffing on a rollie outside a Ladbrokes on a rubbish high street than tearing about onstage. And tear about is precisely what he does, spitting and shouting his vocals with one fist pointed at the sky as if he’s testifying in church. He seems very agitated too, confused and cross like he’s run out of change for the fruit machine after six pints. Watching next to me, a friend says, “He looks like Tim Lovejoy, if he liked music as much as he likes Chelsea”.
When he sings, it hits you in the pit of the stomach. His voice is hard, soft, comforting and frightening all at once. The best example comes with the unreleased ‘So Low’, which opens the set. Slower than the Sydney band’s usual Dead Kennedy’s pace, it’s a proper soul ballad and Shogun sings it like he wants to make you cry. Its presence, alongside a couple of other, faster new tracks, is significant. It means another album is likely. For a band so resistant to doing what bands usually do that feels like progress.
For now though, the picks from 2011’s garagey self-titled debut and last year’s mellower ‘High’ sound brilliant, none more so than a venom-loaded ‘Garbage’ (“You deserve to get bashed!”). It’s not hard to draw parallels with Oasis, and most of these songs are prime for pint chucking, but even when Royal Headache are at their most aggressive, there’s still swing and groove behind every one. That new record can’t come soon enough.
Sheer Mag play at ten to four in the morning. It’s their only set of a weekend over which many bands play several and is an obvious chance to impress. Not that they’d much care about doing that. Their tatty white backdrop with its metal-band style logo hangs crudely above the stage and when they gather underneath it they don’t really look that bothered about anything.
It’s busy, and even though a grainy PA muddies ‘Can’t Stop Fighting’, the crowd are easily hooked, singing along to Kyle Seely’s corkscrewing riffs more than Tina Halladay’s lyrics. You can’t blame them, it’s hard to replicate that voice – somewhere between scream and shriek, it’s guttural and comes from way back in her throat. Often, as when she sings “BAYBEEEEE” in the chorus of the brilliant ‘Nobody’s Baby’ she locates a ridiculously gooey sweet spot.
Sometimes, the Philadelphians’ casual approach means things slip a little and feel slapdash rather than fast and loose. ‘Hard Lovin’ clangs and crashes and is particularly messy. But they recover, and ‘Fan The Flames’ – still Sheer Mag’s best song by a mile – feels alive, as if all five members are trying to outdo each other. For what it’s worth, Seely wins hands down, summoning extra fuzz and hiss from his guitar. These songs always sound like they’re emanating from a rusty metal bin, but the power of the melodies means that never grates. This is music to dance to, and this boozy 4am crowd is grooving right until a final ‘Button Up’. Sheer Mag depart without even a thank you. They look absolutely knackered.