It’s not often that nine of the country’s most exciting new musical acts can be found on the same bill, playing the same venue and all for one ticket. However, Spectrum Festival 2016 created just that. Saturday night saw the highlight of Sound of Belfast 2016’s programme of events, culminating with an incredible line-up of local talent at Elmwood Hall. The iconic venue played host to a range of bands and solo artists from an array of genres to showcase the very best Northern Ireland has to offer; that’s everything from indie rock to folk and classical. Headlined by Lisburn-based alt-rockers Mojo Fury, local favourites Gnarkats and Radio 1 Big Weekend’s Hot Cops also shared the stage for a noisy night.
Beginning the night’s proceedings in the sparsely packed hall, Letterkenny-born Joel Harkin plays a short set of harmonious lo-fi, armed with his acoustic guitar. The 22 year-old seduces Elmwood with his Bright Eyes-inspired brand of ambient folk tracks from his debut ‘The Pleasure in Leaving’, and sets the tone for the mellow vibe that characterises the night’s first few acts. In a similar vein, Brash Isaac’s folk rock packs more of a punch as the chorus of ‘In The Dark’ – “I’ve been trying pretty hard for this from the start of it / But I keep putting one foot wrong / And am I living in the dark or am I still a part of it / Or is it time to move on?” is wonderfully catchy after only one listen and hints at massive potential. As he clears the stage for Rachael Boyd’s intricate equipment set up, you’re left feeling that it was a shame so few spectators arrived early enough to catch such a charming set.
When faced with the combination of classical music and electronica, something like Clean Bandit might spring to the music fan’s mind. Taking wordlessly to the stage, however, Rachael Boyd and her cellist put a spin on both genres, creating a unique sound whose nearest comparison would perhaps be Jean-Michel Jarre. The atmospheric set feels entirely appropriate for the old-world venue, and captivates even the most distracted audience at the bar. Despite Boyd’s understated nature, her music soars and crashes in dramatic intensity, infusing Celtic airs with computer-generated beats and Chicane-esque vocal acrobatics. As an extremely talented violinist and keyboardist, Boyd et al’s quivering strings create an intense soundscape for two people, giving the illusion of a wider orchestra. Her erratic, spliced synth beats coupled with traditional instruments are impressive from a production perspective. “I’m going to attempt a cover… it might not work,” she laughs, whilst Mojo Fury vocalist Michael Mormecha looks on from the darkness of the audience. The Belfast musician plays her rendition of System of a Down’s ‘Toxicity’ as you’ve never heard it before – on violin.
Creating a striking juxtaposition with the previous act, Belfast upstarts Gnarkats’ noisy brand of garage rock shakes up the steadily growing audience. ‘Running From You’ opens their set, and it’s oddly refreshing to hear indie rock in a local accent, especially in the wake of Arctic Monkeys and Biffy Clyro-inspired alt rock. What they lack in lyrical clarity in their live shows, they make up for in sheer noise with their rough-around-the-edges bluster. Continuing with more energetic rock ‘n’ roll, Life Goals and Bad Fit bring crunching guitars, grungy breakdowns and infectious head-banging between swigs of Heineken. Life Goals are teetering on the edge of a massive chorus but haven’t yet finessed their sound to find it. The latter band are plagued by technical problems (as their flustered bassist tells me in the bathroom) and their nonchalant, fuzzy garage rock is often drowned out, yet tracks like ‘Strong Forever’ suggest that they would have shone under better circumstances.
Put simply, Hot Cops are hot shit at the moment. Their gloomy, bass-heavy indie rock, deep, lazy vocals and college aesthetic à la Alabama Shakes have gained them a cult following locally and draw the biggest crowd yet. Surprisingly, the trio sound better live and set highlights such as ‘Decay’, ‘I’m Scared of Everything’ and monumental cries of “Oh baby, twenty feet tall” for their closing number cement their status as Belfast’s most exciting upcoming band. Their sound is at once strangely nostalgic yet fresh, and more polished than you might expect – if they can make big bearded men put down their beer and dance, then surely that’s a tough act to follow.
Sharing some members with previous act Life Goals, tonight’s second-billed band Gascan Ruckus take to the stage. Obviously influenced by each other’s band’s work, their danceable, guitar-driven pop punk makes for loud, crashing melodic hardcore. Their anthemic choruses stir up the now packed venue which the vocalist dubs “a bona fide exam hall”, as we’re all schooled in hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll.
Spectrum’s headliners Mojo Fury take to the stage before midnight, the crowd more than ready for them. Their deafening electro rock shakes Elmwood, striking a perfect balance between grating and tuneful. Following the success of 2013’s magnificent ‘The Difference Between’, the trio’s setlist encompasses album material and fan favourites, with indulgent breakdowns in no short supply. Vocal comparisons with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor prove not at all unreasonable, especially on tracks like ‘We Should Just Run Away’. As one of NI’s coolest exports, Elmwood gave them one hell of a welcome back following their hiatus, and being just steps away from Queen’s Lanyon Building, student gig-goers can only be thankful that there’re no 9am lectures on a Sunday.