If there was a competition for the prettiest festival site in Ireland, Knockanstockan would take some beating. Sat snug in a field on the edge of the Blessington lakes, in the shade of the Wicklow mountains, the DIY festival continues to grow and grow. On the go since 2007, the scope of the event has widened from some bands and friends camping around the Ballyknockan Inn to a festival that takes in art, performance and almost 200 bands.
The festival is entirely non-profit and run by a gang of some 250 volunteers. As a result, the atmosphere is as relaxed as it comes, with the focus always on a good time for everyone on site, rather than any clamour to see big-name acts. It’s true that the Irish countryside is peppered with small festivals throughout the summer, but few are as intimate, welcoming and talent-packed as Knockanstockan.
THE HOT SPROCKETS
Where better to start than the band who have been at the heart of the Knockanstockan experience since the very beginning? The Hot Sprockets are a five-piece band born and raised in Dublin with a shared love for the bluesy rock and roll sounds – as well as the patterned shirts and denim – of the 1960s. They're among the founding fathers of Knockanstockan, booking bands as well as organising throughout the weekend, and their performances have been central to the festivities every year. Their brand of loved-up and unbiased musical appreciation, open-minded and open-eared, is also key to the festival's catholic vibe. With a new album, Brother Nature, out now and an appearance on The Late Late behind them, the Sprockets look set to conjure up the good old days for a much wider audience.
If the Hot Sprockets are in love with the 1960s, then Tandem Felix's affections lie a few decades later, in the lush guitar washes of the 1990s. Bends-era Radiohead is the obvious and somewhat inescapable comparison but there's more to the Dublin-based quartet than that, with the dense work of Ride brushing up against the luxuriance of Grandaddy, and the latter's hint of Y2K paranoia updated for a new generation.Lead singer and songwriter David Tapley has a lovely way with laid-back, barely there melody and each song is peppered with moments of feather-light intricacy. Ryan Hoguet and How Strange, The Weather, two songs from the seven-inch they released late last year, are the best examples of their sound to date, two songs which would have made many a despondent late-1990s college student quite happy, in a weird, slightly depressing but still kind of romantic way.
THE ALTERED HOURS
The Altered Hours are not a band to be pinned down too neatly. The layered, cyclical guitars bounce between shoegaze detachment, psychocandy aggression and chiming raga folk. The intertwining vocals of Cathal Mac Gabhann and Elaine Howley float somewhere above it all, by turns transcendent and paranoid. Buried underneath is the droning noise, propulsive drums and fuzzed- out low end. This Cork-based five-piece have built up a strong reputation based on their ability to thread all these elements together into a fearsome live show. Having toured here, the UK and Europe on the back of some DIY releases, their second EP, Sweet Jelly Roll, was was released by A Recordings, home of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dirty Beaches and Magic Castles, where their noisy, uplifting psychedelia feels perfectly at home.
OVERHEAD, THE ALBATROSS
After countless (usually toothless) Mogwai imitators, as well as Sigur Rós saturation of the Irish airwaves as a result of RTÉ using one of their tunes each time they want convey a sense of the epic, the few bands that manage to do something even mildly original with the instrumental post-rock template are to be applauded; it can't be easy. Named after a Pink Floyd lyric, Dublin band Overheard, The Albatross combine neo-classical piano and violin with jazz and electronica in a valiant and successful attempt to modernise the drawn-out quiet/loud dynamics of the genre. The result is music made for dramatic emotional moments in twilight fields beside mirror-still lakes, under the blossoming summer stars. Or something like that. With a recent sold-out hometown show in Dublin's Grand Social and an appearance on RTE's The Works in the bag, and their long-awaited debut album on the way, 2014 is set to be their best year yet.
Another band with a passion for the 1990s, Elastic Sleep dig deep into the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine on Leave You, the lead single from their debut 10-inch on FIFA Records, and come up with something interesting and energetic. It's their ear for melody that saves them though, as it does on the dark post-punk of I Found Love. Their songs are remarkably well stitched together, always able to find a new height, another climactic peak, to surge and strive towards. Arguably there's not much in the way of new ideas going on here, at least at this early stage, but the five-piece from Cork make widescreen music well suited to big stages so expect a dynamic and immersive set to win over any skeptics in the audience.
Knockanstockan takes place on July 25th-26th at Blessington lakes, Co Wicklow