Of Arctic Monkeys’ twelve thousand festival dates in 2018, Open’er will make them feel most at home. It’s the closest the European festival circuit has to a Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. Set on a glitzed-up landing strip in northern Poland, it’s a place where surreal high art meets stylish sonics. An art piece made of conjoined white-painted and graffiti smothered buses sits in the centre of the arena like an abandoned settler base at the Apollo basin. An on-site museum displays film and artefacts from distant Earth history. Clubs rage in protective bunkers and tunnels and a gigantic, jagged neon totem pole rises from the centre of the festival like a 23rd Century landing marker. There are even signs that the place is getting gentrifaaaayhaayed – a new onsite indoor restaurant allows you to book a dinner with a famous Polish chef. We’d give it four stars out of five. Unheard of.
Before the Monkey has landed, however, Wednesday’s otherworldly cabaret at the main stage gets underway in earnest with the psychedelic space-rock strains of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, the perfect early-evening beer band. Mingling shimmering, motorik sunrise psych with brassy glam pop like ‘Holy Mountain’ – famously the sound of The Vaccines doing Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’, but it doesn’t half sound remarkably ‘Country House’ too – it’s becoming clear that NGHFB are gradually nurturing a canon equal to that of Oasis, even if it hasn’t been able to puncture the public conscience so fundamentally. Noel’s disinterest in Oasis is apparent – ‘Half The World Away’, ‘Wonderwall’ and even ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ are thrown away half-heartedly, sounding like plodding relics from a dull and distant past compared to euphoric, modern pop swirls like ‘Dream On’ and ‘It’s A Beautiful World’, complete with artsy additions from Noel’s infamous scissor sister. Notebook out, David Byrne: she has loud telephone arguments mid-song and snaps her scissors through ‘She Taught Me How To Fly’ like a click track you could make a doily with. Grade eight from Juilliard, we’d wager.
At the opposite end of the feelgood scale, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds warm Alex Turner’s seat with a set characteristically spit between the savage, the sublime and the self-indulgent. Out on the barrier preaching dark gothic tales to his disciples from the off, Cave twists an opening brace of tracks from his tragedy-laced ‘Skeleton Tree’ album – ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Magneto’ – into intense grindhouse mood-setters, and then lets his Seeds fly, attack and infect. The seditious funk of ‘Do You Love Me?’ gives way to pure savagery; ‘From Her To Eternity’ would have Noel Gallagher thinking he needs an onstage brimstone player, assaulted as it is by the Seeds’ crank violence and the sound of Satan’s violin, and when Nick tells us that rabble rocker ‘Loverman’ is “a very old song” he’s not joking. It sounds like it dates back to the Big Bang.
The sublime? ‘The Weeping Song’ is pure pirate passion, ‘Rings Of Saturn’ a gorgeous spoken-word lament, ‘Red Right Hand’ an enthralling masterpiece of taut gothic drama and ‘Into My Arms’ is a front-runner for the best ballad ever written. The self-indulgent? Nick gathers a coterie of swaying devotees onstage to push the sky away during ‘Push The Sky Away’ like a weird sky-pushing cult, and two decades of exposure hasn’t stopped this writer finding ‘Stagger Lee’ a noisy innocuity. If I wanted to be shouted at about murderous paedophiles I’d go watch Tommy Robinson.
‘Moon River’ plays out over the PA (geddit?), and beneath a backdrop featuring the word ‘MONKEYS’ in silent movie font, Turner and co take the stage with the air of a hackneyed lounge act doing their fifth show that afternoon. As they break into ‘Four Out Of Five’ from their recent fan-splitting ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ album and then rage straight into ‘Brianstorm’, it’s easy, and way too simplistic, to mark yourself out as an old Monkeys fan (smiles, provincial haircuts, trackie bottoms tucked in socks) or a new Monkeys fan (smirks, satin shirts, gauloises), plonk yourself down and wait for your allotted tunes to arrive. The Monkeys’ development is more sophisticated than that. ‘Tranquility Base…’ might at first seem like a curveball album that resets Arctic Monkeys’ trajectory, allowing them to do literally whatever they want on album seven, but the attentive fanatic can trace hints of its moon lounge lunacy throughout this career-spanning set. ‘Crying Lightning’ was the suave neon signpost to the Casino car park, ‘505’ an early dash of languid Americana, even riotous early tunes like ‘Teddy Picker’ and ‘Do Me A Favour’ are built on funk and rhumba foundations that wouldn’t be out of place during the average sci-fi cabaret night. You might even wonder why they bothered doing any more lounge records when they perfected the style on ‘Cornerstone’ back in 2009, a front-runner for the second best ballad ever written. Like the clues you missed in an elaborate detective novel, it suddenly becomes clear that Alex Turner was a secret lunar Liberace all along.
At the point where they have to assimilate all those twists and corners into one coherent festival set, though, they do feel like a fight between two very different bands. The show ricochets between chaos and cocktail hour, Turner snarling and crooning like the insouciant offspring of ‘80s Bowie on the funky latter era stuff one minute, and seeming in his element blasting out the old indie club riots of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘The View From The Afternoon’ the next. His Nicholas-Cage-on-Henderson’s-Relish attitude naturally infects the older songs; he’s all synths and snake hips during the carnival interlude of ‘All The Pretty Visitors’. Newer tracks like ‘One Point Perspective’ have a tendency to tip towards the aimless and prog, but ultimately it’s the ‘AM’ tunes that prove the most cohesive. ‘Knee Socks’, ‘Arabella’, ‘R U Mine?’ and ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ rock and roll in perfect balance.
We’re on an exploratory mission to the surface of Open’er though, so expeditions are undertaken to faraway stages where intriguing life-forms lurk. At the Alter Stage we study Superorganism, living proof that ancient alien civilisations consisted of cheerleaders in multi-coloured rain-macs singing brilliant calypso rap songs about wanting to be a) famous, or b) a prawn. At the Tent Stage Fleet Foxes prove a difficult species to focus on, their snowflake folk and jazz flute interludes dissolving under the critical microscope until it’s almost impossible to keep your attention on them for more than a… oh look, a massive totem pole!
Elsewhere, evolution is evidently underway. Migos might well represent the arrival of post-rap, their autotuned intrigue stripping all humanity from the genre and placing unrealism centre-stage, right down to the bit where they try to get the crowd to sing back an autotuned chant that the most acrobatic gullet couldn’t manage (“can I get a whhooughwwouukzzzk!”). And Chvrches appear to be at the barricades of anti-pop, Lauren Mayberry delivering EDM indie tunes like ‘Gun’ and ‘We Sink’ with punk intensity, as visceral as synthpop could get. It’s a bit creepy in 2018 that, whenever she’d do her skirt-raising spins, the camera feed seemed to be being directed by Christopher ‘Upskirt’ Chope MP, but Chvrches prove a suitably head-spinning close to Open’er 2018, day one. We have lift off.